10 Best Life Jackets For Kayak Fishing: PFD Ratings & Reviews

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Kayak fishing is easily one of the best times you can have out on the water, but it can also quickly become one of the most dangerous. It isn't hard to flip a kayak, especially when you are focused on fighting that largemouth you just hooked. Having a quality personal flotation device (PFD) can make all the difference. This review is for any kayak anglers or water sport enthusiasts who are in the market for the best life-saving life jacket available.  

Preview

Product

PFD Type

Approved Standard

Check Price

NRS Chinook Fishing Lifejacket Charcoal L/XL

NRS Chinook

Type III

USCG

ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life...

Onyx MoveVent

Type III

USCG

ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual...

ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24

Type V (performs like Type III)

USCG

Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Jacket, One Size, Tan

ONYX Tan

Type III

USCG

O'Neill Mens Superlite USCG Life Vest 6XL...

O'Neill Men's Superlite

Type III

USCG

Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Floatation...

Stohlquist Fisherman

Type III

USCG

Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket/Personal...

Stohlquist Women's Flo

Type III

USCG

Bassdash Life Jacket Fly Fishing Vest...

Bassdash

Type III

CE

Stearns Heads-Up  Child Vest

Stearns Heads-Up

Type II

USCG

Airhead Youth WICKED Kwik-Dry Neolite Flex...

Airhead Wicked Kwik-Dry

Type III

USCG


Why Use A Life Jacket When Kayak Fishing?

A life jacket will save your life and prevent you from drowning. No matter how good of a swimmer you are, a capsized kayak, rip current, storm, or another event can quickly become overwhelming. Wear a life jacket to stay alive. Life jackets are usually required by law because of the safety implications.

If you are caught without one, it could result in a fine. Life jackets are surprisingly functional, and they can hold equipment so that you can quickly access it. Similar to the vest that a fly fisherman would wear a life vest can hold tools and tackle.


Considerations When Buying A Kayak Fishing PFD

Material & Durability

The first thing to consider when choosing your PFD is how it has been constructed. This will determine how it feels and functions when you wear it. Most PFD's have an outer layer of either nylon or neoprene. Neoprene is lighter and more comfortable, but it is also more expensive. If you are wearing the PFD for long periods, you should pay the extra for neoprene.

The interior of most life jackets is a foam padding comprised of either Gaia, Kapok, or PVC. Gaia is the most eco friendly, it is soft, and it is lightweight. Kapok is remarkably water-resistant and durable as well as being eco-friendly and, while PVC is the most commonly used material, it is not easily recycled. PVC does boast excellent resistance to sunlight, though.

Finally, you must check the durability of the other parts of the life jacket. Check the zippers, velcro, straps, etc. Materials should be tough, well constructed, corrosion-resistant, and lightweight. You want a jacket that can hold up against any outdoor adventuring you throw at it.  

Adjustability

It is important to check how easily adjustable a jacket is. You should consider if you will be the only one using this jacket and, if it is for kids, how easily will they be able to adjust it if needed. Also, would you feel comfortable adjusting the jacket while seated in a kayak?

Design & Color

When you buy a PFD, you have to consider who the jacket is for. There are various designs and colors available for men, women, and children. Some jackets are just suited for a particular gender or age range, while others are more general. Consider body type too. Larger adults or especially tall adults will need PFD designs that accommodate their size.

Comfort, Size & Fit

The comfort, size, and fit of a life jacket will be unique to each person wearing it. Jackets with built-in ventilation and good breathability are best as well as those that integrate back padding. If different people will be using the same jacket over time, it is also a good idea to get one that offers universal sizing options.

Approved Standards

The United States Coast Guard (USCG), the International Standardization Organization (ISO), the Conformite Europeene (CE), and the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) are all organizations that have created approved standards for life vest safety and use. Generally speaking, The United States abides by the USCG, Europe follows CE, general commercial standards fall under SOLAS, and international standards are guided by ISO.

Category/Type

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) standards for PFD's fall under five types. Types II and III are what you would most likely use for kayak fishing, and the other types would not be appropriate.

