The Best PFD for Kayaking 2020 Full Reviews – Paddle Comfortably

Watersports are thrilling. Yet, there’s no denying the fact that that they are also inherently risky. A PDF (personal flotation device) is an indispensable piece of any kayaking setup. Still, bulky, prohibitive vests have caused some paddlers to leave this essential piece of safety gear behind. We are here to present the best life jackets on the market. These impressive PFDs are comfortable enough that you won’t question wearing them for an entire day. They’ll protect you in your most vulnerable moments. You won’t have to pay a cost for your safety. Let’s dive into our top pfd picks!

The Best Life Jackets for Kayaking Full Reviews

PFD Best Use Size Range Price Total Rating
1. Stohlquist Trekker PFD
General
Paddling
33-52 in $$
4.5/5
2. Astral V-Eight
Astral V Eight PFD
General
Paddling
31-51 in $$
4.5/5
3. Stohlquist Fisherman
Stohlquist Fisherman
Fishing 33-52 in $$$
4/5
4. NRS CVest
NRS C vest
Touring 30-56 In $$$
4/5
5. MTI Quest
MTI Quest PFD
Simple
Paddling
30-56 in $
4/5
6. NRS Ninja
NRS Ninja
Performance
Paddling
30-56 In $$
4/5
7. Kokatat Msfit Tour
Kokatat msfit Tour pfd
Touring 32-49 In $$$$
3.5/5
8. Stohlquist Ebb
Stohlquist Ebb PFD
General
Paddling
33-52 In $$
3.5/5
9. Stohlquist Escape Youth
STohlquist Escape Youth PFD
Simple
Paddling
N/A $
3.5/5
10. Astral Ronny
Astral Ronny PFD
General
Paddling
31-37 In $$
3.5/5

1. Stohlquist Trekker PFD (Top Pick)

Stohlquist Life Jackets

4.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds 4 ounces
  • Size: XXL: 46-52 inches; S/M: 33-39 inches
  • USCG Rating: Type III

The Stohlquist Trekker PFD is a snug-fitting, low-footprint Type III personal flotation device that’s perfect for extended paddle pursuits. As a pfd with an ergonomic torso shape, the Trekker puts no limit on paddlers’ arm movements. The Trekker’s thoughtful back and shoulder strap designs make it a favorite of experienced kayakers. The back panel of the life jacket is made out of mesh. The Life Vest is designed to high sit above the tall seat backs of recreational and touring kayaks. Shoulder vents and open sides serve as additional ventilation elements.

We were moderately satisfied with this pfd’s single lash point and large zippered pockets. However, we can see our gear-obsessed friends feeling a bit dissatisfied with the life jacket. There’s room for a smartphone, a snack, and a few small gadgets, but that’s about it. Front and back 3M patches amplify life vest viability in low-light conditions. With a flotation rating of 16 pounds 4 ounces, this PFD even manages to exceed the USCG’s minimum buoyancy requirements.

A cross-chest cinch harness keeps this life jacket from riding up. An entry tab guarantees that paddlers will not have to struggle to zip up their life jacket in wet conditions. Meanwhile, the 1.5-inch webbing belts pull forward for easier adjustments. Finally, a combination of 400-denier nylon and 200-denier oxford make this our preeminent PFD choice.

 

What We Liked

  • Cross-chest cinch harness keeps PFD from riding up
  • Four-way accessory lash tab on back plus large zippered mesh pockets
  • Proprietary graded sizing all customers a tailored fit
  • USCG-approved

What We Didn’t Like

  • Smaller pockets 

2. Astral Women’s V-Eight PFD (Best Women’s Pick)

Astral Veightswomens Life Vest

4.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds
  • Size:
    L/XL: 45-51 inches
    M/L: 38-44 inches
    S/M: 31-37 inches
  • USCG Rating: Type III

Astral’s robust V-Eight PFD is designed to keep female paddler’s comfortable during lengthy kayaking sessions. The patented design of this life jacket was definitely created with the female body in mind. Patented airflow technology fends of moisture and subsequent discomfort. Meanwhile, the vest’s high mesh back and lightweight fabric composition ensure that paddlers are comfortable the whole day through.

