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Oceans, rivers and bodies of water in general can be unpredictable. And while kayaking, fishing or paddle boarding can be very relaxing activities, a turn in the weather or tide can leave even the best paddlers falling unexpectedly into the water.
It’s therefore highly recommended by anyone in the kayaking community to be prepared and have the relevant safety gear with you at all times. That’s why we’ve put together a list to find the best life jacket for kayaking.
Head’s up though. The Stohlquist Men’s Trekker is our favorite overall.
At A Glance: Highly-Rated PFDs
- Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket (Best PFD Overall)
- Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life Jacket (Best For Women)
- ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest (Best For Comfort)
- NRS Vapor PFD (Great All-Rounder For Whitewater)
- ONYX Youth Paddle Sports Life Jacket (Best For Teens)
- Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD (Best Budget)
Top 9 Best Kayak Life Vest Reviews
1: Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket (Best PFD Overall)
The Stohlquist WaterWare Trekker is a Type III life jacket with sea level buoyancy of 16lbs. The vest comes with ventilated back pads and fully adjustable shoulder pads for your comfort. It also has a cross-chest cinch harness which makes sure that the vest doesn’t ride up as you move. For further comfort, it has open sides for extra ventilation (great on hot days).
The zipper on the front of the jacket comes complete with a grip tab to make it easier for you to zip in and out quickly and effectively. It also comes with two large zippered front pockets so you can store sun cream and snacks (along with many other things). For further storage, there is a four-way accessory lash-tab on the back if you need more pockets.
The exterior of the vest is made of 500 denier Cordura® Nylon and the inner lining is made of 200 denier Oxford Nylon so you can rest assured that this vest is durable whilst being both lightweight and strong. It’s also easy to maintain this material – all you need to do is hand wash it with soap.
- Good ventilation
- Storage pockets
- Easily adjustable
- Could be bulky for some
2: Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life Jacket (Best For Women)
With the exterior made from 400 x 200 denier rip stop material and the liner made of 210 denier oxford nylon, the Stolhquist WaterWare Flo is a lightweight and durable vest designed specifically for women and comes in a full range of sizes.
It comes with all the standard features seen in many of the above models including open sides and breathable mesh for maximum ventilation, a cross-chest cinch harness to prevent ride-up, lightweight PE foam panels, high back flotation and neoprene comfort pads on the waistband. It also benefits from having the ergonomic Wrapture shaped torso feature for a secure fit.
In addition to the standard features, it comes with a 1-1.5” webbing belt with dual forward pulls for a low profile, secure fit along with built-in supportive inner cups for added comfort and support. However, it may feel bulky.
With a sea level buoyancy of 16lbs, this vest is every bit as resilient and well-built as the rest of the models featured above but with a few additional features to ensure added comfort and suitability for women.
- Made for women
- Built-in bust cups
- Can feel bulky
> Read about the best women’s kayak PFDs
3: ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest (Best For Comfort)
This vest is designed for comfort and freedom of movement which is ideal for kayaking and other types of paddle sports. It comes with adjustable neoprene shoulder pads for comfort along with front & inner back ventilation to keep you nice and cool whilst indulging in your favorite water sports on warm days.
It zips at the front with a zip assist loop and comes with adjustable straps at the sides to ensure you have the perfect fit whilst the flexible, sculpted design ensures that it fits securely to your body and doesn’t ride up, for a customized fit.
The zippered storage pockets are expandable for ample storage but if you still need space for your accessories, you can use the lash tab on the back panel.
Although you would hope never to have to use them, this jacket has SOLAS-grade reflective piping material on the exterior for maximum visibility and an integrated whistle for extra safety.
Made from 200 denier nylon on the outside and soft, comfortable flotation foam panels on the inside, this Type III PFD is both comfortable and resilient in equal measures.
- Good ventilation
- Adjustable shoulders and sides for custom fit
- SOLAS reflective strips
- Pockets are a little small
4: NRS Vapor PFD (Great All-Rounder For Whitewater)
This vest is worn by placing it over your head, buckling up the side straps and adjusting the straps for a comfortable fit, which may be more difficult to get on and off compared to front-zippered ones.
Made of soft foam, this lightweight jacket fits to your body comfortably and the action-cut design with large armholes allows your arms to paddle, row or swim unrestricted.
It features a chest zipper that opens a large front pocket perfect for storing snacks and small items. Behind the pocket is a handy hand-warmer pouch that could come in handy on chilly days. It also includes a front lash tab on the left upper chest for easy access to other accessories.