  • Type 1 PFD: Offshore Lifejackets
    These jackets are heavy-duty, and they are designed for rough open waters where rescue is likely to be delayed. It isn't likely you would need this kind of PFD unless you are kayak fishing out at sea.   
  • Type II PFD: Nearshore Buoyancy Vests
    These jackets are for calmer inland waters where there is a good chance of rescue. They are designed to turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position.
  • Type III PFD: Flotation Aids
    A flotation aid is for calm inland waters where there is a good chance of rescue. This is the category that many sport and fishing jackets fall under. Wearers must keep themselves in an upright position in the water. 
  • Type IV PFD: Throwable Devices
    Throwable devices are not designed to be worn. They are buoyant devices that can be thrown to someone in need.
  • Type V PFD: Special-Use Devices
    Special use devices cover a wide range of applications from PFD’s for dogs to work vests.

Extra Features

The extra features of a PFD can be really useful. These include pouches, pockets, loops, other attachment points, and any other number of features that add to the functionality of the jacket. Think about what exactly you need and how each feature might be used. It is usually best to buy a PFD that has a little more functionality than you think you'll use. That way, you have room to add additional tools and supplies as you think of them later.  

Price & Warranty

When you are choosing a PFD, you should consider all the factors mentioned here along with the price and the conditions of any warranty offered. That will frame the real value of the jacket. Don't be afraid to pay a little extra if the jacket checks off all of your boxes. The money spent upfront will pay off down the line when you've worn the life jacket for hours and days at a time.


10 Best Kayak Fishing Life Jackets (PFDs) Reviewed

1. NRS Chinook

Our Top Pick!

Primary Material

200-denier urethane-coated ripstop nylon

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults

Weight

2.15 lbs

Key Feature

Seven front pockets

The NRS Chinook personal flotation device is our top pick because it combines comfort, utility, and safety, unlike any other PFD. The PlushFit™ foam and a high-back design make this a very comfortable vest that fits most kayak seats. A mesh lower-back offers added ventilation on those hot summer days.

The vest's eight adjustment points ensure a secure, comfortable fit too. Functionality doesn't suffer either with seven front pockets and features like rod holder loops, one removable coil tool retractor, pliers holder, lash tab, multiple D-rings, and attachment loops.

One reviewer of the jacket had this to say,

"This jacket goes beyond reliability for someone who kayak fishes like me. It's lightweight, fit properly, [and] can easily be adjusted.” 

This is the kind of PFD that fits so well you can forget you are wearing it, yet if worse comes worst, it will keep you safely afloat with its 16.5 lbs of in-built flotation. 

Pros
  • Very comfortable
  • Plenty of pockets
  • Fits all sizes well
Cons
  • No reflective material for nighttime visibility

2. Onyx MoveVent

Runner Up

Primary Material

Nylon

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults

Weight

1.8 lbs

Key Feature

Mesh in the lower back

The Onyx MoveVent is our runner up for the top spot because it boasts much of the same comfort, utility, and safety as the Chinook and even at a lower price point. The breathable mesh in the lower back fits higher backed kayak seats, while additional ventilation in the front helps keep you cool on all sides.

The vest itself is comfortable with built-in neoprene comfort pads, adjustable shoulder straps, and a sculpted and flexible foam body that conforms to your body. Extra features like the expandable zippered pocket with mesh drainage, the SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility, and the lash tab for small accessories expand the functionality of the vest. 

Then, to top it all off, the Onyx MoveVent comes with an attached whistle for safety. This affordable vest provides the safety you need without compromising on comfort, mobility, or functionality. It is breathable yet offers more than enough buoyancy for any angler. 

Pros
  • Well ventilated and breathable
  • Fits high backed kayak seats
  • Includes a safety whistle
Cons
  • The vest feels a little bulky to some

3. ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24

Best Inflatable PFD For Kayak Fishing

Primary Material

Neoprene

PFD Type

Type V (performs like Type III)

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults

Weight

1.6 lbs

Key Feature

Inflates upon immersion in water

The ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 is not a standard PFD, but instead, it is inflatable. This comfortable, lightweight, low profile design feels almost as though you aren't wearing it at all, yet if your kayak flips and you find yourself in the water, this PFD will rapidly inflate on its own if needed.

It is equipped with a submersion triggered CO2 cartridge puncturing device that causes the vest to rapidly fill with the gas and become buoyant. This can be activated manually as well by pulling on the “jerk to inflate” handle or by utilizing the back up oral inflation. 

