As a kayak guide on Lake Tahoe in the summer months, a lot of people ask me why it’s necessary for them to wear a PFD (personal flotation device) on our trips. When the weather is perfect, and the lake is flat, I understand where they’re coming from, but many folks don’t realize just how cold the water in Lake Tahoe is year-round. If you take a sudden plunge, the best kayak PFD is going to make your life a whole lot easier.

A good kayak PFD will offer ample flotation when you go for a swim and can also make you look great on the water. Many of the best kayak PFDs also come with other features that can add to your experience. In the worst case, wearing a nice PFD will make you look a whole lot more professional on the water, and you might be surprised when other kayakers start asking you for advice. In this article, we’ll detail the specs and features of the ten best kayak PFDs and explain more about the most critical features and components of these personal flotation devices.

For more of our top kayaking gear recommendations, check out the Best Kayak PFDs for Women

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Quick Answer - The Best Kayak PFDs

  1. Stohlquist DRIFTer
  2. Stohlquist Rocker
  3. Astral Ronny
  4. Stohlquist Edge
  5. NRS cVest Mesh Back
  6. NRS Ninja
  7. Astral V-Eight
  8. Astral BlueJacket

 

Comparison Table - Best Kayak PFD

PictureNameFloatationUSCG RatingSizeWeightPriceRating
-Stohlquist DRIFTer16 pounds, 10 ouncesType IIIS/M (33-39”), XXL (48-54”)Unavailable$4.4
Stohlquist Rocker16 pounds, 8 ouncesType IIIS/M (33-39”), XXL (48-54”)Unavailable$$4.6
Astral Ronny16 poundsType IIIS/M (31-37”), M/L (38-44”), L/XL (45-51”)16.3 ounces$4.3
Stohlquist Edge15 pounds, 8 ouncesType IIIS/M (33-39”), L/XL (40-46”), XXL/XXXL (48-54”)26.5 ounces$4.6
NRS Ion16.5 poundsType IIIXS/M (30-42”), L/XL (42-52”), XL/XXL (50-56”)30.4 ounces$4.7
NRS cVest Mesh Back16.5 poundsType IIIXS/M (30-42”), L/XL (42-52”), XL/XXL (50-56”)30.4 ounces$$4.7
NRS Ninja16.5 poundsType IIIS/M (33-40”), L/XL (38-46”), XXL (42-50”)31.2 ounces$$4.4
Astral V-Eight16.2 poundsType IIIS/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)19.8 ounces$$4.5
Astral BlueJacket16.3 poundsType IIIS/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)32 ounces$$$4.9
NRS Zen17.5 poundsType VS/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)48 ounces$$$4.6
PictureNameFloatationUSCG RatingSizeWeightPriceRating

 

Want to learn more about a technical term? Check out our Features Explained section below.

Need buying advice? Take a look at these Things to Consider.

Reviews - The Best PFDs for Kayaking

Stohlquist DRIFTer

Specs
  • Floatation: 16 pounds, 10 ounces
  • Size: S/M (33-39”), XXL (48-54”)
  • Weight: Unavailable
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Durable Nylon Shell (for abrasion resistance)
  • Cross-Chest Cinch Strap (to prevent the PFD from riding up)
  • Roomy Zippered Pockets w/ Soft Fleece Lining
  • Reflective Accents

BEST FOR: COMFORTABLE FLATWATER PADDLING

The Stohlquist DRIFTer is the perfect choice if you’re a casual kayaker that mainly goes out on flatwater. The most unique feature of this vest is its cross-chest cinch strap that can be tightened to keep the PFD from riding up throughout the day. The durable nylon shell on the PFD’s exterior will help it hold up against the tough love of paddling. Large zippered pockets with a soft fleece lining are great for storing extra gear or keeping your hands warm on cold days. Four-way lash tabs (plastic tabs for securing items to your PFD) on the front and back of this PFD allow you to attach your desired accessories. Plus, reflective accents make you visible to other boaters in low light conditions.

Stohlquist Rocker

Specs
  • Floatation: 16 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Size: S/M (33-39”), XXL (48-54”)
  • Weight: Unavailable
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Resistant to Abrasion and UV (sun) Damage
  • Interior Non-Slip Panel (to prevent it from riding up)
  • Stretchy, Adjustable Shoulder Straps
  • Hands-Free, Expandable Pocket

BEST FOR: COMFORT ON LONG PADDLES

The Stohlquist Rocker features a durable nylon shell that makes it resistant to both abrasions and prolonged exposure to UV (sun)light. In addition to its interior non-slip panel, this PFD also boasts a cross-chest cinch strap that keeps it from riding up and becoming uncomfortable, both while you’re paddling and if you go for a swim. The adjustable shoulder straps and six additional adjustment points on this PFD allow you to find the fit that’s right for your body. And, finally, this PFD offers an expandable pocket where you can place a water bottle or other beverage and still keep your hands free to paddle.

