A Comprehensive Buyer’s guide

When it comes to gear, there’s no piece of outdoor watersports equipment that is more important than a personal flotation device (PFD). Designed to save your life from the unexpected conditions of moving water and aquatic adventures, PFDs have become as important to the kayaker as the paddle, or even the boat itself. Whether your an experienced kayaker, or thinking about trying out kayaking for the first time, its important to find the best pfd for kayaking so that you can ensure your safety. 

We can hear our younger selves groaning, “Why do we have to wear a life jacket?”, probably staring at one of those gaudy, bright orange, over-the-neck style life jackets that we were raised with. But in this day and age, this is no longer the case. The best PFDs for kayaking are not only more stylish than ever, but they are specifically designed to be as comfortable as possible so as to not get in the way of arm movement. After all, the more comfortable something is, the more likely that it will get used. And for PFDs, this is everything.

We’re taking a look at the 11 Best PFDs for Kayaking, then taking a deep dive into just what it takes to make a great PFD.

New to the sport of kayaking? Be sure to check out this awesome guide on the Top Ten Safety Tips presented by the American Canoe Association.

Do I Really Need a Personal Flotation Device for Kayaking?

Look, we get it. Kayaking is a sport that requires an incredible amount of upper body movement. PFDs, on the other hand, are known for their bulky build, uncomfortable fit, and un-cool design. But gone are the days where the only PFD you could find was one of those big orange neck vests. The best life jackets for kayaking this year have ditched the overly-bulky awkwardness for sleek fits, breezy constructions, and reliable safety that you require when you’re out on the water.

PFD image

But let’s be clear. You should wear a PFD. The era of un-cool life preservers is out, and the era of super-sleek sport-optimized PFDs is in. With all the versatile & high performance designs on the market, there is a greater chance of being ridiculed for not wearing one.

Here is a sobering thought. According to the United States Coast Guard, 84.5% of drowning victims in 2017 were reported as NOT WEARING A LIFE JACKET.


What Are the Best Life Jackets for Kayaking?

Kayakers are a different breed of sportsmen. For them, a day out on the water is much more than kicking back with a fishing line and a cold soda. Kayaking is easily one of the most physically intensive water sports that there are. It also happens to be one of the most dangerous in certain situations.  

So how does the modern kayaker take both of these factors into consideration?  

The best life vests for kayaking should be:


You can’t move your arms very well in one of those big bulky life vests, now can you? You are going to want a snugly-fitting vest with wide arm openings to allow for a full range of arm motion. Because kayaking is so core intensive, you also want to make sure that you can freely move your torso to maintain control.

Heat is certainly a factor. Taking the kayak out on a sunny day sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday, but life jackets have never been known for being light and breathable. This has changed with modern PFDs, as manufacturers have found new ways to make their materials more breathable and less heat retentive.


The whole point of a PFD is to keep you from going under in case of an unexpected or unavoidable submersion. For this reason you need to be absolutely sure that the PFD you have will be able to take care of you in these sudden events.

For instance, some belt pack PFDs require a manual release to activate inflation. Will you be able to get to this release if you are plunged suddenly underwater? Or are the water conditions hazardous enough to warrant a hybrid-style PFD with immediate buoyancy?

11 Best Personal Flotation Device (PFDs) for Kayaking:

NRS Big Water Guide PFD

Because our team was not too terribly familiar with Northwest River Supplies (NRS) as a manufacturer and supplier, we were excited to have a look at the Big Water Guide PFD that was recently released. After taking it on the river, we were pleasantly surprised. Here is a flotation device that offers some real float, as opposed to some of the more minimalist brands that opt for more mobility.

Though that isn’t to say that the Big Water Guide has a restrictive fit. In fact, arm mobility seems to be just fine here. It fits pretty much the way a PFD should, which is comfortable but snug.

Our favorite feature is the built in hand-warmers. While we have seen this feature on other models before, no one has pulled it off quite the way that NRS has.  Dual zipper pockets are conveniently located and offer an amount of storage space that is pretty much unparalleled in kayaking PFDs.

