Sit-Inside vs. Sit-on-Top Kayaks: Which is Best?

Sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak? We compare the design, stability, performance, comfort, weight limits, and more to help you choose.

sit-inside vs sit-on-top kayak

The sit-in vs sit-on-top kayak debate regularly crops up between beginner and experienced paddlers. Which type of kayak is best? Which should you spend your money on?

It’s hard to give a definitive answer to those questions. Both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks have their advantages and disadvantages. The best option for you depends on several factors; how you’re going to use it, your experience level, the climate you kayak in, and so on. 

Instead of telling you which is best, we’ll walk you through the pros and cons of each design so that you can decide for yourself. 

What Are the Differences Between Sit-Inside and Sit-on-Top Kayaks?

Although there are several types of kayaks, each designed for different types of water and uses, most kayaks come in two styles; sit-inside or sit-on-top. 

Sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks share several features. Both have a deck and hull, a bow and stern, a cockpit with a seat, and some have gear storage. Both come in single or tandem versions, and you paddle both with a double-ended paddle

The most apparent difference between the two is that one has a deck covering your legs while the other is open. Before deciding which type of kayak is best for you, it’s important to understand the other key differences between sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks. 


As mentioned above, the key difference between the two is the cockpit. A sit-on-top kayak is open, meaning that you sit on top of the cockpit rather than sitting inside. 

Meanwhile, a sit-inside kayak has a deck that curves over to enclose your legs. You get into the cockpit by sliding your feet through a hole in the deck and you have the option to attach a spray skirt that prevents water from getting inside. Sit-on-top kayaks don’t need spray skirts because there are several small holes in the deck. These are scupper holes, and they allow water to drain out of the cockpit.

Aside from that, many of the basic kayak design principles are the same. A longer kayak will travel faster but turn slower. Likewise, wider kayaks are typically more stable but move slower in the water and can be tricky to keep in a straight line. These design rules apply to both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks.

You can use a rudder or skeg with either type of kayak, and both have some form of seat and foot brace. A sit-inside kayak may also have knee braces that help you control the kayak.


Stability is linked to kayak width – the wider it is, the more stable it will be – although hull shape also affects stability. However, stability is also linked to seat height – an elevated sitting position will make a kayak less stable than a low seating position.

In a sit-inside kayak, the seat is usually level with or just above the waterline. This gives you a lower center of gravity and increases stability. Comparatively, the seating position is slightly higher in a sit-on-top kayak, particularly in fishing kayaks which often have mounted seats.

As a result, sit-on-top kayaks are usually wider at the bow and stern than their sit-inside equivalents. This design compensates for the higher center of gravity, and they are typically considered more stable.


By performance, we mean how fast the kayak can move and how much effort you need to make it move and maintain speed. For example, you can usually cover a lot more distance with less effort when paddling a long and narrow touring kayak than could in a short and wide recreational kayak

In theory, a sit-on-top and sit-inside kayak of equal lengths would perform equally well. However, because sit-on-top kayaks are usually wider, you need to use more effort to reach the same speed. 

Seating & Comfort

Many people will find sit-on-top kayaks more comfortable. This is because the open cockpit is much less restrictive. On a break, you’re able to stretch your legs, sit cross-legged or drop your feet in the water. 

Sit-on-top kayak seats also provide more back support. Because you don’t need to wear a spray deck, it’s possible to fit a high-backed seat to a sit-on-top kayak. Although you can still fit a comfortable seat in a sit-inside kayak, you’ll have to manage with a low-backed seat or backband instead of full-back support. 

Weight & Load Capacity

The lightest kayaks weigh at least 20 pounds, while the average kayak can weigh up to 80 pounds. Sit-inside kayaks tend to weigh slightly less than their sit-on-top equivalents, but it depends on the material they’re made from. 

Furthermore, sit-on-top kayaks often have a higher weight capacity than sit-inside kayaks, which allows you to carry more gear. However, the same rule applies to both types of kayaks – your weight and the weight of your gear must not exceed the maximum weight capacity.


Whether you’re planning a multi-day adventure or a picnic on the water, you’ll need to consider where you’re going to store your gear. Both sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks offer gear storage; however, sit-inside kayaks offer more dry storage space.

