Sit-On-top vs. Sit-Inside Kayaks

Author: Matthew VanDeburgh

I’m an avid fisherman and boater, and last year I fulfilled a long-time dream of owning my own lake-house. In my home state of Mississippi, I found a cool little cabin on a thirty-acre lake that was full of fish. It had a dock, and I brought along my jon boat with its outboard and trolling motors, but this lake mandated motorless watercraft as it was small and quiet. I began exploring my options for the best pleasure and fishing craft for the location. Considering the fact that I also planned to do a lot of exploring in the region, I wanted something that was lightweight and mobile. There were plenty of rivers, lakes, and swamps throughout the state, and I was looking for a boat that I could carry on the roof rack of my SUV and would be able to launch by myself. After some research and window-shopping, it was clear that a kayak was the best choice.

For open water and the type of paddling I planned on doing, there were two primary models of kayaks to choose from. They were a sit-on-top, which is a solid molded piece with the seat carved into the top deck, or a sit-inside which has a hollow core and a seat inside of the boat. After viewing and handling a few of both at a large and reputable outdoor outfitter, I decided to go with a sit-on-top. The primary reasons were its size, less than ten feet, and its weight, less than fifty pounds. It was rated for close to two hundred pounds with one person and gear, and I came in short of that and knew I’d be alright if the specs were accurate. I bought a paddle that was recommended (when your arm is extended upward, the middle knuckles should align with the tip of the top paddle blade) and a life vest. Happy with my new toy, I easily toted it one-handed out to my vehicle and quickly strapped it to the roof rack.

Arriving back at the lake-house, I hauled it down to the shoreline and went inside to get my fishing gear. The kayak was conveniently equipped with built-in rod holders and a bungee net on the bow for strapping down gear. I inserted my rods in the designated holes, and strapped down my pack that carried tackle, a water bottle, and some snacks.

The shoreline was bordered by a retaining wall that was about a foot and a half above the waterline. I figured that stepping from the bank down into the boat would be the best way to launch, and I slid the kayak over the wall and into the water. Confidently, I put one foot on the seat of the boat, shifted my weight in that direction, and promptly flipped the thing and myself into the water. Luckily it was warm, so I just flipped it back over, shook out my gear and replaced the rods, and sat down more carefully. Lesson one: sit on top kayaks are unstable until you are sitting on top of them.

With my body weight lower, the boat road smoothly and without tipping, and I quickly learned the two best points about a compact sit-on-top kayak. One, it is extremely maneuverable. The light weight and small size allowed me to turn and spin on a dime, and I could ease it back into the coves amid brush and weeds where the best fishing was. Two, that thing was fast. It was so light and sat so high on the water that it felt like I was flying across the lake. I could easily out-distance the speed of the trolling motor on my old fishing boat. Points for the sit-on-top: Light and easy to transport and launch, easy to steer and maneuver, fast on the water. Points against: unstable and prone to flip, especially on choppy water.

The little sit-on-top was a lot of fun on my home lake, but I was ready to take on some bigger water with more danger. In my neck of the woods, that meant waves on the reservoir and alligators and snakes in the swamp. I certainly didn’t want to risk tipping the boat and losing my gear out on the big lake, and I wasn’t about to risk it in the critter infested swamp. It was time to try out a sit-in kayak.

I went back to the outfitter and explained what my intentions were. They helped me choose a boat that was larger and more cumbersome, but also still within reason for transporting alone. The sit-in kayak I picked was twelve feet long and around seventy pounds, but it also had some extra features that the smaller boat didn’t. I immediately appreciated the foam-padded seat that allowed me to be inside the kayak and lower to the water. It felt safer, and it was definitely more stable. There was more storage- a compartment in the stern, a bungee net on the bow, and the space within the boat. I was able to equip myself for a longer float, and it carried a higher weight capacity. Also, there were built-in Styrofoam blocks in the body of the boat, so in the unlikely event I got waterlogged or it flipped, it couldn’t actually sink. Points for the sit-in: steady and safe, more storage, more comfortable. Points against: heavier and less easy to transport, with the tendency to take on water.

Over time, I came to appreciate both kayaks for their individual applications. For short day trips, and for times when I didn’t mind getting wet or anticipated rough water, the sit-on-top was perfect. It was great on rivers with more rapids and in the ocean waves off the coast as the ability to move it quickly became important. For longer trips, like serious fishing expeditions or excursions into the wilderness with unexpected wildlife, the sit-in was my preference. It was ideal for carrying extra gear, and I enjoyed several multi-day camping trips with the sit-in kayak. Both had their places, and I was glad for the choice.