Safety First: The 7 Best PFDs for Kayaking and Paddle Boarding

    A comprehensive guide to the best PFD for kayaking and SUP, no matter what your experience level is

    People all across the globe enjoy paddling, whether from the cockpit of a kayak or atop a stand-up paddle board (SUP). It’s a fantastic exercise, allows you to explore otherwise-inaccessible areas, and anyone can learn it relatively quickly. Plus, once you have the initial gear — say, an inflatable kayak or SUP — there’s nothing more you need. Other than a body of water, that is.

    There is a caveat to paddling, however (isn’t there always?): it is, admittedly, inherently dangerous. While the chances of actually getting into an accident while kayaking or on a paddleboard are extremely low, water and the weather are both unpredictable, uncontrollable elements.

    Fortunately, it’s super simple to protect yourself while paddling: wear a personal flotation device, or PFD. It really is that simple! According to the American Boating Association, a stunning 86 percent of fatal boating drownings each year are people not wearing a PFD. The evidence is overwhelming: PFDs are a must.

    There’s often been a stigma surrounding wearing a PFD, largely because old-school models were bulky, uncomfortable, awkward and just plain ugly. But thankfully, they’ve come a very, very long way. Today, the best PFD versions are much lower-profile and more streamlined. In fact, there are several options designed specifically with paddlers in mind. Life vests and life jackets are the most common types of PFDs, though there are many others.

    If you’re looking for something that will protect you and be comfortable beyond being just barely legal, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re a paddling novice building up your arsenal of SUP accessories or a veteran looking for a better solution, we’re confident you’ll find something in this comprehensive guide to the best PFD for kayaking and SUP.

    The Best PFD vs. the Legal PFD

    Even if you’re not legally required to wear one in a specific area, it’s smart to always have a PFD on anyway. Its sole purpose is to save your life in the event of a water emergency, but you have to be wearing it for it to work.

    This is exactly why it makes sense to spend a bit of time researching the best PFD for kayaking and SUP — if it’s more comfortable and performs well, you’re far more likely to actually wear it, right? So we agree. Good!

    Best PFD for Kayaking, Paddle Boarding, and More

    Perhaps you’re looking for a low-profile PFD you can wear on hot summer days paddling in the Midwest. Maybe you’re specifically looking for the best inflatable PFD or the best women’s PFD. Whatever it is, you’ll find some of the best options available right here:

    1. Best for Kayaking: Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest PFD

    Just a quick glance at this Onyx life vest tells you it’s one of the best PFD for kayaking. It has a high back with a lower mesh panel, designed to sit above most kayak or canoe seats. The vest is also soft and flexible enough that it conforms to the shape of your body, and it’s highly adjustable with large armholes, enabling a full range of motion. The zippered pocket and attached safety whistle are nice extras.

    Pros/Genuinely comfortable all-around, from the material to the fit. It doesn’t chafe, even when wet, and it doesn’t interfere with paddling whatsoever. It also dries quickly
    Cons/The front of this PFD isn’t particularly breathable, and the tapered shape can be tricky to tighten sufficiently on smaller frames
    Bottom Line/This is our top choice for best PFD for kayaking because of its exceptional comfort. Its surprisingly wallet-friendly price point is icing on the cake

    2. Kayaking Pick: NRS Vapor Kayak PFD

    Several reviewers mention that they often forget they’re wearing this NRS Vapor PFD — which is exactly what you want from a life vest when you’re paddling. It manages to be extremely comfortable (even without any mesh paneling) while also providing a full coverage, no-budge fit. The arm holes are cut generously to allow for plenty of motion, whether it’s paddling, rowing, or swimming, and the PFD is made from ultra-rugged 400-denier ripstop nylon.

    Pros/Extremely durable and comfortable to wear with no concerns over it moving around or needing to be readjusted
    Cons/There is no mesh for enhanced breathability, and the full coverage design may be uncomfortable for people with shorter torsos to wear sitting down
    Bottom Line/If you’re looking for a full coverage PFD at a great price, it doesn’t get much better than this. The NRS Vapor may be no-frills, but it’s comfortable and highly effective

    3. Kayaking Pick: Astral Ronny Lifejacket

    Designed with a “recreational fit” specifically for kayakers, the Astral Ronny is among the best PFDs for kayaking. The entire back panel is made of thin, lightweight mesh and foam, allowing you to comfortably rest against high-back kayak seats on extended paddles.