First off, this foam life jacket is super buoyant. It has a PE and EVA foam base with a rip-stop nylon exterior. The hardware is made from heavy-duty Acetal. Self-locking Vislon teeth ensure that the entry zipper never slips. Finally, wide polypropylene webbing makes for more accessible strap adjustments.

The vest’s bright color options, which include glacier blue, burnt orange, and ocean blue, improve its overall visibility. However, we would have liked to have seen a few reflective strips on this life jacket. What’s more, we took issue with the fact that the sizes ran a bit bigger than promised.

Still, the combination of vent ports, a mesh liner, and contoured foam ensure that paddlers’ body heat and perspiration can escape. The high back works well for kayakers with high seatbacks. The vest’s high back works well for kayaking with raised seatbacks. However, it leaves a lot of the back exposed. There are two spacious zippered pockets on the face of the life jacket. They present enough storage space for small gadgets. However, they tend to inflict paddlers’ arm movements when filled to capacity.

What We Liked

  • Unmatched ventilation technology in this pfd
  • Tapered design that works great for women
  • A blend of durable materials atop a foam core
  • High buoyancy rating

What We Didn’t Like

  • No reflective panels
  • Sizes are not 100% accurate
  • Poor pocket placement

3. Stohlquist Fisherman PFD (Fishermen’s Pick)

Stohlquish Fishing Life Vest

4/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds 12 ounces
  • Size: SM/MD: 33” – 39”; LG/XL: 40” – 46”; XXL: 46” – 52”
  • USCG Rating: Type III

If you’re an avid kayaking angler, check out this impressive fishing PDF by Stohlquist. The pfd’s numerous pockets and gear mounts make it a great option for aquatic hunting pursuits. The life jacket has dual front-mounted tool pouch pockets with stiffened EVA outer shells. The pockets fold down to become makeshift workstations. Plus, there are mount points for tippets, nippers, lead lines, and other tackle tools.

The Fisherman life jacket also has a robust construction. The outer shell is made from 500-denier Cordura and 200-denier oxford liner. An internal foam core gives it a buoyancy of 16 pounds 12 ounces. Given these statistics, the vest exceeds the Coast Guard’s minimum requirements for buoyancy in a life jacket.

We did take issue with the Fisherman’s kayaking fit. While the sizing was pretty standard, the vest rode up on occasion. Tightening the back straps didn’t help, as they have a tendency to dig into the skin. That said, the cross-chest cinch harness was very useful. When tightened properly, the vest is less likely to ride. We’re also a big fan of the Fisherman’s gorgeous colorways. It is currently available in cactus green and mango red. Both options boast visibility-boosting 3M reflective strips. This product is approved by the United States Coast Guard and Transport Canada.

What We Liked

  • Open sides for ventilation
  • Neoprene padded shoulders and shoulder straps with back waistband
  • Dual side adjustments
  • High back PFD
  • Multiple pockets with drainage

What We Didn’t Like

  • Rides up a little
  • Back straps dig in

4. NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD (Most Breathable)

NRS C Vest

4/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16.5 pounds
  • Sizes:XS/M: 30″-42″;
    L/XL: 42″-52″;
    XL/XXL: 50″-56″
  • USCG Rating: Type III

With a breathable mesh back and multiple gear attachment points, the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD is a life jacket built for lengthy off-shore tours. The cVest is a Type III pfd that pairs well with high back seats and sit-in sea kayaks. It has multiple lash tabs, D-rings, and pockets. Plus, it’s zipper-based entry point makes for easy ons and offs.

The cVest’s multiple accessory attachment points make it a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts. The pfd is equipped with two front lash tabs, four front pockets, two rear strobe attachment loops, and multiple D-rings. As such, you will have no trouble finding a spot for every one of your tools. Large clamshell pouches are designed to protect your most valuable accessories. There’s room for a smartphone, sunscreen, a whistle, and so much more. Double-pull zippers serve as easy-access entry points.

