Many of us love to get out on the water. It’s great fun for the whole family. But it’s important to consider safety. Many factors contribute to kayak safety, such as training and checking the weather before getting on the water. But one of the simplest is a PFD (personal flotation device), so I decided to try and find the best kayak PFD.
I found many really great PFDs. The Onyx Kayak Fishing PFD is perfect for anglers, as the name would suggest. It is packed with pockets and tool loops to hang your gadgets. If you want something a little simpler, then the Onyx MoveVent is excellent for sports where you are more active. While the Onyx PFDs are very affordable, the Kokatat is towards the top end, at over $150, but it would make a sound investment for someone out on the water often.
- Our Selection of The 10 Best Kayak PFDs:
- 1. Hardcore Water Sports Life Jacket
- 2. O’Neill Women’s SuperLite USCG Life Vest
- 3. Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Jacket
- 4. Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
- 5. Astral YTV Life Jacket PFD for Whitewater, Touring Kayaking
- 6. Perception Kayaks Hi-Fi Kayaking Life Jacket
- 7. NRS Chinook Fishing PFD
- 8. Zeraty Adult Life Jacket for Kayaking
- 9. Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest
- 10. Kokatat Outfit Tour PFD Kayak Lifejacket
- Buying Guide
Our Selection of The 10 Best Kayak PFDs:
1. Hardcore Water Sports Life Jacket
- Available in a range of sizes and colors
- No pockets or clips
The Hardcore is a Type III approved PFD that is available in sizes for the whole family. It is constructed from polyester, with a foam buoyancy inner core. The larger sizes have three webbing securing straps to make sure they don’t slip off.
The open side design is excellent for kayaking, as it doesn’t restrict your movement.
At a great price, this is an entry-level PFD that should suit everyone.
2. O’Neill Women’s SuperLite USCG Life Vest
- Designed for women
- Very light
- Full mobility
- Sizing is not generous – order larger than you need
This O’Neill vest is specifically designed for women, with four webbing straps to give a perfect fit. With minimal bulk, it is great for active sports, giving excellent mobility and no restrictions. Various color options and sizes are available.
Construction is the standard polyethylene foam with a polyester outer for durability. The O’Neill may appeal to the fashion-conscious but doesn’t really offer many extras for the higher price.
3. Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Jacket
- Plenty of pockets and clips
- Six adjustment straps for fitment
- Breathable mesh back panel
- Neoprene shoulder pads
- Only two sizes
If kayak fishing is your enjoyment, then the Onyx could be the perfect PFD for you. Even non-anglers will appreciate the pockets and clips on the front for storing essential items. Two large pockets lower down, a small chest pocket on one side, and three webbing pockets on the other side can hold everything you need to grab quickly. The shoulder pads are thick neoprene for added comfort.
4. Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
- Single expandable front pocket
- Reflective material
- Accessories tab
- Limited sizes available
Another from Onyx, but this time aimed at the recreational kayaker rather than the anglers amongst you. This Onyx is built with movement in mind, so there is just one expandable pocket this time, with a mesh drainage section.
A mesh strip on the front allows for ventilation, while the mesh lower back panel will help keep you cool. Constructed from 200 denier ripstop nylon, it’s great for kayaking in any conditions.
5. Astral YTV Life Jacket PFD for Whitewater, Touring Kayaking
- Tough outer material
- Environmentally friendly buoyancy material
- 16.5-pound buoyancy rating
- Very light
At just over $100, the Astral is one of the more expensive on review but offers a quality product.
The buoyancy is provided by environmentally friendly Gaia inserts, while the outer is made from 400 denier ripstop nylon. For comfort, the liner is made from 200 denier nylon and helps the pullover style PFD slip on easily.
On the front are two zipped pockets perfect for keeping snacks handy, and there is a knife tab on the chest for easy access.
6. Perception Kayaks Hi-Fi Kayaking Life Jacket
- USCG Type III PFD approved
- Reflective trim
- Two large self-draining pockets
- Breathable mesh back panel
- The outer shell is only 200 denier
The Perception is a USCG Type III approved PFD designed for kayakers. The high mesh back is ideal for kayaks with highbacked seats, while the two large pockets on the chest provide ample storage for your essential items.
7. NRS Chinook Fishing PFD
- Multiple pockets and a tool holder
- 16.5-pound buoyancy rating
- Soft foam inner fits to the contours of your body
At around $200, the NRS Chinook Fishing PFD is at the top end of the market, but you do get some great features for that price.