Sit-on-top kayaks usually have a recess in the stern with deck buggies, which gives you a place to attach your gear. Longer sit-on-top kayaks and fishing kayaks may also have a recess in the bow and a small storage hatch in the center. Because you store your gear on the deck, it’s a lot easier to access gear while out on the water.

Although sit-inside kayaks also have deck bungees where you could attach a small dry bag or jacket, most of the storage space is under hatches in the bow and stern. Some sit-inside kayaks also have a small hatch within reach of the cockpit. 

Assuming that your hatches and seals are in good condition, your kit should stay dry inside the hatches. However, you won’t be able to reach your gear while on the water, and the hatch size limits what you can bring. 


While there are plenty of reasonably priced kayaks on the market for beginners and experienced paddlers, sit-on-top kayaks are usually cheaper than sit-inside kayaks. However, you can often find used sit-inside kayaks for an affordable price too.

Which is Better: Sit-Inside vs. Sit-on-Top Kayaks?

various sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks stored against a wall

Both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks come with their pros and cons. Here are the major factors to keep in mind when you are choosing between the two.

Sit-Inside Kayak Pros

One of the main advantages is that sitting inside the cockpit with a spray deck gives you more protection from the elements. In chilly weather, cold water, and high winds, a sit-inside kayak provides more warmth and shelter. Unless you capsize or you’re caught out in very heavy rain, your lower body will stay dry in a sit-inside kayak. 

When it comes to performance, sit-inside kayaks usually have the edge. The streamlined design of sit-inside sea and touring kayaks allows you to travel faster and further. Additionally, an enclosed cockpit with knee braces gives you greater control of the kayak. It enables you to perform tricks or roll the kayak.

Finally, sit-inside kayaks offer internal storage, either inside the hull or in watertight storage hatches. This makes sit-inside kayaks a practical choice for camping trips.

Sit-Inside Kayak Cons

Comfort and mobility are common issues with sit-inside kayaks. If you struggle to sit still for extended periods or have trouble bending your knees, you’ll find a sit-inside kayak very uncomfortable.

The main disadvantages of sit-inside kayaks are entry, exit, and floatation. Unless you paddle a recreational kayak with a large cockpit, getting in and out of a sit-inside kayak will take some practice. You also need to learn how to exit the kayak when you capsize.

Unlike sit-on-top kayaks, you can’t just flip a sit-inside kayak over and climb in after a capsize. Instead, you’ll either need to empty the kayak with a bilge pump, drag it to shore, or learn deep water rescue techniques.

Sit-on-Top Kayak Pros

Sit-on-top kayaks are great for first-time paddlers. They’re very stable, easier to get in and out of, and virtually unsinkable. 

Scupper holes in the deck allow water to drain, so there’s no chance of flooding the hull, and it’s much easier to recover from a capsize. This makes them a practical option for novice paddlers or solo adventures. You don’t need to practice rescue techniques or wet exits if you want to paddle a sit-on-top kayak further from the shore. 

Sit-on-top kayaks are great for recreational use too. Their stability means that you can move around, take pictures, or fish without falling in. In addition, the top deck storage allows you to reach your gear without getting out of the kayak.

The open cockpit makes sit-on-top kayaks more comfortable, especially for large paddlers and anyone with restricted mobility. You also have the option of fitting a high-backed seat for extra support and comfort. 

Sit-on-Top Kayak Cons

One drawback is that sit-on-tops kayaks have no, or very limited, internal storage. Therefore, you need to store any gear that you carry in waterproof bags for kayaking. There’s also a greater chance of losing items if you capsize.

The other significant disadvantage is that sit-on-top kayaks don’t protect your lower body from wind, rain, or splashes. Additionally, the scupper holes that allow self-bailing also allow water to splash onto the kayak from below. Therefore, if you paddle a sit-on-top kayak, you should expect to get wet. This makes sit-on-top kayaks less suitable for paddling in cold water and cool climates. 

Another drawback is that sit-on-top kayaks are usually heavier. This, combined with the width at the bow and stern, makes them harder to transport and they tend to move slower than sit-inside kayaks.

