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Whether you’re new to kayaking or have been paddling for years, the best way to stay safe while you’re out on the water is to find the best kayak PFD. There’s not a ton of extra space on most ‘yaks, and you definitely don’t want to be impeded while you paddle. 

Although traditional life jackets are notoriously bulky without much mobility, you don’t have to settle for the conventional personal flotation device. Beginners and seasoned pros alike can up their game with a good life vest. The paddling PFD market is booming, and there are plenty of options that will work with any size kayak and any size person. 

We’ve created this handy buying guide along with our top ten picks for the best kayak PFDs to help you on your quest to find the perfect life vest. Read on to learn more.

Quick Answer: Best Kayak PFD

Name
Image
Material
Type
Price
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NRS Zen PFDNylon, Cordera reinforcements, foamV$$$
NRS Ion PFDAirMesh, nylon, foamIII$
Onyx MoveVentNylon, lightweight flotation foamIII$
Stohlquist Edge Life JacketNylon, Wrapture foamIII$$
Stohlquist Women’s FloNylon, Wrapture foamIII$
Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFDNylon, Crosstech Flotation foamIII$
Onyx Adult Type I Vest Style Life JacketReflective material, foamI$
Mustang Survival Corps Inflatable PFDNylon, CO2 cartridgeIII & V$$
Lyxada Fly Fishing VestPolyester, EPE foamIII$
NRS ChinookNylon, PlushFIT foamIII$$

What is a PFD & Why They’re Important

A PFD, or personal flotation device, is an essential piece of gear for kayakers and other water sports enthusiasts. It’s a fitted vest or jacket that will keep you afloat if you end up going overboard, and it can literally be a lifesaver when you find yourself in the water. 

Even confident swimmers need a boost sometimes, and PFDs can make it easier to board your ‘yak after you fall out. 

Pile of blues PFDs

Types of PFDs 

There are five different types of PFDs you should be aware of when deciding on which one will work best for you. 

Type I

These are your standard, bulky, life jackets that you often see on ships and other passenger vessels. 

Although they are not great for recreation crafts like kayaks or paddle boards because they restrict motion, these bad boys will keep an unconscious person’s head above the water and are therefore the only type recommended for offshore or rough water use. 

Type II

Similar to type I in shape and performance, these over-the-head PFDs will keep an unconscious person’s head above water just as well, but they are less supportive and consequently only work well in calm waters where rescue can arrive quickly. 

Type III

This is probably the best and most popular PFD type with paddlers due to the wide range of motion they offer and the comfortable fit they provide. 

Like type II they are designed for close to shore activities where a quick rescue is ensured.

Type IV

We’ve all seen the rings on the beach or at the pool, the white ones with orange details. These are type IV flotation devices. 

These PFDs are not wearable and are only meant to be thrown to someone who is struggling to swim but is conscious. It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that this is not what you’re looking for in a good kayaking life jacket.

Type V

Type V is also popular with paddlers due to its low profile and versatile design. They are a hybrid of all the other types and usually come in the form of inflatable belts or suspenders. 

They are designed for specific water sports, so make sure you find one that is compatible with kayaking if you are interested in this type. 

10 Best Kayak PFDs

If you need some help picking out the best kayak PFD for you, here’s a complete round up of 10 of the best options out there.

NRS Zen PFD

Features: Quick release belt | Carabiner tether for towing | Side access | Floating front panel | Padded arm holes | Huge front pocket

NRS is one of the top brands when it comes to the best kayak PFDs. Tried and true, their life jackets will keep you safe and comfortable while you’re out on the water. 

The aptly named Zen model will allow you to relax and paddle in peace without any restriction in movement. The armholes are large but padded, protecting you from any impact without causing chafing while you paddle. 

The all-around padding makes this one of the most comfortable kayak PFDs, in addition to the six adjustable straps that allow you to create a custom fit. The high-quality material will keep you cool even when the sun is at its peak, and if you’re paddling in colder weather, there’s a convenient hand warmer with a zippered storage compartment. 