This Coast Guard-approved pfd offers 16.5 pounds of flotation. Its 400-denier ripstop nylon shell is resistant to rips and abrasions. However, you should opt for the red model if you’re looking to avoid surface blemishes. The lime cVest stains quite easily. Still, it is a more visible colorway than the orange and red alternative. Fortunately, reflective 3M accents beef up the red vest’s visibility in low-light conditions.

The mesh backs on the cVests make a huge difference. However, the material doesn’t hold up as long as traditional nylon. Still, we’re willing to look past a few frayed ends when it means we can maintain a dry back during lengthy kayaking sessions. The cVest has a total of six adjustment points. Each point can be tightened to create a custom fit. There are even small fabric pockets for the strap ends. With wide arm slats and a foam-less back panel, the cVest won’t inhibit a paddler’s range of motion.

What We Liked

  • High seat-back appropriate PFD
  • Breathable mesh back
  • Six adjustment points keep the vest from riding up
  • Plenty of onboard storage and accessory lashes
  • Premium nylon material is resistant to abrasions and tears
  • High degree of freedom of movement

What We Didn’t Like

  • Mesh does not hold up well
  • High-visibility green stains easily

5. MTI Quest PFD (Best Budget)

MTI Quest Life Vest

4/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 15.9 pounds
  • Size:M/L: 36-46 inches;
    XL/XXL: 46-56 inches;
    XS/S: 30-36 inches
  • USCG Rating

If you’re looking for a safe, efficient PFD that’s easy on the wallet, check out MTI’s Quest. This Type III personal flotation device will keep your head above water. The lightweight, breathable shape of this life jacket is designed to provide all-day comfort and protection. MTI is a family-owned Massachusetts company that’s dedicated to creating premium kayaking accessories. Quest is own of its most budget-friendly offerings. Yet, it earns good marks in almost all categories.

A foam foundation is the jacket’s main source of buoyancy. The compact foam shaped panels are incorporated into a contoured front panel. Open sides offer unmatched mobility and ventilation. Quick-release buckles and zippers make for easy entries. It also incorporates a lot of storage. You can fit all of your essentials into the two front pockets. We only wish these pockets boasted self-locking zippers instead of hook-and-loop closures. We’re pretty sure our gear would slip right out of the pockets if we were to capsize. The Vest is made from durable nylon and closed-cell foam. It is suitable for men and women with torsos that are between 30 and 56 inches in diameter. 

What We Liked

  • Excellent contoured shape with plenty of adjustments points
  • Hat clips double as hang points
  • Low priced PFD
  • Meets USCG’s qualifications
  • Unisex
  • High-visibility green

What We Didn’t Like

  • Hook-and-loop pocket closures
  • No gear lashe

6. NRS Ninja Kayaking PFD (Best for White Water)

NRS Ninja Life Vest

4/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16.5 pounds
  • Size: XXL 42 – 50 inches
  • USCG Rating: Type III

The NRS Ninja is a PFD is that is designed for intense athletic paddles. When we’re fixing for a white water adventure, we take our Ninja’s along for the ride. The beauty of this personal flotation device is that it stays out of the way. Your arms and upper body are never inhibited by the seemingly fixed torso panels. Soft PVC-free foam is centered by four side and two shoulder adjustment straps. Durable 200-denier urethane-coated ripstop nylon holds up well under immense outdoor pressures. Meanwhile, a soft, stretchy fabric serves as a buffer between you and your PFD.

The Ninja is a side-entry life jacket. Quick-release buckles make for easy ons and offs. The adjustment points are also easy to access. The straps do not come loose, and the jacket does not ride. We love the addition of hand pockets on the front panel. If you do end up in the water for an extended period, your fingers will be toasty.

The Ninja also has a generous amount of onboard storage. There is a lash tab for a rescue knife and a front pocket that is zippered for any other on-the-water essentials. Since the front pocket is not waterproof, we recommend taking additional steps to secure your electronics. Since the Ninja has a centered back panel, it doesn’t pair well with kayaks with high back seats. However, it is a good match for water skirts. For the most part, this versatile piece of safety equipment has no trouble adjusting to varying body contours.

