A kayak life vest is important. But so is wearing the proper one.
While all 50 states have laws that require the use of life vests on the water, it’s crucial to choose the correct PFD for the activity.
Why? Well, because not all life vests are built the same. When I was old enough to realize I no longer had to settle for those clunky, scratchy, neon-orange behemoth vests any longer—I was shocked!
And this knowledge is especially pivotal when it comes to paddling.
As easily as you use a kayak for a whole host of activities, a life vest is the same, with multiple types on the market and each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
But before you invest, first, let’s talk a little bit about the various features and styles of kayak life vests.
Building the Perfect Kayak Life Vest
So what makes a good life vest? Here are some high-level considerations:
Let’s think about it in terms of the activities you plan to use your kayak for.
If you’re fishing, a full range of movement is key. Cast your line, reel in your catch and simply move about to your heart’s content.
On the other hand, if you’re white water kayaking, you need a vest that’s breathable, dries easily and even has some extra storage to keep items safe for
if when you get soaked.
Lastly, when kayaking with folks new to the activity, consider a life vest that’s not only comfortable but that also draws attention. This way, in the case of an emergency, the paddler can be spotted.
Find Your Ideal Kayak Life Vest Fit
The number one feature I have to stress is fit. Bells and whistles are fun and all, but if you have a kayak life vest that fits awkwardly or improperly, you may as well not have one at all.
The fit has something of a trickle-down effect when it comes to kayaking. Not only does it keep you safer, but it leaves you feeling more comfortable and likely makes any additional accessories more convenient too.
Make sure to find the correct fit with these super simple strategies:
- Find Your Fit — Be mindful of the measurements for your kayak life vest. Using a tape measure (and your armpits to hold it in place) find the circumference of your chest to get a proper length. Keep in mind, however, that while each life vest showcased below has measurements listed on their product page, they also offer various sizes and adjustable straps to tweak it further.
- Wear and Test — Once your life vest arrives, try it on! Avoid kayaking with your brand-spanking-new, never-tried-on life vest, only to discover it rubs the wrong way or rides up your back. Tip: When in doubt, purchase several life vests! You can always return your less than favorites.
- Try With Clothing — Make sure to wear and test your life vest with the clothes you plan to wear when paddling! This offers insight on your maneuverability levels and allows you to loosen or tighten any straps to accommodate undershirts or even thicker stuff for cold weather paddling.
- Take a Test Paddle — To be 100% sold on your life vest, the simplest trick is to grab your kayak paddle, sit on the ground and try the paddling motion. Pay attention to your shoulders, waist and your overall range of movement. If you can do it without pinches or pressure—you’re strapped into a winner!
The Absolute Best Kayak Life Vests for Paddlers
Want to discover some of the best kayak life vests on the market?
I’ve gathered the perfect PFDs for both everyday paddlers and die-hard fishing enthusiasts. And here they are:
Kayak Life Vests For Everyday Paddlers
Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Vest
I personally own this life vest and find it best for choppy waters and venturing out there in the wild.
The range of movement is unbeatable and it comes with an attached safety whistle, which is imperative when out there in national parks or in the wild.
Best of all, it features light, breathable fabric, which keeps you cool as you work up a sweat.
- Notable Features: SOLAS grade reflective material
- Best For: White water kayakers
Stohlquist Fit Life Jacket
This is a nice, basic and high-quality kayak life vest you should consider. But only if you’re interested in kayaking once or twice a year.
This life vest offers a nice range of movement and is suitable for practically every watersport activity (minus white-knuckle white water kayaking.)
Comfortable, secure and dries out easily—a jack of all trades!
- Notable Features: Great mobility
- Best For: Everyday kayakers
OMOUBOI Snorkel Vest Life Jacket
As a frequent traveler between Canada and the United States, I wanted to include a fantastic compact travel-style option.
Inflated easily with an attached mouthpiece, it’s as light as a feather and can be safely transported on a plane.
When you get to your destination, it offers a wonderful range of movement and adjustable straps to ensure it fits just right.
- Notable Features: Self-inflating
- Best For: Travelers
Guide Gear Kayak Type III Life Vest
I know folks who spend days out on their kayak. For that reason, I want to highlight a kayak life vest I’ve found to be the pinnacle of comfort.
This life vest resembles a pair of overalls, but the design is perfect for long-haul rides.
Paddle easy with its nice, open-back mesh design as well as convenient front pockets.
- Notable Features: Mesh pockets and adjustable belts
- Best For: Long-haul rides
Kayak Life Vests For Anglers
Red Wood Life Jacket
When it comes to kayak life vests, fishing enthusiasts crave something different.
This version is perfect for fly fishing, equipped with pockets to keep your bait and tackle needs covered.
It also comes with a universal, adjustable design that truly means one size fits all.
Suitable for night fishing, this life vest even comes with a built-in whistle and back reflector stripe for safety.
- Notable Features: Multiple pockets
- Best For: General fishing
FLYDWV Fly Fishing Life Jacket
At a lower price point, I’m a big fan of this vest for fly fishing enthusiasts who love to travel by kayak.
The open design allows for a wide range of movement and the extra storage pouches provide access to your flies.
If you’re into fly fishing, but don’t want to break the bank, this might just be the ideal model for you.
- Notable Features: Adjustable belt design
- Best For: Fly fishing
Amairne-made Life Jacket
Another excellent yet affordable option for kayak life vests, this one features an overall-style design for maximum flexibility (more than I’ve ever seen in most life vests).
At the same time, the added crotch strap is super secure, making it safe and secure even when you’re casting a hundred yards out.
- Notable Features: Crotch strap for stability
- Best For: Comfort-driven fishers
Lixada Fly Fishing Vest
This kayak life vest is ideal for the fisher who needs to carry along all their gear.
Featuring more pockets than you can count, this vest also features a breathable mesh material and a super open design that keeps you from feeling weighed down.
- Notable Features: Multiple pockets
- Best For: Serious fishers
Stay Safe With a Kayak Life Vest During Every Paddle
Don’t consider a life vest as a restrictive necessity in accordance with state law, but as a handy accessory that can optimize your kayaking experience.
Choose the best kayak life vest with the proper amount of motion and design, and it’ll feel like a second skin. Just be mindful of measurements, your specific needs and the overall design.
One tip I can give is to have your vest delivered at least a week before any paddling trips. This way, you have time to return and replace it before you head out.
When you finally feel good about your purchase, remember to have fun and stay safe!