Best PFDs/ Lifejackets For Paddlers & Kayakers

Best Kayak PFDs & Lifejackets

Not all paddlers are well aware of why they should wear PFDs at all times as long as they are on a kayak. A PFD Personal Floatation Device or a lifejacket is not optional. In some US states and other parts of the world, wearing a PFD is a legal obligation. So, in spite of possessing a good boat, a paddle, and essential gear, you are not ready yet if you do not have a lifejacket.

Why do you really need a PFD?

There are several reasons you would get one for yourself.

  • Primarily, a personal floatation device will help you float as long as you need it.
  • Regardless of your consciousness, a PFD will help you float.
  • Some floatation devices are specially designed to serve you while canoeing, kayaking or rafting.
  • In a rough or harsh environment, such devices become incredibly helpful.

Answer to some familiar arguments

A lot of paddlers would argue that they barely need a PFD as they are planning to stay very close to the shore. Some would say they are quite good swimmers. Even some would praise the air and water. However, what you do not know is when you need a life jacket. Well, you do not know when things would go wrong on the water, do you?

S. Coast Guard has approved PFDs with certain features, but the sizing depends on the person who would use one. Also, what PFD you use needs to be readily accessible and in good condition. Although different states have different points of jurisdiction on the use of life jackets, the USCG always encourages paddlers or boaters to have a PFD on them during the rides.

No more words on the necessity of a PFD. So, how do you choose the one that fits you and serves you really good? You should always start with Sizing and fitting.

Not all PFDs are suitable for everyone. You have one for yourself, but that would be useful for neither your kid nor your pet dog. A quick walkthrough about the proper sizing of a life jacket has been given below:

For adults

For both men and women, it is the size of one’s chest that matters when it comes to the right PFD size. Do not go by your weight. Which brand and model you want to pick will also be a matter of consideration regarding the size of your life jacket.

How should it fit?

Much like a glove, a PFD should come with a snug fit so that you can enjoy flexible movement. If you have to fret because of wearing a PFD, you would rather want to get rid of it. You should have your paddling or fishing outfit first. Then, you should try the PFD to find out if it fits comfortably.

PFDs for women

There are life jackets that are specific to women’s use. Those items offer a more comfortable and snugger fit than the ones for men. With princess seams, the PFDs come with contoured cups to support a larger bust. In addition, there are styles for women with larger torsos.

A few common facts

  • Each PFD features a different foam placement and design so that it fits the body contours nicely.
  • Foam placement is more critical to comfort than safety.
  • The number of straps on a PFD determines how many adjustments you can make and how customizable your PFD is.

In order to get a great fit and feel with your PFD, you should do the following after getting the right size for yourself.

  • Put your PFD on after loosening all its straps. Then, zip it up.
  • Start at your waist and make sure you tighten each strap carefully. A PFD with shoulder straps requires you to tighten the straps last. Do not worry because it would feel closely fitted but certainly comfortable.
  • Call someone and have him/her pull up on the life jacket’s shoulders. You should tighten its straps if the PFD moves up past the head or nose. If, the PFD moves up after having the straps tightened, you should consider that it is not a good fit for you.
  • A good practice is to test a PFD in shallow water. If it slips over the wearer’s chin or rides up while floating, it is not an ideal choice for the user.

For children

In terms of fitting and sizing, differences between PFDs for adults and children are important. Make sure the fit of a PFD for your child allows it to keep its head above water. Some parents get large PFDs thinking their beloved kids would grow into them. Unlike the adult PFDs, the one for a child is chosen according to the weight of the child.

Below is a list showing the right PFDs for children with different weights

  • For Infant: 8 to 30 lbs
  • For Child: 30 to 50 lbs
  • For Youth: 50 to 90 lbs

Must-have features for a PFD for a child

  • Head support: A child’s PFD should come with padded head support so that the child can stay while keeping its head above water.
  • Handle: The PFD should feature a grab handle so that parents can easily retrieve their children out of the water when necessary.
  • Strap: The crotch strap is an essential feature that prevents the PFD from riding up due to water pressure.
  • In terms of design and features, there is barely any difference between an adult PFD and a youth-sized one.

For Dogs

Not all dogs can be good swimmers though some others do have the skills. In order to save your favorite pet from panicking away from water, you can get it a lifesaver by having the following considerations in mind.

