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The Best Kayak Life Jackets Of 2022 Helpful Guide

best kayak life jackets

Kayaking is a great watersport for exploring new places or a relaxing float down a stream. It is really fun and great exercise. When you are out on the water you never know what might happen. It is a good idea (And sometimes legally required) to wear or have a life jacket or PFD (Personal Flotation Device) with you. If that sounds like a good idea then here are some of the best kayak life jackets available now.

Below are out top 3 choices. Keep reading for the rest of our picks with reviews and kayak life jacket guide and FAQ.

☆ Top Pick

☆ Editor’s Choice

☆ Best Value

NRS Ninja

Stohlquist Edge

Onyx MoveVent

Low profile PFD with warming pocket for your hands

Body conforming PFD designed for paddlers

Low cost PFD with many great paddling features

The top 8 best kayak life jackets

We examined several of the most popular kayak life jackets. Here are our reviews of the 8 best options available now. We considered ease of use, price, options, functionality, and customer reviews in our selections of the best kayak life vest. We looked at both traditional and inflatable PFDs.

1 – NRS Ninja PFD

Top Pick

Summary

The NRS Ninja PFD is a US Coast Guard approved Type 3 life jacket designed for paddling sports. It has large arm openings for unrestricted motion. It uses a 2 buckle entry to be easy to take on and off. There are 6 adjustable straps for a custom feeling fit. It has a hand-warming pocket behind the front zipper pocket. This is a high featured kayak pfd to help you have an enjoyable day on your kayak. This makes it our top pick for best kayak life jacket.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type 3
  • Foam flotation
  • 2 Buckles
  • Materials: 200-denier nylon
  • Weight: 2.0 lbs
  • 3 sizes

What we liked

  • Handwarmer pocket
  • Low profile design with large arm cutouts for easy paddling
  • 4 side and 2 top adjustment straps

2 – Stohlquist Edge Lifejacket

Editor’s Choice

Summary

The Stohlquist Edge Lifejacket is a long time favorite among paddlers. It is a USCG type 3 life jacket designed for kayaking and paddling. It has open arms with mesh sides for easy movement and breathability. It has a side opening zipper with buckle to not interfere with arm motion and to be more comfortable in a kayak seat. Stohlquist waterware is designed with diffferent sized foam flotation pads for each size. That and small paddlers all get perfect fit instead of different sized straps. This life jacket works great for any kayaking use. This makes it my top pick for best kayak life jacket.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
  • Foam Flotation
  • Side zipper and buckle closure
  • Materials : 240D mini-ripstop shell with 200D nylon liner
  • Weight: 1.7 lbs
  • 4 sizes

What we liked

  • Side entry that doesn’t interfere with paddling motion
  • Low profile body conforming design
  • Front zipper pocket for storage

3 – Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest

Best Value

Summary

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest is a USCG Approved Type 3 life jacket designed for paddling sports. It is designed to conform to your body shape and allow free arm motion while paddling. The vest uses a single zipper for taking on and off and has 6 adjustable straps for fit. It uses nylon construction with a mesh back. It comes in 3 sizes to most adult paddlers. It has an attached signal whistle. All these features make it an excellent value for a kayaking life jacket.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
  • Foam Flotation
  • Single Zipper
  • Materials : 200 denier nylon ripstop and nylon oxford
  • Weight: 2.2 lbs
  • 3 sizes

What we liked

  • Low profile design for easy arm movement
  • 6 adjustment straps
  • Attached safety whistle

4 – ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest

Best inflatable PFD for kayaking

Summary

The ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest is a USCG Type 5 PFD. It is a suspender type inflatable that inflates into a horse shoe type 2 life jacket. It inflates with the air cushion around you unlike a belt pack where you have to put it on in the water after inflating it. It is comfortable to wear in a kayak seat or standing and doesn’t feel bulky. There is also an auto-inflating version of this which I don’t recommend for kayaking. If you want a life jacket to wear paddling in places you aren’t likely to go in the water these make an excellent choice.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type V
  • Inflatable
  • Single buckle closure
  • Materials :  Nylon ripstop fabric with neoprene neckline 
  • Weight: 1.5 lbs
  • 4 sizes

What we liked

  • Very low profile design
  • Inflates into a type 2 PFD
  • Not bulky and doesn’t interfere with paddling or other activity

