Kayaking Life Jacket Guide - Best PFDs for kayaking in 2023

Canoes and Kayaks

Kayaking Life Jacket Guide – Kayaking is a popular sport that involves being around water. While being a great way to enjoy the outdoors, it comes with risks if the proper precautions are not taken.

One of the most important safety precautions for kayakers is to wear life jackets. This is because it could be crucial to your survival if you suddenly find yourself out of the kayak swimming in water.

Kayaking PFDs come in many different styles and colors and differ in style based on the type of activity. There are even life jackets for dogs.  Life jackets provide various body and arm movement ranges, buoyancy, and fit. Some are even only inflated once in the water. 

When determining which PFD to buy for kayaking, the type of kayaking, location, level of swimming skill and type of vessel also needs to be considered.

Skip to 5 Best Life Jackets for 2023

kayak life jacket

Quick Reference Guide

What is the difference between a life jacket and a PFD or life vest?

The terms life jacket, life vest, and PFD (Person Flotation Device) all refer to the same thing. So consequently they are all flotation devices designed to give you more buoyancy and help you stay afloat in the water.

Why Do I Need To Wear A Life Jacket?

The role of the life jacket is to provide buoyancy for anyone thrown into the water, to keep you floating. I hear you say “But I’m a really strong swimmer”. That may be the case, but if you hit your head on a rock or the kayak, you could become unconscious, unable to swim. Moreover the extra buoyancy, will also assist you in getting back into the kayak if attempting re-entry from the water. 

What is the best type of kayaking life jacket?

The best life jacket for kayaking is the one that you wear and in good condition! Life jackets and PFDs come in many different styles and colors and differ in style based on the type of use. Let’s take a closer look at the different designs and types of life jackets and which is best for kayaking.

Different Life Jacket Designs

There are four basic design of life jackets types: Inherent, Inflatable and Hybrid and Special Purpose.

  • Inherent means having built-in floatation (foam), making it always buoyant.
  • Inflatable, as the name suggests, is inflated once in the water. This can be either manual inflation or automatic inflation.
  • Hybrid is a combination of foam and inflation.
  • Special Purpose may require a special harness or strap or accessory.

Type and Performance of PFDs

PFDs can be categorized by their type and performance level.  

  • Type I, II, III, IV, and V
  • Levels 50, 70, 100 and 150

The performance level indicates the minimum buoyancy that the devices give. Buoyancy level is measured in Newtons (N). Removing the last zero from the performance level will give the buoyancy level in kg. For example, Level 70 provides 7kg of buoyancy, and level 150 provides 15kg of buoyancy. To convert this to pounds simply multiply by 2.2 (10kg = 2.2 x 10 = 22 pounds)

It is important to note that since 2014 the USCG has begun slowly phasing out references to the types I to V. You may find both or either on a life jacket label. 

Type III life jackets for adults are level 70 performance.

Life jackets rated lower than 70 are not U.S. Coast Guard approved. 

kayaking life jacket
Performance Level Icons now used on some PFDs. A higher number provides greater buoyancy.
kayak life jacket turning icons
The curved arrow icon indicates the life jackets ability or not to turn an unconscious person face up.

Type I: Offshore Life Jackets

Offshore Life Jackets were initially designed to keep people afloat in the water until rescue arrived. As technology advanced, so did the Offshore Life Jackets. Today, they are designed to save lives and provide assistance in emergencies in rough seas or remote waters where help from the nearest ship could be a long way off.

These kayak life vests provide an ample amount of buoyancy. Therefore a Type I PFDs can turn an unconscious person’s face away from the water. As a result they are generally found on commercial vessels and are a one size fits all.

Type II: Near-Shore Vest

Near-shore vests are very buoyant, which makes them suitable for use near shorelines where rescue is expected to arrive soon.
Even so, these vests are still very buoyant, but they do not turn the unconscious person’s face towards the surface.

Type III: Flotation Aids

Flotation aids work well for areas with calm waters because the rescue is usually near and quick. They are not recommended for rough water because they do not turn an unconscious person’s face up, increasing the chances of drowning.

Type III PFDs are commonly worn by kayakers, wakeboarder and windsurfers.

Type IV: Throwable Devices

These buoyancy devices are external floatation devices that can be thrown to the casualty to keep them afloat until they can be rescued.

Type V: Special-Use Devices

Type V vest are customized for specific sports purposes that include kayaking, wakeboarding, and windsurfing. You need to use these lifejackets while abiding by their labels for them to be accepted.

Whilst most kayaking PFDs are Type III, some kayakers particularly anglers prefer to wear inflatable Type V vests that when inflated in the water become a Type I, II or III. 

Do you have to wear a life vest while kayaking?

The last decade has seen an increase in deaths from kayaking caused by capsizing.
Many things can go wrong while kayaking, the environment is unique, and the weather can change unexpectedly. It’s not surprising that one-half of all boating fatalities occur in calm water. It stands to reason that wearing a life vest is one of the best ways to stay safe.

