The Best Kayak Life Vests in 2021

Summer seems to be rolling around just as the COVID-19 vaccines are coming, and I know that a lot of our readers will want to get out there and engage in some anti-social distancing. If you’re already planning your big post-COVID summer vacation, you can’t go wrong with a kayaking trip. There’s nothing quite as refreshing as being out on the cold water during a hot day.

Of course, as they say, “Safety first.” To go with your high-quality kayak, you’ll need a high-quality kayak life vest to keep you safe and secure. We’re going to make sure you find the perfect life jacket to be your companion while you set out on the water and enjoy some fresh air, and that’s why we’ve made this list of the best kayak jackets available today.

Carry on reading to see our full list of the best life jackets for your kayak followed by a recap breaking down what makes each product on our list stand out. Or jump straight to our number #1 pick here.

What Should I Look For When Buying a Kayak Life Vest?

I don’t know about you, but life vests aren’t exactly something that’s on my weekly grocery list. Most of our readers have probably never done more than rent a jacket at a private kayaking or rafting resort. So if you’re buying your own for the first time, you might want to have your facts in order. Even if you’ve bought a kayak life vest before, it can never hurt to have a quick review. We’ve attached a simple and easy-to-understand rubric that explains the criteria we used to evaluate the best life vests out there. You’ll feel like an expert in no time, and you’ll be able to easily follow along with our list and give your own input and judgment.

Criteria #1: Buoyancy – Buoyancy is literally the entire point of any life jacket, so I don’t think I need to explain why this is our first criterion. Of course, you might not know how to actually look for buoyancy, and we will explain that. Buoyancy is what helps you afloat if you fall into the water, and it will usually be measured in pounds. The more buoyancy the better, plain and simple. We want to make sure you don’t get stuck with a defunct life vest that ends up making you sink like a rock the second you tip overboard.

Criteria #2: Design – Our second criterion is a bit of a big tent, as it includes several smaller details, the most noteworthy of which are mobility and breathability. There are some water activities that don’t involve a lot of movement. Kayaking is not one of them. That means that you want to make sure your kayak life vest lets you move freely, particularly your shoulders. Plus, kayaking is a solid workout, and since it’s typically a summer sport, you can be sure that you’ll work up a sweat. You’ll want a breathable life vest that will make sure you don’t overheat too much. On top of that, we’ll make sure to make note of any other excellent design feature that we think deserves some extra points.

Criteria #3: Size – Obviously, everybody is a different size, and your life vest needs to match your body, not somebody else’s. No size is better or worse than another size, but we will make sure to mention the measurements of every life jacket on our list so that you can be sure you’re getting a vest that’s a good fit. Plus, some life vests will be adjustable or come in multiple sizes, and we’ll definitely reward that sort of accessibility.

Criteria #4: Price – We’re not here to make you spend a ton of money for no reason. Meeting this criterion is less about being cheap and more about justifying your price. We’d rather buy an expensive product that’s cheaper than it should be than waste money on a cheaper product that isn’t worth the money and that will just break on you or not perform well.

Here’s How We’ve Determined the Best Kayak Life Vests

We measured the specs of the top products on the market against our listed criteria to see how they held up and if they’re worth buying. We then checked customer reviews, blog posts, and articles of the best life vests to see if the products on our list performed as advertised. We’ll also make sure to include a wide variety of products that covers different niches and price points. This way, everyone can find the perfect product that will satisfy their needs and their budget.

And without further ado, here is our list – tailored to your specific needs – of the best life vests for any kayaking enthusiast.

#1: Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest (Best Value – All-Purpose)

No matter what you’re trying to buy, it’s pretty rare that there’s a unanimous consensus about the number one products on the market. I guess that means we’ll have to chalk up the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest as one of the exceptions to the rule. I’d love to take credit and pretend I’m blowing the lid on some hidden gem, but pretty much everyone agrees that the Onyx MoveVent Life Vest is the best kayak life vest out there.