5 – Astral V-Eight Life Jacket

Summary

The Astral V-Eight Life Jacket is a Type III PFD designed for kayaking. It has an open back mesh design that is comfortable to wear against a kayak seat. It has a single zipper closure with a heavy duty buckle for extra security. The pads are designed to not interfere with your arm motion while paddling. Astral builds this life jacket to last. They recycle and re-use as much material as possible during production. They do not use PVC anywhere in the construction. This life jacket is perfect for paddlers with an environmental mindset.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
  • Foam Flotation
  • Single Zipper and buckle
  • Materials : 200 x 400 Denier Ripstop Nylon shell and breathable polyester mesh liner
  • Weight: 1.2 lbs
  • 3 sizes

What we liked

  • Open back mesh designed to be used with kayak seats
  • Astral recycle and reuse business philosophy
  • Comfortable low profile design

6 – Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Summary

The Onyx M-16 Belt Pack is a USCG Approved Type 5 inflatable belt pack life jacket. It is ultra low profile, about the size of a fanny pack when not inflated. To use you pull the inflation cord and then pull the neck loop over your head. This is life jacket is ideal for kayaking on a hot calm day where you won’t get suddenly knocked into the water. You also won’t likely be out paddling in rough water very far from shore. This life jacket weighs less than 1 lb and has 26.5 lbs of buoyancy when inflated. This makes it our top pick for an inflatable life jacket for kayaking.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type V (For ages 16 and up over 80 lbs)
  • Inflatable (Belt style)
  • Single Buckle
  • Materials: 200 denier nylon oxford protective cover
  • Weight: 1 lbs
  • 1 size up to 52inch waist

What we liked

  • Very low profile belt pack when not inflated
  • Lightweight (Less than 1 lb)
  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type V with Type III performance

7 – Onyx General Purpose Boating Vest

Best Cheap Life Jacket for Kayaking

Summary

The Onyx General Purpose Boating Vest is a US Coast Guard Approved type 3 life jacket. It is a low cost life jacket made for a variety of water sports. It has 3 buckles and an open arm design to give you unrestricted arm motion. It is available in youth, adult and oversize to fit a variety of body sizes. This PFD was not designed specifically for paddling. It isn’t as low profile as paddling PFDs but still very usable. These features make this our pick for best value kayaking life jacket.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type 3
  • Foam flotation
  • 3 buckle
  • Materials : 200 denier nylon and 150 denier poly-twill
  • Weight: 1 lbs
  • 1 size fits all for adults

What we liked

  • Very low cost
  • Open arm design for easy paddling
  • Lightweight

8 – Onyx MoveVent Curve Vest

Summary

The Onyx MoveVent Curve Vest is a USCG Approved Type 3 life jacket meant for paddling sports. The vest uses a single zipper entry for taking on and off with 6 adjustable straps. It uses nylon construction with a mesh back. It is the lowest cost version of the Onyx MoveVent series and has a few fewer features. It has no zipper pockets or whistler. This is a great choice for someone who wants a life jacket designed for kayaking at a lower cost.

Life Jacket Specifications

  • U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
  • Foam Flotation
  • Single Zipper
  • Materials : 200 denier nylon ripstop and nylon oxford
  • Weight: 1.2 lbs
  • 3 sizes

What we liked

  • Neoprene padded shoulder straps
  • Low profile design for easy arm movement
  • 6 adjustment straps

Kayaking Life Jackets Guide

Nothing ruins a day on the water worse than someone drowning. I hope none of you ever have to be around when that happens. This topic on life jackets is near and dear to me because of this. Always be careful when heading out on the water because unpredictable things can and will happen.

The United States Coard Guard has officially classified kayaks as vessels. This means that anyone 13 and over, using one, is required to have a Type I, II, III, or V PFD with them. Anyone 12 and under must wear it. To read more about USCG requirements click here. There are many styles of life jackets including inflatables and ones using foam flotation. What is best to use for kayaking? You will find the answers to all these questions below.

The Difference Between A Life Jacket And A PFD

PFD stands for Personal Flotation Device. There is no difference between a life jacket and a PFD. They are interchangeable terms. There are many different types and classifications for life jackets and PFDs. There are 5 classifications of PFDs by the US Coast Guard. Different classes are for different uses. It is important to select one that is suitable for what you are doing on the water.

US Coast Guard Approval Classifications

The US Coast Guard has 5 types of PFDs or Life Jackets. The below video has some good information on the different types and benefits of each.

