Today’s Best Kayak Life Vest | Finding The Top Rated Life Vests For Kayaking

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You may choose not to wear a helmet when paddling quiet waters, lakes and ponds, but you should always wear a kayak life vest when kayaking. People have heart attacks, leg cramps, strokes, or just can’t handle the shock of hitting cold water. They hit their head on a rock or the bottom of the river, and drown every year. Some fall in and inhale water, get tired, can’t swim, or simply panic and drown. Something as simple as a life vest could have possibly saved their lives.

We know. Life vests, also referred to as Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs, can be hot, uncomfortable, and chafe around your arms if you pick the wrong vest, or the wrong size vest. That’s where a little reading and research comes in. Once you know what you need, what to look for, and how to size a kayak life jacket, chances are you’ll fall in love with it and wear it every time you’re on the water.

Even if you continue to hate the idea of wearing a life vest, do it anyway as most states have strict laws requiring you to have and/or wear a life vest anytime you’re aboard a boat.

Types of Life Vestskayak life jacket reviews

If you ever went to summer camp or took a boat tour, chances are you’ve worn the standard Type II orange life vest with a collar and two rectangles that strap across your chest, leaving you feeling stupid, hot, uncomfortable and hating your vest. We’ve all been there. No one likes those vests. Thank goodness there are manufacturers who understand comfort and have designed vests for novice and professional kayakers that not only fit, but look and feel good and do a great job of keeping people’s heads above water when needed.

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Because the Coast Guard is the certifying organization for all life vests, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a life vest will work because if it’s not Coast Guard approved (says so on the tag), it won’t, at least not like the law demands it does.

There are five kinds of life vests – Type I, Type II, Type III and Type IV, which is essentially a floating seat cushion or ring that can be thrown to someone in the water. Type V vests are specialty vests. Each type of vest is certified for a certain kind of use.

Type I Vest

A Type I vest is designed to be used in open, rough or remote water where rescue may be slow to arrive. It will turn most (not all) unconscious wearers face-up in water. A Type I vest offers the best protection for the wearer, but is somewhat bulky and uncomfortable. It does the best job of retaining body heat, as it has additional foam and fabric, and keeps your head higher above water. Type I is best used by people who will be:

  • Cruising
  • Racing and fishing offshore.
  • Boating alone, or in stormy conditions.
  • Kayaking in open, rough or remote water where rescue may be slow to arrive.
  • Wanting the best protection, but is somewhat bulky and uncomfortable.
  • Wanting to retain body heat, as it has additional foam and fabric, and keeps your head higher above water.

If you’re kayaking on calm water or even in Class I-IV rapids, you’ll be looking for a Type II or Type III jacket. Either will work for the average paddler, although a Type III is preferred as they are more comfortable to wear and provide more buoyancy than a Type II jacket.

Type II Vest

A Type II vest is inherently buoyant and recommended for inland day cruising, fishing and sailing. Minimum Buoyancy: 15.5 lbs. for adult size.

This vest is good for boating in light craft like canoes, kayaks, fishing boats, houseboats, and sailboats. It’s great for protected, inland water near shore where chances of immediate rescue are good. Type II is not suitable for extended survival in rough water. Some Type II vests will turn an unconscious wearer face-up in water. They are poor performers in rough water, often requiring the wearer to tread water in order to keep their head above water. A Type II vest is more comfortable, but less buoyant than Type I and provides far less flotation than a Type I.

Type III Vest

A Type III vest is best for supervised activities such as sailing regattas, dinghy races, water skiing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and personal watercraft operation. Minimum Buoyancy: 15.5 lbs. for adult size.

These vests are very good for protected, inland water near shore where chance of immediate rescue is good. They are not suitable for extended survival in rough water. They are not designed to turn unconscious people face up in water. They’re more comfortable to wear than a Type I or a Type II, but they provide far less floatation than a Type I.

So, either a Type II or Type III vest will work for kayaking, unless you’re considering paddling the Grand Canyon or a lot of Class III and IV water. But for the average flat water kayaker, a Type II or Type III is all the life vest you’ll need for small lakes, quiet water, ponds, and rivers.