This inflatable vest is approved by the United States Coast Guard as a Type V device but is recognized to perform as a type III device like most PFD’s. This vest actually exceeds many others with its minimum buoyancy of 22.5 lbs that will hold almost any angler afloat in even the roughest conditions. This is a vest that has saved lives!    

Pros
  • Can be set to automatically inflate in water
  • Lightweight and low profile fit
  • Very buoyant
Cons
  • Inflation parts need to be replaced every 2-3 years

4. ONYX Tan

Best Rated Model

Primary Material

400 denier nylon oxford

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults

Weight

1.4 lbs

Key Feature

Several specialty pockets

The ONYX Tan kayak fishing life jacket checks almost every box you might have when looking for a great PFD. It has a high foam back that accommodates high back seats and a breathable mesh lower back to keep you cool. It has comfortable neoprene shoulder pads and six adjustment straps to tighten the vest down to the perfect fit. It even has an array of specialty pockets designed to hold essential gear.

One of the most versatile of these pockets is the one-button push drop down tray pocket with a 2” elastic strap. This pocket can hold a small tackle box and offers a stable working surface right on the front of your vest.

The ONYX Tan also exceeds USCG Type III PFD device standards and offers 15 lbs of buoyancy, which is more than enough to keep most people afloat. This is a PFD that offers safety, utility, comfort, and fit.  

Pros
  • Six adjustment straps make for a good fit
  • Good functionality in the extra features
  • High foam back fits high kayak seats
Cons
  • Only has a zipper closure on the front and the zipper feels a little weak

5. O'Neill Men's Superlite

Best For Taller People

Primary Material

Nylon

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Men

Weight

5 lbs

Key Feature

4 heavy-duty 1.5” wide webbing belts with quick-release Delrin buckles

The O’Neill Men’s Superlite is crafted perfectly for taller people. The anatomically cut closed cell marine foam along with 4 heavy-duty 1.5” wide webbing belts with quick-release Delrin buckles make for a customizable and molded fit.

The coated polyester outer shell keeps the vest comfortable to wear while the polyethylene foam interior keeps the overall construction lightweight. This vest was designed to work for people of all sizes and feel like a second skin during even the most active moments. 

The vest maintains a fairly low profile against the body so it can be comfortably worn while seated in a kayak. Unlike other vests, it does not have many pockets or external features built-in, but it is possible to attach pouches to the external straps and customize storage space as you need it. The lower left side of the PFD is also equipped with a key loop to attach whatever you might need.      

Pros
  • Very lightweight
  • Secure fit with buckles
  • Comfortable to wear
Cons
  • Fits too large for some and too small for others

6. Stohlquist Fisherman

Best PFD For Avid Anglers

Primary Material

Nylon

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults

Weight

1.8 lbs

Key Feature

EVA stiffened outer shells act as fold-down workstations

The Stohlquist Fisherman PFD lives up to its name because it was designed with the avid angler in mind. It has the high back to fit kayak seats that you would expect. It has open sides for ventilation, neoprene padded shoulders, a lower back waistband, and dual side adjustments for a custom fit. It even comes in a nice low visibility cactus color to help you blend with environments or a high visibility orange if needed.

The best feature of this vest, though, is the way it was designed to hold your essential fishing tools. There are mounting locations for tippets, retractors, nippers, leader-line, and more. The two front-mounted tool pouch pockets have tough EVA stiffened outer shells to secure pocket contents, and they act as fold-down workstations too. The vest is basically a wearable workbench for anglers. With this vest, you can sit securely in a kayak and have all your essential tools within reach.

Pros
  • Great extra features
  • The high back fits kayak seats
  • Comfortable fit
Cons
  • Pockets are small

7. Stohlquist Women's Flo

Best Women’s Kayak Fishing Vest PFD

Primary Material

Nylon

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Women

Weight

1.6 lbs

Key Feature

built-in supportive inner cups

The Stohlquist Flo Life Jacket is a safe, comfortable, and functional PFD built for women. On every front, it is the best life jacket for women on the market. It is built with a durable high-denier ripstop shell that holds up against whatever adventures you throw at it.