What We Liked

  • Front pocket and utility knife lash
  • Six adjustment points on PFD
  • PVC-free front and back panels
  • Urethane-coated nylon shell
  • Warming hand pockets on floating front panel
  • Good degree of freedom of movement

What We Didn’t Like

  • Low back panel interferes with high back seats
  • Limited visibility in low-light conditions

7. Kokatat MsFit Tour PFD Women’s (Best Touring Women’s Pick)

Kokatat msfit tour

3.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds 5 ounces to 16 pounds 13 ounces (varies between sizes)
  • Size: S: 32-38; M: 38-42; L: 42-46; XL: 45-49
  • USCG Rating: Type III

Any experienced female paddler will tell you it’s difficult to find a PFD with the right contours. For this reason and more, we’re happy to include the Kokatat MsFIT Tour PFD on our list. This top-tier Type III life jacket will keep you happy during grueling open-water tours. From its premium material makeup to its substantial onboard storage, the MsFIT didn’t struggle to earn our approval.

GAIA PVC-free foam is the backbone of this personal flotation device. The low-density material is super flexible and adaptive. Not to mention, it is free from ozone-depleting chemicals. All the while, it manages to exceed the Coast Guard’s standards for buoyancy. On the outside of the life vest, 500-denier Cordura® fends off superficial damage. Meanwhile, a 200-denier nylon oxford shell protects paddlers’ from chaffing.

The vest has all sorts of onboard storage. There is a knife garage, a strobe lash tab, an electronics pocket, and side-entry zippered pockets. You won’t have to go far to reach your goods. There are a total of three adjustment points. These straps and the flexible foam panels ensure that every paddler can fit the vest to their body.

We appreciated the MsFIT’s unique combo of closures. There are both buckles and a zipper. As a result, you have the option to increase the vest’s overall ventilation. In addition to this, the MsFIT’S large arm openings provide it with excellent ventilation and a minimal chaffing risk. On top of that, the MsFIT comes in three marvelous colors. You’ve got your choice of glacier blue, olive green, and praying mantis lime. All models are adorned with reflective patches. If you’re touring during low-light times, you need not worry about a thing. Our only problem with the MsFit is its steep price. Of course, you can ensure that this PFD is a sound investment. However, maybe avoid this pick if you do not spend a substantial amount of time touring.

What We Liked

  • Tons of onboard storage, including pockets and lashes
  • Front and rear reflective tape
  • Proprietary foam panels
  • Three adjustment points
  • Made to embrace all female bodies

What We Didn’t Like

  • Hefty Price Tag Associated with this PFD

8. Stohlquist Ebb PFD (Low Profile Pick)

Stohquist Ebb

3.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds 4 ounces
  • Size: S/M: 33-39 inches; L/XL: 40-46 inches; Plus: 46-52 inches
  • USCG Rating: Type III

If you’re looking to get away from bulky bargain PFDs, check out the low-profile Stohlquist Ebb PFD. First off, this life jacket features proprietary Graded Sizing™. Not to mention, an ergonomic WRAPTURE™ torso adapts to the body’s natural contours. A cross-chest cinch harness ties everything together while minimizing riding.

The Ebb is designed with comfort and safety in mind. It offers a generous amount of buoyancy. Plus, it’s a comfortable fit that can be worn for long periods. Mesh shoulder and back panels prevent moisture from building below the nylon. Lightweight PE foam ensures that paddlers do not lose any of their mobility. The sides are also open. As a result, they increase the Ebb’s ventilation.

It can be hard to find a PDF that aligns with the high back seats of most modern recreation yaks. However, the Ebb’s high mesh back panel is highly accommodating. What’s more, we love the Ebb’s set of front bellow pockets. The slanted zippered entries keep water from spilling into these valuable storage spots. We only wish that the vest had more lash points.

What We Liked

  • Neoprene-padded back panel with a low waistband
  • Mesh shoulder and back
  • Front pockets on this pfd
  • Cross-cinch harness prevents riding

What We Didn’t Like

  • Pockets snap closed

9. Stohlquist Escape Youth PFD (Top Youth Pick)

Stohlquist Escape

3.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 12 pounds 8 ounces
  • Size: One size for children that weigh between 50 and 90 pounds
  • USCG Rating: Type III

Alas, it’s never too early to start paddling. Stohlquist’s youth Escape offers exemplary safety in a pint-sized package. The vest is constructed from a medley of premium materials, including 200-denier nylon, 200-denier oxford, and hand-skived foam. You can trust that it will support your child (between 50 and 90 pounds) if they were ever to become dislodged from their yak on their kayaking excursion.