Other than deciding on a Type II or Type III and the colors and features you want – pockets, zippered enclosures, clips for holding a knife, flashlight or whistle- size is the next decision to make.

kayak life vest reviews

How to Size a Kayak Life Vest

Life vests are like clothes – different brands in the same size fit differently. It’s almost impossible to guess what size you need from brand to brand. The armholes vary, as do the panels. Onyx brand vests provide an accurate chart for picking the right vest for you in terms of size.

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You’ll still need to weigh which features you want, like pockets. If you plan to wear extra clothing for cool water paddling, put on your wetsuit or jacket before taking your measurements.

Adults, for you to get the right size life vest you need to know your chest size, not your weight, to determine your vest size. It’s different for kids; for children you do need to know their weight to determine the size. To get your chest size, measure the circumference of your chest at its broadest point. Use this number along with the PFD manufacturer’s size recommendations to find the right size for you. You can find sizing information on the manufacturer’s product page.

Go for snug, not a loose. A life vest should not fit like a summer nightgown or t-shirt hanging loosely on your body. Remember, a life jacket is designed to fit snugly so it doesn’t slip off when you’re in the water. And unless it’s snug or you’re wearing a crotch strap, it will ride up around your chin and face once you’re in the water. It’s a good idea to test it out in a swimming pool or lake before taking an extended trip with it. For Onyx life vests the manufacturer suggests:

X-Small/Small = 28 – 36 inch chest
Medium/Large = 36 – 44 inch chest
X-Large/2X-Large = 44 – 56 inch chest

Measure under your arms around the largest part of your chest and go with it. If you are within an inch or two of being between sizes, it is better to go with the smaller vest rather than have the adjustment strap ends hanging to your knees.

To get the right fit for your PFD, follow these steps:

  • Put on the clothes you’d wear while paddling. This might be a swimsuit, a t-shirt, or a wetsuit if you cold water paddle.
  • With a standard PFD, loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip it up.
  • Starting at the waist, tighten all the straps. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last. The vest should feel snug but not uncomfortably tight. If it’s too tight, adjust the straps or try the next size up.
  • Have someone pull up on the vest by the shoulders once you’ve adjusted all the straps. If it moves up past your nose or head, tighten the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large. A properly sized PFD should be snug and fit like a glove, yet allow you to move freely.
  • Move your arms around, stretch, and grab a paddle. Mimic a paddling motion to make sure the vest doesn’t rub or chafe at your armpits and that you can move freely.
  • If you’re a kayaker, do this in a floor model kayak in a sporting goods store or in your own boat at home. This will simulate how it feels while actually paddling.
  • If you’re a kayaker, lean back and forth and notice how the vest feels with the seat. It shouldn’t bunch up, ride up, or feel uncomfortable. This means you’ll probably need to find a shorter vest if the one you’re wearing doesn’t play well with your seat.
  • Test your PFD in a pool or shallow water to see how it works. It should not ride up or slip over your chin while floating.
  • Women, if you have a larger chest, look for women specific PFDs. They’re designed to fit your bust line better and the lengths are made to fit women’s torso lengths, not men’s’.
  • Look for a vest with straps. The more straps a PFD has, the more adjustments can be made to customize its fit.

top kayak life jacket reviews

Things to Consider When Selecting a Kayak Life Vest

The top three things most people take into consideration when selecting a life vest are:

  • Price
  • Color
  • Fit and “coolness” factor

Price

Life vests range in price from $14 to $400 and up – especially for inflatables and “rescue” or other specialty vests some kayakers want. Your budget matters, but buy the best you can afford because that day you really need it, price won’t matter. You’ll want the best, but won’t have that option once you’re in the water.

Color

Some paddlers like hunters and anglers want a dull gray or camouflage color to blend in while on the water. If you have children however, consider getting the brightest color (neon green) you can. Your kids will be easier to spot if they wander off, fall in the water, or get lost. The same goes for adults. Pick a color that will be easy to spot if you fall in the water.

Fit and Coolness Factor

Some jackets just look cooler than others, and we don’t mean the mesh backs and vents. They just look, well – cooler. Looking cool is great, but even cooler than good looks and design are cool features you might want to think about: things like pockets to hold your cellphone (in a protective, made-for-water dry pouch of course), wallet, car keys, money, gum, snacks, maybe a knife, and even a lighter, small camera, or other must-have items. If you plan to paddle and camp, pockets can be invaluable for holding all the items you want on you if you get stranded in the woods. So think about what you’ll really be doing on the water. Will you be paddling, taking pictures, hunting, fishing, touring, or camping?

