Got a new kayak? Congratulations! Time to get your hands on a life jacket that matches the type of paddling you’ll be doing.
Between dozens of brand names, different materials, and lots of features, you can get confused easily on which product is the most suitable for the water you kayak in or the situation. We’re breaking this down for you in the form of detailed reviews of the best kayak life jackets currently on the market, followed by a comprehensive guide to walk you through the process.
Even if you’ve been paddling for years without wearing one, it’s time to guarantee that you’ll be safer for years to come. Read on to meet your next kayaking buddy.
At a Glance
- Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports – Best Overall
- Astral V-Eight – Best Breathable Life Jacket
- NRS Chinook – Best for Kayak Fishing
- Astral Layla – Best for Women
- Stohlquist Edge – Best Under $100
The 5 Best Kayak Life Jackets in 2020
Because some paddlers may find wearing a life jacket restricting, we made sure to include a variety of comfortable life jackets that fit well, stay in place, and leave plenty of room for rowing your vessel. We brought you the best of the best.
1. Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports – Best Overall
This is the type of vest that you can put on for hours and forget you’re wearing. That’s because MoveVent compares to nothing when it comes to design and comfort.
Made from a 200-D nylon shell and neoprene pads, the vest is a mixture of lightness and sturdiness. It will hold up to the abuse for over a decade without tearing or ripping, and in case the worst happens, it’ll keep you afloat like a boat.
Instead of a bulky back, it features mesh in the lower back so that it won’t interfere with the seat of the kayak. The large armholes allow for relaxed paddling and prevent the undesirable rubbing against your armpits.
The front and back are breathable so that you won’t sweat or overheat even on hot summer days. Provided with six adjustable straps and side belts, the vest is easy to lock securely around your body. Moreover, it won’t move up unnecessarily, slip off, or hinder your movements.
It’s also available in dual sizing so that you can choose your best fit. However, the sizes tend to run bigger than the usual, so kayakers with tiny waists or sizes on the lower end of the spectrum may find them a bit large.
Although the sizes are unisex, women will find it beyond comfortable. That’s because it comes with a slim front; thus, it won’t be restrictive on the chest.
For extra security, it’s equipped with reflective straps and an attached whistle. Moreover, the expandable pockets are a huge bonus for fishermen who like to keep their small tackles within reach.
What We Like:
- Super comfortable for paddling
- Snuggly fit
- Breathable mesh to prevent overheating
- Wide and expandable pockets
- Excellent longevity
- Reflective straps and attached whistle
What We Don’t Like:
- Sizes run bigger than the standard
MoveVent is designed with everything a paddler needs in mind, starting from comfort and durability and ending with ample pockets and extra safety features. It’s the best choice for recreational and fishing kayak trips, and its dirt-cheap price is a plus.
2. Astral V-Eight – Best Breathable Life Jacket
You know these days when the sun is like a laser lacerating your head, and the air is like a wet hot cloth pressed in your face? That’s exactly the day you’ll appreciate buying Astral V-Eight, but not the only day, though.
This model is designed to keep you cool however high the temperature is. With a whole mesh back and vents at the front, the air is allowed to flow through the material and eliminate the excessive heat.
However, this is not the only area where it shines. The life jacket integrates a 400-D nylon shell, EVA foam inserts, and heavy-duty front zippers. It’ll serve you for many years, and although lacking a reflective material, It’s available in bright orange and blue colors to enhance your visibility in the water.
V-Eight is an approved type III buoyancy aid with a flotation rating of 16 pounds. That means it supports even the heaviest weights. It’s also suitable for whitewater kayakers where keeping your chin above the water needs high buoyancy. On top of that, it doesn’t ride up in the water, so you’ll be able to swim to your vessel hassle-free.
For extra comfort, it’s equipped with six adjustable buckles on the shoulders and sides. At the front, you’ll find two large zippered pockets to store your snacks and small gear, though not big enough to hold your smartphone.
One thing that we don’t like is that the padding on the sides is quite bulky, so it tends to rub on your arms when paddling. We’d have liked it better if it was tapered.
What We Like:
- Effective Airescape system for optimum breathability
- Built to last
- Ideal for whitewater kayaking
- Fits comfortably
- Available in vibrant colors
What We Don’t Like:
- A bit bulky
- Tricky zippers
- The mesh on the sides rubs under the arms
- No reflective material
With V-Eight, you can rest assured that you’ll never get hot under the harshest sun. Its high buoyancy, flexibility, and durability render it one of the best kayak life jackets for whitewater and recreational kayaking.
3. NRS Chinook – Best for Kayak Fishing
For avid kayak anglers, Chinook is a well-designed PFD for extended trips. Apart from being an excellent type III flotation aid, it’s loaded with lots of bells and whistles for you to make the best of your fishing time.
It comes with seven accessible front pockets with neat internal organization to store your tackles and lures. The D-ring at the back comes in handy if you want to attach your net or knot-tying tools. It also includes a coil tool reactor, knife lash tab, rod holder loops, and a strobe attachment point to keep things visible when night fishing.
