So you’ve already assembled all the items you need for your next kayak trip, including your vessel, paddle, and any travel accessories you want.
Ready to hit the water? Not quite.
One thing that anyone on the water will need is a PFD, or personal flotation device.
Not only is it important for your own safety, in many cases, it’s the law.
Depending on where you are, you may either need to be wearing a PFD in any boat on the water, or simply have one with you. But at any level of kayaking, you don’t want to take a chance.
While it’s easy to just grab the first life vest you see and be on your way, the nature of kayaking means that your choice of PFD can have repercussions on your experience besides just keeping you safe.
In this article we show you the items you need to consider when it comes to choosing the best PFD for kayaking. Also, we take a look at some of the most popular items on the market.
Our Top Pick – Onyx MoveVent Curve
The number one choice when you’re looking for a PFD exclusively for kayaking.
What Types of PFD are available?^
Before going into what type of PFD you should look for as a kayaker, let’s take a moment to survey your options.
Here are the common types that you are likely to encounter:
- Type I – Offshore Life Jackets: These are the favorite if you plan on sea kayaking. While they are the bulkiest of the options, they are also the most buoyant.
- Type II – Near-shore Vests: Designed for calmer waters where quick rescues are most likely, these are less bulky than Type I but still have some bulk.
- Type III – Flotation Aids: These are generally still good for most paddlers if they are in a place where a quick rescue is likely. Out of all of these, they provide the most comfort and mobility for continuous wear.
- Type IV – Throwable Devices: Meant to be thrown to someone in the water, these aren’t really applicable to kayakers.
- Type V – Special-use Devices: There are PFD’s out there for specific activities, kayaks included. There’s a lot of variances out there, so while these are certainly great, you may not want to pigeonhole yourself.
Overall, for kayaking, III and V are going to be the ones you are likely to use.
What Should You Look For In A Kayaking PFD?^
After choosing your type, the next most important things to consider as a kayaker are fit and mobility.
Remember, you’re going to be paddling a lot. In addition, you may also need to reach around in the boat depending on what type of outing you are taking.
When choosing a fit for a kayak, remember that for adults, it’s the chest size that will determine the fit. Only for children is weight what you need to pay attention to for fit.
If you are looking for the maximum amount of freedom, try to keep an eye out for devices with deep neck, large armholes, and narrow shoulder straps.
Some PFDs will also have a mesh on the back, which is important if you are sitting on a high-back or sit-on-top kayak.
Another thing to consider is material. The majority of the vests on the market will be made from nylon or similar materials, but for the environmentally conscious, there are some alternatives out there.
These include kapok and Gaia, but these are generally not as available as the more common choices. They also call for a higher cost.
A similar decision you will have to make regarding function vs. cost when it comes to PFDs is added features.
These include options like brighter colors for added visibility, tabs that let you attach strobes, knives, or other necessary accessories, as well as pockets and fishing features.
Personally, I prefer to buy a boat that has room for many of these types of features and leave the PFD relatively clear. However, everyone prefers to kayak differently.
If you plan on kayaking on the sea or in rougher rivers, I also believe that purchasing a PFD with bright colors is a worthy investment.
For some of the other additions, I’m not as certain that the feature is worth the added cost.
Before going into the top sellers, I want to take a moment to address the rise of inflatable PFDs. These include vests and waist packs.
The waist packs are growing in popularity for paddle boarders and kayakers, and I can see why. When uninflated, these offer a slim profile, which means more mobility for you.
Rather than being ready to use all the time, these packs use on-demand inflation. Pull a cord to activate a CO2 cartridge to start inflating the pack.
While these are usable, I only recommend these for experienced kayakers in calmer waters.
The reason for this is that the fact that you have to actively make them do their job could be a potential hazard in a split-second situation.
The 4 Best PFD For Kayaking^
Here are some of the top sellers in the PFD for kayaking space, along with my own personal impressions regarding them and the type of customer I think would make the best use of them.
Remember, the best PFD for kayaking changes from person to person.
The Top PFD for Kayaking^
One thing to note is that the Onyx MoveVent Curve is the highest selling PFD on Amazon at the time of this writing.
In my experience, the top sellers on Amazon aren’t always the single highest quality offering available. However, they generally are a good meeting between quality, durability, and affordability.
Onyx MoveVent Curve
The number one choice when you’re looking for a PFD exclusively for kayaking.
In addition, the top sellers are almost always accessible for newcomers. Sure enough, this PFD met all those parameters.
Note that this PFD was designed specifically for paddle sports, which counts for more than you may initially think.
