Best Life Jackets for Kayaking

One of the most popular recreational water-based activities in the world is kayaking. For most people, it is superior to canoeing. While both hold the same core principle, kayaking allows you to ride solo and it is less prone to tipping over. Depending on the depths that you kayak, and if you have any children on board, it may be wise for you to bring a life jacket along. Even if you can swim, you never know what types of disaster will strike. In severe situations, they could even end up saving your life. Better safe than sorry, so you might as well submit to the idea of bringing along a life jacket on your next kayaking trip. Ranked through a series of criteria and customer reviews, here are the best on the market for kayaking.

Our Top 3 Picks

ONYX MOVEVENT CURVE
  • ONYX MOVEVENT CURVE
  • 4.9 out of 5
    Our rating
  • Comfortable
  • Coast Guard approved
  • Price: See Here
NRS CHINOOK MESH
  • NRS CHINOOK MESH
  • 4.7 out of 5
    Our rating
  • Extra pockets
  • Great ventilation
  • Price: See Here
NRS CVEST MESH
  • NRS CVEST MESH
  • 4.7 out of 5
    Our rating
  • Adjustable
  • 6 storage pockets
  • Price: See Here

10 Best Life Jackets for Kayaking

 

Onyx movement curve paddle

Perfect may not be obtainable, but the ONYX MoveVent Life Vest is as perfect as you will find for a kayaking trip.
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Vest Construction

It has a soft, lightweight design and a 200-denier nylon outer shell. There is ventilation in the front and it provides an excellent amount of mobility.

Size

There are multiple size options available, including x-small/small, medium/large, and x-large/xx-large. No matter the size, each life jacket is designed for people larger than 90 pounds.

Adjustability

The shoulder, neoprene pads are adjustable, as well as the side belts.

Additional Design Features

A mesh-designed lower back will fit great in high-back seats, working great while sitting in a kayak.

Color Options

Only two are available, yellow and blue.

Overall

It is hard to find many aspects wrong with this jacket and although there are features that could have made it even better (say storage capabilities), it does not get much better.
Pros
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved
  • It is sculpted to give you total freedom of movement
Cons
  • The jacket is a little thick and bulky

NRS Chinook mesh back

NRS Chinook mesh back
Coming in a close second is the Chinock Fishing PFD from NRS. For kayakers who are looking for a little fishing as well, this may be the jacket for you.
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Vest Construction

The mesh-designed lower back provides great ventilation and the soft PlushFIT foam flotation conforms perfectly to your body.

Size

Options for small/medium, large/x-large, and xx-large are available.

Adjustability

The front-entry design allows for eight points to be adjusted to customize your fit.

Additional Design Features

There are seven front pockets, rod holder loops, a knife lash tab, attachment loops, and multiple D-rings to hold a plethora of items and accessories. Thus, making it perfect to hold all sorts of fishing necessities.

Color Options

You can choose from either charcoal, green or orange.

Overall

Many may not see the need for so many pockets and tabs for holding accessories, but, for those who do, it combines storage and construction impeccably.
Pros
  • Features seven front pockets for extra storage capabilities
  • The mesh-designed lower back provides an excellent amount of ventilation
Cons
  • The upper strap can sometimes rub against your neck, causing irritation

NRS cVest mesh back pfd

NRS cVest mesh back pfd
NRS immediately makes another appearance with another sufficient life jacket. Its extra storage capabilities and adjustability, in conjunction with its overall design, make it worth it alone.
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Vest Construction

The flotation technology is concentrated on the front and behind the shoulders, while the lower back is made from mesh and allows you to recline and stay cool.

Size

Options for small/medium, large/x-large and xx-large are available.

Adjustability

Eight adjustable points ensure each person can have a customized fit.

Additional Design Features

This is loaded with extra features, including Solas reflective tape that provides low-light visibility, six pockets (including one for a radio) for storage, and accessory lash tabs and lanyard loops on the front.

Color Options

Three are available to select from blue, orange and red.

Overall

NRS knows how to make quality life jackets, so it is no surprise that two have hit the top three. The cVest is as great a choice as any.
Pros
  • Eight adjustable points for a snug fit
  • Six included pockets for storage
Cons
  • It is a little bulky
  • The radio pocket is too small to fit certain radios

Stohlquist men's trekker

Stohlquist men's trekker
With only a few minor downsides, the Men’s Trekker Life Jacket from Stohlquist is more than worth the money. Its vast features and excellent quality prove that to a tee.
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Vest Construction

The sides are open for proper ventilation and the torso is designed with an ergonomic WRAPTURE shape. The back is designed with half cool-mesh for a comfortable fit on seat backs.