This vest has a buoyancy level of 16.5lbs. The exterior is made from 200 denier nylon so you can be sure that it is lightweight with durable construction. The NRS Vapor is a good whitewater rafting PFD for most users.
- Zippered pocket
- Hand warmer pouch
- Good for whitewater adventures
- Over-head design
5: ONYX Youth Paddle Sports Life Jacket (Best For Teens)
As you might have guessed from the name, this particular vest is a Type III PFD designed for younger and smaller paddlers. Made to fit youths ranging from 50lbs to 90lbs, it has all the same basic qualities as the other vests reviewed in this article: lightweight foam interior, large arm holes for a comfortable fit and unrestricted paddling, plus six adjustment straps for better mobility.
The high foam back is designed to accommodate high back kayak seats whilst the neoprene shoulder pads are fitted for comfort. The front zipper and low buckle provide an extra level of security whilst the pocket with mesh drainage allows the wearer to carry some essentials like sun cream, water and snacks.
The exterior shell is made of 200 denier durable nylon which, once again, is both lightweight and long wearing for smaller paddlers.
- Designed for teens
- Accommodates high-back seats
- Zippered pocket
- Adjustable shoulders, sides and waist
- Whistle not included
6: Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD (Best Budget)
Another US Coast Guard approved PFD made with large arm holes for easier paddling, swimming or casting. Made with 200 denier nylon on the outer shell and flotation foam on the inside, the Coleman Stearns another durable, lightweight vest perfect for long days on the water.
Designed to keep you cool in the heat of summer, this vest comes with mesh on the back as well as the shoulders for extra ventilation. It comes with a zipper front along with webbing adjustment straps to ensure it fits you perfectly.
The large front pocket is ideal for storing sun cream, snacks or even tackle for fishing. This allows you quick and easy access to whatever you’re carrying.
- Good for warm weather
- Storage pocket
- Adjustable sides
- Budget friendly
- Shoulders not adjustable
7: Kokatat OutFIT Tour PFD
With a 500 denier Cordura® nylon outer shell and a 200 denier nylon oxford inner shell, the OutFIT Tour is a Type III PFD is resilient and lightweight. It comes in graded sizing up to XX Large, so can be ideal for larger paddlers looking for the correct size.
Designed with deep cut arm & neck holes and adjustable shoulders, this jacket allows you the freedom to paddle or swim comfortably whilst remaining buoyant in the water.
The front and rear reflective tape allow you to be more visible in the event of an emergency whilst the lash tabs on both the front panels and back of the vest can allow easy access to handy accessories.
There are also several pockets for extra storage, including a vertical pocket that can carry a cell phone, GPS or pencil flares. If safety in an emergency is a primary concern of yours – this is a fantastic option.
- Reflective strips
- Deep-cut neck and arm holes
- Could feel bulky
- No chest straps
8: Stohlquist Men’s Ebb Life Jacket
With an outer shell made of ‘rip stop’ nylon and a liner made of 210 denier oxford nylon, the Ebb is another durable USCG approved life vest, with a good reputation, suitable for multiple weather conditions. Made of lightweight PE foam with ergonomic Wrapture shaped torso and inner mesh lining, it is lightweight and cool which is perfect for hot summer days.
For extra comfort it comes with a neoprene padded waistband, a chest cinch-strap (to ensure the vest doesn’t ride up whilst you move), padded shoulder straps and no fewer than eight points of adjustability to ensure the best possible fit.
The mesh back clears high seat backs in both canoes and kayaks and the ventilated sides and back keep the jacket comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
In terms of storage, this feature rich jacket it comes with two side-entry pockets, ideal for sun cream, snacks and various accessories but it can be tricky to open and close them. And as for maintenance, this vest is easy to clean as it requires nothing more than hand wash soap and water.
- Ideal for high back seats
- Good for summer
- Good adjustability
- Pocket closure can be difficult to access
9: NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD
If you require a lot of storage for your various accessories, then this great value PFD, with its six pockets, a lash tab, lanyard loops and a beacon loop or drying loop on the back might be one to consider. It’s also suitable for both men and women with PlushFit foam padding.
In addition to its various storage solutions and top loading pockets, this vest also takes comfort very seriously. The flotation aspect of this PFD is concentrated around the front and shoulders so that the mesh lower back can keep you cool and let you sit back and relax. But the mesh back may not offer sufficient protection for whitewater kayaking.
It also comes with no fewer than eight adjustment points to ensure a tailored and snug fit (four on the sides, two on the shoulders and two adjustment straps for the waist belt). Meanwhile the large arm openings allow for mobility and comfort whilst paddling, rowing or swimming.
