Both hardshell and inflatable kayaks can be categorized into two different styles:
Sit-on-top kayak (SOT) and
Sit-in kayak (SIT)
The two designs differ drastically from one another, and each suits a different purpose.
The differences between sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayaks
The most apparent distinction between sit-inside and sit-on-top inflatable kayaks (& hardshell models) is that SIKs have an enclosed cockpit that positions the paddler inside the boat at or below the water level. In contrast, SOT kayakers sit on top of the kayak above the water’s surface.
This fundamental divergence of design affects every aspect of their use and purpose.
The sit-on-top model is the most popular design among beginners and recreational kayakers because it does not make the paddler feel like they are trapped inside of the kayak’s cockpit if they capsize.
If they do tip over for some reason, they are far easier to reen
The sit-inside model is more prevalent among intermediate and advanced paddlers because its design provides a significantly lower center of gravity, resulting in enhanced secondary stability during specific activities (which I’ll talk about later).
The cockpit of a SIK kayak is surrounded by a rim for attaching a spray skirt to keep water out.
They have similarities as well
Even though there are some significant differences between the two styles, their main parts are similar:
The top of the kayak is called the deck, where you’ll often have bungees or deck lines.
The bottom is the hull.
The front is the bow.
The back is the stern.
Both types of kayaks have:
A seat (or seats in case of tandem kayaks).
Foot support like simple footwells or adjustable foot pedals (which are more comfortable on a full day of paddling).
Top of the line kayaks will additionally have a built-in backrest to make paddling for hours more comfortable.
The pros and cons of sit-inside & sit-on-top kayaks
Sit-Inside kayak pros
The most significant advantage of a sit-inside kayak is that its center of gravity is lower than that of a sit-on-top kayak, which provides better secondary stability. This enables you to lean the boat on its side edge for more efficient turning and stay upright in rough seas. There is a trade-off, though, which I’ll get to in the cons section.
Because sit-inside kayaks have a lower center of gravity, they can be made much narrower than a sit-on-top model. Being slimmer and longer means they are faster and easier to paddle than SOT kayaks, making them well suited for longer trips.
The lower profile also means that sit-inside kayaks are affected by wind to a lesser extent.
The enclosed cockpit provides protection from the sun or rough water.
A spray skirt can easily be attached to the cockpit coaming for full protection from rain, snow, or frigid water during winter paddling. A well-sealed high-quality spray skirt can also be a safety feature because it will keep water out of the cockpit in case you flip (providing you can roll back and correct your white water kayak).
Sitting inside a cockpit lets you place your legs against the side of the kayak & the underside of the deck. Your body effectively becomes one with the kayak’s body to enhance your control of the kayak, making it more maneuverable.
You will find there’s room inside the kayak to store your equipment and keep them dry. Water can’t get in through self-draining scupper holes found on SOK kayaks. Some sit-in kayaks even have integrated watertight storage compartments.
Due to the narrower beam of SIK kayaks, you can use a shorter paddle. This makes the boat easier to propel forward because the moment arm will be tighter. (The moment arm is the distance from your centerline to the part of the paddle entering the water. The shorter it is, the easier it is to paddle.)
Sit-Inside Kayak Cons
The single biggest con against sit-inside kayaks concerns floatation and ease of rescue, as the cockpit can take in a lot of water in case you capsize.
Touring kayaks have 1 or 2 integrated bulkheads to circumvent this. But “what is a bulkhead”, you ask?
A kayak bulkhead is a built-in compartment, which traps air inside of the kayak. The bulkhead limits how much water can get into the boat and acts as a floatation chamber to keep it afloat if you swamp. Additionally, bulkheads have a hatch so that you can use them to dry-store supplies as well.
Most recreational SIT kayaks will not have a bulkhead, but the better ones have a single one behind the seat.
If you are alone, flipping a swamped kayak back is very difficult, and so is getting the water out of it. Paddling a kayak filled with water is close to impossible unless it has bulkheads that stayed dry. For this reason, beginners using a SIK kayaks should paddle close to shore, so they can swim out and empty their kayak if they capsize.
If you plan on going out on open water, you need a touring kayak with bulkheads, and first, learn how to correct your capsized kayak and get back into it. Coastal paddling is a treat, but you have to prepare to stay safe.
You can only carry items that fit through the cockpit and other hatches. Tieing larger items on deck degrades performance and your balance.
Remember the increased secondary stability of SIK kayaks due to their lower center of gravity? Well, here is the flip side. The low sitting position causes them to have less primary stability.
Sit-On-Top Kayak Pros
They have a wider beam, giving them an advantage in initial stability. This makes them easier to use and more stable than sit-in kayaks.
They are easy to get in and out of. You can safely jump into the water for a swim and climb back whenever you wish.
If a SOT kayak flips over, it doesn’t swamp (fill up) since it doesn’t have a cockpit. You can quickly flip it back over and climb back on.
Any water left on the deck will drain away through self-bailing drain holes.
The design is convenient when launching, as well as for landing. You can lower yourself onto the kayak’s seat and swing your legs on if you launch from knee-deep water. This makes SOK kayaks the choice for people with mobility issues.
There is no cockpit to fit into, which means they are better for larger people.
A SOT has more generous storage space; you can bungee anything on the deck, which is essential on multi-day camping trips.
And because everything is on the deck, access to your gear is more comfortable. You won’t have to struggle and reach deep into your cockpit to get your things. This is especially important for fishermen, who need space to store their gear and freedom of movement to use their equipment. All fishing kayaks are of the sit-on-top variety.
Sit-on-top kayaks are cheaper than their sit-inside counterparts.
Stand-up paddleboarding is becoming more popular each year. Hawaiians have been using it for years as a means to keep fit when the waves are not adequate for surfing. By using a paddleboard surfers were able to enjoy the water and obtain some exercise simultaneously. In the last several years millions of people have begun to enjoy paddle boarding while standing (SUP). People now engage in stand-up paddling to enjoy the water, spend time with friends, and improve their fitness level.
SUP board can provide you with a very good overall workout. You will make use of balance and strength in order to remain upright and propel yourself in the water. The level of intensity you will experience will be variable and be dependent on your venue. If you are paddling in the ocean and there are a lot of waves and an ocean current, your workout will be intense. If you are simply drifting in relatively placid waters, it will not be so hard-core.
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