Whether you call it a life jacket, life vest, or a PFD (personal flotation device), one thing holds true; it’s the single most important piece of safety gear to bring when you go out kayaking.

The problem is that when most people think of a PFD, they remember the discomfort of wearing the bulky, poor-fitting PFDs that are common to recreational boating.

Kayaking PFDs are designed to offer maximum comfort and unrestricted movement so they don’t get in the way while paddling. In this article, we’ll show you what to look for and provide a list of some of the best PFDs for kayaking currently available on the market.

best pfd for kayaking

Quick Answer: The Best PFDs for Kayaking

  1. NRS cVest
  2. Stohlquist Cruiser (Women’s)
  3. ONYX A/M-24 Deluxe
  4. NRS Chinook
  5. ONYX MoveVent Dynamic

Honorable Mention – Best Youth PFD for Kayaking

  1. Stohlquist Drifter (Youth)

The majority of this article is full of advice on what to look for in a kayaking PFD. If you know what you’re after, feel free to jump ahead to the reviews section for our top rated PFDs.

Why Wear a PFD

Why Wear a PFD

The benefit of wearing a PFD is pretty obvious; it’ll help keep you afloat and prevent you from drowning in the event of a capsize. If you’re a decent swimmer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you don’t need to wear one. But even the best swimmers can get into trouble when the unexpected happens.

If you need some extra convincing about the importance of wearing a PFD, according to the US Coast Guard, 78% of all reported boating fatalities in 2014 were due to drowning. Of those drowning victims, 84% were not wearing a PFD.

PFD Types

What type of PFD is best for Kayaking?

Any Coast Guard certified PFD that is the correct fit can be used for kayaking. Having said that, by far the most common reason paddlers leave their PFD at home or take it off while paddling is because they find it uncomfortable or restrictive.

Investing in a PFD specifically designed for kayaking is well worth it, even if you’re not a serious kayaker. They offer much better freedom of movement and comfort while paddling compared to PFDs used for general boating.

The US Coast Guard specifies 5 different categories of PFDs, but kayakers are almost always best off with Type III or Type V PFDs as they provide the greatest comfort and mobility.

Type III PFDs – Ideal for activities where chances of immediate rescue are good. They have large arm holes and tend to keep the bulk of the flotation away from the arms and shoulders, which gives you the full range of motion you need while paddling.

Type V PFDs – These are special use life jackets that are designed for a specific activity. The Coast Guard only deems them sufficient if they’re worn while performing the activity they were designed for. If you decide to go for a Type V PFD, make sure it’s specifically designed for kayaking or similar activities.

Buoyancy

Type III PFDs have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds, while Type V have a minimum of 15.5 – 22.5 as mandated by the US Coast Guard.

If you’re confident in your swimming ability, 15.5 pounds of flotation should be plenty. On the other hand, if you’re not the strongest swimmer, you may feel more comfortable in a PFD that has a bit more flotation. Just keep in mind that the more buoyant a PFD is, the bulkier it is likely to be.

Standard vs Inflatable

Standard vs Inflatable PFDs

Both Type III and Type V PFDs come in standard (non-inflatable) and inflatable styles.

Standard PFDs

These are by far the most common PFDs used by kayakers. They typically use foam panels as a flotation material that provides buoyancy.

Pros

  • Automatic buoyancy
  • Low maintenance
  • Storage pockets

Cons

  • Bulkier

Non-inflatable PFDs are inherently buoyant, so they’ll automatically provide flotation without having to manually activate them. They’re also very reliable and don’t require any real maintenance other than storing them out of the sun and drying them out before stowing them away. Most standard PFDs will also come with a few pockets, which come in handy for small items you need easy access to.

Inflatable PFDs

Inflatable PFDs are a relatively new style of PFD with their major advantage being their slim profile. They’re so unrestrictive that you’ll probably forget you’re even wearing it. They inflate in one of two ways – manually or automatically.

If you do decide to go the inflatable PFD route, you’re probably better off with a manual inflating one due to the risk of accidentally activating an automatic one by getting it wet.

Pros

  • Better comfort

Cons

  • Higher maintenance
  • Not suitable for children under 16

One of the major downsides to an inflatable PFD is they require regular testing to make sure they’re functioning correctly. After being inflated, you’ll also have to replace the CO2 cartridge before you can use it again. Inflatable PFDs generally aren’t recommended for children or weaker swimmers, so consider your swimming ability before deciding to get one.

PFD Sizing

PFD Sizing

A PFD should fit like a good pair of shoes; snug but still comfortable. Sizing is determined by chest size for adults and weight for children. 

Adults

The size of an adult PFD is based on your chest size and come in sizes ranging from XS to XXL.

Most manufacturers will actually use the same size flotation panels for a given PFD regardless of the size. So, the only real difference in size is the length of the adjustment straps. This means that somebody who would normally wear a small PFD could still fit into a large size, but a somebody who wears a large wouldn’t be able to fit into a small size.

Children

Child-sized PFDs typically come in three different categories; infant, child, and youth. The key thing to remember is that finding the correct sized PFD for kids is based on their weight, not chest size.

