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, it’s better to feel secure in a life jacket.
It may seem simple to go pick out a life jacket. I mean, it’s just foam inside some casing, right? Let’s keep this simple. Yes, the concept of a life jacket might seem quite simple to the untrained eye; however, when it comes to keeping you and your loved ones safe, it’s best to opt for tried and true life jacket. So before you head out to your nearest sports store, simply peruse over this top ten best life jackets for kayaks to help you decide which one suits your needs best.
- Stohlquist Flo
- O’Neil Reactor
- Stohlquist Trekker
- NRS cVest Mesh-back
- NRS Chinook Mesh-back
- Stearns Adult Watersport Vest
- Kokatat Bahia Tour
- Onyx Movement Curve Paddle
- Eyson Slim Inflatable
- MTI Adventurer Journey
- Criteria Used for Evaluation
- Other Factors to Consider
- Frequently Asked Questions
Top Ten Life Jackets for Kayaking
1. Stohlquist Flo
USCG and Transport Canada approved
Zipper with non-corroding slider
At times, it can be a hassle to adjust and zip up
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.Read more
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.
Options for x-small/small, medium/large, and plus size are available.
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.
Just two: purple and gray and orange and gray.
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.
2. O’Neil Reactor
Quick release dual safety buckles
Overlock stitching provides super-strong seams
Some have trouble with sizing
The O’Neill Reactor Life Vest resembles the Stearns model in many ways. However, for pure visual design, this may be the best of the bunch.Read more
This well constructed life vest is made of mesh, neoprene, and polyester. It is constructed to be very durable and comfortable. It is a USCG Approved life flotation device.
A terrific amount of size options are available for you to choose from. You can select small all the way up to 3x-large. However, it is built to be a slightly looser fit for those who want a little more room to move.
This particular O'Neill lifejacket has two adjustable straps at the front, and it does fit a little looser; however, the design is built to be sleek.
Additional Design Features
This lifejacket has quick release buckles for safety and a heavy, durable zipper at the front to maintain optimal security.
The O'Neill Reactor comes in black with either yellow or grey striping.
This lifejacket is lightweight, sleek, and still offers full security and safety. You really can't go wrong with this if you are looking for something a little more fashionable.
3. Stohlquist Trekker
The mesh back ride perfectly in a high back rest
Constructed from a nylon outer shell 200D Oxford liner
It takes some time for proper adjustment
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.Read more
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.
You can choose between small/medium, large/x-large and universal plus.
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.
There are a few for you to choose from including black, fireball red, and mango.
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.
4. NRS cVest Mesh-back
Eight adjustable points for a snug fit
Six included pockets for storage
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.Read more
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.
Options for small/medium, large/x-large and xx-large are available.
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.
Three are available to select from blue, orange and red.
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.
5. NRS Chinook Mesh-back
Features seven front pockets for extra storage capabilities
The mesh-designed lower back provides an excellent amount of ventilation
The upper strap can sometimes rub against your neck, causing irritation
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.Read more
The mesh-designed lower back provides great ventilation and the soft PlushFIT foam flotation conforms perfectly to your body.
Options for small/medium, large/x-large, and xx-large are available.
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.
You can choose from either charcoal, green or orange.
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.
6. Stearns Adult Watersport Vest
Four adjustable straps in the front provide a custom fit
US Coast Guard approved
Pretty small vest and will not adequately fit larger people
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.Read more
A 200D nylon shell and PE foam provide a great amount of durability and the large armholes provide a great amount of maneuverability.
Again, no size options are accessible but it is universally sized to fit most adults over 90 pounds.
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.
You can select from blue, red and yellow designs.
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.
7. Kokatat Bahia Tour
It is approved by the United States Coast Guard, Transport Canada and ISO
Multiple side adjustments and adjustable shoulder straps provide a custom fit
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
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.Read more
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.
As with other models, small/medium, large/x-large, and xx-large size options are available.
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.
Only two options: mango and orange.
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.
8. Onyx Movement Curve Paddle
U.S. Coast Guard approved
It is sculpted to give you total freedom of movement
Thick and bulky
Perfect may not be obtainable, but the ONYX MoveVent Life Vest is as perfect as you will find for a kayaking trip.Read more
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.
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.
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.
Only two are available, yellow and blue.
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.
9. Eyson Slim Inflatable
Reusable, washable and easy to air dry
CE certificated and SOLAS approved 3M reflectors
It is not certified in the United States, which is something to be wary of
Compared to the rest, the Eyson Inflatable PFD is unique. Besides being inflatable, the overall design and construction are much different.Read more
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.
There are no size options available but this life jacket is universally designed to fit adults under 330 pounds.
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.
While there are no size options, there are plenty of color options. This includes different shades of blue, black, gray, red, olive and yellow.
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.
10. MTI Adventurer Journey
Weighing in at less than a pound, it is very lightweight
The reflective shoulder pads and bright color add safety
While it is a great PFD, some pockets would have been nice
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.Read more
Extremely lightweight, weighing in at under one pound, and soft shoulder straps and totally open sides provide an amazing amount of breathing room.
No small or medium option, just large/x-large and xx-large/xxx-large.
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.
A couple of options can be chosen: mango and olive oil.
It is hard to find reasons why you would want to avoid this model because all the factors present are great to amazing.
Criteria Used for Evaluation
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.
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.
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.
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.
Expert Interviews & Opinions
When choosing a life jacket that will fit securely and fit great there is a sizing trick you want to keep in mind. If you are looking for a life jacket for an adult, you will want to take a measurement of your chest as this is the best way to figure out your size. If you are looking for a life jacket for your child, you will want to know your child's weight and make your decision based on this.
Other Factors to Consider
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!