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As a general rule we all need to understand and respect that bodies of water and the weather, on any given day, are unpredictable. It’s because of this that the single most important piece of safety gear for when you’re kayaking is a Personal Floatation Device (PFD).
When I think back to my childhood, I remember a PFD that was bulky, fit poorly, often caused a rash or chafing and were basically extremely uncomfortable to wear. Today kayaking PFDs are designed for maximum comfort and unrestricted movement.
This article provides reviews of the best PFD for kayaking and the information you need to decide which vest best suits your needs.
Top 5 Comparison Chart
10 Best PFDs for Kayaking Reviewed
1. Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Jacket
The Onyx MoveVent is designed for comfort and freedom of movement making it ideal for kayaking. This PFD features adjustable neoprene shoulder pads for comfort along with front and rear ventilation to keep you cool while you’re on the water.
The Onyx is front zipping with adjustable side straps to assist you in getting that perfect fit while maintaining your flexibility. There is ample storage with zippered pockets providing a safe place for your accessories. Special features include a reflective exterior material for maximum visibility and an integrated whistle for additional safety.
This is a type III PFD made of a nylon material that is both resilient and comfortable.
2. Stohlquist Men's Trekker Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device
The Stohlquist Men’s Trekker comes with ventilated back pads and shoulder straps that are adjustable for your comfort. The PFD features a cross-chest harness to limit the vest from riding up and has open sides providing great ventilation. The front has an easy to use zipper front and also has 2 large zippered front pockets to store personal items. Additional storage is provided on the back of the PFD.Like the women’s version, the Stohlquist Cruiser, (covered below) this vest offers neoprene padding in the shoulders, as well as minimal shoulder straps. This is a type III PFD made of a nylon material that is durable, lightweight and strong.
3. Stohlquist Women's Cruiser Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device
The Stohlquist Cruiser is designed specifically for female kayakers. The PFD features a cross-chest harness to limit the vest from riding up and has inner cups providing additional support. The vest has a shorter cut providing a better fit for women
The back of the PFD has a mesh lining to keep you cool and shoulder straps designed for superior stability and maximum comfort. The vest has 2 zippered pockets on the front for storing personal items.
The lower back features a mesh lining to help cool you down during long days on the water, and the shoulder straps are designed for excellent stability but minimal discomfort. Two zippered pockets on the front allow you to store your items.Like the men’s version, the Stohlquist Trekker, (covered above) this vest offers neoprene padding in the shoulders, as well as minimal shoulder straps. This is a type III PFD made of a nylon material that is durable, lightweight and rip resistant.
4.NRS Chinook Fishing PFD
The NRS Chinook is specifically designed for anglers that need plenty of storage space and flexibility for organizing gear and tackle. There are 3 zipper pockets to store small tackle boxes or a cell phone. One pocket includes a key clip, so you don’t lose your keys while you’re fishing. The 4 velcro pockets have varied sizes for flexibility in organizing your gear.
This vest also features a rod holder loop, knife lash tab, several D-rings, and a mesh back for great ventilation. There is a front zipper for easy on and off, adjustment straps to customize the fit and a soft foam fit.
5. Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket
The Stohlquist Edge provides a basic PFD that does not sacrifice performance or safety. This vest offers a highly contoured form with the ergonomic WRAPTURE (TM) shaped torso. It is low cut, with an offset front zipper. The shoulder straps are wide, distributing the load.
There are 2 zippered pockets on the front with one located on the right side and a large central pocket ideal for storing bulkier items and essential gear. This PFD was designed for sailing and whitewater uses but also works fine with your kayak.
6. ONYX Kayak Fishing Life Jacket
The ONYX Kayak Fishing Life Jacket features 6 strap adjustments to secure the vest for a snug fit. It has a high foam back made with a breathable mesh lower back. The shoulders of the vest are constructed with a comfortable neoprene pads.
This PFD has 4 different pocket designed for various functions, holding your essential gear. Additionally, there is a one-button push drop down tray pocket that will hold a small tackle box. There is a lash tab to hold a knife or whistle.