    And although Astral doesn’t advertise the Ronny specifically as a fishing PFD, the generous number of pockets work very well for that purpose. There’s even a handy beverage pocket for holding a beer!

    Pros/Easy to put on and take off, exceedingly comfortable for all-day wear, clever pockets that are actually functional
    Cons/All the pockets make the front a bit bulkier than other PFDs, especially when full. Sizing is rather generous -- size down
    Bottom Line/If you frequently head out on longer paddle trips or fish from your yak and need to have some gear accessible, this is one of the very best PFD for kayaking

    4. Paddling Pick: Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Inflatable PFD

    A belt-style PFD is the ultimate when it comes to mobility, versatility, and comfort. And when you want the lowest profile, lightest weight, barely-notice-it’s-there model, the Onyx M-16 is the clear winner. You wear the 11-ounce M-16 like a fanny pack, except it’s even thinner and lighter, making it ideal for both standup paddle boarding and kayaking. Inflate the M-16 using the pull cord on the belt or use the manual oral inflation tube.

    Pros/Allows for complete freedom of movement while wearing and it’s easy to recharge with a standard CO2 cartridge
    Cons/The M-16 is ever so slightly slow to inflate, and the strap that goes over your head once it does isn’t adjustable
    Bottom Line/You truly will not find a more comfortable, wearable belt-style PFD. While it isn’t perfect, it’s the best inflatable PFD in this category for those who prioritize comfort

    5. Best for Paddling: Mustang Survival DLX 38 Automatic Inflatable PFD

    Not only is the Mustang Survival inflatable PFD Coast Guard-approved, but many rescue personnel wear them on the job.

    The low-profile, barely-there design is extremely comfortable and doesn’t inhibit movement, but provides some of the best safety protection available. Using a dissolving paper tablet, the DLX 38 automatically inflates if it’s submerged in water for 10+ seconds. It also comes with a safety whistle, reflective tape across the front, a MOLLE-compatible panel for accessories, and a small zippered stash pocket.

    Pros/Works exceptionally well and includes unexpected thoughtful features like the reflective tape and zippered pocket
    Cons/Extremely rainy or humid conditions can sometimes cause the tablet to dissolve, automatically inflating the vest. Similarly, this isn’t the best PFD if you plan to swim at all
    Bottom Line/If you want the very best PFD, period, this is it. It offers the best protection, it’s the most comfortable to wear, and it’s reasonably priced

    6. Best for Fishing: NRS Chinook Fishing PFD

    If you’re an angler who also happens to enjoy kayaking — as is common in New England — the NRS Chinook is the ultimate fishing PFD. The vest is loose up front and snug in the back with a lower mesh panel, keeping you safe and comfortable while allowing easy access to all your gear. This clever design also makes it so that the pockets don’t sag, even when full.

    Speaking of pockets, there are a lot of them. Two large zippered pockets and several smaller ones hold everything from pliers to bait and even a rod. And a whopping eight adjustable straps enable you to get a custom fit.

    Pros/Several functional pockets and exceptionally comfortable to wear
    Cons/Even with a ton of adjustability, sizing can be tricky, particularly if you’re between sizes
    Bottom Line/The best PFD for fishing, with all-day wearability, tons of handy storage, and a durable design

    7. Best Women’s PFD: Astral Layla Lifejacket

    It makes perfect sense that women would want a PFD designed specifically for their anatomy. However, the vast majority of products claiming they’re the best women’s PFD completely miss the mark. In fact, many appear to be no different whatsoever than their male-specific or unisex counterparts!

    The Astral Layla is a different story, though. It’s highly adjustable, making it easy to dial in a perfect fit, plus it’s super soft, doesn’t budge, has pockets, and — gasp — is actually flattering.

    Pros/Of all the things we love about the Astral Layla, what stands out most is how well it fits. It conforms perfectly to you without being restrictive, and it’s available in four sizes
    Cons/The full coverage design means there’s not much breathability
    Bottom Line/This is far and away the best women’s PFD for any water activity. Full stop.

    Taryn Shorr is an avid outdoor enthusiast, frequent traveler, and wannabe photographer based in southern Arizona. She lives for the opportunity to explore The Great Outdoors, both at home and in new destinations, and firmly believes that nature is a form of both therapy and religion.


    Feature image by Daniel Bruce Lacy, Shutterstock

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