Speaking of storage, this personal flotation device has a lot of it. There’s a large, clamshell storage pouch on the front that can carry any extra gear or snacks you may have with you. Just be careful not to overfill it because this PFD can become bulky when stuffed to the brim. 

This type V kayak life vest is perfect for paddling near the shore in calm waters. 

NRS Ion PFD

Features: Six-panel design | AirMesh inner panels | Front zippered pocket | Padded shoulder straps | Reflective accents

The Ion is another one of the best kayak PFDs made by NRS. Similar to the Zen, this life jacket differs in a few key areas. 

For one, it’s slightly less bulky, which can really come in handy in a tight cockpit. The six-panel foam wraps your torso in a comfortable and flexible fit, and it’s lightweight enough that you may even forget that it’s there! 

The armholes on this personal flotation device offer an impressive range of motion, and there’s no need to worry about any rubbing or chaffing, though they are less padded than the Zen. The same breathable material is utilized, and the small hand warming pocket is also identical. The main storage pocket differs slightly from the clamshell, replacing it with two vertical zip pockets that can be easier to access one-handed. 

This kayak life vest is a type III, one of the most popular types for paddlers due to its superior range of motion. Just make sure you’re not using it to conquer any rapids or any other rough waters where the chance of rescue is slim. 

Onyx MoveVent

Features: Reflective material for visibility | Lash tab | Expandable zippered pocket w/ mesh drainage | High back mesh panel

Another popular brand that makes some of the best kayak PFDs is Onyx. The MoveVent is a type III kayak life vest that is beloved by paddlers everywhere. 

True to its name, this life jacket is outfitted with fully open sides for great maneuverability and mesh details to keep you nice and cool while you paddle. The foam padding is comfortable and flexible, and the high-back design makes this personal flotation device compatible with virtually any kayak seat. 

The vest is easy to put on, with a zipper in the front and adjustable side straps to keep it from riding up. The storage pocket is slightly more compact than some of the others on our list, but it’s large enough to fit at least your keys and some other small gear. 

You can feel extra safe out on the water with this PFD thanks to the SOLAS grade reflective material and the integrated whistle. 

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Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket

Features: Adjustable shoulders | Front waist buckle closure | Low cut design | Offset front-zip entry | Top loading front pocket | Mesh sides

Designed with paddlers in mind, this ergonomic life vest from Stohlquist is one of the best kayak PFDs around. 

The graded sizing helps paddlers find the perfect fit, and the adjustable shoulder and waist straps allow you to customize it even further. The large armholes are made for maximum mobility while you paddle, and the open sides help you stay cool on warm days. 

This kayak life vest is super comfortable thanks to its contoured shape and super soft foam. The shoulders straps articulate away from the neck, allowing you to paddle all day without fear of chaffing. 

Other noteworthy features include an extra-large top-loading storage compartment and over three meters of reflective details.

This type III personal flotation device is perfect for a variety of activities, including kayaking, sailing, stand up paddle boarding, or any other type of water activity you can think of. 

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Stohlquist Women’s Flo

Features: Designed especially for women & smaller sizes | Smaller cut with shortened torso|  Cross-chest cinch harness to prevent ride up | High back mesh panel | Snap pockets

Specifically designed for women, this is perhaps the best kayak PFD for slimmer paddlers. 

The type III life vest is lightweight yet durable, with a super-soft foam interior and a nylon shell. Not only does it have graded sizing for a perfect fit, but it’s also built with supportive inner cups for ultimate comfort.

Besides the extra support, this personal flotation device has all the attributes that comprise a good kayak life vest, including open sides for maximum movement, chest and waist straps to prevent ride up, and a mesh, high-back design to fit almost any seat. 

There are two bellows pockets for any gear you might need to take along and an easy entry zippered opening in the front. 

One of the best things about this life jacket is that it’s under $100!

