|Best for Fishing||Kokatat Leviathan||SEE IT||
Made for paddlers with padded straps and breathable mesh.
|Best For Women||NRS Chinook||SEE IT||
Designed specifically for women, the NRS vest will fit many body shapes and has plenty of pockets for gear and equipment.
|Best Budget||Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest||SEE IT||
Half the price while still remaining safe with a foam back and neoprene shoulder pads.
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It’s official; kayak life vests are cool. After years when kayakers avoided life vests, the culture has shifted to accept an essential key to water safety. The change in attitude is due to a new generation of life vests that are more comfortable, have better features, and keep anglers and other kayakers safer. To find the best kayak life vest, we looked for a personal floatation device (PFD) that is comfortable to wear, an asset when fishing, and smartly designed.
- Best for Fishing: Kokatat Leviathan
- Best Lightweight: Mustang M.I.T. 100
- Best for Women: NRS Chinook
- Best for Kids: Astral Otter 2.0
- Best Budget: Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest
How We Picked The Best Kayak Life Vests
The best kayak life vests are ones that work. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are necessary for water safety and should always be worn while kayaking. The best kayak life vests not only function as a flotation device but should also fit well, be durable, and, ideally, have some external storage for activities like fishing.
We took many of the things within the “buying considerations” section at the bottom of this roundup into consideration. On top of that, we evaluated choices based on personal experience with the products, verified customer testimonials, company-specific research, and industry knowledge. Our top picks for the best kayak life vests are updated periodically to reflect new product testing and updates on how each product performs with more use.
The Best Kayak Life Vests: Reviews and Recommendations
Best for Fishing: Kokatat Leviathan
Why It Made The Cut: The Kokatat Leviathan life vest is not only the best for fishing, but it is our top pick overall for the best life vest for kayaking. It not only has excellent storage for all your fishing ventures, but it fits well, is comfortable, and will enhance your safety on the water.
- Buoyancy: 16 lbs
- Closure: zipper
- Weight: 2 lbs 1 oz
- Extensive storage
- Durable materials
- Unique features
- Somewhat expensive
If we measure the best kayak life vest for fishing on safety, comfort, and function, then the winner is Kokatat’s Leviathan. For decades, Kokatat has been making gear for serious paddlers, and they poured all their experience into the Leviathan.
The Leviathan’s shoulder and torso straps are padded with breathable mesh. To accommodate the high seat back in a fishing kayak, the Leviathan has floatation high on the back panel. The inside of the vest is soft material that feels like a cotton T-shirt against the skin. The Gaia flotation foam molds to the paddler’s body.
With 14 pockets carefully placed and stacked on the front panels, there is a place for everything. The plethora of pockets does make the Leviathan a little bulky, but with a perfect place to put safety and fishing gear, the extra space is worth it. In addition to pockets, the life vest features D-rings, tabs and attachment points to hold a safety knife and gear tether. It even has fleece-lined handwarmer pockets for those chilly days on the water.
The Leviathan is approved by both the American Coast Guard and Transport Canada to be recognized on both sides of the border. It provides 16 pounds of buoyancy across all sizes for guaranteed floatation.
Best Lightweight: Mustang M.I.T. 100
Why It Made The Cut: The Mustang M.I.T. 100 is a portable and lightweight option that any kayaker can feel safe carrying in case of an emergency.
- Buoyancy: 25.1 lbs
- Closure: buckle
- Weight: 1.75 lbs
- Easy to store
- Higher buoyancy than foam vests
- No storage
- Manual inflation cord
Mustang Survival makes safety equipment for rescue workers and the military and their innovations carry over to their consumer products. The M.I.T. 100 Automatic is Mustang’s most accessible inflatable PFD. M.I.T. stands for Membrane Inflatable Technology, referring to the soft, pliable bladder that fills with air. The panels have a low profile when not inflated. In an emergency, the bladders blow up to 22 pounds of buoyancy, which is more floatation than most foam PFDs and enough to qualify as a recreational Type III life vest.
