A life jacket is your most important safety piece of gear when kayaking. That said, the best one you can get is the one you don’t dread wearing. The great news is there are all sorts of different styles and fits to ensure you get the right one! The bad news is there is a lot to choose from so the task of where to start looking can be daunting. Here, we will help you narrow down the styles for what kind of activity you will be doing and then give you 10 recommended options. All the best life jackets we have selected are coast guard approved and non-inflatable. Where you always want a life vest that is coast guard approved, activities like Stand Up Paddle boarding (aka SUPing) on calmer water you could use an inflatable PFD.
Now, think about what kind of paddling you will be doing…If it is recreational, such as on lakes and calm rivers, you can keep your PFD relatively simple unless you want pockets for storing snacks! If you’re hoping to catch dinner, consider a fishing life vest that has more features. If you’re venturing into whitewater, it is helpful to try on your PFD (personal flotation device) to make sure you have good mobility for rolls, bracing and whatever other tricks you have up your sleeve!
1. NRS Chinook
Packed full of features from pockets to tools and loops, this life vest serves as one of the top fishing PFDs. The mesh lower back is a much sought after feature so it fits more comfortably on high back seats (like on fishing kayaks) and provides ventilation on those warm days on the water.
2. Astral Ronny Fisher
If you like the sound of the Astral Ronny but desire a bit more features for your fishing escapades, this is your life jacket. Thin-vent back panel meets 2 front flip-down pockets to make you prepared for a potentially long and technical day on the water.
3. NRS Ninja
This is the best low-profile design around, which means the foam is concentrated into smaller spots. With this life jacket you have a wide range of mobility and also a great option for those with short torsos.
4. Stohlquist Fisherman
There are 2 stiffened outer shells on the front pockets to protect any fragile gear that can also fold down and be used as workstations. High back flotation provides a comfortable day reeling in a big one or lounging in your seat. For those gear heads out there, this the life vest for you, look at all those pockets!
5. Astral V-Eight
Like the NRS Chinook this life jacket also has the mesh back to allow you to sit back comfortably and enjoy being on the water. Airescape® technology allows warm air to escape the jacket while providing ventilation of fresh cooler air in. Even though this life vest is unisex, it is a great option for women because of how the front foam is sculpted.
6. Astral Layla
Here is a life jacket designed for the ladies! Adjustable straps to find your fit goes well with the internally sculpted bust cups making it feel like this life vest was created just for you! There is also room for your belongings in the front snap pocket with internal dividers. Compatible with quick-release belt for when you upgrade your recreational paddling to being equipped for a rescue.
7. Astral Ronny
The combination of Astral’s Thin-Vent Back and the ventilation channel through the foam back make for a happy paddler. There are 4 front pockets, including one that expands to hold the necessities for a relaxing booze cruise! This life vest has a place for everything.
8. Stohlquist Trekker
Another well-loved option because of the mesh back allowing for breathability and comfort with the seat of your kayak. Low profile fit, of course still being coast guard approved, with plenty of mobility around the arms and less foam on the side so your elbow won’t catch. For the ladies, check out the Cruiser for a better fit.
9. Astral Linda
This women’s specific PFD life jacket has a sleek design with great breathability. Offers 2 large zippered pockets in the front and 6 adjustment points to get you that customized fit! Similar fit to the Layla but slightly lower profile.
10. Stohlquist Edge
A low profile, high mobility life jacket best used for whitewater paddling. In addition to the comfort, there is still a top loading pocket for any gear needed on the river. A key characteristic of a whitewater PFD is the large arm holes, you don’t want any restrictions!
A few more things to mention…
When you start looking at the information on the best life jackets, you’ll notice the different “Types” which range from Type I to Type V, set by the coast guard standards. As an adult kayaker, you will most likely want a Type III PFD. There is the biggest variety in this type from recreational to fishing to whitewater kayaking. This means you are able to place yourself face-up in the water to help quicken the rescue process. Type V life vests are the other option for kayaking which means it is either high flotation (with head support) or it is equipped with what you need for rescue. If you have not taken a swift water rescue course (make sure it is a proper class that discusses safety and rescue determined by the coast guard), you do not need a Type V PFD, it is bulkier so you would be more comfortable in a Type III.
Now that you think you’ve found your perfect PFD for what type of paddling you will be doing, go ahead try it on! There are different sizes for life jackets and how to measure that is by chest size which will be stated on the inside of the PFD. There are different sizes for kids too: infant, child, and youth.
How to Fit your Life Jacket:
- Loosen all straps on life jacket
- Put on life jacket
- Buckle and/or zip all the straps
- Find your belly button, this is where the bottom strap should sit when tightened
- Bottom strap first
- Then shoulder straps
- Work your way up the straps
- Get your PFD nice and snug, like a lovable hug!