  • Infant – 8 – 30 pounds
  • Child – 30 – 50 pounds
  • Youth – 50 – 90 pounds
Features

Features to Look for

Some PFDs are fairly simple and just function as a safety flotation device, which is totally fine for most paddlers. After all, that is its primary purpose.

However, if you want a bit of extra functionality from your PFD, here are a few things to keep an eye out for.

Pockets – These are great for tucking away small items that you want easy access to. Snacks, your phone, a VHF radio, and safety whistle are all great candidates.

Reflective material – Great for making you more visible to other water traffic if you’re going to be paddling in low-light conditions like dawn or dusk.

Loops & D-rings – These come in handy for clipping additional gear to you PFD like a GPS or light beacon.

Entry method – To put them on, some PFDs use a zipper while others are slipped on over your head. Most people prefer a zipper, but they can corrode over time so it’s worth considering.

PFD Reviews

Best PFDs for Kayaking

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic

Overall Score: (4.3/5)

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest, Orange, Medium/Large

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type III

Flotation rating: Not specified

Type: Standard non-inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: Zipper pocket, lash tab, reflective accents, mesh ventilation, lower back mesh area

Best for: Paddlers that want a budget-friendly PFD that offers excellent value.

 $44.32

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 08:24 – Details)

Review

The ONYX Dynamic is part of their MoveVent line of PFDs that offer some solid features at a price that won’t break the bank.

It’s made from 200 denier ripstop nylon, which isn’t the toughest but should be fine for most paddlers. The foam panels are connected by mesh fabric, which offers good ventilation and is a nice feature if you’re paddling in warmer weather.

Like our other picks, it’s designed to work well with the high-backed seats you find in most kayaks. It has mesh ventilation around the lower back area rather than foam, so you don’t get pushed forward in your seat.

The MoveVent Dynamic isn’t the most feature-rich PFD on the market. It’s a bit light on storage space and only has one pocket and a lash tab for attaching small accessories. It does, however, have reflective material on both the front and the back for some added visibility in low light conditions.

There aren’t a ton of adjustment points, so you might not be able to get as comfortable of a fit as some of the other options. Having said that, it’s still miles ahead of those bulky slip-over orange PFDs that you might remember wearing as a kid.

ONYX doesn’t specify the flotation rating of the MoveVent Dynamic, but it is certified as Type III by the USCG, so it meets the minimum 15.5 pound requirement.

While there are certainly better PFDs out there, it’s hard to beat the MoveVent Dynamic in terms of value. If you’re looking for something basic to get started with, it’s a solid choice.

NRS cVest

Overall Score: (4.6/5)

NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD Red S/M

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type III

Flotation rating: 16.5 pounds

Type: Standard non-inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: 4 zipper pockets, velcro secured pocket, radio pocket, lash tab, reflective accents, multiple D-loops, lower back mesh ventilation

Best for: Touring in comfort with lots of storage for easy access to gear.

 from $129.95

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

If you want a bit more functionality and storage space from your PFD, the NRS cVest might be a great fit.

It has a total of 6 storage pockets – including a dedicated radio pocket – so there’s plenty of space for the essentials. On top of that, it also has a lash tab and several loops giving you additional options for how to outfit yourself.

It’s a bit more rugged than the ONYX MoveVent Dynamic and is made of a sturdier 400 denier ripstop nylon. It also has more adjustment points so you’ll be able to get a more comfortable fit out of it. The reflective accents and beacon loop make it a suitable choice for paddling near dusk or dawn.

Like the MoveVent Dynamic, it’s also categorized as a Type III PFD, so it’s got great mobility for paddlers. Its flotation is concentrated in front and behind the shoulders, so it won’t get in the way of your seat.

The only real downside of the cVent is its price; you’ll pay a bit extra for it but could be a good choice if you’re looking for comfort and lots of storage space.

ONYX A/M-24 Deluxe

Overall Score: (4.4/5)

Onyx A/M-24 Deluxe Automatic Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type V

Flotation rating: 22.5 pounds

Type: Inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: 2 zipper pockets, reflective piping, lower back mesh ventilation

Best for: Paddlers that want as little bulk as possible.

 $129.54

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

The ONYX A/M 24 Deluxe is an inflatable PFD that has a very slim profile and a soft neoprene neckline for added comfort, so there’s a good chance you’ll forget you’re even wearing it.

The inflation mechanism can be set to either the auto/manual or manual only setting, which means it’s suitable for other types of water-based activities besides kayaking. Just make sure to keep it in the manual only setting while you’re kayaking so it isn’t activated by splashing water.

Despite its slim profile, the A/M 24 Deluxe has two fairly generous side pockets that offer handy access to essential pieces of gear. It also has a bit of reflective piping throughout the vest, but it’s not quite as obvious as some of the other models.

As with all inflatable PFDs, the downside to the A/M 24 Deluxe is that you’ll have to replace the CO2 cartridge if you end up deploying it. While it’s not prohibitively expensive, the could add up over time if you make a habit of tipping into the water.