On top of its premium buoyancy rating, the Escape is quite a comfortable fit. Its sides and shoulder straps boast adjustment lines that pull forward. Plus, the shoulders boast extra padding. Soft foam makes up the back and front of this PFD. The vest hugs a child’s body without inhibiting their range of movement.

If you’re dressing more than one child, you’ll appreciate the ease of the zipper/buckle entry. The closures all stay put during extended paddles. What’s more, the vest does not ride up. We wish that the Escape was available in a more youthful array of colors. The dark red and green options are a bit muted and mature for most children. The vest does some reflective elements, should your kiddo be paddling in low light.

One thing we do love is the Escape’s ample storage. There’s a large zippered pocket on the front. It’s big enough to accommodate a smartphone, some sunscreen, and a snack. Overall, we were happy to find a PDF that didn’t automatically conjure up complaints of discomfort and unrest. It’s not too bulky, and it dries fast. As a result, it’s suitable for paddling and swimming.

What We Liked

  • Side and shoulder adjustment points
  • Sleek low-profile design
  • 200-denier oxford shell with additional oxford liner
  • Zippered pockets
  • Great for recreation tours and lessons

What We Didn’t Like

  • Not enought colors available

10. Astral Ronny Men’s PFD (Best for High Seat backs)

Astral Ronny Life Vest

3.5/5

Features:

  • Flotation: 16 pounds
  • Size: S/M: 31 – 37 inches
  • USCG Rating: Type III

The Ronny is Astral’s solution to high seat back-induced discomfort. This incredible men’s life vest boasts a proprietary back, complete with vents, a mesh spine strip, and thin fabric panels. A set of roomy pockets enables you to keep essential tools and gadgets on your body at all times.

The Ronny consists of a thick recyclable PE foam foundation, a 200-denier high-tenacity nylon shell, and a 200-denier high-tenacity nylon liner. It’s reinforced with polypropylene webbing and self-locking Vislon zippers. The materials seem to embrace natural movements. Not to mention, they are comfortable up against the skin. We had no problems with chaffing nor excess moisture. As a result, we’d consider using this PDF on both the hottest and coolest days. You’ll have no trouble finding comfort in the Astral Ronny PFD. The large armholes and thin back fail to inhibit rotational arm movements. The rear ventilation panels also do a great job of mitigating would-be discomforts.

The Ronny also offers adequate buoyancy. However, it does tend to ride up in the water. What’s more, we found the zippered entry to be a bit of a holdup. Fortunately, it’s easy to adjust the tension on the straps. It’s worth noting that the Ronny also comes in a rainbow of colors. You can choose between burnt orange, cloud gray, ocean blue, and conifer green. In most cases, you’ll have no trouble finding a vest that coordinates with your yak.

What We Liked

  • Made from recycled PE foam
  • Meets U.S. Coast Guard’s buoyancy requirements
  • Durable Acetal hardwar

What We Didn’t Like

  • Zippered entry is a bit difficult to deal with

How to Choose a Kayaking PFD

Type I

Type I PFDs are by-far the most buoyant life preservers. They may be foam-based or inflatable. Foam pfds must have an inherent buoyancy of 22 pounds to qualify as a Type I personal flotation device. Meanwhile, adult inflatables must offer 24 pounds of buoyancy. Type I PFD’s are preferred for paddles in open waterways. They are designed to direct an unconscious paddler’s face above water.

Type II

The U.S. Coast Guard refers to Type II life jackets as near-shore vests. Like Type I vests, these devices turn paddlers’ faces upward. Adult foam Type II vests must have a buoyancy of 15.5 pounds. Meanwhile, inflatable Type II pfds require a buoyancy of 34 pounds.

Type III

Type III vests have the same minimum buoyancy as Type II vests. They may be foam, inflatable, or hybrid. They require a bit of conscious effort on behalf of a paddler. Yet, they are by far the most comfortable option for extended kayaking.