Type I

Type I PFD’s are designed to turn you upright in the water if you are floating unconscience. These are traditional U-Shaped big bulky orange PFD’s you see in the abondon ship supplies on commercial boats.

Type II

Type II PFD’s are slightly less bulky than Type I PFD’s. They are still designed to turn an unconscious person upright in the water. These can look more like a vest.

Type III

Type III PFDs are the traditional life vest that everyone thinks off. These are designed for use on inland waters or where you will be rescued quickly. They are not designed to turn an unconscious person upright in the water. You will float face down with one of these on. They are meant for most water sports including kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, waterskiing, wakeboading, sailing, etc…

These PFD vests can be tailored toward different water sports. PFDs meant for paddling will have big shoulder cutouts for easy arm motion. PFDs meant for wakeboarding, waterskiing and tubing will be tight fitting with 3 or 4 buckles and maybe a zipper too because they are meant to stay on when you hit the water at speeds fast enough to ski or board.

Type IV

Type IV PFD’s are throwable flotation devices that aren’t designed to be worn. They must have at least 16.5 lbs of flotation. This is your traditional square flotation cushion or ring or horseshow floaty.

Type V

Type V PFD’s are speciality PFD’s that don’t quite fit the other categories. Inflatable PFD’s are classified as Type V’s and frequently labeled as meeting the flotation performance of a Type I, II or III PFD. They also include some paddling PFDs that may not have enough flotation to meet Type III guidelines. Type V PFD’s can include the following:

  • Hybrid Inflatable PFDs
  • Canoe/Kayak Vest
  • Boardsailing Vests
  • Deck Suits
  • Work Vests for Commercial Vessels
  • Commercial Whitewater Vests
  • Man-Overboard Rescue Devices
  • Law Enforcement Flotation Devices

Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable life jackets are a great invention but one has to use them with caution. They can get trapped in things underwater when they inflate. They require maintenance. The C02 cartridge use to inflate them is only rated for a certain length of time. It needs to be replaced periodically. The vest should be inflated to check for air leaks at the same time.

The Coast Guard approves inflatable PFD’s only for people age 16 and older. For more information on age restrictions click here. They have to be worn to count as a Type III.

Inflatable PFDs are meant for people who know how to swim. Automatic inflating vests inflate quickly but not instantly. Manual inflating PFDs require you to inflate them, usually by pulling a cord, after you are in the water. Inflatable PFDs are not meant for people who don’t know how to swim.

Inflatable PFDs and Kayaking

For situations like kayaking on a calm flatwater day in shallow water, a manual inflating PFD makes sense. It will feel like you are wearing less than a regular life jacket. If you going whitewater kayaking wear a regular life jacket and leave the inflatable at home.

Manual vs Automatic Inflation

Automatic inflating life jackets should only be used for things where you don’t plan on falling in the water or walking in the water or wading in the water. They shouldn’t be used in situations where an inflating vest can get you trapped in something in the water.

Automatic inflatable life jackets should not be used when your doing an activity where it is common to jump or fall in the water or to wade out in the water like kayaking. Once you’ve inflated the PFD, it’s inflated for the rest of the day or until you repack it and put in a new CO2 cartridge. If you are going out for a few hours and fall in at the start you are now stuck with an inflated PFD the size of a Type I or you’ve got to stop and repack it if you happen to have a spare CO2 cartridge with you.

Suspenders vs Belt

Inflatable life jackets come in 2 main varieties. One is called a suspenders type which is basically a U-Shaped air cushion worn around your neck and over your shoulders with a waist strap. These are essentially a Type I or Type II style PFD with an inflatable cushion. They are always Type V but will be marketed as having Type I, II or III characteristics. They are comfortable to wear because they are only a small strip going around your upper body.

The second main type of inflatable PFD is the belt PFD. This looks like a fanny pack. You inflate it the cushion in front of you and then have to manually pull the neck strap over your head. You have to be able to swim to use this because it takes some effort to put it on after inflating. These are really good for paddling on a hot day on really calm water. This is a life jacket to be worn in very very low risk situations when you don’t need a life jacket but are legally required to carry one.

Types of Type III Life Jackets

Type III life jackets are the most common life jackets out there and what you normally think of when you say PFD or life jacket or life vest. There is a huge variety of them available and they are designed for different purposes. They all have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of flotation.