If there are any problems with the Big Water Guide it might be the buckles. The plastic seems quite brittle, and we have seen one break on the first outing. Of course, replacing a buckle isn’t that big of a hassle, but you might want to consider buying a few extra buckles alongside your PFD to be safe.

NRS Big Water Guide PFD


  • Great fit & mobility
  • Built-in hand warmers
  • Conveniently placed storage zipper pockets


  • Buckle plastic is brittle and prone to breaking

Onyx Curve MOVEMENT Paddle Sports PFD

If you’re looking for a personal flotation device that is as comfortable as it is affordable then the Onyx Curve MOVEMENT PDF might be the one that you are looking for. It is hands down one of the most cost effective flotation devices on the market, and it manages this without being bulky, itchy, or uncomfortable.

The flotation foam is of a moderate thickness here, which helps keep the vest nice and light. However it is still a good deal heavier than some of the high-performance “pro” models that are becoming more and more popular.

We would be remiss not to mention the MoveVent Torsion system in place here. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Basically they have installed some flexible mesh segments in between the flotation panels, which not only create a wonderful flexibility that give the MOVEMENT its name, but they also allow for more fresh air to get in, keeping you cool all day long.

All in all this might be the most comfortable PFD in its price range. The only downside is that the front panels can become quite bulky, making it nearly impossible to operate a heavy-duty fishing pole in the sitting position.

Onyx Curve MOVEMENT Paddle Sports PFD


  • Good movement, allows for full range of motion
  • MoveVent system keeps things nice and cool
  • Great price for a PFD this comfortable


  • Front panels too bulky near the waist
  • Too bulky for kayak fishing

Onyx Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

We have to admit that we were more than a little bit skeptical to see belt-type PFDs become so popular over the last few years. After all, what’s so hard about wearing a life jacket?

Then we picked up Onyx’s entry into the inflatable life jacket market, and we had that “Ah-Ha!” moment that we were hoping was coming. As it turns out (perhaps to no one’s surprise) the Belt Pack PFD is actually really comfortable. In fact it’s barely noticeable until you inflate the thing, a process which is as easy as pulling an easily accessible rip cord.

For a top of the line gadget, the belt pack sure doesn’t cost much. At first we were worried that the low price might be an indicator of questionable quality, but it turns out that there is some good quality construction here and we expect it to last for a while.

What are the benefits of a belt-type PFD for kayaking? Well for one thing, there is literally zero loss of mobility with them. They are designed to allow kayakers a full range of motion while on the water, while still offering the same potentially life-saving capabilities of more traditional PFDs.

The biggest issue with the belt-type PFD is that it can sometimes get in the way of the kayak seat depending on your setup. Ours also only came with one charge pack, while the manufacturer had advertised 2x charge packs with the purchase.

Onyx Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket


  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable
  • Allows a full range of motion


  • Only one charging pack
  • Can get in the way of kayak seat / setup

NRS Men’s SURGE Lifejacket (PFD)

One of the most common complaints that water sports enthusiasts have with traditional type-III vest-style PFDs is that they have not been able to offer the degree of adjustment needed to achieve the perfect fit. That is, until now. NRS is rewriting the rules when it comes to custom comfort with the SURGE, offering an impressive six adjustment points, whereas the life jacket you grew up with most likely couldn’t offer more than two. This is just one thing that makes this one of the most comfortable type-III PFDs on our list.

If there is another common complaint when it comes to life jackets and comfort, it would be breathability. Just like make of their other flagship products, the SURGE features the Cool Flow system which opens up ventilation significantly. This means that you can keep active in this thing for hours, and you’ll still be able to get air in and prevent overheating and dangerous loss of body moisture.

Storage on the SURGE is not massive, but very reasonable for a PFD that is not specifically designed for fishing. There are two medium-sized stash pockets with a built-in leash for a rescue knife. They’re big enough for a phone and a few other essentials, but the rest of your gear you are going to have to store in the kayak, or simply leave behind.

The medium profile and bulky nature of the SURGE make it somewhat less agile than its competitors. The range of motion is somewhat decreased, but not entirely so. It’s about what you’d expect from a vest-style PFD, if not a bit bulkier than most.