This vest also comes with SOLAS reflective tape on the front and back which allows you to be seen better in low light.
With ample storage and several adjustment methods, this is a convenient and comfortable option.
- Good ventilation
- 8-point adjustment
- SOLAS reflectors
- Not ideal for whitewater
> You can buy the cVest here.
Why You Should Wear A Life Jacket/PFD
PFD stands for Personal Flotation Device. It ensures that if you are at any point thrown into the water, it will act as a buoyancy aid and keep you floating and above water.
Even if you are a strong swimmer, a PFD is well worth investing in and could save your life.
The extra buoyancy will also make re-entry into your kayak from the water a lot easier.
What Type Of PFD Should I Wear?
PFDs come in many different shapes, chest sizes and styles but overall there are five types of PFDs to be aware of.
This type of life jacket is designed for off-shore use in open waters, rough seas or remote areas where rescue boats could take a while to reach you.
This is the best life jacket in terms of performance, as it’s designed to be worn for a long time and able to keep an unconscious wearer’s head above water.
These vests however are usually used by commercial vessels rather than recreational kayakers.
These vests are designed for near-shore activities. Unlike the previous type, they are made for calm, in-land waters and situations where you can expect a quick rescue.
This PFD is ideal type for kayaking, fishing, water skiing and other water-related activities. They are designed for calm, in-land waters where you can expect a quick rescue but they are also specifically designed to compliment the physical activity you will be doing.
This is not a life vest but rather a throwable PFD which can take the form of a ring or floating cushion.
Though not wearable, these ring or floating cushion designs play a vital role in aquatic safety, ensuring you stay afloat during your water adventures.
These are designed for special uses only. The conditions and activities for which a Type V PFD will be suitable for will be outlined on the label.
Each one is different. For example, a full body survival suit would be classed as Type V because it’s designed for cool climates and protects the body from hypothermia. Many Type V PFDs will also outline a Type I, II or III performance level on the label.
Some inflatable PFDs may also be considered Type V as they feature a pull cord to automatically inflate and activate the buoyancy.
Kayak PFD Features To Look Out For
So we’ve narrowed your search down to Type III PFDs or life vests, but even within this category there are a number of other features and factors to consider. But the good news is, buying a life jacket doesn’t need to be a high cost experience to give you peace of mind on the water.
You’ll be wearing your PFD for the entire time you are on the water so you need to make sure that your jacket is comfortable for your body type. Many come with padded shoulders for extra comfort. You should also consider the material inside the jacket, especially if you are likely to be wearing swimwear underneath as the material is likely to rub against your skin.
Many say that the best life jackets should fit like a good pair of shoes – snug but still comfortable.
You’ll notice that life jackets made specifically for kayaking have larger arm holes so that your shoulders and arms have room to rotate comfortably for paddling and have a good range of motion.
Fun Fact: The British RNLI used lots of corks as flotation devices!
Pouches and pockets on your PFD can come in very handy. If you’re fishing and have a cooler, dry-bag and various other storage options, you might not need to prioritize this feature.
Some PFDs have hydration bladders built in so that you can drink water whilst you paddle. This is a great feature if you’re looking to go out on the water for a long time but don’t want to carry too much with you.
Many PFDs also come with pockets so that you can keep sun cream, snacks and other small items close by. Others come with D-Rings so that you can attach things to the exterior of your life jacket.
These are not essential features of a life jacket (after all, the main function is to keep you alive and floating on the water) but can come in very handy depending on your personal circumstances and needs.
Many life jackets come with zips on the front or side. Some however can be placed over your head and then fastened.
Of course, you should be wearing the floatation device for the entire time you are on the water, for peace of mind, so you shouldn’t have to get in and out of it too much. However, zips sometimes break or get jammed so it’s worth considering this when purchasing a PFD.
Hopefully, your PFD won’t ever come into contact with hard surfaces or too much salt water, but in the event that it does, you need to make sure that it’s made of resilient material like nylon or neoprene so that you are not only stay safe in the event of an emergency.
And also so that you can wear your PFD time and time again.
Most life jackets made specifically for paddle sports are made of nylon as it’s lighter than neoprene.
Video: Choosing The Right Life Jacket For Kayaking
Buoyancy is the force required (measured in pounds) to keep someone’s head above water whilst using a PFD. Many factors contribute to the buoyancy level required for an individual such as weight, body fat ratio and water conditions.
