When you are kayaking, just like in life, it is better to be safe than sorry. That’s why it is important to always wear your PFD (Personal Floatation Device) or lifejacket even if you are a good swimmer. Even experienced paddlers know that your life jacket could be the most important piece of equipment for your kayak adventure. You are going to want to be sure you get the best kayak PFD you can.
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You may be overwhelmed by all the kayak life jackets for sale, but don’t stress. When you are searching for the best life jacket for kayaking, there are really two things that you need to focus on.
First, you want to make sure you choose a Coast Guard approved life vest. This helps ensure that the PFD will provide you with the buoyancy that you need when kayaking. There are 5 different types of Coast Guard approved flotation devices, which I explain in more detail below. For kayaking, most people use either a Type 3 or a Type 5 PFD. If you live outside the US, then there should be another government organization that provides a certification.
Second, you will want to make sure you get the most comfortable kayak life vest for you. If your PFD is not comfortable, then you are not going to wear it. The best kayak life vest is one that you will wear! When choosing the best PFD for your size, you need to first measure your chest when you are wearing your paddling clothes. You will also want to take into consideration the height of your kayak seat and the back of the PFD. If you have a sit on top kayak or one that has a high seat back, you will need a PFD with a high back so that it does not get pushed up.
Note: In this post, I only discuss the best life jackets for adults, meaning people over 90 lbs. I will work on a list for children soon.
USCG Approved PFD Types
The US Coast Guard has come up with 5 different PFD types. Most kayakers prefer to use either a Type 3 PFD or a Type 5 PFD. Here are the definitions of the different life vest types so that you can make an educated choice for yourself:
- Type I PFDs are made for rough or remote open waters where rescue may take a while. They are the most buoyant PFD and will turn most unconscious people into a face-up position. Most commercial vessels have Type I PFDs. This level of buoyancy is not usually necessary for kayaking and the Type I PFDs can be bulky.
- Type II PFDs are intended for calm waters and situations where a fast rescue is likely. They are buoyant enough to turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position. The design of a Type II PFD is very basic and less bulky than Type I. A Type II life jacket is typically less expensive than Type I but not as comfortable as Type III life vest.
- Type III PFDs are suitable for most paddlers because they offer freedom of movement and comfort for continuous wear. These PFDs are designed so wearers may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water. A Type III PFD not as buoyant as Type I or Type II.
- Type IV PFDs are flotation devices, like life rings or buoyant cushions, that are meant to be thrown to a conscious person who is in trouble and provides additional assistance to a PFD. Type IV PFDs are not designed to be worn and you do not need them for kayaking or other paddling sports.
- Type V PFDs are flotation devices that are made for specific activities. The USCG requires that a Type V PFD is used for the activity specified on the label like kayaking.
Standard or Inflatable Life Jacket?
You will need to decide if you want a standard or inflatable life jacket. Standard life jackets are more traditional and rated as USCG Type III. They look like a vest and rely on flotation material, like foam, to create buoyancy. Inflatable PFDs are either Type III or Type V USCG approved and can be either manually or automatically inflated.
With the manual inflation PFD, you pull a cord, which activates a CO2 gas cartridge and inflates the vest. The automatic design inflates when submerged in water. You have to be careful with a self-inflating life jacket because when you are kayaking you tend to get wet. For manually inflatable PFDS, you need to replace the CO2 cartridge after each inflation to ensure proper operation.
Some people chose an inflatable PFD because it covers less of your body so they feel like it is more comfortable and cooler than a standard PFD. The best inflatable life vest I can recommend is the Onyx Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket. Only use it if you know how to swim and don’t plan on doing any whitewater kayaking. If you do your research, though, you can definitely find standard PFDs that are comfortable and have cooling features.
Personally, I prefer a standard life jacket because you don’t have to activate it to get the buoyancy. Plus, they have pockets for storage. Inflatable PFDs should never be used during high-impact activities, such as whitewater kayaking. Also, they are not recommended for children under the age of 16 or those that don’t know how to swim.
If you can’t decide between standard or inflatable, you can occasionally find a kayak PFD that’s a combination of a standard and an inflatable life vest. A hybrid PFD, like the KOKATAT Sea02 PFD, gives you inherent buoyancy in a compressed, comfortable life vest, but typically costs significantly more.
