Published Mar. 31, 2021

By; Field & Stream Commerce Team

It’s official. Life vests are cool. After years when kayakers avoided life vests, the culture has shifted to accept the most important 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.

Features Shared by 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.

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).

Do you want the best overall kayak fishing life vest?

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.

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.

Best Kayak Fishing Life Vest: Kokatat Leviathan


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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.

Do you want a kayak life vest that is inflatable?

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.

Best Inflatable Life Vest For Kayak Fishing: Mustang M.I.T. 100

Mustang Survival

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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.

Do you want a kayak life vest designed for women?

Women and men are shaped differently (duh!) so a woman will not be as safe wearing a man’s life vest. The best kayak life vest for women has a female-form-fitting design with all the expected features for serious fishing.

Best Kayak Life Vest For Women: NRS Shenook

Specially designed to be the best women’s life vest, the NRS Shenook 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.

Do you need a kayak life jacket for kids?

To share the fun and excitement of kayak fishing with young anglers, the first step is to find the best kayak life vest for a kid. Life jackets for little ones that are ill fitting, hot, and itchy will detract from the experience, so buying the best kayak life vest for kids is an investment for future fun.

Best Kayak Life Vest For Kids: Astral Otter 2.0


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The 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.

What is the best kayak life vest for the money?

If you’re looking for a bargain kayak PFD, keep three things in mind: safety, comfort—including a high back—and fishing features, such as pockets and attachment points. It may not feature form-fitting foam, but you won’t be spending as much money on it.

Best Cheap Kayak Life Vest: Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Vest

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, 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.


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.

A Final Word on Shopping for the Best Kayak Fishing PFD

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.