NRS Men’s SURGE Lifejacket (PFD)


  • Six adjustment points for an unmatched custom fit
  • Very breathable & Very cool


  • Somewhat heavy / bulky

Kokatat Leviathan Lifejacket (PFD)

Here is a prime example of what is possible when a reputable producer puts its resources to work in creating a PFD that is both highly comfortable and functional. While specially designed for fishing and angling applications, I can name more than a few kayakers in my own circle that would appreciate having access to a staggering 14 pockets. This means that even if you aren’t going out to fish, you can use the LEVIATHAN for everything from multi-day trips to long-distance sprints.

The buoyancy here is pretty incredible. In terms of actual pounds of buoyancy, we could not find a definitive number from the manufacturer, but we certainly estimate it to be on the high end. After jumping in the water with this thing on, you simply pop right back up to the surface without delay. Just the kind of thing we’re looking for when heading into uncertain waters.

Pockets and flotation are well and good, but hardly enough to make one PFD stand out from another, considering that they are both primary features that vary little from product to product. So what, then, is KOKATAT doing differently that other manufacturers haven’t caught onto?

For one thing, super lightweight fabric. It’s called Ariaprene, and from what we can tell, it is shaping up to be one of the hottest (& coolest) new fabrics of the last few decades. That’s probably because it’s not only remarkably lightweight, but it also dries almost immediately, meaning that you don’t have to paddle around with all that extra water weight if you happen to take a dunk before your done.

The downside…

Our biggest complaint with the LEVIATHAN was that it seemed too stiff when it arrived. It was not able to move very freely, and felt like the fabric needed to be broken in for a while before it reaches its peak comfort and performance. While this is sometimes an indicator of a product that is designed to last, we can’t be sure that it will in fact get softer in time, but we sure are willing to be patient as we continue to field test it in years to come.

Kokatat Leviathan Lifejacket (PFD)


  • 14 pockets for lots of specialized storage
  • Lightweight & Quick drying Airaprene


  • Fabric & foam arrives stiff; needs significant “breaking in” before use
  • Extra features means extra $$$

Kokatat UL Aries PFD Life Vest

Anyone looking to take advantage of KOKATAT’s signature high-performance PFD construction who might not need all the bells and whistles of the more specialized models, would do well to take a look at the UL ARIES model PFD. Here we have a lightweight, bare-bones style Type-III PFD with good flotation (16.5 lbs) and a remarkably trim profile, giving the ARIES more range of motion than even the most expensive PFDs.

For this model they decided to stick with traditional Cordura fabric, which is not surprising considering the cost. While not as lightweight or quick-drying as Ariaprene, Cordura is a tried and trusted outer-shell fabric that has been in use for the better part of a century. I suppose you could say that if it’s broke, it don’t need fixing.

Our favorite design choice on the ARIES is probably the high back panel. It’s not bulky or anything, but provides a bit of comfort against even the highest of kayak seats, not to mentions happens to cover up one of the spots that we always seem to miss when applying sunscreen.

We’d be remiss to not mention the fact that Kokatat built this model using GAIA PVC-FREE buoyancy foam, which is free of those pesky CFC ozone depleting chemicals that every good outdoor enthusiast should be seriously concerned about.

We’d like to complain about the lack of storage space on the ARIES, but to be honest, that might be missing the point. This is a PFD whose simplicity and bare-bones construction make its overall comfort somewhat of a marvel, and we’d be hard-pressed to hold any of that against it. Some kayakers might think the “belly” area of this PFD to be a bit too bulky, but considering the flotation it provides, we really can’t knock on that either.

Kokatat UL Aries PFD Life Vest


  • Slim profile design = great range of motion
  • High-back construction for extra comfort on taller Kayak chairs
  • GAIA PVC-FREE foam is better for the environment


  • Low storage space
  • Somewhat bulky belly area

Gill JR USCG-Approved Front Zip PFD

While just about every manufacturer of kayak PFDs claims to have the best range of motion and maximum comfort, there are few that actually achieve it. This is because things like buoyancy and weight come into play, and when you balance it all with comfort, the results can be all over the map, to say the least.

