Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-In Kayak: Which One’s Best for Beginners?

Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak

There are two main styles of kayaks: the sit-on-top kayak vs sit-in kayak. And it can be confusing to some people-which one they should use. I’ve paddled sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks and there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both.

Which is better, sit-in or sit-on-top kayak? A sit-in kayak is better for cold or rough water and when you don’t want to get wet. A sit-on-top kayak is better for beginners, summer and having fun. A sit-in kayak is optimal for touring, surf, and paddling long distance. While a sit-on kayak is better for learning, cooling off and getting in and out of your kayak.

If you’re buying your first kayak, you need to take into account the differences between each of these kayak options. This article will give you a clear picture of which style of kayak best fits your needs for for the type and level of kayaking you’ll be doing.

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Sit-on-top vs. Sit-in Kayak Differences

The first decision you’ll have to make on any kayak purchase will be largely based on what style and type of water you’ll be paddling. And the available options can be cut in half based on whether you want/need a sit-on-top vs a sit-in style kayak.

While the main difference between the two is obvious when you look at them, there are important advantages and disadvantages of each one over the other. And you’ll need to understand them before you choose which style to get, especially if this is your first kayak.

Benefits and Drawbacks of a Sit-In Kayak

A sit-in kayak is self-explanatory. The structure of this particular kayak allows you to shelter the lower half of your body inside the kayak in what’s called the cockpit. Although this may seem like the best option for any beginner because it provides an extra sense of security, the truth is that it may be the exact opposite. 

While it’s true that the purpose of a sit-in kayak is to shield your lower body from cold winds and water, and that makes this type of kayak ideal for kayaking in cold waters, there are some safety considerations. 

Since this is a sit-in kayak, you will likely feel a sense of confinement. A tight cockpit gives you little room to move around while paddling. Another downside to a sit-in kayak is that if you capsize while in the water, the inside of the kayak will fill with water and hinder your ability to paddle. Also, you’ll get wet and you may capsize.

Before you can continue or even get back to shore to dry off you’ll have to bilge pump the water out of the cockpit. This is a task for more experienced kayakers. Or at least you should know how to do it and/or practice before you get too far from shore with a sit-in kayak.

Sit-in kayaks are also harder to get back in once you fall out in open water.

Sit-in Kayak Pros

  • You sit lower in the water and have a lower center of gravity
  • They glide through the water faster
  • With the proper cockpit cover, they can keep your lower extremities dryer
  • They tend to be lighter to carry than a Si-on-top kayak

Sit-in Kayak Cons

  • They are harder to get in and out of the cockpit
  • They can fill with water if you capsize
  • Getting back in after falling out in open water is more difficult

Benefits and Drawbacks of a Sit On Top Kayak

A sit-on-top kayak is different from a sit-in kayak and may be a better choice for beginners or for people that are looking for more space while they learn the basics of kayaking. A sit-on-top kayak doesn’t come with a cockpit for you to shelter your lower body. Just as the name says, you sit on top of the kayak itself in a molded in cutout seat and foot rest area. 

If you’re nervous about learning to paddle, are a beginner, or are taking your kids kayaking for the first time, then a sit-on-top kayak is a great option. 

A sit-on kayak is perfect for beginners because it gives them more space to move around and also allows them to stay more balanced. This kayak also has holes known as scupper holes that allow for water to get into the top of the kayak and go right back into the water out the scupper holes. Scupper holes prevent the kayak from filling with water

The downside to a sit-on kayak is that since there is no sheltered space, you’ll likely get wet as you paddle and splash during kayaking. So, if you hate the idea of getting wet, then you may want to consider getting a recreational sit-in kayak which has a bit wider cockpit opening.

Sit-on Kayak Pros

  • Easier to get in and out of
  • Made of tougher materials
  • Easier to learn on
  • Easier to get back into if you fall out
  • Won’t fill with water if they capsize

Sit-on Kayak Cons

  • Sit-on-top kayaks are heavy
  • You’re going to get wet
  • Takes more energy to paddle them
  • You sit with a higher center of gravity making you more “tippy”

So, is sit-in or sit-on better? 

So, which one is better: sit-in or sit-on kayak?