Astral Ronny

Specs
  • Floatation: 16 pounds
  • Size: S/M (31-37”), M/L (38-44”), L/XL (45-51”)
  • Weight: 16.3 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Breathable Mesh Back
  • Nylon Outer Shell (for enhanced durability)
  • Beverage Holder
  • Multiple Storage Pockets

BEST FOR: KAYAK FISHING

The Astral Ronny PFD is meant for delivering comfort when riding in recreational kayaks with high seat-backs. It boasts multiple storage pockets that make it easy for you to fish from your kayak and store any gear or tackle you’ll need on the water. This life vest also contains a highly breathable mesh back designed to keep you cool on warm days, and the nylon outer shell provides superior resistance against cuts and tears. Finally, this PFD comes with a convenient beverage holder that velcros shut when not in use. When in use, it allows you to keep your favorite kayak beverage secure while your hands are busy fishing or paddling.

Stohlquist Edge

Specs
  • Floatation: 15 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Size: S/M (33-39”), L/XL (40-46”), XXL/XXXL (48-54”)
  • Weight: 26.5 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Top-Loading Front Pocket
  • Front-Zip Entry (set off to the side to keep the zipper out of the way)
  • Large Arm Openings
  • Mesh Sides (for maximum ventilation)

BEST FOR: ALL-DAY COMFORT

The Stohlquist Edge is designed for you if you’re planning to spend many hours in your PFD at a time. The large arm openings allow for unrestricted arm movement, and the mesh sides help your core breathe on hot days. The offset front-zip entry on this PFD provides for the inclusion of a large, top-loading front pocket where you can store keys, a phone, and other small essentials. This PFD also comes with several high-visibility reflective accents to increase your visibility to other boaters on the water.

NRS Ion

Specs
  • Floatation: 16.5 pounds
  • Size: XS/M (30-42”), L/XL (42-52”), XL/XXL (50-56”)
  • Weight: 30.4 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • 6-Panel Design (for a flexible, versatile fit)
  • Ample Ventilation Along Spine (to keep you feeling cool all day long)
  • Fleece-Lined Handwarmer Pouch
  • Dual-Entry Front Zippered Pocket

BEST FOR: LOW-PROFILE COMFORT

The NRS Ion PFD is designed to convince you to keep it on, even if you’re no longer on the water. It’s a low-profile PFD with an innovative six-panel design that contours to your body and seamlessly moves with you as you paddle. Raised foam panels along your spine help this life vest breathe well and increases your overall comfort on warm days. And for cold days, this PFD even has a fleece-lined hand warmer pouch to keep your fingers warm when you’re not paddling. Finally, it comes with a dual-entry front zippered pocket for extra storage of small essentials.

NRS cVest Mesh Back

Specs
  • Floatation: 16.5 pounds
  • Size: XS/M (30-42”), L/XL (42-52”), XL/XXL (50-56”)
  • Weight: 30.4 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Numerous D-Rings (for attaching accessories)
  • Six Adjustment Points (for custom fit)
  • Two Large Zippered Pockets (+2 clamshell pockets)
  • Front Entry Zipper

BEST FOR: KAYAK TOURING

The NRS cVest Mesh Back is specially designed for extended touring trips. It offers high back flotation that makes it compatible with most sea kayaking seats. Plus, its mesh lower back adds ample ventilation for paddling on warmer days. This PFD comes with numerous D-rings, so you have plenty of places to secure accessories.

A total of six adjustment points allow you to tighten the vest for the most comfortable fit. It also features ample gear storage with two large front zippered pockets and two smaller clamshell pockets that flip open. These clamshell pockets allow you to see the items you’re looking for easily. Finally, the front entry zipper makes it easy to take this PFD on and off as needed.

NRS Ninja

Specs
  • Floatation: 16.5 pounds
  • Size: S/M (33-40”), L/XL (38-46”), XXL (42-50”)
  • Weight: 31.2 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Ample Adjustability
  • Soft, Stretchy Interior Fabric (for a more comfortable fit)
  • Side Entry w/ Quick-Release (for easy on and off)
  • Large Front Zippered Pocket

BEST FOR: KAYAKERS WITH SHORT TORSOS

With four side adjustments and two shoulder adjustments, the NRS Ninja adjusts best for kayakers with a shorter torso length. The PFD’s soft and stretchy interior fabric allows it to flex as you move and also enhances the vest’s breathability. This PFD also comes with a front panel that gives you a warm, dry place to put your hands when you’re taking a quick break from paddling. Finally, this PFD features a side-entry system, which means there’s no zipper in the front. The vest is secured with quick-release buckles on either side that make it really easy to quickly take on and off as needed.