On the front are two large zipped pockets, two smaller accessory pockets, and a tool holder. The slim back panel is excellent for kayaks with seatbacks, while two straps keep the PFD perfectly in place.
Although this is an expensive choice, it’s worth it for the features and quality build.
8. Zeraty Adult Life Jacket for Kayaking
- Easy adjustment for the right fit
- Strong, durable construction
- Only one pocket
Manufactured from lightweight but strong 1000 denier nylon and filled with EPE foam for buoyancy, the Zeraty should give years of reliable performance.
With large armholes to allow unrestricted movement, it’s ideal for water sports such as kayaking. Two height adjusting belts and a single adjustable waist belt will enable you to get a perfect fit every time, essential for safety.
The Zeraty is a good PFD at a reasonable price, but others offer more features for just a little extra cost.
9. Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest
- Seven front pockets
- Large central pocket that folds out into a work area
- The dark color and no reflective strips
Although the Stearns is described as a hybrid PFD, it’s not in the true meaning of the term. Buoyancy is provided through flotation foam alone, and there is no inflatable section in the PFD.
That aside, it is an excellent choice for anglers, with seven pockets on the front, to keep your gear and accessories close. The large central pocket folds down to provide a working surface, useful when out on the water.
Add in the high mesh back and padded shoulder straps, and this is a comfortable wear-all-day PFD.
10. Kokatat Outfit Tour PFD Kayak Lifejacket
- Three good size front pockets
- Hidden internal pocket
- Front lash tabs
- Mesh side panels
- No mesh back panel
The Kokatat is a Type III USCG approved PFD, providing up to 17 pounds of buoyancy in the larger sizes. It is made in 500 denier Cordura, giving extreme strength and durability.
With four pockets and two lash tabs, there is plenty of storage for all your daily essentials. Reflective strips across the shoulder pads are useful, as is the waist height buckled strap for security.
As a long-term investment for the dedicated kayaker, the Kokatat is hard to argue against.
Choosing the right PFD could be a matter of life and death. Our short buyer’s guide should help you choose the correct one, but there is more information available on the US Coast Guard website, and any good boating supplies store should be able to advise.
The US Coast Guard has a detailed classification system for recreational PFD’s that is too long to explain fully here. It is based around five types of PFD;
- Type I PFD – Offshore. The type I PFD is suitable for all waters, including open ocean, and is the type you’ll find on passenger-carrying ships.
- Type II PFD – Nearshore. Type II PFD’s are designed for calm inland waters where you are likely to be rescued quickly.
- Type III PFD – Flotation Aids. This type is most commonly worn for recreational water activities, such as kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, etc. They will keep you afloat in calm waters, where you are expected to be rescued quickly. Type III allows free movement of your arms for paddling.
- Type IV PFD – Throwables. This is a throwable flotation device, such as a rescue ring.
- Type V PFD – Special use PFD’s. These are particular case PFD’s that will be clearly marked with their intended use, such as work vests for commercial vessels and deck suits.
Standard or inflatable PFDs
Standard PFDs are the type you will see most commonly when kayaking. These are the type filled with a foam buoyancy material and are classed as type III. They are practical, hard-wearing, and have the benefit of keeping you afloat without you needing to do anything except wearing them correctly.
Inflatable PFDs are similar to those used on aircraft containing a small CO2 gas cylinder to inflate the PFD. Because they are not inflated, they are less bulky than standard PFDs and more comfortable to wear. There are some downsides, though. The main problem is that they offer no buoyancy until they are inflated. For this reason, they are not recommended for weak swimmers, unless worn inflated, or water sports such as water skiing or wakeboarding.
You will find two types of inflatable PFD; manual and manual-auto. The manual type requires the wearer to either pull a toggle to inflate the PFD or use the inflation tube. Manual-auto PFDs include a sensor that operates if the PFD is submerged. You can also inflate the manual-auto type manually.
Hybrid PFDs are a combination of the two types, usually built into a jacket. The buoyancy material is part of the jacket material, but inflatable chambers in the jacket’s body provide extra buoyancy. This type of PFD tends to be bulky and hot to wear and is usually far more expensive than other types.
Types of fitment
There are two main fitment types; the pullover the head style, and the zipped style. Both work perfectly okay if they are correctly adjusted, but the zip-up style is more comfortable to put on. Plus, you don’t have to put a soaking wet PFD over your head with the zipped type. The zipped type is the most common now.
