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If you’re new to paddling and looking to invest in a kayak, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether to choose a sit-on-top kayak (SOT) or a sit-inside kayak (SIS). The simple answer is that they’re both effective, have pros and cons, and have been enjoyed by recreational and serious paddlers and anglers for years. However, there are some distinct differences you’ll want to consider when picking one for yourself.
When you hear the word “kayak,” a SIS is probably what comes to mind. The bathtub shape, pointed bow, single-seated yak of yore has been around forever, and despite years of advancements in the paddling world it still maintains most of the original characteristics which paddlers have come to love. A SIS offers a protected shell, often containing a seat, foot braces, and pretty much nothing else. SIS kayaks have been the predominant recreational paddling kayak for years, and with good reason: they’re simple to operate, easy to maintain, and affordable.
One of the main factors that leads to paddlers choosing a SIS is that you’ll likely stay dry the whole time you’re on the water. The tub-like shape offers protection from waves and paddle splashes, and somewhere in that shell you’ll likely be able to put a bag with your water, snacks, phone, and sunscreen without fear of anything getting wet. My first ever kayak was a SIS, and I packed that thing to the gills with a couple fishing rods, tackle boxes, and even a clamp-on fish-finder! It was snug, but it got the job done.
A negative to SIS kayaks is that they’re tough to get in and out of, especially if you flip and go in the drink. A SIS is easiest to get into in shallow water, where you can stand firmly on the ground and lower yourself inside. When getting into any kayak, but particularly a SIS, maintaining 3 points of contact with the boat or ground will help you stay balanced. Getting into SIS yaks from a dock or from a bigger boat can be tough, since putting a foot inside it will begin pushing it away from you, and you’ll need some core strength to keep it nearby or you’re going swimming.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of a SIS kayak is that it is not self-bailing like a sit-on-top. If your SIS flips, it’s going to be very challenging to drain the water from inside it and then to re-enter the kayak itself. So yes, you may keep your stuff dry from minor splashes by having a shell to sit in, but if you go over, all that stuff ends up in Davey Jones’ locker anyways.
Modern hull designs and kayaks in general are really tough to flip. Typically, this worry is in the forefront of a new paddler’s mind, but that fear is soon soothed after a few trips. A good rule of thumb for all kayaks is that your body goes where your head goes, so if you keep your head inline with the center of the kayak, your body will stay there too and you’ll be all set. Overall, I’d recommend sit-inside kayaks for paddlers who don’t intend to fish, and who will have easy, calm waters from which to launch and land.
Sit-on-top kayaks are quickly becoming the most popular kayak for recreational and fishing use. The biggest differences are first, the obvious- you sit on top of this kayak. There is no shell in which you’ll be seated. The second biggest difference is that the mold for these kayaks contain scupper holes. Essentially, they’re a series of holes running straight through the kayak, from deck to water. They function as drains: when water splashes over the edge of the SOT, it will find its way to a scupper hole and drain out the bottom of the kayak. It’s a helpful feature, and makes these kayaks easier to enjoy in choppy water or rain.
It’s often said that a disadvantage of SOT kayaks is that you will get wet by being on top, but I’d argue against that. While you are protected by the shell of a SIS kayak, you’re further from the water itself when perched on a SOT kayak. I think your chances of getting wet are more influenced by the condition of the waves and your ability as a paddler to keep paddle splashes away when navigating.
Another big advantage of a SOT kayak is that there will often be built-in storage hatches to keep your items dry, just like they would be in a SIS kayak. Some more simple SOT yaks won’t have dry hatches, but their addition is quickly becoming a standard feature for manufacturers. Additionally, I believe SOT kayaks are easier to store and transport, because they are more rigid and flat, and therefore easier to strap down or stack up when traveling or not in use.
Arguably the most important feature of a SOT kayak is that if you flip, it’s much easier to right the boat and climb back onto. This is part of the reason why pretty much every serious fishing kayak is a SOT. If you flip, there are a couple of ways to turn the boat right side up, and it’s much easier to crawl back on top of than a SIS is to climb back inside of. Plus, once you get the boat flipped, the water will drain right out of the scupper holes and you’ll be back to paddling in no time.
When picking between a SOT or SIS kayak, first ask yourself what you plan on doing the most out on the water. If it’s any sort of serious fishing or paddling, I’d recommend a SOT kayak. For those very serious about ocean kayaking, there are unique kayaks for that exact purpose which are typically very long and slim for cutting through waves.
If you just want something for the kids to float around in, and will only be using your kayak in small lakes or ponds and close to shore, then either style of kayak will work. Overall, after kayaking and kayak fishing for nearly 20 years, I very much tend to favor SOT kayaks for the reasons above. If you’re really not sure, the best way to figure out which is best is to stop by a dealer and take each style of kayak out for a demo. There’s bound to be one that you feel most comfortable in, and soon you’ll be out there catching fish, sunsets, and some warm summer rays!