Size

You can choose between small/medium, large/x-large and universal plus.

Adjustability

The 1-1/2” webbing belt with dual forward will pull for a secure and comfortable fit. In addition, the shoulder pads are adjustable.

Additional Design Features

For storage, there are front pockets that zip close and the front has a zipper entry with a grip tab.

Color Options

There are a few for you to choose from including black, fireball red, and mango.

Overall

This is not only a great traditional life jacket, but the extra accessories and the perfect fit in a kayak put it over the top.
Pros
  • The mesh back ride perfectly in a high back rest
  • Constructed from a nylon outer shell 200D Oxford liner
Cons
  • It takes some time for proper adjustment
  • For safety concerns, more reflective areas would be a nice touch

Stohlquist women's flo

Stohlquist women's flo
Stohlquist did not leave women out of the equation and the Flo Life Jacket is perfect for the better half. Much like the male version, only small gripes are present.
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Vest Construction

Very similar design with the shoulders and back being mesh for maximum ventilation. Plus, the outer shell is made from a soft 200D inner liner.

Size

Options for x-small/small, medium/large, and plus size are available.

Adjustability

Much like the Men’s Trekker model, a 1-1/2” webbing belt will pull for a secure fit.

Additional Design Features

This model specifically has built-in supportive inner cups for women and bellows pockets. In addition, the high-back floatation makes for a great fit in kayaks.

Color Options

Just two: purple and gray and orange and gray.

Overall

For women, this is as ideal of a choice that you will find for a life jacket. If it properly accommodated for a wider range of people, it may have landed even higher.
Pros
  • USCG and Transport Canada approved
  • Zipper with non-corroding slider
Cons
  • At times, it can be a hassle to adjust and zip up

Kokatat bahia tour pfd

Kokatat bahia tour pfd
As with many other life jackets on this list, only a slight gripe keeps this model from climbing any higher. But its construction and design feature more than make up for it.
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Vest Construction

The vest is both lightweight and durable, being constructed from 210D high-tenacity nylon. For maximum airflow, the lower-back panel is made from mesh.

Size

As with other models, small/medium, large/x-large, and xx-large size options are available.

Adjustability

There are multiple adjustments on the side, along with adjustable shoulder pads.

Additional Design Features

It comes equipped with reflective tape for safety, two duplex pockets in the front, an electronics pocket, pliers pocket and a license window.

Color Options

Only two options: mango and orange.

Overall

The construction is fantastic, there is room for a lot of adjusting and the design features add extra usability. Too bad one small gripe is present, otherwise, this is pure quality.
Pros
  • It is approved by the United States Coast Guard, Transport Canada and ISO
  • Multiple side adjustments and adjustable shoulder straps provide a custom fit
Cons
  • The upper half of the back is made of foam and not mesh, meaning it is awkward to wear any sort of pack with the life jacket

MTI Adventurer journey

The competition is fierce for life jackets with a third straight model with the same rating. Although it is basic in nature, the MTI Adventurewear is near-perfect in execution.
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Vest Construction

Extremely lightweight, weighing in at under one pound, and soft shoulder straps and totally open sides provide an amazing amount of breathing room.

Size

No small or medium option, just large/x-large and xx-large/xxx-large.

Adjustability

Both the sides and the waist can be adjusted for a custom fit.

Additional Design Features

There is a convenient hat hanger loop on the back that will prevent you from losing your hat if you fall in the water. Also, the bright color and reflective shoulders improve the safety.

Color Options

A couple of options can be chosen: mango and olive oil.

Overall

It is hard to find reasons why you would want to avoid this model because all the factors present are great to amazing.
Pros
  • Weighing in at less than a pound, it is very lightweight
  • The reflective shoulder pads and bright color add safety
Cons
  • While it is a great PFD, some pockets would have been nice
  • No option for small or medium

Eyson slim inflatable

Compared to the rest, the Eyson Inflatable PFD is unique. Besides being inflatable, the overall design and construction are much different.
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Vest Construction

With a slenderer design that has no front or back present, this life jacket is extremely lightweight. Plus, its neoprene neckline provides a comfortable fit for all-day use.

Size

There are no size options available but this life jacket is universally designed to fit adults under 330 pounds.

Adjustability

The belt strap on the bottom is adjustable, making it universally designed for adults.

Additional Design Features

On the air bag, there are reflectors that provide a better visibility when you are kayaking at night.

Color Options

While there are no size options, there are plenty of color options. This includes different shades of blue, black, gray, red, olive and yellow.

