Best Life Vest For Kayaking

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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 a good idea to be prepared and have the relevant safety gear with you at all times. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the top PFDs for kayaking.

Head's up though. The Stohlquist Men's Trekker is our favorite overall.

At A Glance: Rated PFDs



Stohlquist Men's Trekker Life Jacket PFD

Stohlquist Men's Trekker

- Easy to maintain

- Very durable

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest

ONYX MoveVent

- Very comfortable

- Plenty of storage

Kokatat OutFIT Tour PFD

Kokatat OutFIT Tour

- Great visibility

- Extra storage


NRS Vapor

- Lightweight

- Durable

Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD

Coleman Stearns

- Easy access pockets

- Good ventilation

ONYX Youth Paddle Sports Life Jacket

ONYX Youth Paddle Sports

- Comfortable

- Good for high back seats

Stohlquist Men's Ebb Life Jacket

Stohlquist Men's Ebb

- Durable nylon

- Can hand wash clean

NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD

NRS cVest Mesh Back

- Highly visible

- Lots of storage

Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket

Stohlquist Women's Flo

- Supportive inner cups

- Good quality

Best Life Vest For Kayaking

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, you will remain buoyant. 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, sizes and styles but overall there are five types of PFDs to be aware of.

Type I

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 performing life jacket 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.

Type II

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.

Type III

This is the ideal type for kayaking, fishing, water skiing and other water-related activities. Like the Type II, 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.

Type IV

This is not a life vest but rather a throwable PFD which can take the form of a ring or floating cushion.

Type V

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.

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 features and factors to consider.


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. 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 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.


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.

Entry Method

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 device for the entire time you are on the water 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.


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.

Water Temperature vs Survivability Chart

Stats courtesy:

Typically, adults require 7lbs - 12lbs to stay afloat but according to the US Coast Guard, a Type III PFD must have a minimum buoyancy level of 15.5lbs.

There's also inflatable versions available, but we don't recommend them for kayaking.

Top 9 Life Vests For Kayaking

1: Stohlquist Men's Trekker Life Jacket (Best Overall)

Stohlquist Men's Trekker Life Jacket PFD

This is a Type III PFD with sea level buoyancy of 16lbs. The vest comes with ventilated back pads and 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, sweaty 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.

The exterior of the vest is made of 500 denier Cordura® Nylon and the 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.

2: ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest (Very Comfortable)

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest

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 & back ventilation to keep you nice and cool whilst on the water.

It zips at the front and comes with adjustable side belts 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.

The zippered pockets are expandable for ample storage but if you still need space for your accessories, you can use the lash tab on the back.

Although you would hope never to have to use them, this jacket has SOLAS-grade reflective 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 on the inside, this Type III PFD is both comfortable and resilient in equal measures.

3: Kokatat OutFIT Tour PFD

Kokatat OutFIT Tour PFD

With a 500 denier Cordura® nylon outer shell and a 200 denier nylon oxford inner shell, this Type III PFD is resilient and lightweight.

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 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.

4: NRS Vapor PFD (Great All-Rounder For Whitewater)


This vest is worn by placing it over your head, buckling up on the sides and adjusting the straps to fit. Made of soft foam, this lightweight jacket fits to your body comfortably and the action-cut design allows your arms to paddle, row or swim unrestricted.

It features a chest zipper that opens a large 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 for easy access to other accessories.

A Type III PFD, this vest has a buoyancy level of 16.5lbs. The outer shell is made from 200 denier nylon so you can be sure that it is lightweight and durable. Good whitewater rafting PFD for most users.

5: Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD (Best Budget)

Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD

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, this is 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 adjustments to ensure it fits you perfectly.

The 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.

6: ONYX Youth Paddle Sports Life Jacket (Best For Teens)

ONYX Youth Paddle Sports Life Jacket

As you might have guessed from the name, this particular vest is a Type III PFD designed for younger 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 comfortable & unrestricted paddling and side adjustments (six straps in fact) for better mobility.

The high foam back is designed to accommodate high back seats whilst the neoprene shoulder pads are fitted for extra comfort. The front zipper and low buckle provide an extra level of security whilst the zippered pocket with mesh drainage allows the wearer to carry some essentials like sun cream, water and snacks.

The outer shell is made of 200 denier nylon oxford which, once again, is both lightweight and durable.

7: Stohlquist Men's Ebb Life Jacket

Stohlquist Men's Ebb Life Jacket

With an outer shell made of ‘rip stop’ nylon and a liner made of 210 denier oxford nylon, this is another durable vest suitable for multiple weather conditions. Made of lightweight PE foam and with 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 allow for a more comfortable wear for long periods of time.

In terms of storage it comes with two side-entry pockets, ideal for sun cream, snacks and various accessories. And as for maintenance, this vest is easy to clean as it requires nothing more than hand wash soap and water.

8: NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD

NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD

If you require a lot of storage for your various accessories, then this PFD, with it’s six pockets, a lash tab, lanyard loops and a beacon loop on the back might be one to consider.

In addition to its various storage options, 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.

It also comes with no fewer than eight adjustment point to ensure a tailored and snug fit (4 on the sides, 2 on the shoulders and 2 on the waist). 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.

9: Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket (Best For Women)

Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket

With the outer shell made from 400 x 200 denier rip stop material and the liner made of 210 denier oxford nylon, this is a lightweight and durable Type III vest designed specifically for women.

It comes with all the standard features seen in many of the above models including open sides and mesh back for ventilation, a cross-chest cinch harness to prevent ride-up, lightweight PE Foam, high back flotation and a neoprene padded waistband.

In addition to the standard features, it comes with a 1-1.5” webbing belt with dual forward pulls for a low profile fit along with built-in supportive inner cups for extra comfort and support.

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 extra comfort and suitability for women.

> Read about the best women's kayak PFDs


A PFD 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 sports, 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.

Finally, consider what storage needs you have. You might not plan to carry anything out on the water with you and therefore 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.

We hope you enjoyed out guide to kayak life jackets. Drop any questions below..

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 2 comments
Kayaking the Great Lakes Region - Escaping the Midwest - November 27, 2017

[…] is not for the ill-prepared. All kayakers alike must plan their trips, ensure they have the right equipment and keep an eye on the weather […]

Henry Hoyt - May 26, 2018

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.


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