- Test it out, get someone to pull up on the shoulder straps and your PFD should stay relatively in place.
Ten Best Features in Kayak Life Jackets: From Construction to Materials
Buying a life jacket for kayaking is going to mean making a buying a decision based on dozens of brand names. It can become overwhelming knowing what to look for without insight on what other people buy and overall quality.
What’s most important is to whittle your life jacket choice down to the most essential aspects. This ranges from how it’s made, the fit, materials, and what you’ll use the life jacket for during your kayaking trip.
Certain life jacket features can also help you in specific kayaking situations, including life-threatening emergencies.
Take a look at the ten best features to scope out before you buy.
1. Life Jackets With a Mesh Lower Back
One thing to consider first for kayaking life jackets is whether they have a mesh lower back as a material feature. Many people look out for these because it enables more comfort when sitting on high back fishing kayak seats.
How many times have you been on fishing kayak trips and felt extreme discomfort from a boat seat because you didn’t have any flotation foam? The latter is another good material to look out for on the back.
A mesh lower back is also necessary for ventilation on hot days. As an avid kayaking fan, you probably do at least some kayaking in the summer. Mesh is going to keep you feeling cool so you’re not drenched in sweat by the end of the day.
2. Pockets for Storage
Buying any type of clothing with pockets is important if you’re going to wear it out in nature. For your life jacket, make sure yours has well-designed pockets. Flip-down pockets are a good feature because they help protect items you have inside while on the water.
Having these flip-down pockets in the front enables you to quickly reach for any items you need during a long excursion.
Amazon notes front flip-down pockets work as a form of platform that allows you to hold various important things. They’re a great place to store emergency items, or even small kayaking gear. Many pockets in life jackets have more space to hold things than they initially appear.
You’ll even find some pockets suitable for holding beverages or for storing knives.
3. Life Jackets With Custom Sizes
Not all kayak life jackets are “one size fits all”, even if you always thought so. You need one that fits well with your body shape so you don’t feel uncomfortable. Plus, you want to make sure it works well since it may not if oversized.
To find the right fit, measure your chest size when shopping. If you’re not sure, have someone place a tape measure over your chest to see what your size really is.
What’s important is to try on your life jacket before you buy. All kayak life jackets should fit snugly like a hug. Don’t ever buy one if it feels constricting or not snug enough.
4. Finding a Life Jacket for Women
Not all life jackets are unisex either, even though you’ll find some products like that on the market. Women need to find life jackets with a specific design for a more proper fit and added safety.
The best jackets provide sculpted bust cups designed for a realistic woman’s shape. It allows all women to find a custom shape so it won’t feel like they’re stuck in a straight jacket when kayaking for long hours.
These jackets usually come with front snap pockets and internal dividers to allow plenty of convenient storage while on the water.
5. Kid Size Life Jacket
Finding the right size life jacket for a child is different than how you would for an adult. Where you want to measure chest size to determine the size for an adult PFD (Personal Floatation Device), you use weight for the child. You can find the sizing information on the inside of the back, here is typically what you will see:
- Infant PFDs: up to 30 pounds
- Child PFDs: 30 to 50 pounds
- Youth PFDs: 50 to 90 pounds
It is important to find the right fit for your child because you want them to be safe and comfortable, making positive memories on the river.
6. Life Jackets for Infants
If you have a baby on any type of boat with you it is important that they are also wearing a life jacket. It is not safe enough for you to simply just be holding them in yours. All infant PFDs have a head float so just in case baby is in the water they will always have their head above water. This does make the life jacket bulkier of course and it might not be your little one’s favorite thing to wear. Plan ahead for a slightly uncomfortable baby and bring some distractions for him or her! As mentioned above all Infant life jackets are for babies under 30 pounds.
7. Life Jackets With More Mobility
Life jackets should never constrict mobility around your arms or legs. When shopping, try to find life jackets with large arm holes and side straps so you can adjust things to prevent restrictions.
Once you start kayaking, you need your arms to feel as mobile as possible when paddling the boat. The same goes with your legs so you can stand up quickly when you have to.
Less foam on the sides of the life jacket also prevents your elbows from catching on something. However, the amount of foam you’ll have depends on how much protection you’re going to need on your kayaking trip.
8. Finding a Life Jacket Exclusive to Fishing
With three different types of kayaking, you’ll want to find a life jacket fitting the activity. If you’re doing a fishing kayak trip, look for some specific features that help you be able to fish in freedom without obstructions.
Finding life jackets made of nylon gives you a lot more durability during fishing excursions. Since you’ll be giving your jacket a lot of wear and tear when hauling in fish, nylon is one of the best materials to hold up long-term.
In a lot of cases, you’ll find nylon life jackets with UV reflective qualities to protect you from the sun. Also, nylon is more affordable than other materials.
