There are few thing as enjoyable as spending time on the water in a kayak. Whether you’re paddling down a river toward your campsite, or you’re heading out into an inlet to test out the fishing, kayaking gives you the means to enjoy yourself. It’s exhilarating, but can also be serene, allowing you to recharge your batteries and unwind.
However, any time spent on the water also carries a risk. Kayaks, while relatively safe, can flip over, sometimes very easily – such as in high winds or heavy waves. Personal protection is vital, and anyone spending time in a kayak needs to have the right PFD – personal flotation device. Of course, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of PFDs on the market. How do you choose the right one for you? Are they all the same? What features should you look for?
We have scoured the market to find the 12 best PFDs for kayaking. Below, you’ll find a head-to-head list from our top pick to our 12th choice. Each PFD was chosen for its value, features, quality, performance, and other important factors. After our ranking list, we’ll dive into a description of what each PFD has to offer so you can make the most informed decision possible. Finally, we’ll follow all that up with a robust buying guide that takes you through what you need to consider when buying a PFD.
Ready to get started? Let’s jump right in with our top list:
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Life Vest for Kayaking for 2020
- 2 Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
- 3 Onyx MoveVent Curve Paddle Sports Life Vest
- 4 BRS cVest Mesh Back PFD
- 5 Stohlquist Women’s Cruiser Life Jacket
- 6 Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket
- 7 KOKATAT OutFIT Tour PFD
- 8 O’Neill Men’s Superlight USCG Life Vest
- 9 KOKATAT Bahia Tour PFD
- 10 Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series Vest
- 11 Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket
- 12 O’Neill Men’s Reactor USCG Life Vest
- 13 Onyx Universal Paddle
- 14 Finding the Perfect PFD for Kayaks: Choosing Your Floatation Device
- 15 Do You Really Need a PFD Life Vest for Kayaking?
- 16 Why Does Choice Matter?
- 17 How Should a PFD Fit?
- 18 Not sure how to check the fit? Follow these simple steps:
- 19 What Care and Maintenance Is Needed with PFDs?
- 20 The Factors to Consider
- 21 Safety Certification
- 22 Type
- 23 Color
- 24 Activity
- 25 Tabs/Rings
- 26 Ventilation
- 27 Entry Method
- 28 Durability
- 29 Buoyancy
- 30 Storage Options
- 31 In the End
Best Life Vest for Kayaking for 2020
|Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest||200 D nylon||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Onyx MoveVent Curve Paddle Sports Life Vest||200 D nylon||Yes||No||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|BRS cVest Mesh Back PFD||400 D nylon||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Stohlquist Women’s Cruiser Life Jacket||500 D Cordura shell and 200 D liner||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket||500 D Cordura shell and 200 D liner||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|OutFIT Tour PFD||500 D Cordura shell 200 D liner||Yes||Yes||No||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|O’Neill Men’s Superlight USCG Life Vest||Polyester||No||No||No||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|KOKATAT Bahia Tour PFD||210 D nylon||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series Vest||200 D nylon||No||No||No||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket||200 D nylon||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|O’Neill Men’s Reactor USCG Life Vest||Neoprene and polyester||Yes||No||No||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
|Onyx Universal Paddle||200 D nylon||Yes||Yes||Yes||CHECK LATEST PRICE|
With our list out of the way, it is time to turn our attention to the individual PFDs. What does each vest on our list offer in the way of features, functionality, comfort and convenience?
Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
There are many reasons that the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest tops our list. It features one of the most advanced designs on the market, and is meant to keep you comfortable and safe.
The outer shell is made from 200 D nylon to resist tearing and damage. The overall design is also as minimal as it can get while still complying with Coast Guard approval requirements – the shoulder straps are padded for comfort, but not bulky, and the back is high, allowing you to sit in a kayak seat comfortably without the vest pressing on the lower spine. Neoprene shoulder pads help to limit discomfort. The lower back is made from mesh to help keep you cool and comfortable.