The truth is that it depends on the situation, your experience level, and how and where you plan to kayak.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced kayaker and are likely to be in cold waters, then the sit-in kayak is the better option for you. However, if you’re a beginner and are not fully comfortable with the idea of paddling a kayak, then a sit-on-top may be better for you. 

The best choice of kayak truly depends on what kind of experience you are looking to have during your kayaking excursion. But here are some option examples based on common kayaking needs.

Sit-on-top kayaks are better for:

  • Summertime fun
  • Warm weather
  • Learning
  • Kids
  • Getting rough with your kayak (rotomolded sit-on-top kayaks can take more abuse)
  • If you’re nervous about getting trapped in the cockpit if you capsize
  • And fishing!

Sit-inside kayaks are better for:

  • Cold weather and water
  • Long distance touring
  • Ocean touring
  • Surf kayaking
  • River kayaking; both whitewater and long distance river runs
  • Racing
  • Staying dry

Differences between Sit-In and Sit On Top Kayaks 

As mentioned in the previous section, there’s not much of a physical difference between the two types of kayaks; the biggest difference will be your body positioning and level of comfort. However, it’s important to note that these kayaks do work better in certain types of waters, so you may want to take these differences into consideration when choosing a kayak. 

Sit-In vs. Sit On Top: Know the Differences

The sit-in kayak is by far the more traditional type of kayak. Kayaking history dates back thousands of years, when these types of kayaks were used by paddlers to make their way across arctic waters for hunting. Over time, sit-in kayaks have been transformed for recreational purposes.

Although a sit-in kayak is small, there’s some room for you to store equipment. This is vs a sit-on-top, which is great if you are day paddling or on a short expedition.

Sit-on kayaks aren’t as good for long expeditions, but they’re great for day-long trips.

A sit-on-top kayak is for those of us who are just looking to enjoy a nice day on the water and consider kayaking more of a fun activity than a form of exercise or exploration. As we mentioned, sit-ons are the perfect kayak for any beginner, especially if you are kayaking with children. 

Another great thing about the sit-on-top kayak vs a sit-in is that it gives the rider the ability to self-rescue. Unlike the sit-in kayak where you are inside the kayak, the sit-on kayak allows you to immediately move away from the kayak if it capsizes.

This allows you to more quickly and easily rescue yourself in the event that the kayak flips over.

Sit-In or Sit On Top Kayak for Beginners

When it comes to beginners learning how to kayak for the first time, there’s not too much of a difference between sit-in or sit on kayaks. It’s equally important that you consult with a professional before going on your first kayaking expedition for either type of kayak.

The important thing for any beginner to take note of is the safety requirements and preparation that come with any form of kayaking.

Here are a few tips that are useful for beginners, no matter what kind of kayak you choose. 

  1. Dress appropriately for the water, not the weather. The type of kayak that you use may depend on what type of water you’ll be kayaking in. Typically a sit-in kayak is used in cold waters, so you’ll need to dress for cold water conditions. In this case, a wet suit will be sufficient. However, if you’re kayaking in warmer waters, then a swimsuit is sufficient for your day of kayaking. 
  2. Take the time to learn safety skills. Like any sport or high-intensity physical activity, there are safety protocols that need to be put in place, especially if there is water involved. In this case, no matter what kind of kayak you use, the safety protocol is especially important since kayaks have the ability to flip in the water, which can lead to a fatal situation if you do not practice the proper safety protocols.
  3. Familiarize yourself with paddling styles. Before you go on the water, it’s important that you make yourself familiar with paddling styles. If you can, sit in your kayak while it’s still on land and practice paddling strokes before ever putting your kayak in the water. There are so many YouTube tutorials out there to watch while doing this exercise. There are at least four strokes that you must learn; the forward stroke, reverse stroke, sweep stroke, and the draw stroke.
  4. Adjust your kayak on dry land. This is mainly for sit-in kayaks. If your kayak seat is adjustable and/or has adjustable foot rest pegs, then you can adjust it enough to make yourself more comfortable. It’s best that you avoid doing this on water because if you move around too much on the kayak, then you will likely flip it over, which is something you want to avoid.
  5. Make sure your first time is on calm waters. As a first-time kayaker, no matter whether it’s in a sit-in or sit-on, you want to make sure that your experience is as safe as possible. Which is why your first kayak trip should be on calm waters. Practicing on a calm body of water will prepare you for when you do decide to go kayaking in rougher water or weather conditions.
  6. Do not go kayaking alone! If there’s only one thing you take away from this article it’s that you should not go kayaking alone, no matter what your experience is. The truth is that accidents happen, and there should always be someone with you in the event that something happens to you. 