In case you slip in the water during a fight with a bass, Chinook will keep you above the water like a bed and pillow. And as a bonus, it dries quickly.
This model’s comfort is unbeatable. Designed with an ample front entry and soft PlushFit foam in the insides, it’s easy to put on and takes the shape of your body quickly to eliminate any nuisances.
With eight adjustable straps, it fits well and allows for layered clothing. Like Astral V-eight, it lacks reflective straps, yet it comes with plenty of unisex sizes and high-visibility color options.
Its back design is similar to that of MoveVent with a mesh section at the lower back and the padding starting at the shoulders. It allows for ventilation on hot days and keeps the bulkiness of the flotation high to avoid hitting the kayak seat.
Despite holding the highest retail price on our list, it’s worth every penny. Nevertheless, it’s a bit restricting, which makes turning or retrieving an item from the kayak’s hatch a pain.
What We Like:
- Plenty of pockets and attachment points
- Mesh lower back to avoid hitting the seat
- Ideal for kayak fishing and extended trips
- PlushFit foam for extra comfort
- Available in high-visibility colors
What We Don’t Like:
- No reflective straps
- A bit restricting
- On the higher end of the price range
All we can say is that NRS Chinook definitely stands up for the hype. Although it’s not the cheapest, its utility and safety make up for the high price. Furthermore, its high back padding, numerous pockets, and multiple lashing points make it the best option for kayak fishermen.
4. Astral Layla – Best for Women
Dear ladies, you’re not left out of our list. This type III model from Astral is designed with only female kayakers in mind, and it solves nearly every problem they face with vests.
For starters, Layla comes in an array of sizes that fits many body shapes and bust sizes. It incorporates several interior panels and elastic mesh to make it more stretchy, and thus more comfortable for women. It snugs where it needs to be without making you feel claustrophobic.
What’s more, it features six adjustable straps – two over the shoulder and two on each side – so that you can customize it as required. You won’t have to worry about it riding up your face when you’re in the water or when paddling because it stays in place.
Constructed with a lightweight 400-D nylon shell and PE foam inserts, it can take a beating. Unlike the three past models, it features a side-entry zip, making it super easy to put on and take off. What’s more, the material is pretty soft, and the armholes are vast, so there will be no rubbing on your arms when paddling.
Because style is important, you can choose one of these three elegant colors: eggplant, rosa, or glacier blue. The model lacks reflective straps and comes with only one front pocket, yet its buoyancy rate is comparable to that of V-Eight. Hence, it’ll be useful for any sport you want to do on top of your kayak.
The price seems reasonable and a good investment as well. The only flaw we can find is that the vest lacks ventilation, meaning it can feel more like a sauna on hot days, but a good option for kayaking in cold areas.
What We Like:
- Soft and durable material
- Light and very stretchy
- Fits many body shapes
- High buoyancy rate
- Affordable price
- Suitable for cold conditions
What We Don’t Like:
- Not breathable
- No reflective straps
Women aren’t blessed with a variety of options out there, but Layla is here to make their day. It’s top-rated for comfort, and besides being the best money you will ever spend, it will save your life.
5. Stohlquist Edge – Best Life Jacket Under $100
Your safety is worth all the money in the world. But if you’re looking for a model that’ll save your life and save your bank account at the same time, Stohlquist Edge is the best kayak life jacket under $100.
Apart from the price, The highlights of this vest are its high floatation rating and ergonomic design. It’s a class III life jacket that supports 15-17 pounds of buoyancy, depending on the size you choose.
Similar to Layla, this model is equipped with side-entry zippers, which eliminates the unnecessary bulk created by front-zippers. It features two shoulder straps, four side pulls, and a front buckle for maximum adjustability.
Unlike other models, Edge doesn’t only depend on the straps to customize the size, but also uses Wrapture foam that takes the shape of your body. It’ll keep you relaxed and content the whole time in an all-day kayak trip.
The nylon shell is sturdy and extra soft, so your arms won’t feel sore from brushing against it. For more comfortable paddling, it boasts wide armholes, and the mesh on both sides will keep you fresh when the temperature soars.
We like that it includes reflective accents like that of MoveVent and comes in a variety of colors. Although there’s only one pocket at the front, it’s roomy enough to hold your phone, keys, and light snacks.
The only drawback is that although the sizes are advertised as unisex, they’re not suitable for female body shapes. They also tend to run small, so you might want to order a size one step larger than the usual.
What We Like:
- Reasonable price
- Side-entry zippers
- Large armholes for comfortable paddling
- Reflective straps
- Plenty of adjustment points
- Mesh sides for ventilation
- Soft and durable fabric
What We Don’t Like:
- Inconvenient for women
- Sizes run small
Stohlquist Edge offers an ergonomic design, snugly fit, and high buoyancy, all within a fair price range. If you want a vest for recreational kayaking, touring, or racing in whitewater, this is your best pick.
What to Look for When Buying a Kayak Life Jacket
In this section, we explain the essential and extra features you’ll find on a life jacket to make your choice much easier.