The inner back is made using bubble foam for additional comfort, and you’ll find that the attached drying loop on the back lets you easily hang the vest up for drying. In the front, you’ll find expandable pockets with zippered closures. They’re mesh, so they will drain quickly, too. Finally, there is a whistle attached to further enhance safety.
Onyx MoveVent Curve Paddle Sports Life Vest
The Onyx MoveVent Curve Paddle Sports Life Vest is our second pick, and it is a worthy contender with its sibling in the top slot. The Curve lives up to its name, offering a uniquely curved front designed to help keep you comfortable and safe.
The outer shell is made from 200 D nylon with ripstop technology, and there is full ventilation in the front to keep you cool and happy. The back is a high-rise design, with a mesh lower section that ensures security, but also allows you to stay as dry as possible.
The minimal design of this PFD is intentional – it is geared for anyone in any sort of paddle sport, and ensures a complete range of movement without binding or chafing. The vents and mesh back help move air around your body, keeping you cooler and dryer.
Note that this vest does not offer any sort of storage pockets, unlike our top-rated PFD.
BRS cVest Mesh Back PFD
The BRS cVest is a medium-profile PFD for kayaks and it offers some important advantages. First, it is made from 400 D nylon for even greater strength and durability. Second, it offers a very high-back design with mesh down the back to the waist belt to help keep you cool while you’re paddling on the water.
In the front, you’ll find not two, but four expandable pockets to help you store your gear while you’re on the water. Two D-rings on the front allow you to attach additional accessories while you stay safe and protected on the water. The reflective accents are made with 3M material and help bolster visibility if you find yourself overboard. Choose from red or lime – both are bright and highly visible even in low-light conditions.
Stohlquist Women’s Cruiser Life Jacket
The Stohlquist Women’s Cruiser Life Jacket is, you guessed it, designed specifically for women kayakers. The outer shell is made from 500 D nylon for outstanding durability and rip prevention. The inner liner is made from 200 D nylon for more comfort, but also plenty of durability.
One of the most important features of this PFD for kayaks is the cross-chest cinch harness. Securing this helps prevent the jacket from riding up, ensuring both comfort and safety. Inner cups provide additional support, and the torso is shorter than conventional PFDs.
The inner back features a mesh lining to help cool you down during long days on the water, and the shoulder straps are designed for excellent stability but minimal discomfort. Two zippered pockets on the front allow you to store your items. Soft neoprene is used to pad the shoulders and the lower back, as well. It does lack D rings, though.
Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket
The Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket offers plenty of utility and great performance for anyone hitting the water in a kayak. It features a 500 D nylon shell combined with a 200 D inner liner for comfort. It also offers a similar cross-chest cinch harness to prevent the vest from riding up while wearing it.
The shoulders of this PFD for kayakers are vented, as is the lower back. And, while the back is a bit lower than some of the other vests on our list, it does not extend all the way to the lower back. This helps keep you cool and also ensures better comfort while you’re sitting on a kayak.
Like the women’s version mentioned above, this one offers neoprene padding in the shoulders, as well as minimal shoulder straps. It also fives you two zippered front pockets to hold your gear. Note that there are no D rings or other attachment points on this PFD
KOKATAT OutFIT Tour PFD
For those looking for a PFD for kayaks that offers plenty of features, the OutFIT Tour PFD could be just the ticket. Manufactured by KOKATAT, this vest features a shell made with 500 D nylon, combined with a 200 D nylon interior. The shell is fully articulated for ease of movement, too. The foam panels offer not just good flotation, but also excellent comfort.
The front, you’ll find a full-length zipper rather than a cinch harness. The shoulders are padded and adjustable, but they’re also designed to reduce interference with your paddling. The Hypalon grip panels ensure comfort and security.