Using a soft flotation foam and nylon outer shell, the first thing I noticed is that this vest has a great deal of mobility, which can be essential depending on where and how you like to kayak.
I also noticed that the back of this life vest has a mesh. If you plan on using a kayak with a high back or a sit-on-top-kayak, this could be a very useful addition.
Overall, I feel that this vest is not only a solid addition to any kayaker’s items but demonstrates well the reasons why one might want to invest in several PFDs for different activities rather than using one all-purpose one.
The added comfort and mobility can make quite a positive difference for your kayaking experience. The only thing I would caution is that this vest is designed for chest sizes 44 – 56. Those with dimensions outside of this area may need to look elsewhere.
The Best PFD for Whitewater Kayaking^
The first thing you notice about the design of this O’Neill is the many straps it has running across the stomach.
This and many of the impressions give off the vibe that this is meant for more high-octane water sports like jet-skiing and wakeboarding.
I wanted to include this in the kayaking discussion for two reasons:
A: There are some features and pluses here that you will likely not get with a traditional kayaking PFD that may be a benefit to you. I will discuss these in a moment.
B: For whitewater kayaking, you may want something that will take a rougher pace.
I mentioned that the Onyx is a good argument for searching for specifically seeking out kayaking PFDs, but this O’Neill raises an argument for the other side.
In addition to the added security you get with this type of design, this jacket also avoids riding up. If you read customer impressions on various PFDs, you will find that this is a consistent complaint.
There are some things that you can do to try and avoid this.
One option is buying a size larger than expected. Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of design, and this O’Neill avoids that issue.
The second benefit of the design of this one is that it is easier to swim in if needed. Hopefully, you spend more time in your kayak than in the water, and kayak-specific PFDs are designed with this in mind.
Those aren’t made to swim around in so much as they are to float, but this one is more suitable for it. Ultimately, this O’Neill performs solidly and has a few benefits you won’t get from even the best kayaking PFD.
Most likely, you won’t need to consider these unless you are more experienced, but they deserve mentioning.
The Best PFD When on a Budget^
While the O’Neill is more specialized, this Stearns life jacket goes in the other direction.
It serves a good all-purpose PFD that trades functionality for savings. If you are looking for the best PFD for the money, this is probably the standout in this list.
While this may not necessarily stack up to the other PFDs in this list, when you realize how much you are saving price-wise, you may see how this may be the choice for you.
In my testing, this performed adequately with regards to comfort. I didn’t have the flexibility available with some of the other options on this list.
With this said, I could still paddle just fine. It is also on the light side, and kept me afloat just fine in the water. In fact, adequate to good sums up this PFD overall.
One thing that is nice about this that stands apart from some of the more specialized PFDs out there is the variety of sizes available, including an oversized option.
At the end of the day, this Stearns vest is an affordable alternative to some of the other life vests out there.
People who will get the most usage out of this are newcomers not ready to invest too much, those who are just looking for the most basic PFD to avoid Coast Guard fines, as well as those looking for a cheap alternative. With so many valuable niches to fill, this may want to be one PFD you keep an eye on.
A Great All-Round Alternative^
At the same time, its features align well with exactly what you would be looking for.
Stohlquist Ebb PFD
A comfortable PFD that enables great maneuverability! Perfect as an all-round PFD.
When I tried it, the first thing I noticed was how well it fit in my sit-on-top kayak. I also noticed that its design leads to good mobility in the shoulders.
The fit and mobility are likely two of the first things you will notice if you are serious about finding the best PFD for kayaking, so this is a positive.
The harness also keeps it from riding up.
One thing that is different about this particular jacket is the presence of two side entry pockets on.
Personally, I don’t really find much use for these on life jackets, especially when kayaking, but if you have an item that you want to slide into the pockets for easy access, they are well constructed, if a bit on the small side.
Note that this skews a bit on the expensive side, so you may want to weigh of some of the added bonuses of this vest are worth the price tag for you.
PFDs In Review^
As you can see, choosing a PFD can be a larger decision than you may be used to. Let’s review a few things that you need to keep in mind while you’re shopping.
- Be sure to check the local regulations to determine the minimum level that you need. This may also include how you need to keep it in your kayak.
- Make sure to try one out whenever possible. If you aren’t able to, be sure to remember that for adults, chest size determines the fit. For children, it is weight. Women should try to use women-specific PFD’s if possible.
- Decide if you need any special features on your PFD, and if they are worth the added price.
Using these tips are key to helping you find the best PFD for kayaking for you. Happy kayaking!