All US states have their own life jacket laws that you will need to be across before venturing out in a kayak. Most states require children of certain ages in kayaks to wear a PFD. Which means the only requirement for adults is to carry one vest per person on the vessel. In other words, it can be stowed away inside the hull.

Having access to a life vest is great in theory, but in an emergency, it would be difficult to retrieve it and put it on. It’s a bit like putting on a seatbelt as your car veers out of control towards a tree…almost useless. Put your life vest on!

How do I choose a good life jacket?

The best kayaking life jackets are not too bulky or heavy, are comfortable and well fitted for your body type. For example, kayaking lifejackets have larger holes around the arms to enable your arms and shoulders enough room to rotate during paddling.  In addiction avoid too much room above the opening and that the jacket doesn’t lift up in the water above your chin.

Buoyancy, correct sizing and durability are vital attributes of a good kayaking PFD life jacket. The first two will help you remain afloat, while durability means it can take a few knocks and won’t fall apart the first time it comes into contact with saltwater.

The 5 Best PFDs (Life Jackets)

There is a seemingly limitless number and types of kayaking life jackets (PFDs) on the market, making your choice a somewhat difficult one. However, we’ve made your choice a little easier by providing you with a popular and highly rated life jackets list. These life jackets are all either Type III or V suitable for kayaking.

NRS continues to meet the needs of avid paddlers around the world. They offer access to superior, convenient, and durable products that will never fail them in difficult situations. This life jacket is an example of its commitment to providing high-quality products while maintaining affordability without sacrificing excellent features and quality.

The NRS Ninja Kayaking PFD is highly rated on Amazon, especially in terms of comfort and extra-large storage pockets options. It is a Type III life jacket that provides a good 16.3 pounds of flotation.
The Ninja provides a comfortable fit through its 6 adjustable points.

What we like:
✅ Excellent quality
✅ Fits well
✅ Great pockets

We don’t like:
⛔️ Bulky in the front

The NRS Chinook Fishing PFD is one of the world’s best-selling life jackets for kayak anglers and the leading seller on Amazon. It’s a Type III life jacket that delivers 16.0 pounds of flotation.
The vest combines PlushFit foam with a high back design for extra strength, support, and comfort.
It has two large zippered pockets and two smaller accessory pockets. In addition a fifth pocket functions as a rod and strobe attachment point.

Like its cousin, the Ninja, the Chinook has 6 adjustment points offering a great customized fit making it one of the best kayak life jacket for fishing.

What we like:
✅ Extremely adjustable
✅ Very comfortable
✅ Pocket space

We don’t like:
⛔️ Sizing is a bit confusing
⛔️ A little pricey

Onyx’s MoveVent Dynamic PFD is a fantastic PFD for entry-level paddlers.  It offers performance at an entry-level price that looks and feels good.

Entry-level kayaker or canoeists looking for a performance-driven life jacket should look no further than this kayaking life jacket. Its innovative features make paddling in this life jacket a delight with its durable materials, watertight seal, and attractive colors.  The vest comes in accents of orange, aqua, yellow and purple.

It has soft neoprene comfort padded shoulders with a super-tough front-entry zip. A mesh ventilation in the front and back helped breathability, whereas the mesh panel in the back accommodates canoe and kayak seats.

What we like:
✅ Affordability
✅ High mesh back to suit kayak seats
✅ Comes with a whistle

We don’t like:
⛔️ Only 1 pocket

With a high-mobility and a non-restrictive cut, Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket is not only a robust and comfortable life vest but also adds to the aesthetics of your look.
It has adjustable shoulders with 4 side pulls and a front waist buckle to ensure the perfect fit. 

This is a Type III vest with the size “SM/MD” PFD at 15 lbs of buoyancy, the size “LG/XL” at 16 lbs, and the “XXL” at 17 lbs of buoyancy. Most importantly, it is also Coast Guard Approved, so you know you are investing in a good quality approved PFD.

This vest has a low-profile fit with extra-wide armholes for maximum mobility and shoulder straps designed to avoid the neck to reduce chafing.
As a result we think that this is probably the best quality life jacket available for under $100.

What we like:
✅ 5 size ranges to ensure the perfect fit
✅ Very roomy front pocket
✅ Loads of room around the arms and shoulders
✅ Affordability

We don’t like:
⛔️ A little bulky

Onyx Absolute Outdoor AM-24 is an automatic/manual life vest that can be used only as automatic/manual or manual inflation.
It automatically inflates when immersed in water or when the user pulls the inflation lever. Alternatively it can also be inflated by blowing through a tube. 

This PFD is a Type V vest that will provide Type III performance when inflated.
It’s lightweight and comfortable with a slender design that can keep you cool in warm weather.

What we like:
✅ Super low profile, hardly know you’re wearing it
✅ Option to switch from automatic to manual

We don’t like:
⛔️ No pockets
⛔️ Re-arming kits are pricey


So, which life jacket should you choose for kayaking? It depends on your needs and the type of kayaking you plan to do. A Type III PFD will likely suit your needs if you’re just starting out or are a recreational kayaker.

Ultimately, it’s essential to choose a life jacket that fits well and provides the safety and comfort you need while kayaking.

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