This particular PFD offers a mesh back, like others on our list, but also mesh side panels. The result is very good ventilation and temperature control. On the front of the vest, you will find three zippered pockets – two on either side, and one in the center. The center pocket is completely waterproof and is designed to hold your electronics while you’re on the water.
O’Neill Men’s Superlight USCG Life Vest
Looking for something without many frills? Want a life vest that is designed specifically for sports use in the water? Check out the O’Neill Men’s Superlight USCG Life Vest. It features plenty of security and lots of comfort.
You’ll find that this is one of the most secure PFDs on the market, with four cinch straps and buckles across the front. This ensures that you’re able to get the perfect fit and never need to worry that the vest will come off while in the water. There are no pockets, but there is a single D clip at the front bottom of the vest.
Note that this vest is designed with active watersports in mind, such as wakeboarding and water skiing. It can be used with kayaking as well, but the full length back may be less comfortable than some of the other vests we’ve touched on.
KOKATAT Bahia Tour PFD
While it represents a different model entirely, the Bahia Tour PFD bears many similarities to the OutFIT PFD. KOKATAT makes both of them, and they offer a lot of benefits.
The Bahia Tour vest is available in red or mango – both of which are bright enough to be seen from a distance in the water. It also offers five zippered pockets on the front. You have four side pockets (stacked), and a single large, waterproof pocket in the center designed to keep your electronics safe and dry while on the water. There is also a pliers storage compartment and a window to show your ID or license if necessary.
The vest is made from 210 D nylon for strength and durability, and is fully articulated for freedom of movement. The back features a vented panel to help keep you cool, and is also only mid-length, helping to ensure greater comfort while on your kayak. Multiple side adjustments help ensure that this vest can fit any body shape.
Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series Vest
The Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series Vest is exactly what it sounds like – the typical PFD. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is an outdated design. This PFD offers a soft, yet durable shell made from 200 D nylon, and features three wraparound cinch harnesses to secure it to your body. The chest cinch ensures that you’re able to get the right fit on the upper portion of the vest, too.
The sides of this vest are designed to be open, allowing both freedom of movement and ventilation. Note that this vest has a full-length back, which may be less than ideal for use in sit on kayaks due to the molded seat back. Also note that this vest should only be worn by adults weighing 90 pounds or more.
Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket
If you’re looking for a minimalist PFD for use on kayaks that doesn’t sacrifice safety or performance, this might be your best choice. Manufactured by Stohlquist, the Edge offers a highly contoured form factor with an ergonomic WRAPTURETM shaped torso. It is low cut, with an offset front zipper and a mid-rise back to help ensure comfort. The shoulder straps are wide and designed to help distribute a load.
You’ll also find two zippered pockets on the front – one on the right side, and then a large central pocket ideal for storing bulkier items and essential gear. Note that this PFD is designed primarily with wet sailing, SUP and whitewater uses in mind, but it can work just as well with your kayak.
O’Neill Men’s Reactor USCG Life Vest
For those in the market for a sports-oriented PFD that can work in both relaxed and active situations, consider this life vest. It offers dual buckles in the front, and is made from neoprene and polyester for comfort and protection. The segmented foam core and flex points built offer an excellent range of movement. There is also a full length zipper in the front to further secure your vest.
Note that this PFD lacks pockets, and it is primarily designed for active watersports. Also note that the full-length back may not be comfortable for use with a sit on kayak. It also lacks vent panels, so it may not be as cool as other options on our list.
Onyx Universal Paddle
The final entry on our list is made by the same company that manufactured the first two vests we covered – Onyx. The Universal Paddle PFD is designed to be a good all-around performer that doesn’t cost a bundle. That does mean you’ll lose some features, but for many people, that’s not a deal breaker.
The Universal Paddle features wide cut sides with mesh to ensure excellent range of motion while you’re paddling, as well as comfort and venting. The back is only medium length, with mesh forming the lower back coverage. The front features a full length zipper, and there is a single pocket. Note that the pocket does not have a closure.