Type IV

Type IV  pfd devices are throwable life preserves. They may be foam cushions, horseshoe buoys, and ring buoys. These PFDs are not suitable alternatives to wearable safety devices. However, you may wish keep one inside your cockpit for use during emergencies.

Type V

Type V devices are rarely used in kayaks. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, these wearable suits are typically used on large rigs and sailboats.

Comfort

Ensure that your PFD is comfortable enough for full-day use. It should never interfere with your paddling. Not to mention, it should dry fast and offer adequate ventilation. When you’re out on the water, you’re super susceptible to chaffing. It’s important to choose a PFD with ventilation panels and fast-drying fabrics. What’s more, ensure that the vest does not interfere with your seat. Many modern yaks have high back seats. As such, vests with thick foam backs tend to interfere with kayakers’ comforts.

Life Vest Varieties

Sizing

Adult PDF sizes are designed to accommodate paddlers with varying chest circumferences. To find your ideal PFD size, measure the circumference of your chest at its widest point. PDFs should be snug but not suffocating. Finding the right size isn’t enough. Paddlers are also responsible for making adjustments to their PFDs. You must tighten all of a PFD’s adjustments points (in the correct sequential order) to ensure its effectiveness. Check out Element Outfitter’s sizing chart to see which size is right for you.

Mobility

A Kayaking PFD should not inhibit your natural range of motion. Make sure that your vest has either open sides or large armholes. The low-density foam also provides life jackets with lower profiles.

Flotation

Flotation, or buoyancy, ratings reflect the number of pounds needed to force the upper body of a paddler above water. You’re probably wondering how 15.5 pounds of force can be expected to push an adult-sized body above the waterline? First, consider the fact that the human body is nearly 80% water. Water does not weigh anything in the water. Another chunk of the body is fat, which is inherently lighter than water. After emitting the weight of the body’s fat and water, you get a number that is small enough to fit within the U.S. Coast Guard’s buoyancy recommendations.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, acceptable buoyancy ratings vary between pfds. For example, an acceptable inherent buoyancy rating for foam PFDs range between 15.5 and 22 pounds. Meanwhile, adult-sized inflatable Life Jackets should offer flotation ratings between 22.5 and 34 pounds. Finally, adult hybrid PFDs should offer flotation ratings of at least 22 pounds.

Materials

Life Jackets  are made from a combination of materials. At their core, they contain some sort of buoyant material, such as foam or inflatable air bladders. For this article, we focused on inherently buoyant, or foam-based, Type III USCG-approved Life Jackets. Life jackets also boast outer shells and, in many cases, inner liners. For the most part, these elements are made from high-denier nylon fabrics. What’s more, ensure that the seams and straps are designed for hard-wearing outdoor situations. Materials should be resistant to rips and abrasions.

Durability

Can your PFD hold up throughout several tours? Can it handle white rapids? Make sure that your life jacket is constructed from durable materials.

Features

guy paddling in the lake with life vest

Pockets

Most Life jackets have multiple front pockets. It is important to scrutinize whether pockets are waterproof or not. You should also consider their closures. Pockets with zipper closures are more secure than those with snap buckles and hook-and-loop strips.

Adjustments

As a general rule of thumb, Life jackets should be snug and secure but not suffocating. A series of pull-forward adjustment straps should achieve a comfortable custom fit. Shoulder adjustments make up for differences in paddlers’ torso lengths. Meanwhile, upper and lower side straps help account for differences between the diameter of a person’s bust and torso. Meanwhile, bottom straps and cross-chest cinch straps help to anchor PFDs in place.

Reflective Material

Reflective trims and patches amplify a paddler’s visibility in low-light conditions. While we can’t recommend paddling at night, we strongly advise kayakers to invest in personal flotation devices that improve their safety in all environments. Kayaking risks are inherently higher between sunset and sunrise.

Final Thoughts

It’s a no-brainer, but no paddler should ever leave the shore without a reliable personal flotation device. If you’re having trouble choosing a model, know that you can’t go wrong with the Stohlquist Trekker PFD. Questions? Comments? Drop us a line in the comment section below!

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