So how does Gill’s JR PFD stand up to scrutiny? Well, it certainly isn’t as slim as many of its competitors. Kayakers looking to gain an advantage in the sport kayaking arena are no doubt going to want to go with something smaller and lighter. And if you are out to catch some fish, the storage space on the JR simply cannot measure up to some of the specially designed angling PFDs in the same price range.

Front zipper access is reliable and convenient on the JR, but we are honestly wondering why this is still a feature that is used as an extra selling point, considering that the large majority of kayaking PFDs on the market utilize a font-zip construction and it is hardly innovative.

One great thing about the JR is that it comes in a ton of different sizes. This is perhaps the best thing about it, because it makes it possible to get a closer fit than PFDs that only come in M, L, or XL. Once you know your measurements, you should be able to choose the right size for you and not have any of that pesky slippage that happens when the life vest is too big.  

Gill JR USCG-Approved Front Zip PFD


  • Lots of sizes available
  • Good adjustment capabilities


  • Somewhat heavy / bulky

Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD Life Jacket

We have to admit that we were somewhat wary when automatic life jackets began to hit the consumer market in the last few decades. That’s because we were skeptical of just how well the technology would perform when you needed it to, and whether or not you would be able to activate it in time. After trying a few out, we were hooked. Automatic inflatable PFDs are just as effective as you need them to be, and way less in the way than traditional vests.

One of the big misconceptions about inflatable PFDs is that you have to pull the rip-cord in order to inflate it. While that is a feature on the EYESON PFD, it has a more prominent automatic function that is designed to inflate the moment it comes into contact with the water, and we’ve got to say, they’ve got this down to a science. We were only able to try it three times, but each time it inflated almost immediately upon contact with the water. Very impressive, considering that the life-saving capabilities of these PFDs is really the only reason we wear them.

One additional feature that we really appreciate is the LED light that is wired to activate when the vest is inflated. This is one of those safety features that someone thought long and hard about, and could be the difference between being found quickly or spending hours in icy waters.

While the EYESON jacket is CE approved, it does not yet have USCG approval, though word on the street is that they are in the application process and could see that approval within the year. But without USCG approval we can’t give it a full five stars.

Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD Life Jacket


  • Manual OR automatic inflation mechanism
  • LED light wired to inflation
  • Very lightweight & comfortable


  • CE rated but not USCG approved

O’Neill Men’s SUPERLITE USCG Life Vest

If any of you are like me, than perhaps you’ve had trouble finding a high-performance personal flotation device that can properly fit a larger frame. Even with XL and XXL sizes, many top-of-the-line kayak PFDs are not designed for larger individuals, who might require a more relaxed & customizable fit. Not only does O’NEILL manage to do this with the SUPERLITE model, but it also manages to make it one of the most affordable PFDs on our list.

There are a ton of different sizes for the SUPERLITE, meaning that it is likely you will be able to find the perfect fit for you. However, we advise that you ignore the rumor that O’Neill products tend to run small. Many people have had to return their vests after following this advice, so instead we advise you to use the included sizing guide and make the right call the first time.

There are a few problems with the SUPERLITE that keep it from being an absolute knockout. The first is the relatively limited range of motion offered. The tapering is wide and the arm opening is reduced significantly as a result. The second problem is that both the shell and the inner foam display poor drainage, meaning that once you get this thing wet, it could be hours before it is fully dry again. That means that if you capsize when you are out on the water, it is likely that you will be hauling a bit of extra water weight with you on your way home.

O’Neill Men’s SUPERLITE USCG Life Vest


  • Very affordable
  • Lots of sizes; “relaxed” fit


  • Limited range of motion
  • Bad drainage; can become waterlogged quickly

Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto-activation PFD

With automatic-inflating flotation devices being all the rage these days, it was only a matter of time until somebody came out with a PFD that was just as stylish as it was comfortable, and to their credit, it seems like the outdoor gear supplier MUSTANG has done just this. The M.I.T. life vest is available in six different colors, including camouflage, meaning that you don’t have to look like an absolute noob out on the water.

Of course, looks are hardly the point with PFDs. If it doesn’t function, then we aren’t wearing it out on the water, no matter how flatteringly it tapers our figure. So how did the M.I.T. perform under our test conditions? To sum it up, quite wonderfully.