Which Type of Kayak Should You Choose?

people paddling kayaks down river

There’s no right or wrong answer to the sit-inside vs sit-on-top kayak debate. Both types of kayaks have their advantages. 

Ultimately, you should choose the one that best suits your needs. Think about how you will use your kayak most of the time: for whitewater kayaking, multi-day touring, fishing, or recreational paddling? How much storage do you need?

Also, consider your skill level and goals. Are you confident getting in and out of a sit-inside kayak? Can you keep a kayak upright? Do you already know, or are you prepared to learn capsize rescue techniques? If you’re a beginner, do you have an experienced paddler to practice with?

Who Are Sit-Inside Kayaks Best For?

Sit-inside kayaks are best for intermediate to advanced paddlers or beginners aiming to take their paddle skills to the next level. Sit-inside kayaks are also suitable for first-time paddlers and kids. However, you should attend a paddling course to learn the basic safety skills or practice with an experienced paddler.

Sit-inside kayaks are the preferred choice for paddling in harsh weather and cold water. If you live in a cool climate or like to paddle in all seasons, a sit-inside kayak is the best option for you.

Anyone interested in ocean kayaking, long-distance trips, multi-day adventures, kayak racing, or whitewater kayaking should also consider specialist sit-inside kayaks. 

Who Are Sit-on-Top Kayaks Best For?

Sit-on-top kayaks are ideal for beginners with no paddling experience or kids. If you plan to learn by yourself and don’t intend to join a paddle class, a sit-on-top kayak would be the safest option. 

Sit-on-top kayaks are also excellent for anyone living in a warm climate or anyone who wants to do some casual paddling during the summer. They are also the most practical option for fishing trips or kayaking alone.

Which Is Better for Beginners?

You can start learning to kayak in either a sit-on-top or sit-inside kayak. However, many beginners prefer to learn in sit-on-top kayaks because you don’t need to know how to do wet exits. Ultimately, which type of kayak is best for beginners will depend on how, when, where you plan to use it, and your goals. 

If you aim to paddle long distances on open water, join races, or tackle whitewater, you’ll be better off with a sit-inside kayak. Meanwhile, if your primary use will be fishing or recreational paddling, learning to paddle a sit-on-top kayak should fulfill your needs.

Which Is Better for Fishing?

Most would agree that a sit-on-top kayak is better for fishing. You’re able to move around, cast a line, and access your gear. Because sit-on-top fishing kayaks are very stable, you can do all that without falling in. 

Specialist fishing kayaks are almost always sit-on-top kayaks. The design allows manufacturers to add valuable features like elevated seats, rod holders, pedals, or standing platforms.

Which Is Better for Ocean Kayaking?

If you compare recreational kayaks, a sit-on-top kayak would be the better choice. Sit-inside recreational kayaks have large cockpits, which can flood, and lack buoyancy. In comparison, sit-on-top kayaks with scupper holes are self-bailing and almost impossible to sink. 

However, sit-inside touring kayaks or sit-inside sea kayaks are the best types of kayaks for ocean paddling. These kayaks have bulkheads that add buoyancy and limit how much water can flood the cockpit if you do end up underwater. Likewise, the deck and spray deck protect you from waves, splashes, and high winds. 

Additionally, sit-inside touring and sea kayaks are narrow and pointed at the bow and stern. This design allows them to cut through waves more efficiently than a sit-on-top kayak.

Which Is Safer?

This is a common question for beginners and parents of young paddlers. Are sit-on-top kayaks safer than sit-inside kayaks? 

Whichever type of kayak you choose to paddle, you need to know the basic safety procedures and bring essential safety gear every time you go out. That said, sit-on-top kayaks are the safer option for beginners and kids new to paddling. This is because they’re virtually unsinkable, and most recreational sit-on-top kayaks are so stable that you’re unlikely to capsize.

If you manage to tip a sit-on-top kayak, it’s relatively easy to flip it over and climb back on. That’s not to say that sit-inside kayaks are unsafe. However, you should learn how to do wet exits and capsize recoveries from an experienced paddler.