Overall

Different is a perfect word for this life jacket, but that does not mean it suffers in any way from it. In many ways, many will prefer not having a front or back present.
Pros
  • Reusable, washable and easy to air dry
  • CE certificated and SOLAS approved 3M reflectors
Cons
  • It is not certified in the United States, which is something to be wary of

Stearns adult watersport vest

This is another life jacket that is simple in nature, but not in execution. However, as great as it is for people who will fit in it, it does not accommodate for too many people.
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Vest Construction

A 200D nylon shell and PE foam provide a great amount of durability and the large armholes provide a great amount of maneuverability.

Size

Again, no size options are accessible but it is universally sized to fit most adults over 90 pounds.

Adjustability

On the front, there are four adjustable straps that provide you with a secure and custom fit.

Additional Design Features

As far as additional design features, there is not too much to speak of. It is very basic in nature, but that is not necessarily a downside.

Color Options

You can select from blue, red and yellow designs.

Overall

Unfortunately, even though they say it will fit most adults over 90 pounds, it will not properly fit larger people. This is terrific for people in the 200-pound or less range, but may be too snug for anybody larger.
Pros
  • Four adjustable straps in the front provide a custom fit
  • US Coast Guard approved
Cons
  • Pretty small vest and will not adequately fit larger people

O’Neil superlite uscg

The O’Neill Superlite Life Vest resembles the Stearns model in many ways. However, for pure visual design, this may be the best of the bunch.
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Vest Construction

The polyethylene foam is extremely lightweight and the vest is coated with a polyester shell. This makes for a soft and comfortable fit with a minimal bulk design.

Size

A terrific amount of size options are available for you to choose from. You can select small all the way up to 3x-large.

Adjustability

While there are dual safety buckles on the front, there is no space to loosen or tighten them. Thankfully, the size options make this less of an issue.

Additional Design Features

Past the overall design, there are not too many additional features to speak of.

Color Options

The overall color on each model looks fantastic and the options are available for a shade of black and lime, black and white, black and red, and black and blue.

Overall

If you are looking for the basics, then this will more than suffice. For some, the lack of adjustments will hurt the overall value, though.
Pros
  • Quick release dual safety buckles
  • Overlock stitching provides super-strong seams
Cons
  • No space to loosen or tighten the straps
  • It is not true to its size, may need to go larger than you think

Criteria for Evaluation

How Durable and Comfortable the Life Jacket Is

It is one thing to bring life jackets along on your kayaking trip for emergencies, it is another thing to actually wear it. After all, what good will they do you if they are stored in your kayak while you are drowning in an intense current? In order for them to be any use to you, you must wear them while you are kayaking. As kayak trips, can take several hours, depending on how long you prefer the trip, they need to be both comfortable and durable.

When it comes to durability, this is to ensure that the life jacket will actually hold you up above water. Most on this list are made with some sort of nylon shell, whether a high-tenacity 210D or a 200-denier nylon, which will hold up very well. Typically, you will not need to concern yourself too much with durability as designers need to have their life jackets certified safe. But, when it comes to comfort and ventilation, that is a little different story. This will vary from vest to vest and you certainly do not want to skimp on this area. Rest assured, you will three hours into your kayaking trip if you realize the current jacket you have on is unbearable.

One key way that designers add ventilation and breathing room is with mesh. As the entire vest does not need to be foam to float, some portions of it may be made from mesh. This is very breathable material and allows for an ample amount of airflow and movement. In addition, shoulder pads made from mesh will keep your shoulders cool. While this may not seem important, your arms and shoulders will get tired from the amount of paddling you will do.

The Size Options That Are Available to Select From

This really goes without saying, but it is too important to glance over. Given that a life jacket is a piece of apparel that you wear, there is no point to have it if it does not fit. Throughout the entirety of this list, you noticed that each model had a suitable way for sizing. Not many models, however, give the option for small, medium, and large separately. Most of the time, it is small/medium, large/x-large, etc. Typically, if this happens to be the case, there are adjustable portions to cater to your needs.

However, there are a few entries on this list that had no size options whatsoever. These types are universally designed to fit all adults (to an extent). Honestly, these types may be even better than the versions that are sized for a specific-sized person. This is because you never need to concern yourself with the possibility of a vest not fitting. When the manufacturer sells life jackets with specific sizes, the chance is there that you need to go one size larger than you would for a shirt. Even with adjustable straps, this could be a serious issue. A majority of the life jackets on this list have multiple size options, so it is not as if these types are insufficient. This is just something you need to be wary about. Sometimes, seller’s will have size charts that you can go off of to ensure you get the right size.