Let’s start with flotation. Mustang has managed to cram a stupendous 26 lbs of buoyancy into this small package. If that doesn’t impress you, then perhaps you aren’t aware that traditional PFDs average at 15 lbs. That’s some powerful flotation for a PFD that you can hardly tell that you are wearing.

One problem with the M.I.T. that we just can’t get over is how expensive it is to purchase the re-arming kit. After all is said and done, it hardly makes the starting price worth it considering the cost of re-arming.

Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto-activation PFD


  • ~1.5x flotation power of most PFDs
  • Rapid & effective inflation


  • Recharge kits are overly expensive

Stohlquist EDGE Life Jacket

Now that we’ve had our fun with the automatic inflating PFDs, we’d like to return to our scheduled programming with a more traditional, “classic” PFD, this one by the engineers over at STOHLQUIST. Their EDGE model PFD is designed with the sole intent of making it one of the most versatile life jackets that you can get, ideal for anything from touring to whitewater to sailing. For the aquatic sportsfolk who couldn’t bear to limit themselves to a single sport, this might just be the perfect fit.

Speaking of fit, we’ve got to mention the fact that Stohlquist’s graded sizing system is quite impressive upon first look. While many PFD manufacturers create additional sizes by changing the length of the straps, Stohlquist goes the extra mile of changing the size of the foam inserts. The result is a PFD that will fit you perfectly no matter what your size or body type, not to mention give us bigger people the added buoyancy needed to keep us afloat.

One big difference that sets the EDGE apart is its side-mounted entry zipper. While just about every vest-style PFD on our list utilizes a front & center zipper, the EDGE opts for the side entry, and the results are quite surprising. It turns out that by moving the zipper to the side, some bulk is able to be reduced along the front panels. That gives the EDGE its nice slim profile.

The glaring deficiency of the EDGE, and if we are being honest any of the products that feature Stohlquist’s body-contoured foam paneling, is that they are certainly a better fit for men than for women. Unfortunately, the EDGE is listed as a Unisex model, so it is unlikely that there is a female-optimized version out there.

Stohlquist EDGE Life Jacket


  • Simple design
  • Side mounted zipper cuts down on front bulk


  • Better fitting on men than on women

The Different Types of Personal Flotation Devices: A Brief Overview

The United States Coast Guard are the folks who have set the definition for the different classes of Personal Flotation Devices. There are a number of different kinds of PFD out there, each one designed for a different purpose.  

Type I PFD

Typically made from dense foam and nylon webbing, this is the most ‘traditional’ form of personal flotation device and the kind you most often see stored on boats and around marinas. Type I PFDs are designed for the specific purpose of keeping an unconscious person’s face out of the water, and it does this by its unique ‘horseshoe’ shape.

  • Off-shore life jacket • Highly Buoyant • Easy to Use (Reversible) • Designed to keep an unconscious person’s head above water


Given that Type II personal flotation devices have been certified only for “near-shore” use, it is perhaps no surprise that they are neither as buoyant nor bulky as type I life jackets. For this reason they are recommended only for cases where a relatively quick rescue is possible.

  • Near-shore life jacket • Moderately buoyant • Easy to use


Type III personal flotation devices are also commonly referred to as flotation aids. These are made of the same dense foam that life jackets are, and are also available in inflatable versions that increase the buoyancy even further. Type IIIs are designed to be more lightweight and more comfortable than Type I or Type II, and one of the drawbacks of this is that they are not shaped in such a way that keeps your face above water if you were to fall unconscious. Still, the Type IIIs are particularly popular amongst water sports enthusiasts as they allow for a greater range of motion and are all-around more comfortable to wear.

  • Near-shore life jacket • Moderately buoyant • Easy to use


Type IV PFDs are not life jackets at all, but rather a “throwable device” that can be tossed out to a conscious person who might be struggling in the water. The endangered person can then hang on to this device until help is able to arrive. Usually shaped as a ring or horseshoe, they are designed to be easily held onto and work best when used in conjunction with a more traditional life vest.