7. Onyx Curve MOVEVENT Paddle Sports PFD
The Onyx Curve MOVEVENT is designed as its name implies, for movement and ventilation, providing comfort and flexibility. The vest features a curved front design, keeping you safe and comfortable.
This PFD is made of nylon that is rip resistant and there is a full ventilation on the front, keeping you cool during your time on the water. The back is a high-rise design, with a mesh lower section.
The design is intended to provide a complete range of movement, avoiding any binding or chafing.
8. Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device
The Stohlquist Fisherman is constructed with a special nylon shell that resists abrasion and UV rays for long-lasting service. This PFD features adjustable neoprene shoulders, a unique cross-chest straps that eliminates ride-up and keeps the PFD in place, and has a PVC-free foam construction that is soft and flexible and won’t breakdown in a wet environment.
The vest also has an array of pockets with anchor points, a front zip entry closure, and multiple tool hangers.
9. O'Neill Men's Superlite USCG Life Vest
The O’Neill Superlite is a versatile vest with a streamlined design. If you are looking for a basic PFD without many frills, this will be a vest you want to consider.
This PFD features plenty of security and loads of comfort. There are no pockets but there is a single D-ring on the front at the bottom of the vest.
10. Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest
The Stearns Classic provides security and bright, vibrant color options. The vest is equipped with several buckles and straps, designed to ensure it stays in place no matter the water activities you’re engaged in.
The PFD is made with a nylon and lightweight foam providing a comfortable and soft fit. Additionally, it features open sides making it breathable and provides freedom of movement.
Kayak PFD Buyer’s Guide
The following is a buyer's guide for what you need to know and look for to find the best PFD to meet your individual needs.
Types of Personal Flotation Devices
Type I PFD: They are designed specifically for situations where you will need buoyancy for a long period of time and when rescue won’t be imminent. They are also designed to roll an unconscious individual onto their backs. They are most commonly found on commercial watercraft.
Type II PFD: Less bulky than a Type I and are not designed for use in remote waters. Offer less buoyancy but improve your ability to move while in your PFD. You will not find comfort features or other options found in Type III PFDs.
Type III PFD: Commonly used in watersports, such as kayaking. All of the PFDs reviewed are Type III vests with the exception of #10 Stearns Classic, which is a Type II. These vests feature greater comfort, flexibility, range of movement and a variety of options while providing very good buoyancy.
Type IV PFD: Not designed to be worn but rather are intended to be thrown to individuals needing assistance in the water.
Type V PFD: The least buoyant PFDs and generally are considered for “special uses.” Each individual Type V is designed for different uses with the suitable uses outlined on the label.
For more information about the various types of life jackets, visit the Boat U.S. Foundation.
Personal Flotation Device Fit
PFDs come in various sizes similar to t-shirt sizes: small, medium, large X-large, XX-large, etc. When you are trying on a PFD, the fit should be snug but not overly tight. You should feel comfortable in the vest but it should not feel loose. The following are some simple tips to assist you in choosing the best size/fit for you:
Undue the front closure(s) and loosen all of the straps.
Put the PFD on.
Tighten all of the straps/zippers, starting with your waist; remember comfortable but snug.
Have someone assist you by pulling your shoulder straps.
If the vest moves higher than your cheeks or nose, the straps will need to be tightened.
Have the individual assisting you pull on the shoulder straps again.
If the vest continues to move higher than your cheeks, you will need to try a smaller vest.
Factors to Consider
Due to the various classes, styles, colors and numerous features it can make it a challenge to find the best flotation device for your needs. The following are some important factors to consider:
The US Coast Guard has established the qualities necessary to be a certified PFD. All of the PFDs listed in this article are compliant with the USCG rules and regulations and are certified. If you choose to purchase a PFD not listed in this article you should do your due diligence to ensure it has been certified.
Many of the PFDs listed offer several color options for your vest. Most are brightly colored for the purpose of making you more visible should you need to be rescued. No matter the color, bright or dark, make sure there is reflective materials on the vest to increase your visibility.
Type of Adventures:
The type of kayaking adventures you will be engaging in will influence the PFD you should choose. If you are simply going out on a lake for a leisurely paddle you will not need a specialized, high-end PFD. In contrast, if you are planning to do some whitewater kayaking you will want a vest that affords the greatest freedom of movement while giving you the necessary buoyancy needed to keep you safe and the additional features desired.
