The wonderful thing about kayaking is that it’s extremely easy to get started, and the learning curve is very swift. Though you could spend year mastering strokes and understanding water conditions, you don’t have to know how to eskimo roll as soon as you get in the boat. Determining which type of kayak — a sit-in or a sit-on-top — to begin with will help you ease into the sport.
Kayaks come in many different designs, but the basic differences between them are whether you sit inside a cockpit, with your legs and hips surrounded by the boat, or whether you simply sit on top of a hull. Most river kayaks — which tend be shorter designs — are sit-ins, and if you’re interested in shooting down rivers and over waterfalls, you’ll need a cockpit that surrounds and hugs the lower half of your body, which will give you more control over the boat as it careens through currents. But if recreational coastal boating is what you’re aiming for, sit-on-tops or sit-ins are both a good choice, depending on your desires. Below are the things you’ll want to factor in when making your decision about getting a coastal or sea kayak.
Sit-on-top kayaks, in general, tend to have a wider, flatter hull, which makes them more stable and less likely to flip over (at least in calmer waters). Many are so stable, you can actually stand up on them (carefully). This makes them great for beginners, bringing kids and dogs along, and activities like fishing or photography, where you need to set up equipment, require a broad range of motion, or haul things in and out of the boat while sitting in it.
While sit-on-top kayaks are great for beginners because they are stable and easy to cruise on, what you gain from a wide stable base you lose in quick turning power. A longer, thinner, sit-in kayak will respond more quickly and swiftly to paddle strokes, but it will also feel more wobbly. Either type of kayak has designs available that include rudders, but the wider the kayak and the more it draws, the clunkier it will be. Some entry-level kayaks also offer sit-ins with a wide flat base. These can be a great choice if you want the option of wearing a skirt (in cooler weather, say) or if you want to store stuff where it won’t get wet. Just remember that if you want to go skirt-free some days, any water that gets inside the boat will make it heavier, and, if you flip, the boat could be difficult to right when it’s full of water.
Wide, flat, and slow isn’t necessarily a drawback if you’re planning to use your boat for expeditions close-to-shore. And, increasingly, sit-on-tops are available in sleeker designs with longer overall boat-lengths.. But if your goal is to cruise in blue or rougher water, you’ll need a sit-in touring kayak that’s more responsive. And, if you’ve progressed to a level where maneuverability and advanced paddle strokes are enhancing your experience, you may get frustrated with a slow boat. If you’re new to kayaking, remember that learning basic skills goes quickly for most people, so even if you haven’t paddled much before, think about how you want to use the boat — you may want to buy a boat slightly beyond your skill level so that you can grow into it.
The majority, though not all, sit-on-top kayaks on the market today are manufactured from roto-molded ABS plastic, making them extremely durable. Sit-in kayaks generally come in a much broader range of materials — from ABS plastic and lighter-weight plastics to wood and fiberglass even carbon fiber. The best way to decide what kind of boat you’ll need is to think about what kind of conditions you’ll be using it in. A perfectly sandy beach in the Caribbean won’t be as hard on a boat as one you’ll be using on the coast of Maine.
The flip side of that durability is weight. The sturdier the boat, generally, the more it’s going to weigh. Often, though not always, sit-on-top kayaks weigh in higher than sit-ins. This frequently contributes to their generally lower price, stability, and durability. It’s not inconsequential to think about how you’ll be transporting your kayak. Will you be able to get it on and off your car by yourself? Will you simply be pulling it down the road on a dolly? Being able to manage your equipment is an important factor in your overall experience. I can carry my sit-on-tops myself down a long path, for example, and I can dolly my sit-on down to the beach near my house, but I need assistance lifting the 65-plus-pound two-person sit-on-top over my head and onto the car. On the other hand, if you’ll be parking your boat on a dock or beach for the season, only transporting it at the beginning and end of the season, weight may not be an issue.
Don’t underestimate this part of the equation, however. The more mobile you can be with your boat, the more you’ll use it.
It goes without saying that how you’ll use your boat has everything to do with what kind of boat you’ll want to purchase. Want to cruise through a shallow marsh to birdwatch at sunrise? A wide, flat sit-on-top is probably a good choice. Fishing-specific sit-on-top kayaks are great choices for people who want to drop a line. Likewise, if you want to drop anchor and swim or SCUBA dive off of your boat, a stable boat that’s easy to get on and off of will be key.
On the other hand, if you’re goal is to cross Nantucket Sound, do a multi-day journey, or hit rougher, deeper seas, you’ll definitely need the maneuverability of a sit-in touring kayak. These styles tend to be longer, thinner, more easily steered, and are going to give you dry storage for your gear. Plus, if a wave comes along to knock you around, you’ll be able to either steer through it more easily, or stay with the boat if it knocks you over. Since sit-ins offer more physical unity with the boat — the hull becomes more like a piece of equipment your wearing and moving with than something you’re just put upon — you’ll have more control over your boat.
To make sure you buy the right boat, determine how and who will be using your boat most. If you want to host inexperienced weekend guests on short jaunts near your beach house, you’ll get a lot of use out of sit on top boats. If you want to take your young children and dogs along with you on excursions, sit-on-tops, again, will offer you great versatility. If you’re a dude looking to push your adventurous limits, a more sophisticated boat may be more your style.
Just remember that the boat you choose will have a lot to do with the experience you have to offer yourself and others. My mom would never be comfortable sitting in my wobbly, 17-foot touring kayak, but she has a blast when we tool around on our super-stable, rock-em-sock-em, drag-it-over-the-rocks sit-on-top. I love that boat because because I can plop kids and dogs on it, too, to safely tour the harbor or bay. But when I want to explore the parts of our coastline that are exposed to the open sea, play in bigger waves at the beach, or go camping for a few days, it’s got to be the sit-ins. Ultimately, both styles offer fun and versatility. With a little planning and thinking about how you most want to use your boat, you’ll be off and paddling, with the sun on your back and the salt on your face. Either type of boat can offer you that.
Photo, top: mfairlady
Meaghan O’Neill is the editor of Discovery.com, TreeHugger, and Parentables. She used to sell kayaks at Eastern Mountain Sports, and has a strong hankering to get in the ocean after writing this article, despite the fact that it’s currently winter in New England. You can follow her on Twitter @msoeden.