On the interior of the vest, there are contoured cups that wrap around the body without putting too much pressure in any one spot. Combined with the cross-chest cinch strap design that prevents ride up and the padded neoprene waistband to improve fit, this vest is very comfortable. 

One regular user had this to say,

“While I have 3 PFDs for kayaking, I find myself always grabbing this one before going out. I’m a large busted woman, and this PFD is extremely comfortable.”

The vest also has a high back to fit kayak seats, extra in-built ventilation, and self-draining pockets that expand to store accessories. It is the perfect blend of comfort and functionality. 

Pros
  • Very comfortable
  • Accommodates kayak seats
  • Adjustable fit
Cons
  • The vest can ride up in the back

8. Bassdash

Best Kayak Fly Fishing PFD Vest

Primary Material

Polyester

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

CE

Intended For

Adults

Weight

1.5 lbs

Key Feature

5 in-built pockets

If you are fly fishing from your kayak then the Bassdash Fly Fishing PFD is the jacket you should have. It is constructed from premium Polyester and EPE Foam, which makes it durable, lightweight, quick-drying, and very breathable.

The adjustable suspension system and ample arm space allow for a customized fit that doesn't compromise functionality and casting. Combined with the webbing hip strap and the 2.5mm neoprene shoulder straps, this vest remains comfortable while being able to hold all the equipment you might need.

There are 5 pockets in total, including four big front zippered pockets and one back mesh pocket. There are also attachment points so you can keep your fly boxes, nippers, pliers, and more nearby as needed.

This functional jacket provides the safety, versatility, and comfort needed while fly fishing. Unlike most other jackets on this list, it is approved by the Conformite Europeene (CE) for safety and is rated for men and women up to 165 lbs.  

Pros
  • Plenty of storage space
  • Secure fit
  • Lightweight
Cons
  • It is only rated up to 165 lbs 

9. Stearns Heads-Up

Best For Kids

Primary Material

Nylon

PFD Type

Type II

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Children

Weight

13.6 oz

Key Feature

Built to keep a child's head out of the water

There is a terrible trend happening with some life vests that are being marketed for children. Unsuspecting parents buy them, put them on their child, and are quickly shocked to see their little one floating face down in the water. Some life vests aren’t built to keep a child's head out of the water, and as soon as kids begin to kick their faces go forward.

This critical danger isn't highlighted by many life vest manufacturers, either. To fight that problem, we have found one of the few life vests on the market that is explicitly designed to keep a child’s head up out of the water.

The Stearn’s Heads-Up Child vest is designed with safety in mind and is the best life vest for kids.  It is made in a bright color that can be easily spotted in any conditions. There is a handle built-in behind the neck in case you need to quickly grab your child from danger. There is even a padded leg strap built-in to the PFD to help secure it on to your child. This is a vest that was explicitly designed to protect children when out on the water. 

Pros
  • Bright color for easy visibility
  • Built to keep a child's head above water
  • Attached leg strap to prevent vest from riding up
Cons
  • Bulky on some children

10. Airhead Wicked Kwik-Dry

Best For Teens

Primary Material

200-Denier Polyester

PFD Type

Type III

Approved Standard

USCG

Intended For

Adults over 90 lbs

Weight

1.6 lbs

Key Feature

Constructed with Kwik-Dry NeoLite

The Airhead Wicked Kwik-Dry is an excellent life vest that would fit many body types and lifestyles of young teens. Most importantly, it is a safe United States Coast Guard approved type III jacket that will keep the wearer afloat. The zipper closure with two adjustable belts helps secure the fit while still allowing the jacket to be comfortable to put on and take off.

It is constructed with Kwik-Dry NeoLite material, so active wearers stay comfortable no matter how much they are in and out of the water. The outer shell is made of a soft UV and stain-resistant 200-Denier Polyester printed in a contemporary and bright style that looks cool. 

The hot pink and zebra stripes are both stylish and also serve as a safety feature making the life jacket very visible in the water. The Airhead Wicked Kwik-Dry is a fun, safe, comfortable, and cool looking life vest that many teens would love.   

