When it comes to kayaking gear, one thing that should take top priority is safety. Right from first-aid kits and maps to flashlights, you need to be on top of your safety gear before you set out. However, one of the most important and indispensable items on that list is a life vest. Kayaking life vests, which are usually lightweight, need to be on your person in the kayak whether you’re fishing, or recreational paddling, or whitewater rafting. No matter how mad your swimming skills are, kayak vests go a long way in ensuring that you stay afloat if you unexpectedly land in the water. Even if your foot were to get caught in vegetation or debris below, the water wouldn’t be able to pull you down, thanks to the life vest. Plus, if you’re in the river, then life vests also tend to protect you from the current.
Durability and safety are exactly why a life vest needs to be a part of your kayaking kit, and not just for looking stylish and cool. What’s more, life vests today are a vast improvement on earlier ones, are comfortable to wear, sturdy, and soft too. To that end, here are the 13 best and lightweight life vests for kayaking, kayak fishing, paddling, and more.
How To Choose The Best Life Vests For Kayaking?
Kayaking safety takes serious priority when it comes to planning a kayaking expedition. Whether it’s the Best Kayaking Safety Flags, the Best Kayaking Knives, the Best Kayaking Hats, or kayaking life vests, it’s important to make a list and ensure that you have all the items on that list. So, what are the things you need to consider before you buy a life vest? They’re listed below.
Types of life vests/jackets
Life vests or jackets, also known as personal floatation devices (PFDs or PDFs), are of five main types. To begin with, Type I PDFs are highly versatile and can be worn in very rough waters. When you go into the water, the extreme buoyancy of the vest helps turn the wearer to a face-up position. Secondly, we have the Type II PDFs, which are more suited for calm, inland waters for quick rescue missions. Its buoyancy is lesser than Type I and it turns only some wearers to a face-up position. Unlike these two, Type II PDFs don’t turn wearers face-up but rather floats them, offering the best protection in calm waters. Pro tip: Make sure you tilt back your head when you go into the water.
Coming to Type IV PDFs, they can be used in both calm and rough bodies of water, but only if there’s rescue present. This is meant to be thrown into the water and clutched onto, rather than be worn. Finally, we have Type V PDFs, which are designed for specific conditions and inflate when they come into contact with water on their own.
Yet another classification of life vests is whether they’re inflatable or standard foam ones. Inflatable PDFs need to be activated by pulling a draw tab or on their own when they hit the water. People love their slim profile, but they need to be tested regularly for efficiency. Standard foam ones, on the other hand, are common, comfortable, reliable, and buoyant. The only drawback? They dry slowly.
Usually, the most resilient materials are neoprene and nylon, with the former being slightly heavier. Notwitdahign what material you choose, go for a well-built life vest. Generally, paddlers and kayakers go for nylon as it’s more lightweight and sheds water off easily.
Entry method and buoyancy
How you enter the life vest or wear it is important, as it’s also a matter of preference. Most kayakers tend to prefer life vests that come with zippers, as they’re easy to operate. That said, make sure to go for one with high-quality and durable zippers that won’t get jammed. Also, there are vests that slip over your head and can be adjusted accordingly.
The next factor to look at is PDF buoyancy, which is what keeps a person, especially their head above the water. There are a host of factors that contribute to buoyancy levels such as weight, body fat ratio, water conditions, etc. The USCG-mandated buoyancy level is 7-12 lbs for adults to stay afloat. When it specifically comes to Type III PDFs, go for a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 lbs.
Weight and comfort
It’s common sense that you need to be comfortable when you’re kayaking or in the water. The weight of the best life jackets for kayaking should be so that you can paddle freely. It shouldn’t burden you, or be weighty, or uncomfortable, or tough. This directly translates to comfort, so look for features such as back mesh, padded shoulders, etc. Don’t forget about the fit, as a PDF should neither be too loose nor too snug. It’s just like picking the Best Kayaking Drysuits – you need a range of movement and comfort.
