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The Best Life Jackets For Kayaking Of 2021 Helpful Guide

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 life jackets for kayaking available now and buying guide.

Our Top Pick

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest

Best Inflatable Life Jacket

Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Best Value Life Jacket

Onyx General Purpose Boating Vest

The top 5 best life jackets for kayaking

We examined several of the most popular kayak life jackets.  Here are our reviews of the 5 best options available now.  We considered ease of use, price, options, functionality, and customer reviews in our selections of the best life jackets for kayaking. We looked at both traditional and inflatable PFDs.

Our Top Pick

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest

  • Shoulder adjustments with neoprene comfort pads
  • SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility
  • Zip assist loop at zipper base U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III Life Jacket / Personal Flotation Device (PFD)


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 and our top choice for best life jacket for kayaking.

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
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
Low profile design for easy arm movement
6 adjustment straps
SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility
Attached safety whistle
Zipper pockett

Best Inflatable Life Jacket

Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

  • Extremely low profile
  • D-ring attachment for small accessories
  • Approved for persons 16 years of age and older; and over 80 lbs. – Type V with Type III performance.


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 paddleboarding 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
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type V with Type III performance
Very low profile belt pack when not inflated
Adjustable up to 52inch waist
Lightweight (Less than 1 lb)
D-Ring attachment for accessories
26.5 lbs buoyancy when inflated

Best Value Life Jacket

Onyx General Purpose Boating Vest

  • Adjustable belts and chest strap to keep vest from riding up
  • Lightweight durable flotation foam
  • Large armholes for comfort


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
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
Very low cost
Open arm design for easy paddling
3 buckle design

Best Cold Day Life Jacket


  • MULTIPURPOSE PANELSL: Soft PVC-free foam panels shaped for comfort, the floating front panel doubles as a handwarmer
  • VENTILATION PANELS: AirMesh fabric on shoulder straps and inner panels provide ventilation throughout the jacket
  • CUSTOMIZABLE FIT: Side-entry with six adjustment points for a customizable fit


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 life jacket to help you have an enjoyable day on your kayak.

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
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type 3
Handwarmer pocket
Front chest zipper pocket for storage
2 buckle entry
4 side and 2 top adjustment straps
Low profile design with large arm cutouts for easy paddling

Best Budget Life Jacket

Onyx MoveVent Curve Vest

  • Soft, comfortable flotation foam
  • Bubble foam on inner back for added comfort
  • Expandable zippered pockets with mesh drainage


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
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type III
Low profile design for easy arm movement
6 adjustment straps
SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility
Neoprene padded shoulder straps

pfd drying on rack

How To Choose The Best Life Jacket For Kayaking – Buying Guide

Nothing ruins a day on the water worse than someone drowning. I have experienced this one time at a sailing event and hope that none of you reading this ever have to. 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 I PFDS / OFF-SHORE LIFE JACKETS:  Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.  Abandon-ship lifejacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire:


Type I –  has the greatest required inherent buoyancy and turns most unconscious persons in the water from a face down position to a vertical and slightly backward position, therefore, greatly increasing one’s chance of survival.


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 II PFDS / NEAR-SHORE BUOYANT VESTS:  For general boating activities.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.


Type II – intended to turn some unconscious persons from a face down position in the water to a position where the wearer’s respiration is not impeded.


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 or small boat sailing 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 III PFDS / FLOTATION AIDS:  For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.  Designed so that wearing it will complement your boating activities:


Type III – intended to support a conscious person in the water in an upright position.  This type of device is not required to turn an unconscious person in the water from a face-down position to a position where the wearer’s respiration is not impeded.


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

TYPE V PFDS / SPECIAL USE DEVICES:  Only for special uses or conditions.  

See label for limits of use:


Type V – is approved for restricted uses or activities such as boardsailing, or commercial white water rafting.  These devices may not be suitable for other boating activities.  The label indicates whether a particular design of Type V can be used in specific application, what restrictions or limitations apply, and its performance type.


Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable like jackets are a great invention but one has to use them with caution. 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.

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. They will lose air pressure over time and may need to be topped off. Most have an inflation tube you can use with your mouth to add more air. If the air cushion gets a hole or torn then you will lose all flotation and have to swim. Inflatable PFDs are not meant for people who don’t know how to swim.

Please see the below video for a demonstration on how an inflatable PFD inflates.

Inflatable PFDs and Kayaking

For situations like kayaking on a calm flat water day in shallow water (1-2 feet deep) a manual inflating vest makes sense. If you jump or fall off your kayak the water isn’t deep so you can just sit or stand up.

A manual inflating life jacket should only be used in situations where you don’t need a life jacket but are legally required to have one with you. You should only be using an inflatable vest if you know how to swim.

If your kayaking on a more windy day with larger waves or kayaking in any kind of whitewater then I highly recommend not using an inflatable PFD and using a noninflatable Type I,II,III instead. If your in a situation where you might actually need a PFD, don’t use an inflatable PFD on a kayak. If you are whitewater kayaking where there is a chance to become unconscious from hitting your head on obstacles you should look for a Type II or I that can turn you upright when unconscious.

If you are out on calm water and you are a good swimmer and it’s a hot day then a manual inflatable PFD can be a really good option to stay cool and let you jump off the board and swim around as well.

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 inflating PFDs should never be worn for certain activities such as small boat sailing where it can trap you in the rigging during inflation. I was at a regatta on Lake Erie where tragedy struck when someone capsized their boat and the automatic inflating PFD inflated in rigging trapping them under the boat. Nothing ruins a fun day on the water faster than someone drowning.

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.

If you’re getting off the kayak and it’s a little deeper then you thought. Oops, it’s inflated and time for a re-arm kit. You forget and walk in the water to help your friend. Oops, it’s inflated. You lose your balance and fall in the water. Oops, time for a re-arm kit. Automatic inflatable life jackets are really meant to be worn on larger boats where you might accidentally fall in the water but it’s really uncommon.

The below video shows how automatic inflating PFDs inflate and how long it takes to surface.

For a manual inflating PFD you have to be able to inflate it after you are in the water. That usually means pulling a cord to activate it. That means you must be able to swim to use this type of vest since you have to have enough control of yourself in the water to pull the cord after falling in.

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.

The below video demonstates how a belt PFD inflates and is put on in the water.

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 jactet 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 and Small Boat Sailing

The next version of Type III life jacket is the type designed for paddling (SUP and Kayak) and small boat sailing. Although they sound different both these 2 activities have very similar needs. These PFD’s are designed with large arm openings so you can freely move your arms to paddle or adjust lines. 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.


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 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 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.

kayakers wearing pfd

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: What is the best kayak life jacket?

The best kayak life jacket will be the PFD that you will enjoy wearing. Find a life jacket that is comfortable and fits well so you won’t be finding ways to talk yourself our of wearing your kayak life jacket.

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.

Q: How Do I Get Back Into A Kayak In Deep Water?

If you’ve ever rented a kayak somewhere, they can feel pretty difficult to get in and out of. With a little practice you can self rescue yourself in deep water. The best thing to do is go out on a nice warm day with warm water and practice getting in and out of the kayak in a comfortable place near the shore. The below video shows how to get back into a kayak in deep water.

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selfie for info block

About the author

My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water.  I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions.  I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.

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