  • Throwable device • Moderate to High buoyancy • Not a substitute for a life jacket in outdoor activities (for emergencies only)

Type V PFD

This is the newest and least defined category of personal flotation device. It includes any flotation device that is used for a specific purpose or for a specific activity, and is required to display the instructions for that use. For example, a Type V PFD that is designed specifically for river rafting should not be used for anything but river rafting. Some examples of type V PFD include but are not limited to USCG hybrid inflatable PFDs and other wearable devices like immersion units and anti-exposure coveralls.

  • Specially designed device • Less common that the first four types • Will include instructions for intended use


“Inherently Buoyant” vs. “Inflatable” vs. “Hybrid”; How Personal Flotation Devices are Made

Beyond the five different Type classifications of PFD, there are also three different ‘Styles’, or rather, different construction methods when it comes to personal flotation devices. To sum it up, it comes down to Inflatable PFDs vs. Inherently Buoyant PFDs, with a range of Hybrid styles that exist in between the two. Here are the three different styles, along with what our team sees as the pros, cons, and best use for each one.


Inherently Buoyant (Standard)

There is no question that inherently buoyant life vests are the most common variety, and no doubt you have seen one before. These are constructed of dense foam, and are traditionally covered in a densely-woven synthetic material of bright orange or yellow, colors that would increase your visibility in a rescue-type situation. They are referred to as ‘inherently buoyant’ because the foam that they are constructed from will float all on its own … no additional air is needed.

Standard style life vests are common in every water sport because of their reliability, longevity, and ease of maintenance.


Maintenance Free … All you need to do is try to keep them clean and dry

No need to activate or inflate … Standard style PFDs come ready to use

Χ Usually bulkier & heavier than hybrid or inflatable models

X More restrictive and less ideal for high-movement activities like kayaking

PFDInflatable PFD

Generally speaking, inflatable style personal flotation devices are far more versatile than standard PFDs. Inflatable devices include waist packs, belt packs, shoulder slings, and regular vests. Many Type IV throwable devices are inflatable, as it allows them to be stored in a more compact state, saving valuable space on a boat or near the pool.

Inflatable PFDs can come in both manual and automatic. Manual is far more common, and features a rip-cord attached to a CO2 cartridge that rapidly inflates upon pulling the cord. Automatic devices exist in which no rip-cord is needed, and the device will inflate on its own when it becomes submerged in water.


Far more comfortable than other PFDs

Smaller, lighter, and COOLER, meaning you won’t have to sweat as much

Χ Requires activation; not suitable for unconscious people

X More maintenance and care required

X Less versatile than standard models; not recommended in high impact activities where ruptures are possible


As you probably can deduce, the Hybrid style of PFD features the best of both worlds, offering both inherently buoyant foam and additional inflatable chambers. The obvious benefit is that the foam serves as a backup for more vulnerable inflatable compartments, and that the overall weight will be reduced as a result of the utilization of air chambers as opposed to dense foam.


Inherently buoyant foam serves as a backup for vulnerable air chambers

More lightweight than standard PFDs, more reliable than straight inflatables

Χ Significantly more expensive than either other option

Automatic Inflation Life Vests: Are They Safe?

While inflatable PFDs with an automatic inflation feature have been steadily gaining popularity in recent years for lightweight feel and ease of use, there has been some concern amongst users as to just how safe these things can be. While many are USGC APPROVED and can be just as effective as traditional PFDs, they are not always recommended for “high-speed” watersports like whitewater kayaking, in which your body can be moving fast enough to be sucked into a rapid before full inflation takes place.

Now battling a bass on the surface of your favorite lake when he finally takes the bait and pulls you into the water? That’s a different story altogether, and an automatic-inflation model might be right for you.

So What’s the Best PFD for Kayaking?

When you consider the fact that there are five different Types and three different Styles of personal flotation device, it is possible to become overwhelmed with the sheer variety of PFDs in the marketplace. How are we expected to choose the best one for kayaking? Fortunately for you, we’ve spent the last few weeks working on that very question.


The best inflatable life vests for kayaking are generally going to be Type II or Type III. These are the types that are most suitable for an activity like kayaking, because they are not only wearable and reliable, but they are less constrictive than Type I, and more versatile than type IV or V.