Look out for pockets that can safely hold some of your fishing gear.
9. A Life Jacket for Whitewater Kayaking
Doing whitewater kayaking is also a demanding sport, so you’ll need something equally durable for rolls and bracing. Nylon is again a good material choice. It’s also worth looking into buoyancy weight and finding something around 16 lbs. for easy mobility.
Always look for extra ventilation on these since the fast pace of whitewater kayaking is going to make you sweat, no matter the season.
Top-loading pockets are the best type of designs for whitewater kayaking. These pockets bring easy accessibility while adding a secure zipper so nothing falls out while on challenging waters.
10. A Life Jacket for Recreational Kayaking
Those of you who only plan recreational kayaking shouldn’t necessarily skimp on buying something durable. You’ll still want ergonomic design and lightweight construction for easy movement.
Sweat around the torso area is always a problem during recreational kayaking. Finding an open-weave mesh lining helps prevent sweat on this part of your body. Vent ports in strategic parts of the jacket help bring in cooler air as well to avoid worry about overheating when hitting the rapids.
11. Life Jackets With Bright Colors
Color might not initially mean much to you on a life jacket. Consider that if you require rescue, a brighter color can help a rescue crew find you faster.
It’s always worth preparing for the possibilities in getting lost when out in the wild, or perhaps becoming injured while on the rapids. What if you couldn’t walk and had to rely on rescue crews to find you from the air?
A bright-colored life jacket would scope you out immediately from a rescue helicopter.
12. Type III or V Life Jackets
All PFD’s have five categories based on USCG classifications. Type III are the most comfortable for kayaking, so always look for these category numbers on your life jackets.
Type III jackets are the most comfortable and give you considerable freedom in movement. They also come in inflatable and hybrid designs.
Type V jackets come with some similar designs as the Type III, though considered a special-use device. You have to wear these at all times to adhere to USCG guidelines. These are often more buoyant in their weight, but more notably used for whitewater rescue.
Coast Guard Approved Life Jacket Types Defined:
Generally you always want to be wearing a life vest and there are no exceptions in rougher or remote water. But if you are on a public, calm lake you may be able to have it just with you in your boat. Make sure you check out your state’s life jacket requirements. General rule of thumb is you do what the U.S. Coast Guard says because they know best! You will see “minimum buoyancy” on each type of life jacket. Get out your calculator because how this number is determined requires a little math. The human body is about 80% water, meaning when you are floating in water 80% of your body isn’t weighing you down. Every body also has a percentage of body fat–average is 15%, which is lighter than water and floats. There are other factors like clothing and what type of water you are in but those are the two main factors. Math time! (We will use 150 lb person and 220 lb person as examples.)
150 lbs x 80% water = 120 lbs of water weight
150 lbs x 15% fat = 22.5 lbs of fat
150 lbs – 120 lbs water – 22.5 lbs fat = 7.5 lbs
This means a person weighing 150 lbs with 15% body fat weighs 7.5 lbs in water, meaning the minimum buoyancy on the vest has to be more than 7.5 lbs.
220 lbs x 80% water = 176 lbs of water weight
220 lbs x 15% body fat = 33 lbs of fat
220 lbs – 176 lbs water – 33 lbs fat = 11 lbs
Meaning, your average 220 lb person needs a minimum buoyancy of 11 lbs.
The 5 Types:
- Type I– Designed to turn most unconscious wearers face-up in water. Minimum buoyancy for adults is 22 lbs and ideal for open, rough, or remote water where you may be further away from shore or rescue will take longer. It is the best for retaining body heat because of additional foam and fabric and aids in keeping your head higher above water.
- Type II– Minimum buoyancy is 15.5 lbs for adult size but not suitable for rough waters. These life jackets are ideal for inland day cruising, close to boat, close to shore, quick rescue situations. There is some head support, turning some unconscious wearers face-up, but does not provide much protection.
- Type III– This is the most common life jacket for kayaking and similar water activities. In adult life jackets it has minimum 15.5 lbs buoyancy. These are great for mobility as they are more comfortable than a Type I or II because they provide less flotation but they are not designed to turn an unconscious wearers face-up.
- Type IV– These are throwable devices that are not intended for wearing because they are a ring or boat cushion. As they do provide minimum 16.5 lbs buoyancy, they should not be your first line of safety but instead a back-up. They will not do anything for an unconscious person because they will need to grab on the device.
- Type V– Minimum buoyancy 15.5 to 22 lbs for adult size. You will see whitewater kayakers have this type because it is for special use like for swift water rescue. These life jackets contain more features than just flotation, so not necessary for your average, low-key paddle around a lake.
Now go be adventurous and confidently make memories on the water because you know your life jacket has your back!