If There Are Adjustable Straps and Where They Are

This plays right off of the last section, but they each deserve separate recognition. There are many important factors, but these two are arguably the biggest. You now know the importance of the size options, but the amount of adjustability is paramount as well. Even if you receive the exact right size, there will be times where you will want a snugger or looser fit. Again, kayaking trips can take a long time so you may not want it snug the entire time. Conversely, having it too loose for an extended period can cause discomfort. With adjustable straps, you can create a customized fit and alter when you see fit.

But, it is also important what portions of the life jacket you can adjust. First off, would be the sides and the front. The ability to adjust these portions will allow you to adjust the overall comfort of the vest. But, being able to adjust the shoulder pads will improve the mobility you have. Having the vest fit too snugly on your shoulders will negatively affect your movement, often becoming a hindrance after too long. Without the ability to adjust, the vest will need to fit 100 percent perfectly out of the box. There is a high likelihood that will not be the case unless you pay attention to the specific size dimensions of the life jacket.

Then, there are the vests that are universally designed to fit all adults (under a certain amount of weight). These types put a strong emphasis on adjustment, as that is the only way to ensure it will fit a wide range of people. Overall, size is one thing but adjustability provides an entire level of comfort and customization.

Any Additional Design Features that are Present

Here is where life jackets can be used for more than just saving your life. Although that is the main purpose to them and they work fine without any extra features, it is both fun and convenient when they go beyond their original intent. One aspect that some sellers will include in their life jackets is the addition of storage capabilities. Now, in the instance where you fall out of your kayak, there is the chance that the contents you have inside could be damaged. Thus, be wise with what you put inside. That does beg the question, though, what would you put inside?

Extra storage pockets with attachment loops. Multiple D-rings and rod holder loops work perfectly for fisherman. A life jacket loaded with these capabilities could make a great way for you to fish on your kayak. Might as well combine kayaking and fishing for a perfect afternoon of relaxation, right? Of course, any electronics or accessories that are either waterproof or non-prone to water could be stored as well. This could possibly be a good place for your smartphone. Again, if it is waterproof to a certain degree to be extra safe. In addition, you could look for convenient features such as a hanger loop to prevent you from losing your hat.

This is all great and dandy when you are kayaking in the middle of the day, but how about at night? Dangers are enhanced when kayaking at night, but a neat safety measure (outside of saving your life) sometimes implemented is reflective tape. No need for a doctorate’s degree to understand that objects and people become harder to see at night. There may even be instances where you lose a member of your kayaking team, even yourself. With reflective tape on your life jacket, the chances that you are spotted by someone is greatly enhanced. The tape will easily reflect light, say from a flashlight, to easily show up in the darkness.

What Extra Types of Color Options Are Available, If Any

If you decided to skip over this section entirely without even giving it a glimpse, there is no doubt that you could easily still make a superb decision. This is not implying that this specific criterion is utterly worthless and one you should pay no mind to, but it is solely user preference. Switching between different types of colors will do absolutely nothing to alter the performance or comfortability. However, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in style and wear something that you believe is visually appealing.

Is it such a bad aspect if you prefer a red life jacket over a green one? No, and you should not be ashamed or embarrassed to admit that. Sellers understand this concept very well and it is no coincidence that many give you several color options. Some more than others, but even having a few options is better than nothing. However, do not get it twisted or confused, this is not something you should prioritize over other models that are superior in comfort and design. In the instance where you are stuck between two different life jackets, though, it can be a great way to decide between them.

Keep an Eye Out for How They Fit Specific Weights

This was briefly addressed in the size section, but it is one that could be very important down the road and deserves special recognition. Most life jackets, specifically the ones on this list, are designed to fit people over 90 pounds. But, they do not typically specify the maximum weight. Maximum, in the sense of how well they will fit larger individuals. With some models, they will not properly for anyone over 300 pounds. This is not meant to exclude these people, but some designers simply do not make them accommodate people of that size. If there are any potential concerns with this, see if you can find any customers who were dissatisfied with the way it fits them. If they were due to the discomfort of the size, even with the largest version, it may be wise to look elsewhere.

FAQs

Q:  Are Life Jackets Required When You Go Kayaking?

A:   When it comes to recreational activities in the water, states do not mess around with your safety. In most states, there are strict laws when it comes to life jackets. Even in states where there is no children’s life jacket law, the U.S. Coast Guard mandates that children under 13 on moving boats must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket. For adults, it can be just as strict, however. From state to state, the laws are going to vary so check your state’s rules. But, for example, here is the law pertaining to life jackets in kayaks for California.

They require, for a canoe or kayak of any length, that a Coast Guard-approved life jacket be carried for each person that is on board. You do not have to wear them, but they must be readily available and easy to get to. So, that would mean a life jacket must be present in everyone’s kayaking boat. In addition, everyone must be aware of where it is located. Again, this is strictly California’s law and your states may vary. This is just to give you an example of what you can expect.