Astral V-Eight

Specs
  • Floatation: 16.2 pounds
  • Size: S/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)
  • Weight: 19.8 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Breathable Design (eliminates excessive heat buildup)
  • High Mesh Back (for comfort with taller kayak seats)
  • Adjustable Webbing Side Straps (for snugger fit)
  • Large Expanding Mesh Pockets

BEST FOR: HOT WEATHER PADDLING

The Astral V-Eight is the perfect PFD for kayakers living in hot climates. Astral’s patented Airescape airflow system works to reduce heat buildup and wick away sweat to keep you cool on the water. The PFD’s super-high mesh back will help you sit more comfortably in kayaks with high seat backs. It will snug right up to your specific body shape with adjustable webbing side straps and adjustable shoulder straps. It also comes with hook-and-loop closures on the shoulder straps for secure storage of loose webbing ends. Finally, this PFD has two large, expanding mesh pockets for storing small items.

Astral BlueJacket

Specs
  • Floatation: 16.3 pounds
  • Size: S/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)
  • Weight: 32 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type III
Features
  • Independent Inner and Outer Panels (to help the PFD move better with your body)
  • Clamshell Front Pocket + Internal Zippered Pockets
  • Reflective Accents w/ Strobe Light Attachment Point
  • Internal Back Hydration Sleeve

BEST FOR: SEA KAYAKING

Although it was primarily designed for sea kayaking, the Astral BlueJacket is also a great option for paddling on lakes and rivers. The PFD features inner and outer panels that move independently. This design allows the outer front panel to move with your body as the inner panel remains in place. It offers plenty of storage space with a large clamshell front pocket, internal zippered pockets, and organized slip pockets to keep smaller items secure and easy to access.

Although the light itself is sold separately, the BlueJacket has a dedicated attachment point for a strobe light, as well as reflective accents that improve your visibility in low lighting. Finally, this PFD features an internal back sleeve where you can place a hydration bladder and routing options to bring the hose over either shoulder. The bladder itself is sold separately.

NRS Zen

Specs
  • Floatation: 17.5 pounds
  • Size: S/M (31-37”), L/XL (38-44”), XXL (45-51”)
  • Weight: 48 ounces
  • USCG Rating: Type V
Features
  • Unrestricted Range of Motion
  • Padded Arm Holes and Sides (for impact protection)
  • Quick-Release Rescue Belt
  • Integrated Handwarmer

BEST FOR: SWIFTWATER RESCUERS

The NRS Zen PFD is made for swiftwater kayakers that might need rescue capability at a moment’s notice. The PFD’s quick-release belt with carabiner attachment allows you to attach a tow rope and strobe attachment. The quick-release belt will also enable you to release from an attachment at any time if you feel your safety is at risk. This PFD comes with a warmer pocket for your hands to keep you cozy while you’re standing around scouting your next run. The handwarmer has an integrated pocket with zippered closure for storage of essential items you can’t lose while paddling.

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN BUYING A KAYAK PFD

USCG CLASSIFICATIONS

While most of the best kayak PFDs we’ve mentioned above are either Type III or Type V flotation devices, the United States Coast Guard has a total of five USCG Classifications for personal flotation devices. We’ll explain each category in further detail here so that you can pick the right PFD for safe paddling.

TYPE I

Type I is used to distinguish ‘offshore life jackets’. They are best for all waters, including open ocean, rough seas, or remote water. They offer the most buoyancy, usually come in a bright color to improve visibility, and can often turn unconscious people face up in the water. Type I includes both foam-type and inflatable PFDs. However, there are currently no USCG-approved Type I inflatable PFDs.

TYPE II

Type II is defined as ‘near-shore vests’. These PFDs are best for calm, inland waters where there is a higher likelihood of quick rescue. They are capable of turning some (but not all) unconscious wearers to the face-up position. They provide less flotation than Type I PFDs. These are the typical inexpensive orange PFDs stowed on board most watercraft to ensure USCG compliance.

TYPE III

Type III is categorized as ‘flotation aids’. These are best for sailors and paddlers where there is a good chance of a quick rescue. They offer more freedom of movement and comfort for conscious wearers. They are designed to make it easier for wearers to place themselves in the face-up position in the water and they generally provide about the same amount of buoyancy as Type II PFDs.

TYPE IV

The Type IV classification is used for ‘throwable devices’. Examples include cushions and ring buoys that can be thrown to conscious swimmers as a backup to another type of PFD. They are not to be used for non-swimmers, rough waters, or unconscious swimmers. In general, they provide the same amount of flotation as both Type II and Type III PFDs, but they are generally just held by someone in the water, rather than being worn.