For example, it’ll take a PFD with a higher level of buoyancy to float in rough water or high seas compared to calm water. And generally, the heavier the person, the more buoyant the PFD needs to be. Usually, life jackets will offer graded sizing to let you find the most suitable fit.
Because you weigh less in water, the buoyancy rating of your PFD reflects this.
To calculate your weight in water, a water percentage of 80% is used. We’ll use an average of 15% body fat, with an average body weight of 170 pounds for a man and 140 pounds for a woman.
Using these numbers means we can calculate the amount your body weighs in water, giving us the amount of buoyancy needed to keep you afloat:
Weight of Water: 170 (pounds) x 0.8 (80% water) = 136 pounds
Weight of Fat: 170 (pounds) x 0.15 (15% fat) = 25.5 pounds
Weight of Fat + Water: 136 + 25.5 = 161.5 pounds
Body Weight in Water: 170 – 161.5 = 8.5 pounds
US Coast Guard PFDs of Types II, III and V have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds, so this should be more than sufficient to keep you afloat if your weight in water is 7 or 8.5 pounds, as in our examples.
There are also inflatable versions available, but we don’t recommend them for kayaking.
FAQs About The Best Kayaking Life Vests
What Does PFD Stand For?
PFD stands for Personal Flotation Device. The term is often used interchangeably with life jacket and life vest.
How Should A Life Vest Fit?
A life jacket is usually sized by using your chest size. There will often be a full range of sizes, with graded sizing charts. The right size should be a snug fit but should feel comfortable. It should not move around while you’re wearing it but it should be comfortable. If you can pull up on the shoulders and the PFD rises above your chin, it’s too loose.
You can also buy a wide variety of life jackets for big and tall kayakers. Small children will require life jackets with crotch straps that can be properly adjusted for extra safety.
Who Approves PFDs In The U.S.?
The United States Coast Guard approves PFDs for use in the US. There are several types, ranging from Type I to Type V, which each type being designed and approved for certain conditions. Not all US Coast Guard approved PFDs are suitable for all activities or all people but this will usually be stated on the label. The life jacket generally needs to be in the right size for the wearer.
Are Inflatable PFDs Safe To Use When Kayaking?
Inflatable life jackets are not designed for high impact sports and are not recommended for whitewater kayaking. However, they can be safe for some paddlers in some situations, for example if you have a manually operated one, are a good swimmer and are paddling on flatwater close to shore.
Some can be found as belt packs, worn as a waist belt, which are often be worn for paddle boarding. But these may not offer as much peace of mind as inherently buoyant ones.
Inflatable life jackets are not recommended or approved for children under 16 years.
Can You Use A Kayak Life Vest For Boating, Rafting, Canoeing Or Fishing?
Yes, you can, as long as your PFD is equally suitable for your activity. For example, if you’re going rafting, an inherently buoyant PFD can be better suited than an inflatable or hybrid one.
Final Words On Kayak Life Jackets
A kayak life jacket is an essential piece of equipment for any water based activity. Regardless of your skills level and ability or your strength as a swimmer, wearing one is non-negotiable.
There are 5 types of PFDs approved by the US Coast Guard. For kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing or any other recreational water sport, a Type III PFD is all you need.
You should be wearing your PFD for the entirety of your time on the water so comfort, fit and mobility are key. Second to this, you should ensure that your vest is made of durable, resilient material and that the buoyancy level is appropriate for you. The best life jacket for your buddy might not be the best for you.
Finally, consider what storage needs you have. You might not plan to carry anything out on the water with you and therefore large pockets may not be a priority. However, if you’re planning on paddling for long periods of time, it may be worth considering a vest that can carry some essentials.
The Stohlquist Trekker is our favorite men’s vest, and the Stohlquist WaterWare Flo is our women’s choice.
Do you own any of these PFDs? Tell us about it below.
We hope you enjoyed out guide to kayak life vests. Drop any questions below..
3 thoughts on “Best Life Vest For Kayaking – Keep Afloat With Our 2023 PFD Guide”
2 critical attributes I look for are the weight floatation value & if the vest will keep the head up. The USGS PFD site identifies a range of flotation values for each “Type”, knowing where in that range the vest floats is useful. Many people don’t buy more than 1 PFD so they will purchase for their 80% condition expectations. Not their 20% conditions. If buying one PFD that can span a broader spectrum of uses would be better than a PFD that is for too narrow or specific a use. Having a flap/float near the back of the neck keeps head up & body in vertical position.
Perosnally i liked NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD……Thanks for the guide