What about Inflatable Life Vests for Kayaking?

Inflatable life jackets only satisfy U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements when they are worn under very specific conditions:

  • Users must be over 16 years of age.
  • Users must weigh at least 80 pounds.
  • Inflatable life jackets need to be “rearmed” annually, which requires buying a kit that

includes a new CO2 cartridge and a trigger device costing between $20 to $120 each.

  • They are not allowed for watersports.
  • Not recommended for non-swimmers.
  • Not recommended for freezing waters.

Kayaking is technically considered a water sport, but depending on the state you live in and the policies of those who patrol its waters, you may or may not be cited for wearing an inflatable life jacket while kayaking.

There are two kinds of inflatable life vests: those that are triggered automatically when the sensor dips four or more inches below the water (as when you fall out of a boat, or roll your kayak), and those which are manually triggered by the wearer pulling a cord or other device to activate if/when the jacket is needed. The pro of the manually inflated jacket is primarily that you don’t have to replace the $20 to $120 CO2 cartridge every time you fall in the water. The con is that if you are unconscious when you hit the water and can’t pull that inflator, you’ll probably drown because that vest is not going to inflate itself.

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The pro of the automatically inflating vest is that if you hit the water and are unconscious or unable to pull a tab, it won’t matter. The vest automatically inflates. The con is that if you or your vest get deeper than four or five inches underwater – say you decide to go for a swim, or roll your kayak – the vest is going to inflate. That’s fine, but you’ll need to replace that pricey cartridge before you go out again. These are excellent vests, but best worn by people on large sailboats who don’t expect to spend any time actually in the water unless they fall overboard, or their boat sinks.

You know your situation best, and only you can make the decision to wear an inflatable, but even the pros find themselves in situations where they’re glad they are wearing a full vest.

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Top Rated Life Vests for Kayaking

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vestkayak life vest

The Onyx Outdoor Movevent Torsion Vest comes in two great, highly visible colors – orange and aqua. This vest fits your body like a kayak vest is supposed to fit, like a glove. As snug as it is, innovative vented channels help keep you cool when you’re paddling and sweating under a summer sun. The sculpted and flexible design conforms to you and stays in place. Shoulder adjustments are made with neoprene comfort pads.

The vest has an adjustable side belt, strong durable zipper closures, and a zip assist loop at the zipper base to keep the vest in place when you need it. There is bubble foam on the inner back for added comfort. Expandable zippered pockets with mesh drainage let you carry items without carrying pockets full of water. This vest is made of 200 denier nylon ripstop and nylon oxford for years of use.

Extra features

  • Drying loop on back
  • Attached whistle for safety
  • Dimensions: 26 inches long x 23 inches wide x 3.5 inches
  • Sculpted and flexible design conforms to you and stays in place: lower back fits high back seats and sit-on-top kayaks
  • Shoulder adjustments with neoprene comfort pads
  • Adjustable side belts
  • Strong, durable zipper closure
  • Soft, lightweight flotation foam
  • SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility
  • Lash tab for small accessories
  • Ventilation in front and back to keep you cool

ONYX MoveVent Curve Paddle Sports Life Vestkayak life jacket

Type: Type III

Sizes: Extra small/small; Medium/Large; X-Large; XXLarge

Like all Onyx vests, the MoveVent Curve is made of soft, lightweight flotation foam with a tough, 200 denier nylon outer shell. It conforms to your body like a glove, yet its innovative ventilation in the front, mesh in the lower back and sculpted design keep you cool. The back is mesh, giving you extra ventilation when kayaking. The mesh in the lower back also fits high back seats as well as sit-on-top kayaks.

This vest moves easy and cools perfectly. It’s the most comfortable kayaking vest ever!

Onyx’s revolutionary MoveVent Torsion Life Vest is sculpted to give kayakers total freedom of movement when paddling. With maximum venting throughout, you can stay cool through the most strenuous exertions. It fits like a glove, floats like a life preserver and cools like central air! This vest is U.S. Coast Guard Approved with flotation foam plus Bubble Foam on inner back. The shoulder adjustments have neoprene pads to make for a more comfortable adjustment. It has adjustable side belts and SOLAS grade reflective material make it easy to spot when you do end up in the water.


