What is a PFD? PFD stands for Personal Flotation Device. They’re sometimes referred to as life jackets or buoyancy aids, and they prevent the wearer from sinking in water.
PFDs are commonly used on boats or to assist less confident swimmers. Kayaking PFDs are extremely important: in 84% of fatal drowning cases (USCG, 2014) the victim was not wearing a PFD.
We’re here to help, and we’ll be looking at the best PFD for kayaking to help you find the perfect one for your next paddle!
Best PFD For Kayaking: Top 7 Picks
Next, we have the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest. This is another standard PFD with panels on the back and front and openings at the sides to keep you cool. There’s a useful pocket at the front that’s designed to drain easily, and a whistle to attract attention if you need assistance.
Next, we have the Stohlquist Edge Personal Flotation Device. This PFD is fairly physically small, but this means that it’s less likely to interfere with your seat and splash deck. This is another standard PFD, so you won’t need to inflate it or worry about replacing the CO2 cartridge. It’s designed to be versatile so whilst you can use it for kayaking it’ll also be suitable for sailing and SUP.
Next, we have a PFD specifically designed for women, called the O'Brien Women's Impulse Neo Life Vest. This is designed to be more of a vest than some of our other options and covers the wearer’s body more completely. This means the foam is evenly distributed rather than piled in one area, causing strange lumps.
Next, we have the Stohlquist Fisherman Fishing Kayak Life Jacket. This is a more expensive model, specifically designed for people who like to fish in their kayaks. It’s got lots of pockets for different fishing equipment, and straps so it can be tailored very closely to your body.
Next, we have the Astral Ronny Life Jacket PFD for Recreation, Fishing, and Touring Kayaking. This design is light, suitable for multiple sports and different designs of kayaks: the back panel is short, so you can wear it in a kayak with a high seat and they won’t clash. There is also a female version which will fit better to women’s physiques.
Finally, we have the Stohlquist Women's Flo Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device. This PFD is different from the O’Brien in that it just has a few areas of dense foam, instead of all over coverage. This means that it won’t be as bulky under the arms, but there may be issues elsewhere.
This PFD is designed to be extremely versatile. It’s appropriate for adults and children, with a weight range from 80-220lbs (5.7-15.7 stone) and an adjustable waist so you can fit it exactly to your body. This is an inflatable PFD, so please see the buyer's guide below for what that means.
How to choose the best PFD for kayaking
Firstly, you’ll need to think about yourself and the type of kayaking you like to do. Would you consider yourself a confident swimmer? Are you likely to paddle in the sea, or in large lakes? Would you prefer white water, with the understanding that there’s more likely to be rocks? Let’s start by breaking down the three main types of PDF:
Standard PDFs are the most commonly used. If you don’t own a kayak and regularly rent one from a nearby watersports centre, this is what they’re likely to have. They tend to fit like a waistcoat or vest with a zip down the middle, and they’re usually made of foam. Standard PDFs should also have straps so you can adjust them to fit comfortably- more on that later!
Standard PDFs are pretty low maintenance. Dry them off when you’re not wearing them in an airing cupboard or on a washing line and they should last a reasonable amount of time- you should check the life expectancy as it will vary from model to model.
They’re also easy to use, because once they’re on they don’t need to be activated in any way. As soon as they’re in the water you’ll be buoyant. You can use them for any kind of paddle sport, including kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding/SUP’ing and even water-skiing! If you like to do lots of different water sports, a PFD will be perfect for you. Finally, some have waterproof pockets so you can easily bring small drinks or snacks, sun cream or your GoPro!
However, some people are less fond of standard PFDs because they’re always bulky. So much of kayaking depends on your maneuverability and balance and standard PFDs can get in the way of this. They’re also restrictive, which can be a little annoying.
Finally, standard PDFs can get warm, particularly if you’re paddling hard on a summer’s day. This is easy to solve, though: get in the water to cool down! You’ll float nicely thanks to your standard PFD.