Finding the Perfect PFD for Kayaks: Choosing Your Floatation Device
So far, we have covered the 12 best PFDs for kayaks. In our best-of list and our head-to-head comparison, we’ve touched on some of the things that you’ll want to look for in a life vest, but we need to explore those further. We’ll do just that in our buying guide below.
Do You Really Need a PFD Life Vest for Kayaking?
Let’s clear this one up immediately. If you are on the water, you need to be using a PFD. Whether you’re a strong swimmer or a novice, kayaking around a lake or visiting a river, you need to wear a personal floatation device. They are designed to help ensure that you stay buoyant in the water, and are essential in the case that you go overboard and must swim or tread water until you can be rescued. There should be absolutely no debate about the need for a PFD. If you’ll be on the water, you need to be wearing one.
Why Does Choice Matter?
Once upon a time, you had little choice when it came to PFDs. You could use a traditional life vest with a single cinch and buckle, or you could use a round life preserver. Neither was a very good option for kayakers (or anyone else for that matter). Today, things have changed considerably. You have a very wide range of options available to you, allowing you to find the ideal personal floatation device for your wants, needs, budget, and kayaking goals.
How Should a PFD Fit?
If you’re new to the world of kayaking or watersports in general, you might not understand how a personal floatation device should fit. If you look at any of the vests we listed at the beginning of this guide, or find any on the rack at an outdoor-activity retailer, you’ll find them listed with sizes similar to t-shirts – small, medium, large, extra-larger, XX-large, and so on. This is based on your chest circumference. When you try a PFD on, the fit should be snug, but not tight. It should be comfortable, and should not feel loose.
Not sure how to check the fit? Follow these simple steps:
- Loosen all straps and open the front closure (usually a zipper).
- Slide the PFD on.
- Tighten all the straps, beginning with the waist. You want it to be snug, but comfortable.
- Have someone pull up on the shoulder straps.
- If it moves higher than your nose, tighten the straps and repeat.
- If it still moves, you need a smaller size.
What Care and Maintenance Is Needed with PFDs?
All of the personal floatation devices we listed in our top 12 list are low maintenance. You simply need to:
- Keep them clean
- Store them somewhere dry when not in use
- Keep them out of direct sunlight when not in use
Note that this is in direct contrast to inflatable PFDs. We did not include any inflatable models in our list, nor do we recommend them, as they are not suitable for most types of kayaking.
The Factors to Consider
As mentioned, personal floatation devices have changed a great deal in recent years. Today, you’ll find many different classes, may different styles, and numerous features. All of that is good news, but it can make it tough to choose the right flotation device for you. Below, we will discuss some of the most important factors that should influence your buying decision, whether you choose to buy one of the 12 best PFDs for kayaks from our list, or you go elsewhere to get yours.
It is important that any PFD you purchase complies with safety regulations as set forth by the governing body responsible in your area. In the US, that’s the US Coast Guard. All of the PFDs on our list are compliant with USCG rules and regulations for their type. If you choose to buy a PFD not on our list, make sure that it complies with safety rules and is certified by the Coast Guard. Never use a PFD that does not comply with safety rules.
You will find five different “types” of PFD on the market. Really, these are more like classes. They are as follows:
Type I – You will be unlikely to buy one of these, as they are not that widely available. They are designed specifically for situations where you will need buoyancy for a very long period, and where rescue might be a long time coming. They are also designed to roll unconscious people onto their backs. They are most commonly found on commercial watercraft.
Type II – Type II PFDs are less bulky than Type I and they are not designed for use in remote waters. They offer less buoyancy, but better range of motion. However, they usually lack comfort features and other benefits you will likely want.
Type III – Type III PFDs are the most commonly found when it comes to watersports and activities like kayaking. All of the floatation devices on our list are Type III. These are marked by greater comfort, greater flexibility, better range of movement, and the availability of features like pockets, but are still very buoyant.
Type IV – Type IV PFDs are not designed to be worn. They are things like life preservers – devices made to be thrown to people who are in the water.