When it comes to design, our number-one kayak life vest really has it all. This Onyx life jacket boasts a mesh lower back that makes it compatible with high-back kayaks, and it features mesh-draining, expandable pockets so you can bring some possessions along with you, and they won’t get too soaked. Next, the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest offers adjustable shoulder straps with neoprene comfort pads and SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility. Keeping up with the theme of safety, our best kayak life vest comes with an attached whistle in case of SOS emergencies and a coast-guard approved zip-assist loop at the zipper base.

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest has a buoyancy of 15.5 pounds, which is about enough buoyancy to keep a 250-pound adult afloat. That may sound a bit confusing, but we’ll explain the math a little later. Our top-ranked kayak life vest comes in three different sizes and 4 different color designs, so no matter your size or your taste, you should be able to find something for yourself.

It does run a little small, so bigger folks will want to make sure it will fit. Other than that, the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest is the most accessible and convenient life jacket out there, it allows the mobility necessary for good kayaking, and it’s competitively priced to boot. This ratio of performance to price makes the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest the best value on the market today, and that’s why it was an easy choice to be our best kayak life vest.


#2: NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD (Best Pro-Grade Vest)

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest earned a lot of its clout by being so affordable. Of course, if you’re a real kayaking enthusiast and know you’re going to get a lot of mileage from your life jacket, you might not be as concerned with saving compared to quality. If you just prefer to splurge and treat yourself, that’s fine too. For anyone looking for nothing but the best, the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD is calling your name. It’s a bit more expensive than our top pick in the Onyx life jacket, but there’s good reason for that. Here are the big selling points that just might convince you to pass up on the popular Onyx life jacket and buy the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD for your kayaking adventures.

Reason #1 to Choose This Product: Extra Pockets

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest may have a few pockets of its own, but it’s pretty hard to compete with the 4 large pockets of the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD. This life jacket has more pocket space than some actual jackets, and you won’t be scrambling to find a place or rent a locker to leave your precious belongings. Plus, a waterproof camera or smartphone will really bring your kayaking trip to the next level, so you’ll be really grateful for these pockets if you decide to bring along some way to take pictures. These pockets are prominent and easy to access, and they feature sturdy zippers that will make sure none of your possessions go off for a swim without you. If you want to stay prepared and keep everything on hand, there’s no better choice than the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD.

Reason #2 to Choose This Product: Better for Larger Folks

One of the only real flaws in the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest was that it’s not really a good fit for larger kayakers. The NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD, on the other hand, goes all the way up to XXL, so everyone will be able to find a size that fits them. This premium-grade life jacket also features 6 adjustment points for a completely customizable fit. Never deal with that one awkward pinch on your side again. This life jacket is tailored to your body and your body only. Of course, this vest also comes in an XS size, so it’s not like the skinny and short folks are left out of the loop. If you’re worried about finding a good fit, check out the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD.

In addition to its excellent fit and great pockets, the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD features a lot of the same features as our number one life jacket. It has a mesh back that gives you some breathability and helps with high-backed kayaks, and it has perfectly designed shoulders to offer you some much-needed mobility. It also features a front-entry zipper that makes the vest easy to take on and off, and it comes with four D-rings to attach some objects you’ll want quick access to.

There’s really nothing to complain about in terms of the design of the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD, and with a buoyancy of 16 pounds, it even has slightly more buoyancy than the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest. It’s expensive, but one look at the specs and the reviews of the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD will prove that it’s more than worth the price. If you want to buy a professional-grade kayaking life jacket, look no further than the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD.


#3: O’Brien Traditional Life Vest (Best Eco-Friendly Option)

It’s become pretty common knowledge that plastic isn’t exactly a friend of the environment. Unfortunately, a lot of life vests use plastic, which is not ideal if you want to reduce your carbon footprint. But it just so happens that the same kind of person who loves spending time out kayaking on the water probably wants to treat Mother Nature with the respect she deserves. As a tree hugger myself, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t provide at least one eco-friendly life jacket. And for that reason, I introduce you to the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest.