By the USA regulation, PFDs are classified into five categories. What concerns us is type III as all our products are from this class, yet here’s a quick hint about each of them:
- Type I: These provide superior performance in open waters, rough oceans, and any off-shore condition where rescue may be slow to arrive. They’re designed mainly for racing vessels and commercial boats.
- Type II: These are the exact opposite of type I. They’re preferred in situations where quick rescue is expected like in-land fishing and near-shore water activities.
- Type III: Like type II, these are for calm waters but with the addition of design touches that allow for free movement and better maneuverability. For this reason, they’re the ideal type for most kayaking sports.
- Type IV: These are throwable PFDs like rings and floating cushions that are kept as secondary safety aids in your vessel.
- Type V: These are restricted for particular sports like windsurfing and scuba diving. Their label must state the type of activity for which they’re specified.
A life jacket is intended to be worn the whole trip for your safety. Hence, make sure it’s comfortable enough that you won’t want to take it off after a couple of hours.
For kayaking, you want a vest that fits you like a glove but has enough room for you to rotate, bend, and move. The armholes should be large to allow your arms to move freely and paddle. Also, it should be designed in a way that keeps the bulk of the vest off your shoulders and chest.
These are the number of straps that help you adjust the jacket around your body. Generally speaking, the more adjustment points, the more it fits snugly without any stress or discomfort.
Like any piece of clothing, you have to make sure that you’re picking the right size and correct fit.
Your chest size is the determinant here. Bring a measuring tape and measure the circumference of your chest then compare it to the size chart provided by the manufacturer.
Most life jackets are unisex, but some women may find them tight at the chest area and loose below. For this reason, some brands offer individual models for women with different designs and adjustments.
You’ll often come across the word “Denier,” which determines the thickness and durability of the material used. The higher the denier count, the sturdier the fabric is.
While most paddling vests are made of neoprene or nylon, the latter is preferred for its lightness and resistance to abrasion.
The average buoyancy of life jackets is 7-12 pounds, and some hold a higher flotation rating as well. Your choice should depend on your weight and the type of water in which you paddle.
See, life jackets don’t carry your whole weight as you might think, but they support the extra weight that weighs you down in the water, which is 5% of your entire body’s mass. That means, if you weigh 170 pounds, you need a PFD that provides 8.5 pounds of buoyancy.
Color and Reflectivity
The primary purpose of these PFDs is your safety. In case of emergency, the vest will keep your head and chest above the water, but what about the next step? You need to be visible for someone to notice you and come for your rescue.
Opt for the brightest and most vibrant colors, even if they aren’t your idea of style. Reflective strips are also a good idea if you like paddling at dim light conditions.
Who doesn’t like pockets? We’ll gladly have them on anything we wear! But seriously speaking, they are one of the most practical features of a PFD. Instead of bringing a bag on board or reaching every now and then for the kayak’s hatch to bring out a snack, pockets will make your life more comfortable.
They are especially beneficial for anglers as they can keep their pliers, knot-tying tools, and lures in handy all the time.
PFDs come with front zips, offset zips, or no zips at all. While the latter is the most troublesome to wear as you have to pass it by your head, it’s the most preferred by whitewater kayakers. That’s because zips can break or get caught on the kayak while trying to re-enter it. However, if you paddle in calm rivers or flat waters, any of the three styles will do just fine.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Got a few more questions? These are the most significant questions we’ve come across, accompanied by straight-to-the-point answers. Who knows, maybe the one in your mind is here!
Is it Illegal to Kayak Without a Life Jacket?
That depends on the state you’re kayaking in, but generally, there are no kayak-specific rules that obligate wearing a life jacket. Always check the laws of the water you’re on, as they may not specify that you go to jail if you ignore wearing a PFD, but you can be fined.
How Much Weight Will a Life Jacket Hold Up?
A PFD doesn’t support your whole weight, but it supports some pounds to keep you from drowning. The average person needs 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep his head out of water. Hence, most life jackets for adults provide 15.5-22 pounds of buoyancy just in case. Others with higher buoyancies are reserved for extremely rough waters.
What is the Difference Between a Life Jacket and a Life Vest?
A life vest is worn in water-based games to keep you afloat while a life jacket is designed as a life-saving element. Both are flotation devices, but the latter is more buoyant and tends to keep you on your back so that your face is above the water. On the other hand, a life vest allows for more maneuverability and lacks this turning-over capability.
How Often Should You Replace Life Jackets?
There is no strict expiry date for a life jacket, but it’s advisable that you replace it after ten years. Of course, this time can be less if it’s overused or signs of deterioration appear on the jacket.
Finally, we hope that you’ll never have to use any of these products, but you know the saying: better safe than sorry.
We believe these five products cover most kayakers’ needs. For example, if you’re looking for the best kayak life jacket for touring, racing, fishing, and whitewater kayaking at the same time, MoveVent is insanely versatile. It won’t cost you much and will last you a long time.
NRS Chinook is the first choice for most fishing aficionados, thanks to its plethora of pockets and storage options.
Want the best ventilation? Go for Astral V-eight. You kayak where the weather is cold all year round? Try Stohlquist Edge. Looking for a vest designed solely for women, Astral Layla will be your happy choice.