Type V – These are the least buoyant PFDs, and are generally considered “special purpose” devices by the US Coast Guard. Note that there are some Type V PFDs that are intended for kayaking.
When it comes to choosing your color, you generally only have a few options. Most PFDs are brightly colored (with a couple of exceptions, as seen in our list). This is for a good reason. If you are in the water, a brightly colored PFD will help rescuers see you. This is particularly true in low light situations, such as dusk and dawn, when visibility is poor.
This does not mean that you’re required to choose a brightly colored PFD. There are darker options on the market that work well. Just make sure that any PFD you choose, whether brightly colored or dark, is made with reflective materials that boost visibility.
The type of kayaking you will be doing will certainly play a role in the type of PFD you choose. For instance, if you’re paddling out on a lake for simple recreation and a bit of relaxation, you will not need a fully articulated PFD. In fact, you could make use of just about any of the options on our list quite easily.
In comparison, if you were going to go whitewater kayaking, you would want a PFD that offered as much freedom of movement as possible without sacrificing buoyancy. You would also want to look for additional features, like mesh sides and backing, and mesh pocket lining.
As a general rule, the more active your kayaking activity will be, the more freedom of movement and flexibility you’ll want. The less active your kayaking is, the less flexibility will play a role in your decision.
Tabs and rings provide attachment points for additional accessories. For instance, some ocean kayakers attach strobes to their tabs or rings so that they can be seen at night in a rescue situation. Not all PFDs have tabs or rings, and others may have only one or two. Know whether you’ll want to attach accessories to your vest, what those accessories are, and then choose a vest that fits your needs.
Ventilation is an important consideration when it comes to comfort and even safety. You’ll be directly exposed to the sun while out on the water. That can be quite hot. Ventilation allows air to move under and around the PFD, cooling your body and wicking sweat away. This makes for a more comfortable kayaking experience, and it can also help avoid dangerous overheating situations.
When choosing a PFD, pay attention to the entry method – the way you get into the vest. Generally, there are two types of closure – zippers and buckles. Some vest zip on the front. Others zip from the side. Some require you to slide them on over your head and then adjust the straps for tightness. Find a PFD that is easy to get on and off, and that you are comfortable with.
Durability is determined by the type and strength of the shell’s material. All of the PFDs we listed are made from at least 200 D nylon, or they’re constructed from neoprene, which is another highly durable material. Look for floatation devices that offer good durability and resistance to tearing.
Buoyancy is more than just a concept – it is something that can be measured and rated. Look for PFDs that offer the right amount of force to keep your body above the water. When it comes to Type III PFDs, the minimum buoyancy measure is 15.5 pounds. The average adult needs somewhere between 7 and 12 pounds to stay afloat. Type I and Type II PFDs have even higher buoyancy ratings, but they are not as comfortable and are less easy to move in.
Finally, you need to consider the storage options available with the PFD. A handful of those we listed do not have any sort of storage, but many did. When it comes to kayaking, storage may not be necessary. After all, you should have several options on the kayak itself. However, there are benefits to having pockets on your vest.
When choosing a PFD, determine not just the number of pockets, but the closure type and whether the pocket is watertight. Most of the vests we covered have zippered pockets with mesh backing, meaning they are not watertight. This is good storage for items that cannot be damaged by submersion in water. With the rise in waterproof smartphones, even your cell might be fine in this type of storage. However, a couple of the vests we listed do have electronics pockets – watertight pockets located in the center of the vest capable of keeping sensitive devices dry. Note that some PFDs have pockets that do not close – an elastic edge helps keep them shut, but they are not fully secure.
In the End
Ultimately, PFDs for kayaks have evolved a lot from what they once were. Today’s options are more comfortable, more flexible, and more buoyant than ever before. Whether you want something basic, or a PFD with lots of features, you will find something that suits your budget, your needs, and your kayaking type.