One of the best water-based sports in the world is kayaking.

There is no question about that!

What’s better than taking to the waters alone and taking everything in?

With kayaking, though, you want to put your safety first.

Even if you’re a super strong swimmer, it is always best to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Today, I am going to cover 4 of the very best life vests for kayaking available anywhere on the market today, and provide you with some crucial information which could make a huge difference during an emergency.

Choosing the Best Life Jacket So You Can Focus Better on the Water

A life jacket is your most important safety tool on the water, especially when you’re entering “uncharted territory” where you have never been before! As you will know, the waters can change at a moment’s notice and a smooth spot of kayaking can very quickly turn rough.

Although kayaks are more stable than canoes, they can sometimes still end up flipping you into the water unexpectedly. In this situation, the right life vest is key.

When you are choosing a life vest for kayaking, keep the following in mind:

  • Measure your upper body so that you choose the right size.
  • Choose a life jacket which will leave you some freedom to move.
  • Don’t spend tons, but don’t cheap out either.
  • The simpler the life jacket, the better; you don’t need tons of features.

By purchasing a life jacket which fits you, is durable and gives you plenty of freedom to move, paddle and swim, you can spend much more time focussing on kayaking rather than worrying about what might happen should you capsize.

Safety shouldn’t detract from your experience

Many kayakers, especially newbies, let safety concerns overshadow their experience which results in less enjoyment and lower overall performance.

With the right life vest strapped to your body, you can attack the water with more confidence, safe in the knowledge that your life vest has your back should you capsize… it’s something which happens to us all and it pays to be prepared!

3 Things to Look for Which Will Make Your Life Easier

Although no one life vest is the same, the best ones will share similar characteristics, and these make choosing the best life vest that little bit easier.

  • Durability

Life vests need to be certified as safe before they can be sold, however, the best life vests are made from similar materials, usually nylon.

You want to be looking for a life vest which has a nylon shell – i.e. a high-tenacity 210D or 200-denier nylon – as these are both durable and breathable.

Kayaking trips can last for hours and your life vest’s material can have a big impact on comfort.

  • Adjustability

Straps, straps, straps. The best life vest will come with lots of adjustable straps which you can use to alter its fit and let it sit more comfortably.

The key area where you want straps is around the shoulder pads – shoulder pads which are too tight will hinder your movement and mobility.

Life vests which have no straps are a bad idea unless you are absolutely certain it will fit you perfectly right out of the box… unlikely!

  • Features

You don’t want to go overboard on additional features, but there are some which are ideal to have.

Storage pockets, D-rings, holder loops, a whistle and light for attracting attention and reflective tape are all safe bets for additional features.

What About Auto-Inflating Life Vests?

Personally, I would not recommend an auto-inflating vest because they can be quite temperamental. Your life vest is a last resort and is designed to keep you afloat in treacherous conditions.

The problem with an auto-inflating life jacket is just that – that it automatically inflates. Once your life vest has inflated once, it’s finished; you can’t use it again.

Now, this is great if you were to fall into deep water, however, accidents happen and sometimes you end up falling into shallow water… an auto-inflating vest cannot distinguish between deep and shallow water and it will inflate in either scenario.

If you do use an auto-inflating vest, take a recharge kit with you and have it on hand.

Is a Life Jacket Really Necessary?

In short, yes.

I really can’t stress this enough.

If you are in the U.S., certain states even go so far as to make the use of life jackets mandatory.

Even in areas where you do not legally have to wear a life vest, is this something you want to risk?

If you hit rough waters and get capsized, get trapped in rough conditions, hit a bout of stormy weather, sink or have a collision, you could be violently thrown from your kayak without warning.

Don’t forget the possibility of being injured yourself, too. If you hit some rocks you could quite easily sprain a wrist, ankle or break something.

In these situations, the best life vest will save your life. Even the best swimmer in the world would struggle if exposed to these conditions.

It is easy to be complacent and think that these extreme examples will never happen to you… but what if it does? You need to be prepared for the worst at all times.

The 4 Best Life Vests for Kayaking Available Right Now

Here are my picks for your top 4 options when it comes to picking the best life vest for kayaking.

This list will be updated from time-to-time as the market changes. At the time of reading this, these are your best options.

  • Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest


Functionality, fit and comfort – the Onyx life vest has all of this and more!

Using bubble foam positioned at the inner-back, it provides immense comfort whilst the adjustable side belts and open sides allow for optimum mobility and ventilation.

The mesh-lined back adjusts to fit around your kayak’s seat – no longer will you be forced to sit awkwardly forward by the padding in your life vest!

Additionally, shoulders are padded and fully adjustable too, and even the front of the vest is designed so that it is flexible and doesn’t feel bulky… you might even forget you’re wearing it!

In terms of features, the Onyx vest includes expandable pockets with zips and mesh drainage, assist loops, an attached whistle and lots of SOLAS-approved reflective material.