Besides helping you stay afloat and safe, another critical factor for a life vest is reflectivity. This is especially true if you fall into the water during nighttime, low-light, or foggy or misty conditions. This way, you’ll ensure that the rescue boat finds you in time and more importantly, is able to spot you before reaching you.
Finally, it’s evident that when you’re kayaking or if you fall into the water, you’d want some essentials near at hand. That’s why the best PDFs come with good amounts of storage space in the form of pockets. While some models feature deep pockets for keeping gadgets and snacks, others have hydration bladders. Yet, there are others that come with D-rings for attaching stuff.
Which is the best life jacket for kayaking?
Our vote goes to the Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device, which is both lightweight and universally sized. Besides a high back build, it comes in many sizes, including S to XL and Universal and Universal Plus sizes. The lightweight kayaking life vest’s build is robust, thanks to the 500D shell, the 200D oxford liner, and neoprene-padded shoulders. If that wasn’t enough, you’ll even find two inner and outer pockets each, lower back waistband, and open ventilated sides too.
NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD
The NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD is one of the best life vests for kayaking that’s also lightweight. A personal tool kit and safety aid all rolled into one, the vest boasts a particularly accommodating front. So, it’s easy to slip into and slip out of, while not restricting paddling either. Moreover, the eight adjustment points ensure that the vest fits like a glove, and is neither too tight nor too loose. Plus, the mesh back material provides adequate ventilation, keeping you dry and cool at the same time. Furthermore, the PlushFit foam follows the movements of your body to keep you comfortable throughout. Finally, the life vest is available in sizes ranging from S to XXL as well as in a gamut of colors such as charcoal, green and red.
- Perfect for long kayaking sessions.
- PlushFit foam design.
- Back mesh for cooling.
- No reflective material.
Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device
One of the most universal and yet lightweight life vests for kayak fishing or kayaking is the Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device. The kitted-out PFD features an 18-inch wide and a 6-inch high back, ensuring optimal levels of comfort. Moreover, it comes in a host of sizes that range from S to XL, as well as the Universal and Universal Plus sizes. It’s these latter two that fit nearly everyone. Made from high-quality neoprene along with a 500D shell, the robust and durable vest even feature neoprene-padded shoulders and a 200D oxford liner. It’s even padded with the soft and supple Gaia floatation foam. Going further, you’ll find two outer front pockets and two inner ones for smaller items. Plus, the outer ones have a denier shell, zipper closures, and anchor points. Rounding up the features are the open ventilated sides and waistband on the lower back.
- Pockets protected with 500D shell.
- Gaia floatation foam.
- Many pockets.
- No reflective material for safety.
Stohlquist Edge Kayak Lifejacket
Yet another Stohlquist product makes its way onto the list of best lightweight life vests for kayaking. This time, it’s the Stohlquist Edge Kayak Lifejacket. This life vest features a whole lot of comfort features such as adjustable shoulders as well as an ergonomic design that’s designed and optimized to adapt to and fit your torso. Moreover, the life vest is available in not just one size, but a range of sizes from S to XXL. You’ll also find a gamut of color options including royal blue, red, and even black. Furthermore, the life vest boasts a reflective 3MTM that ensures enhanced visibility, especially during not-so-clear weather conditions. Rounding up the features are the side and front pockets with zippers, four side buckle pulls, as well as a front waist buckle closure.
- Lots of pockets.
- Adjustable shoulders.
- Sizes run slightly small.
Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device
Are you surprised to see another Stohlquist on this list of great life vests for kayak fishing? Because we aren’t! Behold the Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device, a versatile and lightweight kayaking life vest. Crafted from PE foam, the vest features a mesh lining on the inside that keeps your back dry and cool, especially in extremely hot ad humid weather. There’s even a protective 200D ripstop exterior shell on this jacket, which measures 19 inches in width and 6 inches in height. You’ll find comfort in the waistband too, which is neoprene-padded so it fits comfortably and floats better. Besides coming in two beautiful colors of ombre grey paired with purple and orange, the design beautifully conforms to the female torso. Other amazing features include a cinch harness that optimizes cup support on the chest area by going across it, also making it easy for women to adjust it too.