In our opinion? The best way to go would be Hybrid. There is usually some extra cost associated with  these models, but having the one-two punch of standard and inflatable is not only the most comfortable way to go, but likely the safest.

Pro Tip: Remember that Kayaking is a high-motion activity, meaning that the PFD that you buy will need to be comfortable, otherwise you might not want to get out on the water as much. If you are trying on a PFD, be sure to swing your arms around, mimicking the motion of paddling. Also, see if your torso can comfortably shift from side to side, as it likely will when you’re out on the water. A less comfortable PFD makes for a less comfortable adventure.

Top Personal Flotation Device Brands

There are dozens upon dozens of quality PFD manufacturers these days, which is a testament to the growing popularity of water sports as the recognition that modern kayakers are just as concerned about safety as they are about performance.

This list is far from exhaustive, but here are the brands that we were able to explore for this review:


It was 1972 when a young business professor set out to teach his students a lesson, but not the kind that you might think. Taking $2,000 in savings and most of the space in his garage, Bill Parks launched Northwest River Supplies, or today known simply as NRS. Operating out of Moscow, Idaho, NRS continues to provide top of the line gear for kayaking, touring, rafting, camping, fishing, and more.

Onyx Outdoor

The folks over at Onyx Outdoor are dedicated to providing “reliable, dependable, and trustworthy gear”, and from what we have seen so far, they are doing a pretty good job of it. While it seems like every other PFD on the market is made by ONYX, they also have some higher-end models available for the professional kayaker or dedicated enthusiast.  


Although they are somewhat less well-known than the “Big Two” listed above, Kokatat has actually been in the game for close to fifty years. This makes them one of the most experienced manufacturers out there. The name “Kokatat” actually means “into the water” in a Native American language. This is apt considering that the company has continued to dedicate itself to making some of the most unique and innovative water sports gear that you can find anywhere.


Q: Are these PFDs unisex?

A: It depends on the model. Some manufacturers dedicate themselves to making the most versatile unisex models that they can. While others have released both male and female models of their most popular products.

Q: Which is best: Standard, Inflatable, or Hybrid PFD?

A: Ah, a tale as old as time. To go with the traditional buoyant foam-packet vest, or the high-tech CO2-injected automatic-inflation PFD. Or maybe somewhere in between? Asking which style is best is a hard question to answer without knowing what the intended use is.

We can say this: Standard PFDs are great for all applications, while Inflatable PFDs are not always recommended for high-speed or high-risk water activities like whitewater kayaking. To stay safe, be sure to check the product specifications for the recommended use.

Q: Do I really need to wear a life jacket?

A: We are going to go ahead and put this in italics so as to not understate it, but yes, you should wear a personal flotation device at all times on the water. It just makes good sense. However, it is not always legally required that you do so. However, your state might have regulations regarding PFDs for passengers of recreational vehicles. Boat US Foundation offers this handy State by State Guide to Life Jacket Requirements.

Q: How do I tell what size PFD to get?  

A: When ordering something like a personal flotation device online, it can be difficult to get the perfect fit the first time, so don’t feel bad if you have to send it back for a different size. However, most of the major PFD brands have their own sizing charts available on their website. We recommend utilizing them in order to get the best fit for that particular manufacturer. 


We’re going to be straight with you, it has been difficult keeping up with all the different technological advances in flotation technology that have occurred over the last decade. It seems that traditional style PFDs are getting more and more efficient and comfortable. While on the other hand innovative new design tweaks in the automatic-inflatable realm have led to some of the most rapidly effective devices we have laid our hands on.

Choosing a favorite from our list would be a tall order even for the most discerning of kayakers, however, we will give it our best.

In terms of overall performance, design, and budget, our all-around pick is going to be the NRS SURGE PFD. It’s comfortable, breathable, buoyant, and perhaps best of all, affordable. But with all the new PFD technology that we looked at, it might behoove the reader if we also chose a best inflatable pick, which would no doubt be the Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T.. Unfortunately, the recharge packs can be a little pricey.  But we think its worth it for all that extra flotation power in such a small package. Now that you have the resources to choose the best pfd for kayaking, check out our article on 10 of the Best Fishing Kayaks for the Money, and you’ll be ready to hit the water soon!

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