TYPE V

The Type V category distinguishes ‘special-use devices’. These are PFDs and flotation devices specialized for specific activities. In order to be accepted by the USCG, they must contain a label that clearly states the activity they are specified for. Some varieties of these PFDs are made for kayaking, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing, and more. These PFDs generally provide a bit more flotation than Type II or Type III PFDs, but they are also frequently labeled to let you know how they perform. For example, you might find a PFD in this category labeled as ‘Type V with Type II performance’.

 

FLOTATION

To understand the minimum amount of flotation you’ll need in a PFD, we have to first understand how much the human body weighs in the water. Fortunately, there is a relatively uncomplicated mathematical equation we can use to learn how much a given individual will weigh in the water.

For starters, the average human body is approximately 80% water. Another 15% of our body weight (on average) is fat, which is lighter than water. In effect, this means that only 5% of your body weight is what will actually weigh you down in water. So, let’s do some math for an individual that weighs 150 pounds.

  • 150 x 0.8 (80% water) = 120 pounds of water
  • 150 x 0.15 (15% fat) = 22.5 pounds of fat
  • 120 (pounds of water) + 22.5 (pounds of fat) = 142.5 pounds of fat and water
  • 150 (pounds total) – 142.5 (pounds of fat and water) = 7.5 pounds (weight in water)

So what does this mean? In essence, a 150 pound individual weighs only 7.5 pounds when submerged in water. This means that a PFD with a flotation rating of 16.5 pounds will be more than ample to float this person if they fall out of their kayak. You can use this equation to calculate the minimum amount of flotation you’ll want in a kayak PFD.

 

MATERIALS

When it comes to the materials used in the construction of kayak PFDs, you’ll often see the term ‘denier’ thrown around. Denier essentially refers to the strength of the weave in whatever fabric is used to make up the different parts of your PFD. Nylon is a very popular material for the exterior shell of kayak PFDs because of its resistance to abrasions and UV damage.

There are many different types of foam used to provide the flotation in a kayak PFD, but this isn’t an area to get wrapped up in. For the best kayak PFDs, overall flotation rating is more important to understand than the specific type of foam used to provide that flotation. Additionally, many of the best kayak PFDs will offer fleece-lining to insulate pockets and give you a place to put your hands when you’re not using them.

 

SIZING

For adults, the measurement of your chest size is going to be more important in determining the right size PFD for you than your weight. Certainly you want to take some time to do the math above to make sure you’re buying a PFD that provides ample flotation for your size, but this won’t help you find a PFD that fits comfortably.

To find out your chest size, measure the circumference of your chest at its broadest point. You can then use the number you get to compare it with the recommendations of the specific brand of PFD you’re looking at. A properly-fit PFD should be snug and “fit like a glove,” while still allowing your arms to move freely without causing chafing or any discomfort while paddling.

 

ENTRY-TYPE

Kayak PFDs are designed with various entry-types. The most common is a zipper on the front, but some have the zipper offset to one side or the other and others have no zipper at all. The main advantage of having an offset zipper is less likelihood for the zipper to get caught while you’re re-entering your kayak (if you happen to fall out). This is why many whitewater kayakers either choose a PFD with an offset front zipper or no zipper at all. However, if you’re looking for the easiest and most convenient way to get your PFD on and off, a front zip entry will be just fine.

 

 

FEATURES EXPLAINED

LASH TAB AND ATTACHMENT POINTS

The lash tab and other attachment points on a PFD are places where you can secure any additional accessories you want to keep on your personal setup. Examples of accessories include knives, strobes, tow tethers, and whistles.

ADJUSTMENT POINTS

These are the places at which a kayak PFD can be adjusted to fit your body type. In general, a kayak PFD that offers more adjustment points will be able to fit snugly on a wider variety of people without pinching or causing discomfort.

QUICK-RELEASE RESCUE BELT

Not all kayak PFDs are equipped with this feature, but those that are best serve swiftwater paddlers or those kayaking in more extreme ocean conditions. The belt is usually used to attach a tow tether (rope) to the kayaker’s PFD, which can then be used to aid another kayak or unconscious swimmer in the water. With the quick-release belt, however, the towing kayaker can then effectively “pull the ripcord” and detach from whatever (or whomever) he or she is towing if they feel their safety is at risk.

ENTRY SYSTEM

This term refers to how the PFD goes on the wearer and secures. Examples of different entry systems include:

  • Front entry (zipper in the front, right in the middle of the vest)
  • Offset front entry (zipper in front but offset to one side or the other)
  • Side entry (zipper on one side of the PFD), or
  • Over-the-head entry (no zipper; this PFD simply slides on over the wearers head and shoulders).

CLAMSHELL POCKET

This style of pocket opens up like a clamshell (like its name suggests). The advantage of this style is that it can be easier to locate smaller items stored in a clamshell pocket in comparison to reaching blindly for the item you’re seeking in a standard zippered pocket.

 

READ MORE

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