Coleman Company Stearns Comfort Series PFD

Features: Mesh shoulders & back for ventilation | Large arm holes for comfort | Fully adjustable w/ front zipper | Two front pockets

If you’re looking for buoyancy on a budget, this life jacket is probably the best kayak PFD for you. At just under $50 it will keep you safe without breaking the bank. 

This personal flotation device has large arm holes that are perfect for paddling, and the mesh shoulders will keep you nice and cool on hot sunny days. 

It’s made with durable nylon and foam to keep you comfy, but this PFD simply doesn’t match up to some of the more expensive kayak life vests on our list in terms of fit. There are two adjustable straps along the waist, but besides that, there’s not much you can do to adjust the fit. 

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Onyx Adult Type I Vest Style Life Jacket

Features: Bright orange for visibility | Adjustable straps | Total classic

Another great option for a budget kayak life vest is this type I design from Onyx. Not only is it great for those looking to save a little money, but it’s also ideal if you’ll be paddling in white water or far from the coast. 

This personal flotation device is fairly simple without any extra frills, but it will get the job done if you happen to go overboard. The bright orange color and reflective details will make you easy to spot, and the additional buoyancy will help keep your head above the water. 

Although slightly more bulky than most of the other life jackets on our list, this one is a reliable pick if you’re going to be paddling in rough conditions. 

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Mustang Survival Corps Inflatable PFD

Features: Manually inflates w/ activation cord | Lightweight flexible fit | Exclusive Membrane Inflatable Technology

One of the most suitable options for those looking for the best low-profile kayak PFD is this inflatable, suspender-style life vest from Mustang. 

Popular with paddle boarders and kayakers looking for a full range of motion while they paddle, this life vest hits the mark. You’ll likely forget you’re even wearing a personal flotation device, and the open-air design will keep you nice and cool without any chance of chafing. 

Though lightweight and compact, this life jacket does not have any storage pockets, which can be a deal-breaker for some.

This design is manually inflatable and is as easy as pulling the activation cord to fill. It’s a versatile vest that is Coast Guard certified as both a type III and a type V. 

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Lyxada Fly Fishing Vest

Features: 11 ginormous (expandable) pockets | Adjustable shoulder & waist straps | Designed with fishing in mind | Front zip | Mesh & open sides for breathability

Anglers looking for the best kayak PFD to add to their gear collection will find a good candidate in the Lyxada Fly Fishing Vest

Bedecked with a whopping 11 different pockets, you’ll have plenty of space for all of your lines and lures and anything else you may want to keep close at hand while you cast out. The back pocket may be a bit problematic when sitting, especially if you fill it too full, but the ten other pockets should afford you plenty of space for all your gear. 

This kayak life vest is made with durable polyester, soft foam, and breathable mesh material, affording you a comfortable paddle no matter the weather. The open sides will allow you to paddle and caste out without obstruction and the adjustable back and shoulders straps enable you to find the perfect fit. 

This life vest is also extremely affordable, but unfortunately, this is likely because it is not Coast Guard approved. It will give a little float, but we don’t recommend it for deepwater use. Always keep an additional personal flotation device on board with you if you choose this fishing vest. 

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NRS Chinook

Features: PlushFIT foam molds to body | Loose in front, tight in back | 5 gear pockets | Front zip closure | Adjustable straps

NRS makes one last appearance on our list of the best kayak PFDs, this time with fisherfolk in mind. 

This type III life jacket is a much more reliable option than the Lyxada vest, albeit with much less storage space. There’s still quite a lot of room for your gear in the five pockets, and this kayak life vest is actually made to fit a kayak seat, so no need to worry about any pockets sticking out in the back. 

This personal flotation device has some thoughtful details that anglers will appreciate, including a fly patch, a retractable tool holder, and a rod holder loop. 

You’ll stay comfy while you paddle with this PFD thanks to the soft plush fit foam, open sides, and 8 adjustable straps that allow you to find a custom fit. 