The All-Around Best Kayak PFD
ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest tops my list of kayak PFD recommendations. This vest that conforms to your body like a glove and has vented channels to keep you cool while paddling. You also get a great range of motion. It’s the most comfortable life jacket for kayaking!
The ONYX MoveVent is also durable since it is made with 200 denier nylon ripstop and nylon oxford. The soft flotation foam on the inner back provides added comfort and the SOLAS grade reflective material is great for visibility. It has pockets for storage and even comes with a whistle. You can see why it is my top-rated kayak PFD.
The Best Kayak Fishing PFD
In addition to the requirements for any kayak PFD, the best kayak fishing life vest will have extra storage and lots of mobility. For storage, some kayak fishing PFDs will feature for tool hangers, loops for a rod and a drop-down pocket table for working with lures and flies. Additionally, the best fishing life vest allows your shoulders and arms to move freely for casting and reeling in the big catch! If you are really serious about fishing, I would not recommend an inflatable fishing life vest as they just don’t have enough storage.
In my opinion, the best life jacket for kayak fishing is the Stohlquist Fisherman. It is a type III PFD with sea level buoyancy of 16 lbs. 12 oz. The Stohlquist Fisherman personal floatation device has a 500 denier Cordura shell, 200 denier oxford liner, and eco-conscious Gaia foam. You get good shoulder mobility with open sides for ventilation, a high back, adjustable shoulder and side strap plus plenty of storage for your fishing gear.
Also, you might be interested in reading my Fishing Kayak recommendations.
Best Whitewater PFD
If you are a whitewater kayaker you want to make sure you have a PFD with extra buoyancy. You will also need stronger construction that other types of PFDs. I also recommend that you chose a standard PFD and not an inflatable one. Whitewater life jackets are typically larger and also have extra storage space for your rescue gear. You want to make sure the whitewater PFD you choose has wide armholes, a high waistline, and is fully adjustable.
The Astral Greenjacket Rescue PFD is widely considered the best whitewater life jacket by the pros. It combines full rescue capabilities with the comfort and protection in a low-profile life jacket. The Foam Tectonics allow the outer front panel to move freely with your upper body while the inner panel stays in place. The 500 denier Cordura® nylon with PVC-Free Gaia™ and PE foam flotation make this a durable and environmentally-friendly whitewater kayak PFD. It also has “Flotection” armor plating along the sides to protect you from impact. The large zippered pocket has multiple compartments for stowing your rescue gear.
Best Women’s PFD for Kayaking
A pink kayak life jacket does not necessarily equate to the best women’s kayak life vest. I mentioned before that it is important that a PFD fit you correctly. Since women are built differently than men, it makes sense that women need a PFD that is cut for a woman.
My wife thinks that the Stohlquist Flo is the best women’s kayak life vest. This Type III PFD has built-in support cups designed to fit a women’s torso instead of smush it. The Flo has 8 adjustable points to the make sure you get the perfect fit. It won’t ride up while you are paddling thanks to the Cinch-Strap that wraps diagonally across the body – only Stohlquists have it. You also have wide armholes so you get a good range of motion.
Another feature of the Flo that helps make it the best women’s kayak life jacket is the mesh back. It allows the air to flow, moves perspiration away from your body, and keeps you cool. It also allows for the PFD to sit higher on your back, which works well especially with the high back kayak seats on sit-on-top kayaks. The outside is made from ripstop material that is very durable The lower back waistband is padded with neoprene so it won’t chafe your skin if you are wearing a swimsuit. It also has good size snap pockets for storing things like your sunglasses.
Cheap Kayak PFD
You want to be really careful about buying a cheap life vest. I personally would spend the money to make sure I got a kayaking life jacket that is durable and comfortable. However, I know some of you are just casual kayakers so you don’t want to spend a lot of money on something you won’t be using very often.
The cheap kayak PFD that I would recommend is the ONYX Universal Paddle Vest Universal. It is USCG Type III so you will be covered from a safety perspective. However, cheap kayak life vests may not be as durable or comfortable as the other kayak PFDs I recommended.
There are plenty of good life jackets for kayaking from various kayak pfd brands on the market. Personally, I prefer a standard rather than an inflatable PFD for kayaking. It is important that you find the most comfortable PFD for kayaking for you.
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