Q:  How Do Life Jackets Save Lives?

A:  Past the simple answer of saving people from drowning, how exactly do life jackets save lives? For some people, they may possess the mentality that they do not need one because they know how to swim. Guess what, in some circumstances, you could swim as well as Michael Phelps and still be in a precarious situation. To give you an idea, here are some situations where a life jacket could actually end up saving your life.

If you happen to be capsized in rough water and are trapped. In heavy sea conditions, if you choose to kayak in larger bodies of water, your kayak could unexpectedly sink. A collision could viscously throw you out of your boat or you could become injured by rocks or other submerged objects. In the instance where you have heavy clothing, you could be unable to swim with it. If you get caught in a current and it keeps dragging you under, you could easily run out of breath and drown. Finally, you could become unconscious and not even know you are sinking.

While all these may sound like extreme cases that will never happen to you, you never know what could happen when you are surrounded by an environment that can kill you at any moment.

Q:  How Do You Clean Life Jackets?

A:  Even though the extent of a life jacket’s shelf life will be spent in or near water, it will still need to be washed from time to time. No matter what kind of life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) you possess, they should all be simple to clean. To start, rinse off the vest in your sink or with a hose outside. From there, you will want to fill a bucket with a couple of gallons of water and add a clean-rinsing detergent. With a generic scrub brush, apply the cleaner to the heavily soiled areas of the jacket. However, let the scrub do the work and try not to overextend yourself while doing so; as you do not want to apply too much pressure.

Then, you can submerge the entire jacket into the bucket and scrub it with a sponge. Once the cleaning has finished, it is time to rinse off your jacket in the same method as before. For proper drying, be sure to hang it up away from direct sunlight; such as in a shaded area. If you want, you can also apply a sun-damaging repellent to prevent it from fading over time.

Q:  Do Life Jackets Have an Expiration Date?

A:  There are not too many more nightmarish scenarios than realizing when you need it, that your life jacket no longer works. This means that yes, they do have an expiration date. However, this should not come as much of a surprise to you because nothing lasts forever. But, it does not work like a food product. When you use it the first time, there is not a date on the product that informs you of when it will stop working. As with anything, life jackets are susceptible to damage over time.

When the material inside of the jacket, which is used to provide proper buoyancy to keep your head afloat, becomes damage it will hinder the performance. In due time, it will recede to the point where it is unusable. It is hard to prevent normal wear and tear, but there are some precautions that you can take to prolong the shelf life of a life jacket. The way you store it, which will be addressed shortly, and how you use it (do not use it for anything outside of its intended purpose) could be deciding factors in how long the jacket lasts for you.

Q:  How Do You Properly Store a Life Jacket to Preserve its Shelf Life?

A:  Life jackets and PFD’s are rendered completely useless if they do not hold people afloat. As you probably do not want to buy a new one every year, take care in how you store it. No, you can’t simply just throw it in a random area and expect it to last. They are sensitive and need to be stored properly. Thankfully, this is not a difficult task and takes a little effort on your part. Firstly, always avoid letting it sit underneath the direct sunlight for extended periods of time. This will not only fade-out the fabric but also cause it to slowly deteriorate.

Past this, make sure that you store them in a dark and cool place. But, be sure that you clean them first as the heavy soil will damage the performance if left unchecked on a life jacket. When you find a dark and cool location, be sure that heavy objects are not placed on top of it. Obviously, this can crush the foam inside and damage it. Lastly, if you plan on leaving the life jacket in the kayak (if you own it) do not do so for too long.

Q:   How Do You Test Out Your Life Jacket?

A:  Even if you have taken proper care of your jacket, it still may stop working over time. If you pull it out of storage after an extended period, you may want to test it to ensure its performance. The last thing you want is to realize it does not work in an emergency situation where you need it. In order to avoid this, you can test it out manually.

To do so, firstly, put your life jacket on and make sure it fits properly and that all zippers, straps, and ties are secured. Then, find a body of water large enough to walk into so your neck touches. From there, lift up your legs and tilt your head back a little. If it does not take any physical effort to stay afloat, then it is functioning properly. If it starts to ride up, though, try securing it tighter to your body (if there are adjustable straps). However, if you still sink with your life jacket on then it is time to look over this list again!

Final Thoughts

Under no circumstance should you believe you are too old or good to wear a life jacket. Given that many state laws will mandate that you have one, you should not have this mentality in the first place. Life jackets are vitally important so take your time to consider which model is best for you and your family. Remember, it could end up saving your life.