Pros
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Printed with a modern style
  • Drys quickly
Cons
  • Fits snug on some people

Comparing Standard vs. Inflatable PFDs

Standard PFD’s are what you probably think of when you think of a life jacket. They look like a vest and rely on some kind of flotation material such as foam to keep the wearer buoyant. These PFD’s are low maintenance, full of extra features, pretty versatile, and very durable. The downside is that they are bulky and can be very warm to wear.

An inflatable PFD, on the other hand, maintains a slim profile while you wear it and only inflates when submerged in water or when you pull a ripcord. This works by using a CO2 cartridge that is punctured when needed. These PFD's are much more comfortable and keep you cool. They do require maintenance, though, and aren't appropriate for all activities.  

Both types can work for the kayak angler; it just depends on personal preference. The inflatable PFD is great during hot summer months, while standard PFD's are better for high impact activities like white water rafting. The standard vests are also better if you prefer low maintenance equipment.      


PFD Sizing: How to Properly Wear Your Life Jacket

For adults, PFD size is based on the circumference of your chest at the widest point. For children, it is based on their overall weight. You use these numbers along with the sizing chart provided by a manufacturer to find the right vest for you. To fit the vest once you have it, you start by loosening all the straps and putting the vest on.

Close the front zipper on the vest first. Then start at the waist and tighten those straps and work up from there. If the vest has shoulder straps, you should tighten those last. Then have someone pull up on the shoulders of the vest. If it comes up past your head or nose, you need to tighten the straps more. If the vest still comes up after tightening, then it is too big for you, and you need a smaller size.


Life Jacket Care & Maintenance

Properly cleaning and maintaining a life jacket is a matter of life and death. The primary care of a life vest starts by keeping it clean. After use, you should thoroughly clean it with fresh water and soap if needed, then let it drip dry.

Next, check for any damage to the vest and make sure all the straps and hardware on the vest works as it should. After the jacket has thoroughly dried, make sure there is no water trapped inside or any odor of mildew. Mold, mildew, and water damage can destroy the effectiveness of a PFD. Finally, make sure to store the vest in a cool, dry, dark location.


People Also Ask (FAQs)

Are there universal size lifejackets?

Yes, there are universal size life jackets available from most manufacturers. These are often designed to fit most body types and are divided between adult jackets and child jackets. The universal fit systems often rely on several straps to tighten the jacket to the body of the wearer.

Do you have to wear a life vest in a kayak?

The exact laws about life vests for different vessels and situations vary from state to state. There are guides available that summarize the requirements for each state, but it is always best to check the local law yourself. In general, the law seems to require that there be a USCG approved life vest available for each adult on a kayak and that each child must be wearing one.  

How much weight will a life jacket hold up?

Life jackets will provide at least 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy, which is enough to hold most people up in the water. While someone might weigh 200 lbs on dry land when they are in the water, their relative weight changes. Once you subtract water weight and body fat that 200 lb person might only weigh about 10 lbs in the water. This means only a few pounds of buoyant force can hold them up.

Do non-swimmers need a special type of PFD?

Non-swimmers should use a type I or type II USCG approved standard flotation device. These are designed to keep someone’s head upright and out of the water, even if they are unconscious. For conscious non-swimmers, that support can be very helpful.

Can women wear men’s size life jackets?

Yes, women can wear men's sizes for life jackets and vice versa. It isn't always the best idea, though. PFD size is based on chest circumference, and women's vests have in-built cups for support and comfort. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference and comfort.

Do foam life jackets expire?

Foam life jackets do not expire, but they can be damaged over time, which reduces their effectiveness. If they are repeatedly stepped on or knelt on, that can crush the foam and ruin it. Also, tears or rips in the lifevest can lead to mold and mildew developing on the foam. The abuse of time and poor maintenance might weaken the foam, but the foam won't expire on its own.   

Where is the best place to buy these life jackets?

The best place to buy life jackets is through Amazon. That is where you will find the best prices and the best selection. There are hundreds of reviews to read, so it is especially easy to comparison shop.


Conclusion

There are many great personal flotation devices for kayak anglers available on the market today, so we found the best ones and compiled them for you here. The NRS Chinook rose to the top as the best of them all. It balances safety, functionality, comfort, and style so well it stands apart from the rest. If you need a PFD so you can safely get back out on the water, we're sure you'll find the one you need here.