By law, you’re required to wear a life vest aka a Personal Floatation Device when you’re kayaking, or at least have it in the boat. This obviously protects you in the event some accident happens while you’re out on the water. However, not all life vests are made equal and you’ll find that life vests come in different types depending on the performance level required, depending on the weather and water conditions. Getting the right fit is also important in ensuring that the vest performs as intended. Let’s look at what else you need to know in order to make the right choice when purchasing your life vest for kayaking, based on the different types available. 

What To Consider When Choosing a Life Vest

Fit

Obviously, your life vest has to be the right size in order to feel comfortable and perform as expected. An ill-fitting vest will not be able to perform well and you’ll feel uncomfortable in it anyway. Here’s how you can find the right size vest for you during fitting: 

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    Check to see if the vest has your chest measurements. There’s nothing worse than having a vest that’s too tights on the chest area
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    Before putting it on, first untie all its straps
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    While fitting the vest, make sure to wear the same clothes you’ll be kayaking in to ensure that it’s a comfortable fit
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    Once you’ve put it on, fasten the straps to get a feel of how it really fits on you. It must feel comfortable and snug but not too close-fitting
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    Then, ask someone to pull it off through your head. If it gives in easily, then it’s not your size. What you want is a vest that’ll stay put and keep you protected in times of rough water conditions, while remaining comfortable enough to give you freedom of movement.
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    Now practice paddling with it, moving your arms and torso around to imitate the movements you’ll be making on the water. If it still feels comfortable, then you’ve found your vest!

Design

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    Color is important, and a life vest should be a vibrant color, to make for extreme visibility in times of emergency  
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    Pockets! Try and find a vest that has a fair amount of pockets to help you keep essential items with you at all times. Just don’t overdo it and put too many unnecessary items in your pockets, as your vest will end up feeling too bulky and uncomfortable to wear. A mesh lining will dry quickly when wet, and  they have to have an enclosure like hook-and-loops or zippers.
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    Make sure the vest is coast guard approved
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    Lastly, you might want to opt for a life vest that’s specifically made for kayaking, as these are specifically designed for kayaking safety and will most probably perform as expected.

Upkeep

Like with anything valuable, your life vest will require some maintenance to make it last longer. Here are some tips on how you can prevent your vest from sustaining unnecessary or premature wear and tear: 

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    Don’t sit on your life vest while you’re kayaking, this will reduce its perkiness
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    When not in use, keep it away from damaging UV rays of the sun

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    Thoroughly rinse it with clean water after each time you use it, and leave it out to dry naturally.

Different Types of Life Vests

As mentioned, life vests come in a wide variety, each made to perform in a specific environment or under certain conditions. Typically, there are five such categories or types of life vests to choose from, and here’s how you can tell one from the other:

Offshore

You’ll mostly find offshore vests inside ships that travel at sea for long periods of time. That’s because they can handle the demands of rough sea conditions. The vests have a very bulky feel and appearance, which might make it uncomfortable for some. And they sort of force you to stay in an upright position the whole time.

Horse Collar Vests

These bright orange vests are specifically constructed for use in near shore conditions, where assistance is usually close at hand in the event of an accident. Similarly to the offshore vest, it feels a bit bulky and will keep your torso in an upright position, which might make it harder to paddle. 

Comfy Fit

As the name suggests, comfort and fit are defining characteristics in the design of this type of vest. They usually fit snug but not too tight, with large arm holes to make for ease of movement when paddling. You’ll also find type 3 vests in a pullover version or a mix between a vest and pullover. All versions of the type 3 life vest are made to perform well for inland water conditions, where help can be at hand within a moment’s notice. Typically, these types of vests should have about 15 lbs. 6 0z. floatation capacity in order to meet standard safety requirements.

Floatation Rings

Type 4 personal floatation devices consist of things like puffy rings and cushions which are usually thrown to the swimmer while they’re already in the water. Because you can’t wear them like a life vest, safety regulations usually require that you pair these with an actual life vest for maximum safety and performance, especially when paddling.

Customised Vests

Customised vests usually come with specialised instructions on how you must use them, and for what application or activities. As such, they’re specifically designed to perform well in particular activities and sports such as paddling and  sailing etc.

Dog Life Vests

Many people prefer taking their pets with when they’re out kayaking. If this sounds like you, then you could use a canine life vest, which is designed with grab loops to help you keep your pup afloat in rough water conditions. 

Women’s Life Vests

You can easily find life vests that have been customised to perfectly adapt to the female form. Feature here include princess seams or panels, and a fit that’s designed to fit women specifically. 

Children’s Life Vests

For kids, life vests are a no-brainer and are always a requirement. This is especially so for infants, who usually have specially designed floatation collars and crotch straps to keep their heads straight and keep them on the water. According to average safety standards, kids’ life vests should provide them with 11lbs. of floatation capacity, while infant vets should have 7 lbs. in floatation capacity.  Again, follow the same steps as the adult sizes when looking for a size, to ensure a comfortable and effective fit.

Best Kayak PFD Reviews

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest

This vest is made from hardy nylon and reflective SOLAS material to keep you visible in any condition. It’s designed to fit snugly on the torso, and it comes in various sizes ranging from small all the way to XX large. It comes in an ombre grey color with bright turquoise lining, with the alternative being a dark grey with orange lines. Other features include cooling vented channels and puffy foam padding on the back for extra comfort. It also has large arm holes and comes with a whistle inside the inner pocket, in case of emergencies.