As you can see, there’s no vast difference between a beginner’s experience with a sit-in or sit on top kayak. However, one thing you can take away from these tips is that preparation and training are key. The last thing you want is to put yourself or your family in danger because you were not ready.

Best Kayaks for Beginners

As a beginner, you should not purchase just any kayak. You should purchase something that best fits your needs. The last thing you want is to purchase a kayak that is too complex and end up spending a ton of money on a kayak that you can’t use. So, here’s a list of great options for beginners:

  • The Sun Dolphin Aruba 10: This is a sit-in kayak and is a great lightweight option for those of you who do not want something too bulky. This kayak weighs about 40lbs and comes in a variety of colors.
  • Oru Kayak Beach LT:  If you have a large budget, then this is a great kayak for you. It is a sit-in kayak. One of its greatest benefits is that it folds up, which makes it perfect for transporting. This kayak runs at about $1,199.00.
  • Sevylor Quikpak K1: This is a sit on kayak, and its greatest feature is that it is inflatable, which makes it perfect for storage. It is important to note, however, that this kayak should only be used in calm waters to prevent any damage, which can cause it to deflate.
  • Ocean Kayak Malibu Tandem: This is a sit on top two-person kayak, which makes it perfect for nervous paddlers. This kayak allows any beginner to sit with an experienced kayaker or even a loved one and allows you to really learn how to kayak while someone helps you. 

The kayaks listed above are great options for beginners and will give you a sense of what to look for when purchasing your kayak. Before you venture out and purchase one, make sure you continue to research the best options, these are only four options out of dozens of other options that best fit your needs. 

Sit-In or Sit-On-Top Kayak for Fishing

One of the benefits of kayaking is that you can actually go fishing on a kayak. It’s important to note, however, that fishing a kayak is a different experience from fishing on an enclosed boat. 

You should take a few things into account before going kayak fishing.

Sit-In Kayak for Fishing

The sit-in kayak is perfect if you go fishing during the colder months since it will shelter your lower body from the colder waters. Another great benefit of fishing in a sit-in kayak is that they come with more storage space since there is a cockpit. This allows you to comfortably store your fishing gear without the hassle of figuring out where to store everything. 

A sit-in kayak is best for more experienced fishermen since this particular kayak can be a bit more tippy compared to its counterpart.

Sit-On-Top Kayak for Fishing

The sit-on-top kayak is better for fishing, especially for beginners. 

Something that this particular kayak can offer that a sit-in does not offer is that it allows for you to stand up while you’re fishing, which is how many fishermen are used to fishing either on a boat at a dock. Additionally, the sit-on kayak has much more space on the top, which allows people to attach their gear easily.

There are special fishing kayaks made that are bigger, wider, and thus more stable. And that’s for the specific purpose of standing up and fishing from them.

As you can see, both kayaks do come with their benefits when it comes to fishing, and in fact, is a much more affordable way to go fishing instead of having to rent out a boat. If this is your first time participating in kayak fishing, then the sit on kayak might be your best option.

Sit-on-top vs Sit-inside Kayak Summary

So which kayak is better? The truth is that both kayak styles are great for their intended use.

However, like any physical activity, it’s important that you figure out what your comfort level is. You should never go into something without at least knowing the basics, especially when dealing with something that can potentially put you in danger if not done correctly.

What should you take away from this? If you’re a beginner, then I’d get a sit on kayak and play with it for a summer before deciding to get a sit inside. A sit-on is much easier to learn paddling basics from. Additionally, the sit on top kayak is much more comfortable compared to a sit-in. 

If you want to graduate to full-day trips and touring big waters, then it might be time for you to upgrade to a sit-in kayak. You’ll be able to paddle farther faster with a sit-inside.

Above all, remember to stay safe and take it slow as you learn to be a better paddler.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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