  • Ensure that the PFD has a snug fit allowing the dog not to swim, twist, or step out of it.
  • Instead of choosing a low-profile design, you should pick the one that has great potential of a snag.
  • Choose one that comes with easy-release buckles.
  • While a handle is not a must, you can have a PFD with a handle that allows for lifting the pooch out of the water.

“Category comes after size”

Manufacturers have so far produced five categories of life jackets with each one being different from others in some ways.

Type one

These PFDs are called ‘Offshore Life Jackets’ designed for serving wearers while being away for a little longer from rescue operations or on remote or rough waters. In spite of being bulky, the best thing about this category is the highest level of buoyancy. Another salient feature is the bright color that can attract people, even the most indifferent or unconscious ones towards the water.

Type two

These PFDs are known as ‘Near-shore Vests’ geared for safety in inland and calm waters where rescue operations come really fast. Heavy yet lighter than Type 1, these vests can turn some people but not the ones who are too unconscious to notice nearby places.

Type three

Known as ‘Flotation Aids’, these items are on top of paddlers’ choice due to their intent being lucky enough to expect a prompt rescue. With constant comfort in mind, paddlers would love to wear these things most often, and this is the single most important consideration taken during the manufacturing process. For a face-up position, this type is ideal, but you might need to tilt your head back, so you do not have to endure a face-down situation in the water.

Type four

Known as ‘Throwable Devices’, these items are often called ring buoys or cushions which are crafted in a way that they can be thrown to people who require a backup, much like a PFD. If you do not know how to swim or are simply afraid of water, you should not choose such things.

Type five

These are called ‘Special-use Devices’ which can be used for performing special activities. According to the USCG, the user can use this device only for certain activities labeled on their packaging. These items come in a range of varieties, such as deck suits and hybrid vests for windsurfing, water skiing, and kayaking.

Recommended categories

  • For paddlers, Type 3 is ideal for paddlers
  • For infants and kids, both Type 2 and Type 3 are good.

Never forget to check for Buoyancy

Since a PFD’s principal purpose is to keep you floating, buoyancy comes here as an influential matter. It is the force a person requires to have his/her head and chin above water. Buoyancy is measured in pounds. An adult usually requires buoyancy of an extra 7-12 pounds for floating though some require a little more or less. Keep in mind that bouncing around in calm waters is never the same as it is in rapids. A typical fact is you need a higher amount of lift if you are physically fit and stout. So, these are the factors critical to the required amount of buoyancy.

  • Your body weight
  • The size of your lung
  • Your body fat
  • Your clothing
  • Nature of the water- calm or rough

How to check?

Well, it is good for you if you know how to find out the buoyancy of a PFD. You need to tilt the head back and relax the whole body as much as possible.

If you can breathe easily with your mouth above water, the buoyancy will work for you. If you cannot have your chin above water, it indicates that you require a life jacket with a higher amount of buoyancy. Remember that the device is required not to go or ride over your head. For people with a larger stomach than the chest, ride-up can be a normal event.

Features are always important

Although you have already got strong basics of a PFD, you are yet to learn some of its features which makes it a tricky matter when choosing one. Keep reading.

Close yet comfortable fit (Snug fit)

As you have already got a picture of what a snug fit actually refers to, you need to ponder over this so much. All you need to do is become conscious about a PFD’s offering a close but comfortable fit. You will find some very attractive and good with tons of extra facilities. Do not fool yourself by the looks or designs. You should always prioritize the ‘fit’ overlook.

How it fits (Adjust-ability)

Sure, you will move the upper portion of your body frequently as you paddle or fish with a kayak. So, the PFD needs to allow you to vary the tension around your torso. As mentioned earlier in this article, adjustable straps are good when they come in a greater number. One simple thing you should know is that manufacturers do not always know what clothing you will have underneath. So, they craft designs to fit different body structures along with multiple layers of clothing on them.

Wide armholes

Most PFDs available in the market come with one obvious issue, which is the measurement of the arm openings. PFDs for paddlers feature oversized armholes. Keep these points in mind:

  • Padding around the armpit and shoulder areas should be minimal.
  • It is better if the PFD features less bulk.
  • Padding around the neckline should not be too much.

High waistline

PFDs for paddlers often come with a high waistline which is important for the following reasons.