Key Kayak PFD Features

When you’re on the hunt for the best kayak PFD, make sure to keep these features in mind. 

man kayaking wearing a pdf at sunset

Buoyancy

The most important job of any PFD is to keep you afloat once you hit the water. There are many factors that will affect how well a life jacket will keep your head above the water, including the type (as mentioned above), the water conditions, and the size of the occupant. 

Manufacturers will provide a buoyancy rating for their PFDs, so make sure that their rating matches up with your body size and type, and the conditions in which you’ll be paddling in. 

Comfort 

Another important aspect you should keep in mind while you search for the best kayak PFD is how comfortable the life jacket is. The more comfortable the vest, the more likely you are to wear it, which is key to having a safe experience out on the water. 

You’ll want to find a personal flotation device with a wide range of motion and breathable materials. Look for large armholes, nylon fabric, and reflective details for added visibility. 

Size and Fit

The fit of your PFD is going to affect how comfortable and safe it is, so you’ll want to find a life jacket that is adjustable in as many places as possible. Different brands will have different sizing standards as well, so make sure you do your research and find the correct size – adjustable straps can only do so much. 

Type 

When considering which type of life jacket will work best for you, take into account the conditions you’ll be paddling in. The best kayak PFD will keep you safe if you go overboard, and some life vests are better for calm waters, while others can keep you safe in rough waters.

Storage

If you’re low on storage space on your ‘yak, it may be tempting to go for the life jacket with the most pockets. Although some of the best kayak PFDs have additional storage space, the more you overfill them, the bulkier and heavier your jacket will be, which is no good when you’re paddling for long periods of time. 

Durability

The best kayak PFDs are anything but cheap, so make sure you buy one that will last you a lifetime. Look for materials like ripstop nylon, PVC, or eco-friendly Gaia. 

Ripstop nylon is extremely durable and can take on a fair amount of wear and tear without damage. 

PVC is also a nice durable option in addition to being UV and flame-resistant. 

Gaia is a newer material to the market. It’s eco-friendly, UV resistant, and the lightest of the three options. 

How to Choose the Right PFD For You

If you’ve spent any time at all in a kayak, you’ll know that there’s not a whole lot of room for bulky extras. A life jacket is compulsory, but that doesn’t mean it has to take up a ton of space. Some of the best kayak PFDs are fairly compact, and once you find one that fits, you might not even know it’s there. 

Deciding on a personal flotation device can be an ordeal with all the different types, sizes, and colors out there, but as long as you do your research and read those reviews, you’ve got nothing to worry about. 

First and foremost, you’ll need to consider what type of conditions you’ll be paddling in. Some life jackets do better in the sun than others, some are made specifically for women and children, and some can keep you safe in white water while others are only made to be used near the shore. 

You’ll also need to take into account the size of the person who’s going to be wearing the PFD. This will directly affect the buoyancy of the life jacket along with how comfortable it is and how well it fits the user. 

Man and woman preparing to go kayaking

Kayak PFD FAQs

If you still have some questions about kayak PFDs, check out these FAQs for more information.

Are life jackets required on kayaks?

Life jacket requirements vary by area, but the rule of thumb is that if you’re paddling out further than 100 meters from the nearest shore a PFD is compulsory. 

We recommend playing it safe and using a personal flotation device any time you go out on the water, no matter what kind of vessel you are cruising in. 

What’s the best type of PFD for kayaking?

The best type of PFD for kayaking will depend on what type of conditions you are sailing in, but the most popular type amongst paddlers are type III life jackets. 

Type III PFDs offer a wide range of motion and are some of the most comfortable options available. That being said, this type should only be used when quick rescue is assured.

How dangerous is kayaking?

The most dangerous part of kayaking is the chance that you might get a muscle strain or injury from paddling, and the chances of accidents are slim as long as you know what you’re doing and don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. 

Travel Must: At the risk of sounding like your parents, make sure you get travel insurance before hitting the road. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to leave home without. We recommend either World Nomads or Safety Wing, depending on the type of traveler you are.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t need a PFD, however. You should always be prepared for the worst out on the water, and the first step is wearing a good life jacket.


Looking for more kayak content? Check out these articles!

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