When I was a kid, we called a kayak PFD a life jacket or life vest. I remember fishing trips every fall with the family and our cheap old “life jackets” that smelled like last year’s fish. Eventually, I started guiding canoeing trips and expeditions, and our employers insisted that we call them “PFDs” or personal flotation devices.
Was I ever surprised to learn that there’s a lot more to choosing a PFD than just going to the local outfitter and picking up the clearance model. There are PFDs for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and whitewater. Each of these can sport several variations, and that’s not even beginning to consider things like attachment points, pockets, and adjustability features.
I’m going to break it down to show you how to choose the best kayaking PFD for you. Then we’ll recommend a few common choices for your next paddling life jacket.
Here Are Our Top Rated Life Jackets
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How to Choose a Kayak PFD
Your PFD is, without a doubt, the most critical piece of kayak safety equipment you’ll own. Of primary concern when choosing a kayak PFD is comfort and fit. You’ll need to be comfortable paddling in your PFD for hours at a time, or sometimes days! Besides fit, several other major considerations go into selecting kayak life jackets, all of which we’ll cover in depth below.
Buoyancy and Flotation
When choosing a PFD, it’s essential that you check the weight bearing capacity which is known as buoyancy in the water. All PFDs should have a size and weight range that they are rated to safely handle. Be sure that your PFD is rated to handle your weight before you even think about styles and colours you like.
Furthermore, you’ll want to choose a PFD based on your intended type of paddling. If you’re paddling flat water in your kayak, buoyancy distribution from front to back may not be a big deal. In whitewater, however, you’ll want plenty of buoyancy on the back of the PFD to ensure safe river floating position – on your back!
Fitment and Ride Up
A proper fitting PFD must be snug enough that when grasped with two fingers under each shoulder strap, it cannot easily be lifted above the base of each ear lobe. I didn’t know this for the longest time, until I started paddling whitewater with a guide. Of course, this is a generic rule of thumb, and personal fitment can be more tailored.
Make sure that you can turn your head full left and right without your chin running into any bulky areas of the PFD. Pull the PFD up under your armpits to emulate the buoyancy of the PFD in water. Now make sure you can still turn your head comfortably and that the PFD isn’t jamming into your face, neck, or chin uncomfortably.
Breathability and Heat Dispersion
If you’re planning to do flat water paddling which won’t often leave you in the drink, a breathable and comfortable PFD is critical to actually wearing the thing! Trust me, I’ve paddled for days on end before, and it gets really tempting to ditch the PFD when it gets hot in the middle of the day.
Look for PFDs that have an adequate amount of ventilation, mesh, and thinner fabric to help cool you and move air currents across your body. Being encapsulated by Styrofoam is a terribly hot and sweaty prospect.
Range of Movement
This is an incredibly important factor for a properly fitted PFD. What’s important is that you can paddle all day long without getting chafing under your arms from the PFD. Many poorly made PFDs are bulky or ride up too high under the arms in normal use.
Sit down to emulate the body position when paddling, while wearing the vest. Make sure to test your usable range of motion in your PFD and practice stroking with a paddle – does it restrict movement or rub anywhere? If so, look to get a size up or down or try a different model.
Kayak PFD Reviews - Our 5 Best Kayak PFD’s and the Reasons Why
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ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
If you’re looking to pick up a new kayak PFD that will be flexible and versatile while providing the most under arm clearance possible, this might be your pick. Reflective piping along the shoulder straps and multiple attachment points for gear make it a versatile choice for recreational use.
If under arm clearance is a major consideration, you’ll be hard pressed to find a PFD with more room. This PFD has two nylon webbing straps along the side which connect the front and back plates of the PFD. These adjustable flat pieces of webbing won’t get in the way and can be expanded to accommodate a wide range of body sizes.
I like the flexible articulate vents in the front of the PFD for their added airflow. While the PFD is a neutral color, the added orange on one available model means better visibility which is a major rescue consideration.
Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device
Made with the angler in mind, this PFD is loaded with features for fishing. You can carry nearly everything but the kitchen sink in here with two zippered front pockets and straps galore.
Highly adjustable shoulder and side straps allow the PFD to fit a range of shapes and sizes. Ample open space on the sides of the vest allow for plenty of range of motion and comfort when paddling - long days on the river will be a piece of cake.
Overall, I love this PFD because they tailored it perfectly to the needs of serious anglers. Zippers pockets hold gear and feature internal mesh pockets with an additional zipper. Room for strapping pliers and tools is generous and highly customizable. In my opinion, the Stohlquist is without a doubt the best life jacket for kayak fishing.
NRS Ninja PFD
Nope, not a PFD for ninjas - sorry! This unconventional PFD design is inspired by the need to provide a great PFD to paddlers with shorter torsos. Many traditional PFDs won’t accommodate a shorter torso; the bulky design causes fitment issues and comfort problems. NRS has solved that problem with the Ninja.
Two triangle shaped highly buoyant panels are adjusted and secured by lengthy shoulders straps and adjustable side straps. The smaller shape and size, as well as more minimalist design, make the Ninja much more friendly to those who may be vertically challenged in the torso.
Up front, you’ll find a covered buckle pocket for storing a few essentials or safety equipment. There’s also a single attachment for straps, buckles, or general gear storage. Overall, a minimalist design that knows how to get the job done.
NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD
Another kayak PFD aimed straight at the anglers among us. NRS is using a front entry design similar to the Stohlquist, which is great because they both provide excellent ease of use. As an angler, we want quick and easy access to our tools and tackle.
NRS added just a few more adjustability features to this angler’s vest for overall fitment and fine-tuned comfort (which I love). There are also a whopping seven front pockets for everything from fly cases to hemostats. Load yourself up with gear! Just don’t get poked by a treble hook.
While many vests offer this, I want to highlight an important paddling comfort feature. That is the mesh lower back of this vest. It’s made to accommodate high back seats by minimizing bulk and optimizing airflow. This is an awesome feature to look for if you’ve had problems getting a PFD to fit your kayak seat before!
Stohlquist Women's Escape PFD Life Jacket
Ladies, if you’ve ever worn a generic PFD, then you know how uncomfortable they can be. Because of the inherent differences in physical shape between men and women, PFDs naturally need to be tailored to each body type for an ideal fit.
With six adjustable straps – 3 on each side – and one strap at the bottom of the PFD, this flotation device is highly adjustable. Don’t forget about the shoulder adjustments! There’s a moderate amount of adjustability in the shoulders for a good fit, though it’s not quite as widely adjustable as some of the other PFDs we’ve reviewed.
Front entry design is pretty standard and totally sufficient for anything short of whitewater or dangerous paddling conditions where the PFD is likely to be exposed to extreme forces. With one single pocket on the right side of the PFD, there’s not a lot of storage. Stohlquist also kept it minimal on attachment points – there are none. Ideal for the user that doesn’t carry much on them.
It’s easy to buy the first PFD you come across and assume that price is the deciding factor. It’s not. Your deciding factor on PFDs should be safety and comfort! After all, the primary responsibility of a PFD is to ensure the best possible chance of survival for you, should you enter an emergency in-water situation.
Remember that whitewater PFDs are often more rigorously fitted than recreational PFDs. For the flat-water kayaker, fisherman, or swimmer you won’t need anything too special. Just make sure it’s comfortable and test the fit to be certain it won’t ride up or cause chaffing after a long day of kayaking.