Best Kayak Life Vest, Jackets, PFD For Kayaking

You’ve bought your kayak and you are eager to hit the water. However, before you jump in, there are a few pieces of critical safety gear you’ll want to make sure you have. A life jacket is a must when going out on any water body, for all water conditions, while fishing, or even for just a short amount of time. As the name implies, it can literally save your life. The best kayak life vest will fit comfortably and keep you afloat should things go wrong.

best kayak life vest
best kayak life vest

What is a PFD?

PFD stands for personal flotation device. These are designed to be worn, typically on the upper body like a vest, to give you buoyancy and keep you afloat in water. They’re essential when canoeing, kayaking, rafting, paddleboarding, or boating.

Personal Flotation Device ( PFD )

You’ll hear the terms life vest and life jacket used interchangeably, but they each denote a type of PFD.

Standard PFD vs. Inflatable PFD

There are two types of PFDs: standard PFDs and inflatable PFDs.

Standard PFDs are easy to use. They usually have a buoyant material on the inside, such as soft foam, that allows them to float. However, this can make them a bit bulky. Standard PFDs are versatile and are for use with many different water sports, including kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding, canoeing, rafting, and waterskiing. These have a label as Type III U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) approved PFDs, discussed more below.

Inflatable PFDs must be activated and inflated either manually or automatically. For example, a cord is pulled that triggers a CO2 gas cartridge to manually inflate the vest. An automatically activated vest inflates when submerged in water. The USCG classifies inflatable PFDs as Type III or Type V.

Personal Floatation Device ( PFD ) Classifications

As mentioned, the USCG classifies PFDs as follows:

  • Type I PFD: These are bulky but have the most buoyancy and are designed for remote or rough waters where rescue could take time. They are also designed to turn people face-up, which is suitable for someone that may be unconscious. You’ll usually find these on commercial vessels.
  • Type II PFD: This type of floatation device is intended for inland calm waters where rescue will likely be quick. Type II are less bulky than a Type I vest yet less comfortable than a Type III. The Type II jackets are less expensive than others, and some can also turn an unconscious person face-up.
  • Type III PFD: These are designed to be more comfortable for kayaking or paddling where a quick rescue is likely. They allow additional freedom of movement and are more comfortable wearing for long periods. Wearers can put themselves on their backs but may have to tilt their heads up out of the water.
  • Type IV PFD: These are flotation devices like a life ring meant to be thrown to someone in the water in trouble. They are not meant to be worn.
  • Type V PFD: Use for specific and intended activities, such as kayaking. The activity is specified on the label, and it must be worn at all times.

Kayakers typically use types III and V personal flotation devices.

Best Kayak Life Vest PFD Features

PFDs like kayak fishing life jackets or those used for other water sports typically have various features.


These include front pockets, side pockets or open sides for storing things like Chapstick, sunblock, or fishing lures. Many have lash tabs or rings as attachment points for attaching things like a knife or whistle.

High Visibility Colors and Reflective Materials

They come in many colors, so you can find something that fits your style and personality. And many also come with reflective accents, reflective strips, or other reflective material for visibility in low light. Vests explicitly designed for fishing may also have some fishing-specific features.

Attachment Points

An attachment point is where you secure additional kayak accessories to your PFD. An example is a attaching your phone or camera. You could also attach a whistle.

Lash Tabs

A lash tab is an attachment point on the PFD where you can attach an accessory to the life vest. Lash tabs are great for attaching things like a safety whistle, kayak knife, strobe light, or tow clip or line.


Life jackets come in several sizes, from x-small to x-large, and children’s sizes as well. Making sure you get the right size is critical for a comfortable fit. Get one that is too big, and you could easily slip out of it when you need it most. Too small, and you’ll be uncomfortable all day and may not even be able to zip it up or strap it on completely.

Adjustment Points

PFD adjustment points are an important factor and help ensure that you have a good snug fit of the PFD to your body type. A loose fitting PFD could come off in the open water or not serve its exact purpose. Find a life jacket that has multiple adjustment points or adjustment straps at your shoulders, waist, and chest.

Finding The Best PFD For Kayaking

Depending on what water activities you’ll be doing, the good news is you can likely find a life vest that will work for several. Whether you need the best life jacket for kayak fishing or just the best kayak life vest in general, we’ve gone several excellent options.

Overall Best Kayak Life Vest

There are many features we look for in a good kayak life vest. Because kayaking involves lots of paddling, a good vest’s range of motion is a critical component. We love the NRS Ninja Kayak Life Jacket for so many reasons.

First, NRS is a trusted brand in water sports equipment. Many professional river guides choose the brand and this vest in particular. It offers a great range of motion for paddling and fits comfortably for long days on the water. It also comes with six adjustable straps, including adjustable shoulder straps, for a “customized” fit, which is critical in ensuring it stays on in the water.