NRS Chinook

Overall Score: (4.4/5)

NRS Chinook Fishing Lifejacket-Charcoal-L/XL

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type III

Flotation rating: 16.5 pounds

Type: Standard non-inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: 3 zipper pockets, 4 velcro pockets, lash tab, fly patch, multiple D-rings, pliers holder, retractable tool holder, rod holder loop

Best for: Anglers that need plenty of storage space and flexibility for organizing gear and tackle.

 from $73.60

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

The Chinook from NRS is designed specifically with kayak anglers in mind. It has some nice anger-friendly features and lots of storage space so you have handy access to your essential gear and tackle.

There are a total of three zipper pockets and four velcro pouches that give you lots of flexibility on how to organize your gear. The two main zipper pockets are just the right size for storing small tackle boxes or your cell phone. The third zipper pocket is a bit smaller and includes a key clip so you don’t lose your keys overboard when the action heats up. The velcro pouches vary in size and provide lots of flexibility for organizing gear.

There are a number of thoughtful features like the fly patch and retractable tool holder that works well for keeping your line snips accessible. It’s also got a rod holder loop so you don’t have to set your rod down to tie line and a lash tab for securing a knife. The D-ring on the back of the vest works well for holding your net if you decide to park your kayak and fish a particular hole for a bit.

The Chinook is also designed for all-day comfort with a total of nine adjustment straps so you can get just the right fit. Like any kayaking PFD worth its salt, it’s also designed with high flotation in the back and mesh along the lower back, so it works well with the high-backed seats you find in most fishing kayaks.

The Chinook is first and foremost a PFD but also does an excellent job running double duty as a thoughtfully designed fishing vest.

Stohlquist Cruiser (Women’s)

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Stohlquist Women's Cruiser Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type III

Flotation rating: 16.25 pounds

Type: Standard non-inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: 2 zipper pockets, contoured supportive inner cups, cross-chest cinch harness, smaller cut for women

Best for: Women that want a PFD specifically designed to fit their body.

 from $89.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

Unlike many of the other women’s PFDs on the market, the Stohlquist Cruiser isn’t just a men’s PFD that comes in pretty colors. It’s one of the few that is specifically designed from the ground up to offer a more comfortable fit for women.

One of the key features that sets it apart are the contoured inner cups that are designed to wrap rather than crush, which work well for petites but are particularly nice if you’re on the bustier side. The cut is also smaller and has a shortened torso to better accommodate a woman’s body.

Stohlquist’s Wrapture feature uses pre-shaped foam – rather than angular blocks – that‘s designed to curve around your torso. This helps the Cruiser feel like it’s already been broken in from the first time you wear it.

There are a total of eight adjustment points on the Cruiser, which help offer a customized fit for a variety of body types. Two of the adjustment straps are cinch straps across the upper part of the torso, which help prevent it from riding up over time.  

It has mesh along the lower back area so it’s compatible with the high-backed seats found in modern recreational and touring kayaks. There are also two large zippered bellows pockets that offer lots of space but sit flat when there’s nothing in them so they don’t add bulk.

While it’s certainly not mandatory to have a women’s specific PFD, the Cruiser’s thoughtful design touches provide a level of comfort that you won’t find in a traditional unisex or men’s PFD.

Best Youth PFD

Stohlquist Drifter (Youth)

Overall Score: (4.1/5)

Stohlquist Child Drifter Youth Personal Floatation Device

Specifications:

USCG Classification: Type III

Weight Rating: 50 – 90 pounds

Type: Standard non-inflatable

Features:

Comfort:

Durability:

Value:

Features: Padded standing platform, fully adjustable seat, large rear tank well with bungee tie downs, front dry storage hatch, center console, adjustable footrests, two flush mount rod holders, accessory track, keel wheel

Best for: Anglers that need plenty of storage space for gear and tackle.

 $99.95

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

While obviously not for everybody, our list of top picks wouldn’t be complete without including a youth PFD.

If poor fitting PFDs can cause discomfort for adults during paddling sessions, that goes double for kids. Finding a PFD that is comfortable for your child – and one they won’t want to take off after 5 minutes – is essential for staying safe and allowing them to enjoy their time on the water.

The Drifter is a Youth PFD that accommodates children between 50 and 90 pounds. Stohlquist uses shaped foam in the Drifter, rather than foam blocks, for a more comfortable and less bulky fit.

The cross-chest cinch harness and adjustable waist belt offer a secure fit that won’t ride up through the day. Like any good Type III PFD, the Drifter has extra large arm holes so kids won’t feel restricted as they move around. It also has stretchy neoprene shoulder straps for added comfort when wearing it with a swimming suit.

There isn’t a ton of storage space but it does have one large bellows pocket for snacks or other gear. A nice added safety touch is the reflective material on both the front and the back that offers some extra visibility in low-light conditions.

Wrapping Up

While there are plenty of quality PFDs to choose from, our top pick for best kayaking PFD goes to the NRS cVest.

It’s not only a comfortable PFD that you’ll be able to wear for hours on end, it adds in the convenience and functionality of additional storage space for essential gear.

If you don’t think you’ll make use of its extra features and just want something basic that’ll keep you safe of the water, the ONYX MoveVent Dynamic is a great budget option.

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