When deciding what type of kayak to buy for my family to learn on, I had to do a lot of reading about the different styles of kayaks that are out there and the benefits of each. What I learned is that sit-on-top kayaks are excellent for beginners, families, children and are so uncomplicated that anyone can feel comfortable beginning with one as all of the intimidation factor is taken away.
Are sit-on-top-kayaks easier to get started with than sit-inside kayaks?
Yes, for flat water kayaking it is easier to get on the kayak and to start paddling a sit-on-top than a sit-inside. There are no technical skills that need to be learned first. With a sit-inside kayak, you must learn how to get in, get out, and what to do if you tip over or fill the kayak with water. These skills are great things to learn and are a critical and exciting part of the sport of kayaking, but for brand new families I would have to say that a sit-on-top is just ridiculously easy and non-intimidating to get started with. It depends on what type of family you are and what your goals of kayaking are. For casual kayaking, especially with young kids, it is easier to start with a sit-on-top because there is not much for parents or kids to learn besides paddling (no wet-exit or what to do if your fill your kayak with water type things to learn), and they are easy to get in and out of, and they are inexpensive.
Are sit-on-top kayaks easier to paddle than sit-inside kayaks?
As for actual paddling, this is a tricky question. It is easier for a kid or beginner to figure out how to paddle a sit-on-top kayak on flat water and start exploring because it is so straightforward and not intimidating. However, if you are paddling a long distance, in a strong current, or whitewater than a sit-inside kayak is much BETTER to paddle because you have more power and efficiency from your position. When you sit inside of a kayak rather than on-top you have better braces for your feet to push against and are in a better position to paddle more efficiently and for longer distances.
When should I get a sit-inside kayak and not a sit-on-top, even if I'm a beginner?
Even though I said that sit-on-tops are easier for those who are true beginners, there are reasons some people should consider getting a sit-inside kayak as their first kayak. If your family is ultimately working towards river kayaking and touring, you will probably want to start with a sit-inside kayak and learning all the skills up front, as you will be able to paddle faster, further, and stay dryer with a traditional sit-inside kayak. Also, if your family will want to kayak year round in all kinds of weather, you will need to be able to stay dry and warm, which is not as easy with a sit-on-top kayak as it is with a sit-inside.
Can I buy a sit-on-top kayak for the winter?
Are you looking for an all-weather kayak for you and your kids? Sit-inside can be all-weather because you can keep water out with a skirt and just being tucked inside the kayak offers some protection from the elements. Sit-on-tops are more thought of for fun in the sun with the family because, depending on the exact kayak, you will more likely get wet when you use this style of kayak. They are great for family fun at the lake on a sunny day because you can jump in and out of the water from the kayak and your kids can easily climb on and off the kayak without it filling with water or sinking. Because it is so easy to get wet and climb on and off of, this kayak is typically thought of for swimming weather and mild weather and not as much for winter.
I will add that there are certainly people that do use a sit-on-top in the winter just fine, with water-proof warm clothing and have a great time fishing or looking at nature. Some of these winter use advocates for the sit-on-top kayaks point out that it is easier to re-enter sit-on-tops verses sit-insides if you did happen to end up in the water. So I guess it is fair to say that it is EASIER TO STAY DRY IN A SIT-INSIDE KAYAK but it is still possible to kayak in cold weather in a sit-on-top kayak if you are very prepared.
With kids, I would add extra caution though, because the risk of hypothermia is a very real threat, but yes, with proper clothing, some people do use their sit-on-tops in the wintertime. Generally speaking, they are mostly used in the milder months of the year. Unless you are very experienced, and probably even then, I would avoid taking kids kayaking in dangerously cold weather conditions.
Should I get my 5-year-old an expensive sit-inside kayak or an inexpensive sit-on-top?
What I found when I was investigating all the options out there for my family is that for the child-sized kayaks you are looking at extremes! There are kayaks such as the Jackson kids sit-inside kayaks with exciting videos of tiny kids whitewater kayaking, and these kayaks cost around $1000. Unless you are a family of competitive or advanced white-water enthusiasts, I don't think these kayaks are necessary for the average family and kids to learn to kayak.
I don't have the kind of kids or family that want to white-water. We love exploring nature, hiking, camping, but we aren't adrenaline seeking. That said, if I were going to recommend a sit-inside kayak for a very young child in a family that wanted the option of a sit-inside, it would be the OLD TOWN HERON JUNIOR, which is more reasonably priced. For kids a little older I recommend the Heron 9 Recreation Kayak, or for an inexpensive and more basic option, the 8 ft Sun Dolphin works for young kids ranging to young teens.
Otherwise, I think for most families with zero kayaking experience the very inexpensive Lifetime sit-on-top kayaks are the best value. They get kids on a kayak, and they are just really fun and easy for the parents and the kids. See current online prices here.
So if you are white-water enthusiasts and are going to invest in serious kayaking lessons to develop safety skills, then you may be one of the few in the market for the high-end child-sized Jackson kayaks.
If you are a family of watersport people, and you are all going to be touring on your kayaks, and you need your kid to learn on a sit-inside kayak that they can stay dry and learn to paddle fast and efficiently with, then definitely look at the Heron Junior made by Old Town (which I am very partial to). The Heron is neat because you can tow your child if they get tired.
AND FINALLY, IF YOU ARE NOT EITHER OF THE ABOVE CATEGORIES, WELCOME TO THE CLUB of most beginners! If you are a family with little kids and are trying to learn new ways to get your kids outdoors or on the water and you are just getting started, then NO, YOU DON'T NEED AN EXPENSIVE KAYAK. AN INEXPENSIVE SIT-ONTOP KAYAK IS MORE THAN ENOUGH AND WILL BE PERFECT. Okay, so the all-caps was a little over-kill, but I love to tell parents that they can get a kayak online that is so inexpensive, fun and easy, even for little itty-bitty kids and this is true even if the parents themselves have never been on a kayak. To me, that is just so cool and has made our last few summers so much fun.
When we moved to a house with a river in our own backyard we started venturing into the world of kayaking for our three young boys. After reading, buying, trying and learning, we decided to share everything we discovered along the way for other families who are ready to get their kid's feet wet in the world of paddling.