  • A high waistline prevents the PFD from pressing against legs and riding up so that sitting for a longer period becomes comfortable.
  • It will also prevent the PFD from pushing down on a paddler’s spray skirt while helping reduce the collection of water on the paddler’s lap or skirt.
  • It facilitates the paddler’s efforts to do a ‘hip snap maneuver’ for a good Eskimo roll by leaving the paddler’s lower torso free to have flexes.

How to find out if the waistline is good?

Sit on the floor extending to the front and wear the PFD. Mimic the way you sit on a kayak. Now, if you feel comfortable being seated that way, the PFD is good with its waistline.

Neoprene trim and lining

Make sure your paddling-oriented PFD has a neoprene lining and trim. As the PFD will touch the various parts of your body like the neck and shoulder areas, it is crucial for a comfortable PFD experience that those areas do not get chafed.

Benefits of neoprene

  • A semi-elastic and soft item
  • Comfy while reducing chafing

Many PFDs come with nylon or mesh in the shoulder straps or side panels either to maintain affordability or to improve breathability. However, you should be willing to go for a PFD with high-quality neoprene trim.

Attachments (Pockets and Rings)

A PFD comes handier when it contains pockets spacious enough to store a whistle, bandage scissors, or a knife. The whistle is for signaling and the scissors or knife can be for cutting tangled lines or snags. Whatever forms these pockets come in, D-rings or small sewn straps or loops, they will serve well. Avoid looking for a PFD with so many attachments because too many of them could because of being hooked or snagged on stuff.


When choosing a PFD, bright colors are great. You should buy one that looks brightly colored with great visibility so that rescuers can get a good visual of you in case of an accident on water. You do not have to compromise on the aesthetic appeal of the PFD. However, try to find one that comprises both bright colors and beauty.

Stohlquist Men’s Ebb Life Jacket

Standard feature

  • Made of Nylon
  • Two side-entry pockets
  • Padded shoulder straps
  • Cinch strap harness for no ride-up
  • Lightweight PE foam
  • Ripstop nylon outer shell
  • Manufactured by China

Measurement: 4-inch high and 17-inch wide

Available Colors: Steel Green, Red, Red/Grey

Pros & Cons

  • Ensuring coolness and wearability
  • A wide range of fits with eight points of adjustability
  • Reflective graphic
  • Poor buoyancy reported

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Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket

Standard feature

  • Made of Nylon
  • 500 Denier Cordura shell and 200 deniers oxford liner
  • Ventilated shoulder and back pad
  • Cross-chest cinch harness for zero ride-up
  • Hand Wash Soap and Water
  • Manufactured by China

Measurement 4-inch high and 16-inch wide

Available Colors:  Mango, Black, Fireball Red

Pros & Cons

  • Quick front zippered entry
  • Front zippered pocket for storing small items
  • Comfortable with a snug fit
  • High back rides reported
  • Toilsome adjustability

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Standard feature

  • Two side buckles
  • Soft foam
  • Action-cut design
  • Extra storage for small items

Measurement: 21 x 17 x 7 inches

Available Colors: Black, Blue, Red, Yellow

Pros & Cons

  • Easy adjustment and entry
  • Allowing for unrestricted paddling
  • Reported being heavy
  • Reported being not friendly with the skin

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Standard feature

  • Soft PVC-Free foam flotation panels
  • Side entry
  • 4 Side Adjustments with two shoulder adjustments for a custom fit
  • 500D Cordura shell
  • A lash tab to keep the rescue knife

Measurement: 16 x 17 x 8 inches

Available Colors: Red, Black, Blue

Pros & Cons

  • Ideal for swimmers and paddlers
  • Comfortable and adjustable
  • Athletic design
  • Easy entry
  • Ride-ups reported
  • A little more expensive for such features

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NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD

Standard feature

  • 7 front pockets for storing a wide range of small belongings
  • Mesh lower back ideally for high-back seats
  • Front-entry design
  • 8 adjustment points
  • Soft Plush FIT foam flotation
  • A Coil Tool Retractor

Measurement: 17 x 15 x 4 inches

Available Colors: Bark, Blue, Orange

Pros & Cons

  • Ideal for extended fishing tours, kayak, and fly fishing
  • Sufficient ventilation during warm weather
  • Comfortable with high adjustability
  • Reported being bulky
  • No inside-the-pocket clips

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As long as you want a PFD, there are several other options that could be as good as the above ones, but these ones have been chosen for those who are serious about paddling and fishing. Also, price is a factor you cannot leave unconsidered. The above PFDs meet the conditional factors of both features and price.

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