Pros

  • The ONYX vest is made for a snug and comfortable fit, and is available in sizes from super small to XX large.
  • It’s comfortable to wear, with foam padding on the back, and vented mesh channels on the back to keep you cool
  • It has two color options to choose from; namely a dark grey with orange lining, and an ombre grey with turquoise lining.
  • It’s made from reflective SOLAS material which makes for better visibility on the water
  • It’s Coast Guard approved
  • Great for kayaking specifically
  • Long lasting and durable

Cons

  • It’s a bit too bulky for someone with a small build
  • Only comes with one pocket

Stohlquist Edge Kayak Lifejacket

The Stohlquist vest features adjustable shoulders and an ergonomic design that’s optimised to fit and adapt to your torso. It’s available from size small to XX large, and color options include black, red and royal blue. Safety features include reflective 3MTM make for increased visibility, a front waist buckle closure and four side-buckle pulls, as well as accessible front and side pockets with zippers for storage.  


Pros

  • Comes in various sizes from small to XX large
  • Available in 3 different colors; namely red, royal blue and black
  • It’s Coast Guard approved
  • Fits comfortable and stays cool in warm weather conditions
  • The shoulders are adjustable to make for an even more comfortable fit
  • It features two zip-closing pockets for storage, one located on the front and another on the side. The front pocket has lots of room for storage and can fit multiple small items like gels, lip balm and even a GPS device.
  • Hard wearing and long lasting
  • Ideal for kayaking

Cons

  • It’s a bit of a small fit, so you might want to go a size up when purchasing this online where you won’t have a chance to try it on beforehand
  • The style and design of the vest doesn’t go well with the female torso, and tends to fit too tightly around the breasts tan it should

Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device

This is more of a kitted out PFD from Stohlquist, and features a back that’s 6” high, it’s 18” wide, and it comes in various sizes from small to X large and Universal and Universal Plus sizes, which are supposed to fit all sizes. The vest is made from high-quality neoprene with a 500 denier shell, 200 denier oxford liner, and neoprene padded shoulders. It’s padded with the supple Gaia floatation foam and has two interior pockets for smaller items. Its two outer front pockets are protected with the denier shell, and feature anchor points and zipper enclosures to keep your belongings secure. It also features a waistband on the lower back area, and the sides are open for extra ventilation.

Pros

  • The shoulders are padded with neoprene for extra comfort
  • It’s got a 6” high back to keep you in a comfortable upright position while paddling
  • Comes in various sizes from small to X large, as well as Universal sizes
  • Features two front pockets with distinguishable anchor points and zippers, as well as interior pockets for added storage
  • It’s padded with soft Gaia floatation foam  
  • The pockets are protected with 500 denier shell
  • Works great for kayaking

Cons

  • The vest is a bit too bulky but it does the job
  • Does not have reflective features for visibility

NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD

This vest is made to have an accommodating front, and features 8 adjustment points to make it feel like a custom fit. It provides ventilation through mesh material on the back, and the PlushFit foam is designed to follow your body’s movements to keep you comfortable throughout. Available colors include red, green and charcoal, while sizes range from small to XX large.

Pros

  • Available in sizes small to XX large
  • Offers plenty of storage with up to 7 pockets in total
  • Perfect for kayaking
  • Features cooling mesh material on the back
  • Offers a comfortable and snug fit with PlushFit foam design
  • Great for prolonged kayaking sessions

Cons

  • It doesn’t feature reflective material, which makes it less visible
  • Tends to ride up on the shoulders and upper torso after a dip in the water
  • It’s not Coast Guard approved

Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device

This lightweight vest is made from PE foam and features mesh lining on the inside, and a protective 200 ripstop denier shell on the outside. The back is 6” high and 19” wide, and the waistband is padded with neoprene so it floats better and fits more comfortably. It’s beautifully designed to conform to the female torso, and comes in two beautiful colors; namely ombre grey and orange and ombre grey and purple. Other features include a cinch harness that goes across the chest to optimise cup support on the chest area for women, and this makes it easy to adjust as well.  

Pros

  • Specially designed for the female torso with a cinch harness across the chest to optimise comfortability in the chest area
  • Offers back support with a 6” high and 19” wide back
  • Inner mesh lining keeps it cool during warm conditions
  • Nice design and colors
  • Idea for prolonged kayaking
  • Lightweight design and comfortable fit
  • It’s easily adjustable
  • Coast Guard approved

Cons

  • The sizes are a bit limited and only run from x-small to a general ‘plus’, no X and XX large
  • It could use with a bit more pockets

Conclusion

Of all the life vests reviewed above, I have to go with the Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation Device. You might think that it’s mainly designed with anglers in mind because of the name, but it actually fits very comfortably when paddling. It fits true to size, it has ventilated sides and most importantly, it floats comfortably with the soft Gaia floatation foam and a waistband on the lower back area. Thanks to the high-quality neoprene and denier shell, this vest is perfect for an all-day kayaking trip and can easily handle rugged water conditions.

Also, this vest is ideal for both men and women, as it comes in a wide range of sizes, and it offers plenty of back support for added comfort. The pockets are fully kitted out with distinguishable anchor points for easy location and it’s got padded shoulders as well. The only downside with this vest is that it doesn’t have reflective material for visibility, which is something that the manufacturer can definitely work on.