ONYX Universal Paddle Vest Universal Paddle Life Vest, Red, Oversizebest kayak life jacket

Type: Type III

Sizes: Universal; Oversized

The Universal fits a chest size of 30″-52″, and the oversize fits a chest size of 40″-60″

Put on an Onyx Universal or Oversized Adult Paddle Vest and you’ll be completely prepared for a great day on the water. This is a low profile, lightweight, compact design with a high foam back that accommodates the high back seats of many kayaks. There’s a breathable mesh lower back and six adjustment straps to give you a lot of ways to cinch the vest up to fit your body contours snugly yet comfortably. The neoprene shoulder pads help ensure a comfortable snugness you can wear all day.


ONYX MoveVent Torsion Paddle Sports Life Vesttop kayak life jacket

Type: Type III

Sizes: Extra small/small; Medium/Large; X-Large; XXLarge

The Onyx MoveVent Curve Paddling vest provides excellent mobility for kayaking, canoeing, and stand up paddling. There are ventilation panels in the front and back to keep you cool, and the sculpted and flexible foam design conforms to your body and stays in place when paddling.


ONYX Kayak Fishing Life Jacket, Tanbest kayak life vest

Type: Type III

Sizes: Oversize; Universal.

This model fits a chest size of 30″-52″, and the oversize fits a chest size of 40″-60″

Whoever designed this life jacket was a fisherman designing for fishermen. The Onyx Kayak Fishing vest is feature-rich but affordable PFD. It’s designed with four different pocket designs and functions to hold your essential gear and to help keep you fishing longer.

The zippered fleece-lined pockets are a great touch. The zippered chest pocket can hold a variety of fishing gear. Your sunglasses, clippers or pliers can slip down and clamp to the pocket/vest through the opening at the top of the pocket to keep them easily accessible. A one-button push drop-down tray pocket holds a small tackle box.

There’s a lash tab to hold a knife, whistle, or multi-tool. A lash tab is also included and can be used to hold fly fishing tippets, sunscreen, keys, etc. The six adjustment straps can be adjusted up or down depending on your activity or the heights of the boat seat or kayak. The high back of the vest does not get in the way of the seats and has mesh for breathability. There is ample drainage to keep the vest dry when not in use.


Stohlquist Women’s Escape PFD Life Jacketstop kayak life vest

Type: Type III

Sizes: X-small; Small; Plus size

Women, this vest is made from a super-soft, low-profile buoyancy foam, and shaped specifically for a woman’s curves and shorter torso. There’s a generous amount of adjustability at the sides and shoulders to make sure you get proper placement on the torso. Efficient front-pull adjusters at the sides provide extra security against the vest riding up. It has a low profile design with hand-skived foam for a sleeker, more contoured fit. The shoulders are also padded and adjustable.

Users with a more full-busted body report that they don’t feel “crushed” or crammed into this vest and have more freedom of movement than they expected. It’s been used by female search and rescue crews, and kayakers have equally glowing reports about the comfort, fit, and adjustability.


Onyx General Purpose Boating Vestkayak life vests

Type: Type II

Sizes: Child, Youth, Infant, Adult Universal, Adult Oversize. Infant Vest provides a leg strap, pop up pillow, and grab strap for quick recovery. Fits infants less than 50 lbs. Type II Child Vest features a leg strap for added safety. Fits 30-50 lb children. Type III Youth fits 50-90 lb children. Type III.

Gone are the days of the bulky orange rectangles so many of us wore at summer camp. This inexpensive general purpose boating vest provides comfort and safety for all types of water activities. It’s made of 200 denier nylon and 150 denier poly with an open side styling and large armholes to prevent chafing.


Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket for Stand Up Paddle Boarding, Kayaking and Fishingbest kayak life vests

Type: Type V with Type III performance

Sizes: One size

This life vest is extremely low profile, consisting of a one-inch buckle and body belt with a D-ring attachment for small accessories. Made with a 200 denier nylon oxford protective cover, this inflatable life jacket is approved for persons 16 years of age and older and over 80 lbs. Inflatable life jackets are good for fishermen, Stand Up Paddleboarders (SUP) and those wanting the ultimate comfort without sacrificing safety. A 16 gram CO2 charge provides 17 lbs of buoyancy and the oral inflation tube can be used to provide additional buoyancy up to 26.5 lbs when fully inflated. The user must be conscious and able to deploy this life jacket as it is not automatically inflated when the user enters the water.