If you've never even heard of a sit on top kayak, you're not alone. These kayaks are relatively new to the market, but they've taken it by storm over the past decade. They were originally conceived for ocean paddlers--in fact, they were once simply known as "ocean kayaks". Despite their seafaring roots, they have become incredibly popular with recreational and fishing paddlers, and in this installment of the Kayak Buying Guide, we'll walk you through the differences between sit on top designs and traditional sit inside kayaks, so you can choose which might be right for you.
Sit inside kayaks are the classic and iconic image of a kayak. A web search for kayak clip art or kayak stock photos brings up thousands of sit inside kayaks, and they seem to be the first thing most folks think of. Sit inside kayaks have several advantages over their top-deck counterparts:
- Control and stability: Since the paddler sits very low to the water line in a sit inside kayak, the center of gravity is more optimized for greater control, maneuverability, and stability. The same level of stability in a sit on top kayak would require either a wider boat or a more stabilized hull shape (we will cover hull shapes in another installment of this guide).
- Light weight: Since sit inside boats are usually slimmer and don't require the material to make an entire top deck, a sit inside kayak will usually weigh about 10-15 pounds less than a similar sit on top model. If weight is your chief concern, look to a sit inside boat first.
- Warm and dry: A paddler in a sit inside kayak will be less exposed to splash, drip, and wind, resulting in a dryer and warmer ride.
- Accommodation for spray skirts: For offshore paddlers or whitewater boaters, sit inside models often allow for the addition of a spray skirt, which is a neoprene or nylon garment that is worn around the paddler's waist and extends over the entire rim of the kayak's cockpit. Skirts seal a kayak against water and allow more advanced paddlers to roll the kayak upright after a flip.
While sit inside boats have many attributes, paddlers should think about a few considerations before choosing this style.
- Comfort: Sit inside models can feel less comfortable to some paddlers, as they don't allow for seats that are quite as large and supportive as those on some sit on top kayaks. As the seats are lower to the water, those with knee injuries or limited mobility may find them more difficult to get in and out of. Sit inside boats also feel confining to some folks because you often cannot see your legs or where you're putting your feet. Many modern sit inside kayaks offer large, open cockpit designs that help mitigate the confinement factor that some individuals experience.
- Manual bailing: In the event that you flip your sit inside kayak, it will fill with water that must be removed before you can re-enter. Most folks who are close to shore just pull the kayak to the beach and drain it there, but some also carry bilge pumps or sponges. Remember that water is heavy, and it may take more than one person to drain a large sit inside boat.
Sit on top kayaks can feel more convenient and, in some conditions, safer than their more classic sit inside counterparts. A sit on top model offers the following advantages:
- Self bailing: Sit on top kayaks can be safer for offshore paddlers because of the inclusion of scupper holes. These holes go all the way from the top deck to the bottom of the hull and drain water off the deck. If you flip your sit on top boat, the deck will automatically drain water once you flip it back over.
- Sun and splash: Many individuals prefer sit on tops simply because they are more open to the sun. If your main goal is to get out on nice summer days and enjoy the spray and the sun, sit on tops should be among your first choices.
- Nicer seats: Although some sit on tops have very basic seats, many offer increasingly supportive and cushioned options. Because they don't have to fit inside a small cockpit, seats on sit on top boats tend to sit up higher and offer a lot of adjustment and back support. These are especially helpful to those who find it difficult to lower themselves into and stand up out of sit inside boats.
- Easy exit: Sit inside kayaks are actually very easy to exit in the event of a flip, but some people still feel uncomfortable with idea that they might get stuck inside a boat. While this is actually very rare, and has more to do with improper gear and safety precautions, some folks just feel more comfortable in a sit on top kayak. Greater range of motion and the ability to see one's legs can feel very freeing to anyone who experiences a little claustrophobia in traditional kayaks.
It's easy to see what's made sit on top kayaks so popular, but consider these potential drawbacks before making your choice:
- Heavy: Since sit on tops need to be wider to achieve stability and also require more material to cover the top deck, they generally weigh a little more than an equivalent sit inside model. On the other hand, they will require less strength when recovering from a flip, because you won't need to deal with the weight of water.
- Less control: As the paddler sits higher, a loss of control is inevitable. Some paddlers find the extra effort to control direction and gain speed to be a major disadvantage in sit on top kayaks.
- Exposed to the elements: Sit on tops offer no protection from wind, drip, or waves. If you plan to paddle in shoulder season or chilly water, consider how you will stay dry.