General Purpose

This is the generic type 3 that is okay for everything but not great for any purpose. It usually has the minimum flotation required and it uses 2 or 3 buckles. It is made with nylon material.

Paddling

The next version of Type III life jacket is the type designed for paddling (SUP and Kayak). These PFD’s are designed with large arm openings so you can freely move your arms to paddle. They are low profile and cut high around your stomach so you can easily sit or bend over while wearing it.

They usually use a combination of a zipper and a buckle to hold them on. They are almost always made of nylon material over foam but can have neoprene padding on the straps.

PWC/Wakeboard/waterskiing/tubing

This category of life jacket is designed to be very tight fitting and to not come off if you fall in the water while going fast. They usually have 4 buckles. Sometimes 3 for smaller sizes. They can be made of nylon but higher performance versions will all be made of Neoprene for a tighter fit and also to provide some padding for you when you hit the water. They are usually not low profile meaning they are made to be worn in a standing position or slight bend in the waist. As they are designed to not come off easily they do not have large arm holes as paddling PFDs have.

Life Jacket Materials

Almost all PFDs are made with with ripstop nylon or neoprene or some combination of the 2.

Nylon

Nylon is used as the outer fabric over the foam cushions because it is quick drying and durable. For paddle boarding quick drying is desirable since you don’t want to feel like your paddling around wearing a sponge full of water. Most PFDs designed for paddling are use nylon except for straps where you want a little cushion for comfort.

Neoprene

Neoprene or spandex is a spongy material that stretches and conforms to your body shape. It is the same material that wetsuits are made from. It is used as the main material for PWC/waterskiiing/wakeboarding PFDs where fit is really important and you may want some padding against hitting the water. For paddling it is not terrific since it sponges up water and you’ll feel like your wearing a wet sponge while your paddling around. Wetsuits work by trapping water next to your body and not drying out so a neoprene PFD will function the same way.

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Kayak Life Jacket FAQ

Q: What is a PFD?

A PFD is a Personal Flotation Device otherwise know as a life jacket or life vest or flotation aid or a bunch of other names. It is something you wear that has flotation that will keep you floating if you fall in the water.

Q: What is the difference between a life jacket and PFD?

There is no difference between a life jacket and PFD. They are interchangeable names for the same thing. A Life jacket is a PFD worn like a jacket or vest. These are USCG Type I, II, III, and some Type V PFDs.

Q: Do I really need to wear a PFD?

This entirely depends on the situation and your personal comfort level. I tend to personally wear one almost all the time on the water. I’ve experienced being at an event where someone drowned and it’s not a good feeling. Tragedy can strike and it is never expected. The US Coast Guard considers kayaks as a vessel so you are required to have at least have a PFD with you on kayak. To read more about USCG rules click here.

Q: What type of life jacket is best for me?

The best PFD for you is one that fits you well and works well for the activity that you’ll be doing. For kayaking one that doesn’t get in the way of your arms while paddling.

Q: What are inflatable Life Jackets?

Inflatable Life Jackets use a CO2 cartridge to inflate an air cushion for flotation. They can be either manually or automatically inflated when you get in the water.

Q: How do inflatable Life Jackets work?

Manual life jackets work by having a pull cord or some other method to release the CO2 gas into the air cushion. Automatically inflating life jackets typically have a seal on the CO2 cartidge that melts releasing the CO2 into the air cushion. Most inflatable life jackets have a mouth tube for manually blowing air into the air cushion if they start losing pressure.

Q: What is special about paddling life jackets?

Life jackets meant for paddling sports such as Stand Up Paddleboards (SUP), kayaking and canoeing have large arm openings to not restrict your arm motion while paddling. They have a lower profile shape in your torso area to not restrict your body motion while in a seated position.

Q: How long will a life jacket work?

A type III PFD using foam flotation has a maximum life of 10 years. After that it should be replaced. For more information click here.

Q: How much do life jackets cost?

You can get an inexpensive general purpose USCG approved type 3 life jacket for about $25. An offshore rated automatic inflating PFD with a safety harness can easily cost over $200. Most PFDs meant for kayaking run from $50 to $100.

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About the author

My name is Doug Ryan. I am an outdoors enthusiast always looking forward to my next adventure. I spend as much time skiing, biking, and paddleboarding as I can. I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for all things outdoor adventures and to help other people have as much fun as me.

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