Deflated, the M.I.T. 100 sits flat against the wearer’s chest. When the bladders are inflated, the wearer will float face up. Two bright yellow strips make it easier to see the inflatable life jacket in the water.
The M.I.T. 100 Automatic fills with air in seconds via a sensor that activates the CO2 cartridge when it detects water. It also can be inflated manually by pulling a cord. When the CO2 cartridge is spent, it’s easy to deflate and repack the bladders and replace the cartridge. Checking the activation is simple with a clear plastic window to show the indicator.
Mustang’s M.I.T. Automatic features 3D construction to hug the body with wide adjustable straps to keep the PFD in place. Soft, padded fabric at the neck prevents it from chaffing the skin.
Best for Women: NRS Chinook
Why It Made The Cut: The NRS Chinook is a life vest built for women featuring a comfortable design with plenty of storage for functional fishing.
- Buoyancy: 16 lbs
- Closure: zipper
- Weight: 2 lbs
- Comfortable high back design
- Excellent ventilation
- Quality safety features
- Not the most durable
- Velcro isn’t super secure in pockets
Specially designed to be the best women’s life vest, the NRS Chinook has molded Plushfit foam panels that are articulated to fit a variety of female body shapes. Pockets, lash tabs and sturdy construction make the NRS Shenook a great fishing life vest. Two large pockets and two smaller gear pockets on the front provide just enough space for fishing and safety gear without creating excess bulk that could interfere with paddling.
The mesh back with high floatation keeps the life vest cool, and won’t interfere with a high sit-on-top kayak seat. A rod holder, knife lash tab and strobe attachment round out the minimal, but smart, fishing features that make the Shenook an ideal kayak life vest for women.
Best for Kids: Astral Otter 2.0
Why It Made The Cut: The Astral Otter 2.0 is a versatile and kid-specific PDF that fits a range of sizes and body types. The adjustability is great so it can work for several years as your child grows.
- Buoyancy: 11.5 lbs
- Closure: buckles
- Weight: 1 lb 5 oz
- USCG Type III
- Detachable leg loops
The Astral Otter 2.0 looks, fits, and performs like a pro-level whitewater PFD. Form-fit and low profile, the Otter 2.0 provides 11.5 pounds of buoyancy in a small package that isn’t overly bulky. The arm holes are generous to prevent rubbing the skin or binding up clothes. Padded shoulder and torso straps keep the PFD in place without squeezing the kid. Waist, belly, and chest clips offer redundant closures for a reliable fit.
Bright colors appeal to the youngsters and make the PFD easy to spot on the river. A large grab handle on the back makes rescue easy. Our favorite feature is the Kapok foam, made out of organic, sustainable plant fibers, that is soft and moldable for a comfortable, environmentally-conscious fit. Little ones love to explore, and Astral gave the Otter 2.0 two small zippered pockets to hold their discoveries. The grown-up features on the little Otter 2.0 make it the best kayak life vest for kids weighing 50 to 90 pounds.
Best Budget: Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest
Why It Made The Cut: The Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest is a universal and functional budget option that still ensures safety on the water.
- Buoyancy: N/A
- Closure: zipper
- Weight: 1.4 lbs
- Fits adults 90+ lbs
- Oversize option available
- Excellent storage
- Not as durable
The Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest costs half the price of high-end life jackets with many of the same features and the highest safety standard. It has a high foam back, a comfortable neoprene shoulder pad, and various pockets and tabs for kayak fishing accessories and safety gear. A breathable mesh back stays cool and comfortable while six adjustment points and universal sizing work to keep the wearer afloat. The vest offers abundant floatation to give the vest plenty of buoyancy.
Things to Consider Before Buying the Best Kayak Life Vests
Kayak life vests, like a lot of kayak gear, have come a long way in the last decade. Those old orange life preservers were heavy, bulky, hot, and sticky, and many people would take them off after a while. The best kayak life vests are now more comfortable, functional, and safe.