Nice feature for storing smaller items that you want easy access to: phone, whistle, strobe, snacks, etc.
Makes you more visible to others on the water, especially in low-light conditions.
Putting on some PFDs you will use a zipper, others slip over your head, while others have straps to secure. Because of ease of use, most individuals prefer zippers but depending on the material of the zipper they could corrode over time.
D-rings and Loop Attachments:
D-rings and loops provide attachment points for accessories you will need, such as a strobe, a whistle, etc. Choose your vest based on the needs you will have for attaching accessories.
Whether it’s the air temperature, sun or the level of physical activity you are likely to become hot, which will affect your comfort and safety. Ventilation allows air to move freely around your body, cooling you and reducing the amount of sweating. Vests with quality ventilation will help to ensure a comfortable day on the water and avoid the danger of becoming overheated.
Look for PFDs that are made from quality material, such as those we’ve listed that are constructed using either nylon or neoprene.
PFDs are measured and rated for the amount of buoyancy to keep your body above water. Type III PFDs which are recommended for kayaking should have a minimum measurement of 15.5 pounds. Typically, most adults need between 7 and 12 pounds to stay afloat. Generally speaking, Type I and Type II PFDS have higher ratings but are not as comfortable or allow for as much range of movement.
Range of Motion:
When you are kayaking, whether you are fishing, whitewater kayaking, getting in a workout or just taking a leisurely sunset paddle, you want to have a PFD that doesn’t restrict your range of motion. Any PFD that restricts motion can be a safety issue, cause discomfort and restrict your ability to function.
Frequently Asked Questions About Kayaking Life Jackets
What is the best type of PFD for Kayaking?
Any PFD that has USCG certification and fits appropriately is satisfactory for kayaking. However, you don’t want to purchase a PFD that is restrictive or uncomfortable. Doing so only increases the likelihood you won’t wear it thus defeating the purpose for having a PFD. If it restricts your range of motion you could be putting your safety in jeopardy.
So, investing in a PFD that has been designed specifically for kayaking is worth the investment, even if you are only a casual kayaker. You will find the increased flexibility, range of motion and comfort level well worth the investment. Kayakers are best off using Type III PFDs but may consider Type II or V.
Do you really need a PFD for kayaking?
The simplest and most direct answer is YES! If you are on the water, you need to be using a PFD. The purpose of a PFD is to keep you afloat, especially under circumstances where you must swim or tread water until you can be rescued.
No matter your skills as a swimmer or the type of kayaking you are engaging in, things happen and when they do you don’t want to be scrambling to find your PFD. You’re on the water, you have a PFD on!
How long does a PFD last?
Typically a PFD will last approximately 10 years but this is dependent on a variety of circumstances. Obviously, the more frequently you use your PFD the more wear and tear. How you maintain, store and clean your PFD will also have an impact on longevity of your device. If your PFD is damaged or is showing wear it should be replaced.
What’s the best way to check the buoyancy of your PFD and that it fits securely?
The surest way to test your PFD is to go to a body of water (even a pool), put your vest on and enter the water. Put the PFD on as if you were taking your next kayaking adventure. Once you’ve securely fit the device, enter the water, relax your body and attempt to float.
Your PFD should keep your chin above the water and you should be able to breathe comfortably. You will also want to jump into the water to ensure it doesn’t ride up and stays secure.
There is no more important piece of equipment than a PFD to ensure your safety on your next kayak outing. There is a large selection that will meet your personal preferences, fit you comfortably and provide an adequate range of motion, so take the time to find the one that will best meet your needs.
All of the PFDs we have recommended have pros and cons. We have listed our top five choices in order: Onyx MoveVent Dynamic, Stohlquist Men's Trekker, Stohlquist Women’s Cruiser, NRS Chinook, and Stohlquist Edge. We have also provided 5 additional PFDs with unique designs for your review and consideration.
Hopefully this information will assist you in choosing the PFD that best fits your needs. Let us know in the comments sections which PFD is your preference.
For more of our top kayaking gear recommendations, please visit the following articles.
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.