- Approved by U.S. Coast Guard.
- Cool mesh lining.
- Designed for the female form.
- Could have more pockets.
ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
The ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest is another of the best life vests for kayaking. Made from reflective SOLAS material and soft and lightweight floatation foam, this vest not only protects you but also keeps you visible, no matter where you are on the water. The exterior is of 200D nylon ripstop and nylon oxford, making it resistant to rips and tears. Thanks to its material and build, it fits and sits snugly well on the torso, especially more so since it comes in a gamut of sizes ranging from S all the way to XXL. What’s more, it comes in four gorgeous ombre grey combinations, paired with purple, yellow, aqua, and orange on the lining. You’ll also find large holes in the arm, a whistle inside the inner pocket for emergencies, and an expandable zip pocket with mesh drainage. Rounding up the features are the puffy back foam padding and cooling vented channels for additional comfort.
- Approved by U.S. Coast Guard.
- Snug fit.
- Only comes with one pocket.
Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD Life Vest Adult Automatic/Manual
There’s more than one reason why kayakers think that the Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD Life Vest is one of the best inflatable life vests for kayaking and kayak fishing. For starters, it features a very slender build and is simply comfortable. The vest’s design is such that it ensures optimal ventilation so that you won’t sweat excessively on a hot summer day. The best part? The vest inflates as soon as it comes into contact with the water, unlike many other inflatable life vests for kayaking. In fact, it does have manual activation by pulling the cord, but the forethought put into the automatic function is commendable. In addition, this model features SOLAS reflectors so you can be spotted from far off, no matter how the weather conditions are. Finally, the Eyson life vest is available in many colors and sizes, supporting adults weighing up to 330 lbs.
- Quick-release buckle.
- Low profile.
- Reusable and washable.
- Not approved by the United States Coast Guard.
Kokatat Outfit Tour PFD
One of the best life vests for kayaking is the Kokatat Outfit Tour PFD, which is not only convenient to use but also comfortable. The life vest features high-quality craftsmanship with deep-cut armpits and neck and adjustable shoulder areas. Not only do they not turn your armpits sore and red, but also they provide the ultimate levels of support for a wide range of movements. featuring a 500D nylon outer with a durable 200D oxford inner, the Kokatat life vest can handle just about anything thrown at it. It also features both rear and front SOLAS reflective tape that ensures that you can be seen from afar in case of a rescue. Thanks to the presence of the front and back pockets, you can store a whole lot of necessary accessories, while keeping smartphones, GPS, etc. in the vertical pocket instead. Overall, the resilient and comfortable jacket is one of the best life jackets for kayaking.
- Type III PDF,
- USCG approved.
- Could do with more lower back support.
Astral V-Eight Life Jacket PFD for Fishing and Kayaking
The Astral V-Eight Life Jacket PFD for Fishing and Kayaking is yet another wonderful life vest for kayak fishing. The life vest is designed to be used during high-adventure watersports or in rough waters, making it perfect for intrepid adventurers and adrenaline junkies. The unobtrusive shoulder straps not only provide comfort but also freedom of movement, while the open sides make it even more comfortable to enjoy your favorite sports. In order to ensure a perfect fit, Astral offers six adjustment straps. Moreover, the integrated air escape system makes the jacket well-vented and breathable as well. Furthermore, the brand has even thought about the security aspect with this jacket, adding a tough zipper and a quick-release waist belt. Finally, there are just enough pockets to store some minimal essentials along with you.
- No toxic PVC.
- Approved by the United States Coast Guard.
- PE and EVA foam inserts ensure that you stay afloat.
- Slightly bulky.