Flotation or Buoyancy
Each PFD is marked with its flotation ability. As a bare minimum, your PFD should provide at least 7 to 12 pounds of extra floatation. This is usually enough to keep an adult’s head and chin out of the water. The higher the flotation rating, the better.
PFD’s are made in a range of materials; Gaia, Kapok, PVC, and Ripstop Nylon. Both Gaia and Kapok are buoyant filling materials that give the PFD its flotation rating, while PVC and Nylon are used as the outer material.
Ripstop Nylon is the recommended outer material to look for, but check the denier number; the higher the number, the stronger the material is.
Gaia is more UV resistant and lighter, while Kapok is more buoyant and durable. The biggest downside to Kapok is that it’s flammable, so not generally recommended for this reason.
The fitment of your PFD is measured across your chest. The PFD must be a snug fit around your chest without being overly tight. If it’s too small, it may not have enough buoyancy for your weight, and if it’s too large, you may slip out of it.
For children, their PFD’s are sized by weight instead of chest size. There are three child sizes;
- Infant: 8–30 lbs
- Child: 30–50 lbs
- Youth: 50–90 lbs
Choose a PFD with multiple adjustments, and you should get a perfect fit every time.
A PFD could save your life in an emergency, but you must be wearing it for it to work. If you have an uncomfortable PFD, you’ll be tempted to take it off when you feel safe. The problem with accidents is that they happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly. If you find your PFD uncomfortable, change it as soon as possible to avoid the temptation of taking it off.
The Type III PFD’s are specifically designed for water sports such as kayaking and offer much more mobility than the more restrictive Type I PFD. This is partly why Type III is only recommended for use on calm inland waters and not offshore. This neatly ties in with the feeling of comfort discussed above. If you find your PFD is restricting your movement, you may be tempted to take it off.
Modern PFD’s now come with a host of pockets, clips, and zips to provide accessible storage areas or places to clip on whistles or flashlights. These are very handy to have since the PFD will most likely cover the pockets of your jacket.
You would think that all PFDs are made from bright reflective materials, but not so. It’s a good idea to choose a PFD in bright yellow or orange that also contains some reflective detailing.
If you intend to be kayaking in very hot or humid conditions, then PFDs with ventilation and breathable mesh are available.
Pockets and Clips
Standard PFDs often have pockets and clips. These are very useful for keeping items close to hand and attaching a whistle or flashlight. Inflatable PFDs do not have these features, as they could interfere with the device’s correct inflation. You can find PFDs specially designed for fishing.
PFDs for pets
Many people like to take their pets with them on kayak trips. But don’t forget your pet also needs to float should it decide to jump out of the kayak. Although many dogs can swim perfectly well, the extra buoyancy can be helpful, plus there is usually a grab handle for lifting them back onto the kayak.
What does PFD stand for?
PFD is short for Personal Flotation Device. They provide buoyancy to help the wearer stay afloat.
What is the best type of PFD for kayaking?
Type III PFDs are recommended for kayaking, as they offer good buoyancy without restricting your movement too much.
How durable are PFDs?
PFDs are very durable, but just some simple maintenance will increase the life of your PFD;
- If you use your PFD in saltwater, always rinse it in clean water after use
- Allow your PFD to dry completely before putting it into storage
- Air dry your PFD. Never use external heat sources to dry it quicker
- Do not crush or kneel on your PFD
- Store it in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight
- Regularly check your PFD for rips, cuts, or other damage
Which is better, a standard or inflatable PFD?
Both types will provide you with extra buoyancy when in the water. One is not better than the other; instead, they are designed for different purposes. Inflatables do not have any inherent buoyancy, so they are not suitable for children or water sports such as water skiing or wakeboarding. On the other hand, inflatables will generally give much more buoyancy once inflated, so they are suitable for offshore use, where the sea conditions can be rough.
The type of PFD you choose will depend on what you intend to do on the water. Visit a supplier and ask some questions if you are not sure. They will usually recommend a specific type depending on your use.
How much should I pay for a PFD?
You can spend anything from $20 to over $200, but the cost doesn’t matter if you don’t wear it. For this reason, the main factor to consider is comfort. Make sure the PFD you choose is comfortable for you.
We found some great PFDs while writing this review and at an extensive range of prices. For the infrequent day paddler, just getting out on the water with your family, the less expensive kayak PFDs will suffice. If you intend to spend a lot of time on the water, it is worth spending a little more and investing in something that will be comfortable to wear all day long.
This article was last updated on November 28, 2022 .
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