This Type III vest weighs just over 2 pounds with PVC-free foam panels for buoyancy. With seven bright colors to choose from, there is sure to be one that suits your tastes.

Like most good life jackets, it has a knife lash tab for attaching a river knife. It has a durable outer shell and a clamshell pocket on the front panels, which is great for stashing snacks, cell phones, sunscreen, or anything else you might need on the water and varying weather conditions.

This vest is more expensive than many others, but you’ll realize that the design is worth it, and the NRS name means quality.

Best Budget Kayak Life Vest

This vest is right up there with the overall best kayak life vest, but we always want you to have several excellent options. We love the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports CGA Life Vest, and it’s less expensive than the NRS Ninja.

First, this Type III life vest is great for kayaking because the mesh on the lower back allows comfort when sitting in a kayak seat. Some vests have foam in that location that sits you too far forward and is uncomfortable, but not this one. This vest also has large armholes, so you can paddle unencumbered and without rubbing.

It has a small pocket for storage space, several tabs for attaching other items, and reflective tape for low light. This vest weighs less than two pounds, and the breathable mesh features allow for plenty of ventilation.

Finally, over 10,000 people have reviewed the life vest on Amazon, and it has a whopping 83% five-star rating! People rave about the ability for a custom fit and quality and find this a great all-around vest.

Best Inflatable Kayak Life Vest

Don’t overlook an inflatable life vest if you seek something with a low profile and high comfort. Whether you are looking for a kayak fishing PFD vest or something for all-around use, consider the ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket.

This type V life jacket is great for all kinds of paddling activities. It inflates automatically and manually, so if you fall in and it doesn’t activate, you can do so manually. This jacket is so low-profile that many people forget they are wearing it. It works great for fishing in cold temperatures because it easily fits over bulky layers of clothing.

People also like this for fishing because it allows for an excellent range of movement, perfect for casting. It doesn’t have pockets or other fishing features due to its size, but this may be unnecessary depending on how you’re fishing and the type of boat you’re in.

You have to think a little bit when using this vest, particularly if you end up in the water. Making sure it inflates is critical and if you have to manually do it, make sure that you know how. But overall, at one pound and due to its design, it’s an excellent option for someone looking for a low profile fit.

If you are in the market for the best fishing kayak life jacket or the best kayak life vest for other paddling activities in an inflatable model, give this one a try!

Best Kayak Fishing Life Vest

If you’re fishing in your kayak, you’ll want to find the best kayak fishing vest you can afford. This is because a fishing life vest for kayak will have additional features specific to fishing that you’ll find quite handy on the water. We love the Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Jacket.

Since you won’t be able to access a regular fishing vest while wearing a PFD, this vest has many features to make up for it. But first, for use in a kayak, it works great for the same reason the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic does. The foam in the back is high enough to be comfortable while sitting in a kayak seat all day, and the use of mesh allows for plenty of ventilation. It also has six straps with adjustment points for the perfect fit for whatever you’re using it for.

Best Kayak Fishing PFD

As for fishing, this vest has four different pocket designs, perfect for storing miscellaneous fishing gear. It has a tray pocket that holds a small tackle box to keep all your lures or flies, and the chest pocket has an opening for slipping in pliers or radios. Fantastic storage for all kayak anglers.

Many people buy this vest not for fishing but because of all the large pockets and additional features. It’s also affordable and adjustable. We think it’s one of the best kayak fishing PFD jackets on the market. It is suitable for other water activities as well (read the safety label for uses).

NRS Chinook Kayak Fishing PFD Vest

Another popular kayak fishing jacket is the NRS Chinook Fishing Life Jacket which has plenty of pocket storage. This PFD is low profile, comfortable, and easily adjusted for that enjoyable fit on the water. You likely will barely notice you have a safety vest on.

NRS Shenook Women’s Kayak Fishing PFD Vest

Another great option is the NRS Shenook Fishing Life Jacket. This is a popular Women’s life jacket that is durable and versatile. This jacket is a USCG Approved Type III life vest.

Best Kayak PFDs Final Thoughts

There are many excellent life vests on the market for kayaking. Whether you are just floating a river, doing extensive paddling, or fishing, we’ve given you some excellent options. The best life vests are the ones that fit you well and keep you safely floating upright.

There is something for you, whether you want the best kayak life vest for all-around activities or the best kayak life jacket for fishing.

Make sure that whichever you choose is the right type (as classified by the US Coast Guard USCG) for your activity. Fit is also critical to ensure you don’t slip out of it if you end up in the water. Finally, pay attention to features that will meet all of your needs. Features such as front of the vest pockets, lash tabs, adjustable straps, high visibility colors and reflection, large arm holes.

A good kayaking vest allows for plenty of range of motion and is comfortable when sitting in kayak seats all day paddling. Consider where the foam is located in relation to your kayak seat and how large the armholes are.

By keeping these things in mind, you’re sure to have many enjoyable long hours on the water paddling, fishing, and relaxing.