NRS cVest Mesh Back Personal Floatation Device
If you’re looking for a vest with ample storage, then one of the best lightweight life vests for kayaking is the NRS cVest Mesh Back Personal Floatation Device. It comes with not just one or two, but six integrated pockets. So, you can literally go crazy with the number of kayaking accessories you want to keep near at hand. NRS also takes comfort seriously, which is why you’ll find a mesh back for ventilation as well as a padded shoulder and front. It’s also one of the most adjustable vests on this list, with as many as eight adjustment points! on the market. It gives you 8 options to choose from and ensures the right fit when being on or in the water. So, you not only have four side adjustments, but also two on the shoulders and waist each, all of which when combined together are more than enough to achieve a snug yet comfy fit.
- Material is soft on the skin.
- Lanyard and beacon loops.
- Type II PFD.
- SOLAS reflective tape on the front and the back.
- Unsuitable for rough waters.
Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device
Just like its women’s life best, the Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device is also amongst the best life vests for kayak fishing. This one ticks all the boxes – freedom of movement, comfort, performance in the water, and resistance to abrasions. Made from 500D Cordura nylon, this ultra-tough life vest is protective especially from rough waters, rocks, etc. Moreover, the soft 200D oxford lining makes it extremely comfortable to wear, especially for long hours out on the water. Plus, you can adjust the front panels so there are no obstructions when you perform any activity Two large front pockets work great for quick-access items, while you’ll find a storage tab on the upper back too. Adjustable shoulder pads and ventilated pads all over make wearing this life vest an absolute breeze.
- Frontal zipper.
- Cross-chest harness.
- Not waterproof.
Old Town Riverstream Unisex Life Jacket
In spite of having an expensive price tag of $70, the Old Town Riverstream Unisex Life Jacket is one of the best life vests for kayaking. First of all, it’s a unisex life jacket, which means that with a few tweaks, it’ll fit men as amazingly as it’ll fit women. The lightweight kayaking life vest brings both performance and power to your kayak rides, looking handsome and dashing while at it. Made from durable, robust, and long-lasting 200D nylon, the Riverstream also features a host of adjustable side and shoulder straps that makes customizing the fit easy. Moreover, the thin-back build and elastic shoulder strap keepers sit comfortably with most kayak seat designs. Finally, the life vest is designed to carry a lot of gear, featuring two zippered pockets for secure storage, as well as a cord loop and D-ring attachment points!
- High-back construction.
- Sturdy and convenient.
Airhead Trend Life Vest
Costing less than $50, the Airhead Trend Life Vest is one of the cheapest life vests for kayak fishing. Despite its small price tag, the life vest does come with a whole lot of good features you’d otherwise see only in premium ones. First off, it comes in four vibrant colors, blue, pink, green and blue, and hot pink and sky blue. So, no matter where you are, you can definitely be seen wearing this! Secondly, you can use this life vest while kayaking, kayak fishing, boating, recreational paddling, and more. The life vest does great on comfort too, thanks to the four adjustable belts on the front. At the same time, it’s neither too loose nor too snug around your body, allowing freedom of movement. It comes in a whopping nine sizes, four each for men and women and one youth size. Finally, what you’ll really like is the lightweight construction of the vest, which means it doesn’t feel like you’re being weighed down by it.
- Stain-resistant material.
It’s only fitting that we end this list of best life vests for kayaking with a universal life vest, the Oryx Universal Paddle Vest. A stylish and lightweight design aside, you’ll also like the thinly padded foam that makes the vest easy to wear as well as not restrict any range of movement. There are a lot of things to like about this vest, starting from the foam-padded high back that makes it uber comfortable to be worn while kayaking. What’s more, the mesh back allows it to ventilate your back and keep it cool and dry, especially in summers. It also comes in two amazing colors, red and aqua, as well as two sizes, oversized and universal. So, you can rest assured that this vest will fit just about anyone and everyone. Finally, its compact and lightweight construction makes it weigh less on you and also easy for you to move your body freely.
- Comfortable high foam back.
- Breathable mesh back.
- Not for skinny people.