However, some people are less fond of standard PFDs because they’re always bulky. So much of kayaking depends on your maneuverability and balance and standard PFDs can get in the way of this. They’re also restrictive, which can be a little annoying. Finally, standard PDFs can get warm, particularly if you’re paddling hard on a summer’s day. This is easy to solve, though: get in the water to cool down! You’ll float nicely thanks to your standard PFD.
Inflatable PDFs are new and less well known. Basically, they go over your clothes/bathing suit/skin and are relatively thin, like a regular T-shirt. There are two types of inflatable PFDs: manual or automatic. A manual PFD will have a cord which you pull. This activates a CO2 cartridge and inflates the PFD. The automatic PFD does the same thing but you don’t have to pull the cord, as it will happen when you are in the water. For this reason some paddlers prefer manual inflatable PFDs, because they may be activated by splashing. Inflatable PFDs are also called Type III or Type V USCG-approved PFDs, depending on the design.
Inflatable PFDs are lightweight and comfortable. You won’t have any limits to your movement like you would with a standard PFD, so inflatable PFDs are often favoured by paddlers on SUPs. You’ll also stay cooler without having to get into the water.
However, there are some downsides to inflatable PFDs. You can’t wear one if you’re likely to be knocked unconscious as you won’t be able to inflate it if it’s a manual inflatable PFD. You can use them for kayaking, but not whitewater kayaking. If you do other watersports activities you can’t use an inflatable PFD for whitewater canoeing, water skiing or river rafting. They’re also not suitable for children or anyone who can’t swim, although it’s good to be able to swim before you start any kind of watersports. Inflatable PFDs will also require some maintenance, because you’ll need to replace the CO2 cartridge every time it inflates.
Hybrid PFDs are, as the name suggests, a combination of both inflatable and manual PFDs. They’re unusual and expensive, but they’re also buoyant and comfortable. The specifics of each design will vary with the make, so you should check carefully how much upkeep it will require and which activities you can do with it.
Best PFD for kayak - FAQs
What are the advantages of using PFDs?
The most obvious answer is that you’re more likely to survive an otherwise fatal accident. Safety gear is usually the least fun part of any kind of outdoor activity, but it’s extremely important. Even kayakers who are confident, good swimmers and know the areas they’re paddling in will sometimes get into trouble, and making sure that you’re always prepared keeps you safe.
They’re also easier. If your boat does capsize and you’re not wearing a spray deck, wearing a PFD will mean that you can swim easily out, get your paddle, right your kayak and pull everything to the edge of the water with much less effort than if you’re trying to swim unaccompanied.
What are the disadvantages of using PFDs?
They’re bulky. Some of them. In a way that you probably won’t notice after a few minutes. That’s it really.
Occasionally people (especially children) won’t want to wear PFDs. If you’re about to kayak with someone who would rather not wear a PFD, explain to them that they’ll be much safer and that it’s not fair on the rest of the group to try and rescue them if something does go wrong, especially as it might put someone else in danger.
If a child is fussing, either tell them that they won’t be allowed to go or help them find a PFD which is appealing to them- they come in a variety of shapes and colours, so if they’re uncomfortable then adjust.
One final thing to consider...
If you like to kayak with a splash deck, please take some time to work out how the two will fit together. If you’re wearing a PFD that comes down low, be aware that they may get in each other’s way and prevent either from working effectively.
Conclusion - Best PFD For Kayaking
Finding the right PFD for you is a difficult task, but it’s absolutely essential that you do it right. Where possible, buy from a watersports store so you can try them on easily: failing that, find something with a decent returns policy so you make try them on and give them back if they’re not right.
Also, try them in ‘safe’ water first- possibly a swimming pool or a lake without any currents and within your depth. Make sure you keep an eye on the warranty and remember to replace or carefully repair any damage before using your PFD again.
Final Recommendations for the best PFD for kayaking:
For women- the O’Brien is the best. It doesn't look as bulky as the other option, which can be really annoying. It’s also more obviously adjustable, which means it’ll be good for women with unusual figures and won’t slip off too easily.
For men- the Onyx Move Vent is the best. It’s extremely durable, which will be ideal for frequent paddlers. It also has some very useful pockets, for any additional gear you want to take out on the water.