If you are the type of person who likes to take to the water at night, this is the very best life vest you could buy.

Pros:

  • Superior comfort and flexibility
  • All aspects of the vest are fully adjustable
  • Expandable storage options with mesh lining for drainage

Cons:

  • It may be harder for larger individuals to find the perfect fit
  • The back may be unsuitable for kayaks with high seatbacks


  • NRS Chinook Fishing PFD


Although this is marketed as a floatation device for fishermen, it is designed for kayak fishing and is therefore suitable for recreational kayaking too!

The NRS Chinook comes in at close second… a hard decision, but the Onyx MoveVent just clinched the top spot.

Fantastic ventilation is offered by the inclusion of mesh at the lower back and the PlushFIT foam wraps comfortably around your body’s contour.

Its front-entry design allows for maximum adjustment, and there are eight different ways you can adjust this vest for a custom fit, including the shoulders and back.

Where this life vest really shines is its abundance of features. Seven front pockets, attachment loops, multiple D-rings and utility knife storage are just a few of these.

Perfectly combining safety and utility, this life vest is perfect for somebody who enjoys kayaking for both casual enjoyment and hunting or fishing. For these people, the Chinook is virtually a 2-in-1 product.

Pros:

  • Efficient ventilation is provided thanks to the mesh lining
  • Superior storage, accessories and extra utility
  • Lots of comfort provided by the PlushFIT foam

Cons:

  • Lack of reflective material and no attached whistle or light
  • The extra storage and accessories make the Chinook bulky


  • NRS Vapor PFD


Designed for people who just want to get up and go, the NPS Vapor easily slips on and locks in place with two adjustable buckles on the side.

You may be feeling a little sceptical at this vest’s quality because of this… don’t! The manufacturers have worked hard to bring a minimal-fuss product without impacting quality or safety.

The arms are cut wide to allow for truly unrestricted movement, and the soft, flexible foam moulds snugly to your body for extra comfort. There’s even two pouches at the front which act as hand warmers for those colder days.

NRS Vapor have kept things simple with this product by only including one single front pocket. It is rather large, however, and is securely fastened with a sturdy zip.

Reflective material and a lash tab are included as standard to further bolster its safety and utility.

If you want a simple, elegant life vest which does its job without adding on bulk and extra features, the NRS Vapor fits the bill.

Pros:

  • Approved by the U.S. Coast Guard
  • Exceeds the floatation range requirement at 16.5lbs
  • A simple, minimalist design which gets the job done

Cons:

  • Fewer reflective points than comparable products


  • Stohlquist Men’s Trekker Life Jacket


If you are looking for a life vest which is compact, comfortable and doesn’t interfere with paddling, give serious thought to the Stohlquist Trekker.

Its got an outer shell made from tough 500-denier CORDURA nylon fabric and is designed to stand up to a battering, making it the perfect entry-level life vest for newbie kayakers.

The high-mounted back panel lets you sit comfortably in your kayak whilst the wide arm holes provide for maximum manoeuvrability.

With four straps – two on either side and two on either shoulder – for adjustment, the Stohlquist will fit almost all body shapes and sizes. Although there aren’t as many straps as other vests, the Stohlquist already rather compact and the four adjustment straps are enough for most people.

Additional features-wise, there are two large pockets on the front and slotted tabs for accessories on the upper back.

Ideal for smaller watercraft, the Stohlquist combines freedom and comfort for maximum waterborne performance.

Pros:

  • The durable shell is perfect for newbies
  • The inner lining is 200-denier Oxford nylon for extra comfort
  • Very easy to clean with soap and water

Cons:

  • The stowage pockets are not waterproof

Struggling? Here’s MY Top Pick!

Without a doubt, I have to go with the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Vest.

In my time kayaking, I have tried out tons of different life vests ranging from the downright terrible to the best money can buy.

I love the Onyx MoveVent because of the freedom it provides. I often forget I am wearing a life vest and find myself checking to see if it’s still there!

If we compare the Onyx to say the NRS Chinook or Stohlquist, though, it provides unmatched comfort and manoeuvrability whilst still including all the bells and whistles… literally!

Even though the other vests do reign in superior for these comfort and manoeuvrability, in my opinion the Onyx simply outdoes them by a mile, and you will easily be able to notice a difference if you spend time wearing the Onyx alongside any of the others.

But here's the truth:

No matter which one from this list you choose, I believe you’ll be 100% satisfied. They are all brilliant life vests and are examples of the very best ones available on the market right now.

They stand head and shoulders above most other life vests because they provide a quality solution without overcomplicating the product or detracting from other areas.

Which one is right for you, however, depends on both your individual needs and style.

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Phil Mansbridge
Phil Mansbridge

Phil is a retired Sport Fisherman from Florida. His passion for the last decade has been kayaking and canoeing. He spends his summers in Canada and most of the winter in California. He loves reviewing equipment for his avid readers and hopes that everyone's time out on the water as enjoyable as possible.