Of course, the most important aspect of the best kayak life vest is safety. Today’s PFDs are safer than traditional life vests. Adjustable straps on the shoulder and torso dial in the fit so the life vest works properly. Reflective accents make the angler visible at night.
To encourage water safety, Coast Guard regulations say a paddler must have a Type III life vest on board (though we urge kayak anglers to wear their life vest). It’s no question that a PDF is one of the best kayaking accessories.
Comfort a crucial factor for a life vest. A heavy, bulky, clammy and hot PFD is a PFD that many people won’t wear. The best kayak life vest shapes the foam for a better fit and to reduce size and weight. Padded straps, 3D construction and softer fabric are more comfortable against the skin. Mesh panels, vents and dimpled foam keep air flowing through the vest. If you don’t like a foam vest, then the latest inflatable life vests are a great choice for a lightweight, low profile way to stay safe.
One important distinction between standard PFDs and kayak life vests: a kayak PFD has the rear floatation section positioned high on the back so it won’t interfere with the seat back.
In addition to comfort and safety, many anglers want a fishing PFD—a life vest with storage for tackle, safety gear and tools. That means pockets, D-rings, tabs to hold pliers, cutters, gear, and small tackle boxes. Other kayakers want a personal flotation device free of all but essential kayak fishing accessories.
Some anglers like to carry essential safety equipment in case they are separated from the kayak. These anglers look for a place to stuff a personal locator beacon, safety whistle, signal light, paddling knife, and smartphone.
Get the most out of your kayaking experience with the best kayak paddles.
If a foam life vest is too hot and bulky for your style, then an inflatable vest is the next best thing. These kayak life vests feature a rubber bladder that uses a CO2 cartridge to inflate in seconds. A manual inflatable vest inflates when the user pulls a cord. An automatic model activates when the vest hits the water.
Inflatable life vests use a CO2 cartridge to blow up rubber bladders inside the vest. A manual vest is inflated when the user pulls a cord. Automatic inflatables have a sensor that causes the vest to inflate when it hits water. Neither type of inflatable is as safe as a foam vest, because it requires an action to become a PFD. That’s why inflatable life jackets shouldn’t be relied on in river rapids or heavy surf crossings, but for near-shore trips in sheltered waters, an inflatable PFD is a good option because it’s lighter, cooler and more comfortable than foam.
Q: What feature should I look for in a kayak life vest?
The best kayak life vest for fishing has specific design elements. Look for pockets and tabs to hold fishing and safety gear. At minimum, the vest should hold a safety whistle and signal strobe along with a place to keep a paddling knife in reach. A life vest for kayak fishing should have foam high on the back so it won’t interfere with a kayak seat. Large arm holes and multiple adjustment points make the PFD snug while keeping the arms free for fishing and paddling.
Q: How should a life vest fit?
First match the life jacket size to the paddler’s weight. Once you have the right size, put on the life vest and shore up the shoulder straps until the arm holes are just large enough to allow freedom of movement. Then, inhale deeply and pump up your chest. Tighten the torso straps until the PFD becomes snug. Then exhale and make minor adjustments on the shoulder and torso straps until the life vest fits just right.
Q: What is the best life jacket for kayaking?
The best life jacket for kayaking is any USCG Type III that fits properly. If the life vest is comfortable and has functional storage for the intended activity, that is a plus, but the priority should always be safety.
Q: Do you need a speciallife vest for kayaking?
No, you don’t need a special life vest for kayaking. It is essential to wear a life vest while kayaking, and we recommend a USCG Type III for safety reasons.
Q: Are neoprene life jackets good for kayaking?
Yes, neoprene life jackets are good for kayaking. They can help keep you cooler in warm weather and tend to be a comfortable alternative to traditional foam PFDs.
Final Thoughts on the Best Kayak Life Vests
The best kayak life vests offer comfort and features to keep the paddler safe, plus pockets and tabs for tackle and essential safety gear, such as a whistle and signal strobe. When it comes to safety, money should never be an issue, so buy the best kayak fishing PFD you can afford.