The USCG-approved O’Brien Traditional Life Vest is made from an eco-friendly material known as BioLite, so you can enjoy the water with a clean conscience. On top of that, this green-friendly life jacket features a breathable and quick-drying design so you can stay cool without worrying about dripping water all over your car.

The O’Brien Traditional Life Vest comes with a PWC lanyard attachment ring and features a zipper reinforced by buckles for extra security. It also has the perfect slim shoulders that we need so we can stay mobile while kayaking. Plus, at just 1.7 pounds, it’s pretty light, and it comes in three different color schemes to keep everyone happy.

The O’Brien Traditional Life Vest ranges from XS all the way up to XXL, but customers and reviewers alike have noted that this life jacket runs on the small side. That isn’t too much of an issue, it just means you want to buy one size larger than what you’re used to. With over 700 reviews on Amazon, the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest is one of the more popular options out there, and you know it’s been tested in the field.

It’s reasonably priced and, of course, you can’t put a price tag on a better planet. If you want to know that you’re giving back to Mother Nature while you enjoy her amazing waters, then the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest is the only life jacket for you.


#4: O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest (Best Low Cost)

We’ve managed to keep things pretty cheap so far, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that a life jacket really isn’t something you need to factor into your monthly budget. You probably have the pocket change lying around. That being said, nobody likes spending money if they don’t have to. And besides, not everyone has the same budget. What’s pocket change for some people might be a big expense for others. But we want to make sure everyone feels included and finds the perfect life jacket to match their bank account, and that’s why we’re including the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest on our list.

This affordable, USCG-approved, type-III nylon life jacket features 4 buckles on the front. This may feel a bit annoying at some points, but it also means you’ll have almost complete customization of every inch of the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest. It also has a lanyard ring that will help you hold onto your keys or whistle. Plus, it comes in more color schemes than I can list, and it goes all the way up to 3XL. And of course, it’s just about the cheapest life jacket on the market, so if you feel that you’ve already spent enough money getting ready for your big kayak trip, this is the choice for you.

With over 5,000 Amazon reviews, it’s very clear that almost everyone appreciates the price and performance of the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest. This affordable life jacket was praised for being breathable and comfortable, so if you don’t want to sweat too much, then look no further. On top of all that, it dries quickly. Do your wallet a favor and buy the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest.


#5: Stearns Youth Boating Vest (Best for Young Children)

Unless you have a very large child, you’ll need a specially-sized life jacket to bring the apple of your eye along on your big kayak trip. It’s never too early to get your child active or involved in your hobbies, and that’s why the Stearns Youth Boating Vest exists.

This child-sized life jacket is aimed at children weighing from 50 to 90 pounds, so all of your pre-teen rugrats can use it. This US Coast Guard-approved life jacket features a durable nylon construction on top of PE flotation foam, so your children will stay afloat, and you’ll finally have something they can’t manage to damage too much.

The open-sided design is great for your more sensitive children, and the three buckles should keep your kid safe and secure without giving them too much trouble. Finally, the Stearns Youth Boating Vest weighs only 0.86 pounds, so your child won’t feel too weighed down. As a nice side benefit of its small size, the Stearns Youth Boating Vest is cheaper than a trip to the grocery store. It’s nice that won’t cost too much to get your children involved. Show your little one how amazing the water can be with the Stearns Youth Boating Vest.


Frequently Asked Questions

There’s a lot to get to when discussing life jackets, and we know that we might have missed one or two of your pressing concerns. We wouldn’t be able to say we did our job if we didn’t at least try to answer all of your questions, and that’s why we’ve added this FAQ section to our article. We can’t pretend that we’ll be able to answer everything, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Do I Really Have to Wear a Life Vest When Kayaking?

Quite simply, yes. Besides the fact that, as we know, it’s better to be safe than sorry, it’s actually also a matter of legality. Most states require you to have one life jacket per person on board with the exception of small children. Plus, while deaths from motorboat-related injuries are falling, overall water deaths are actually increasing. No matter how good of a swimmer you think you are, you always want to be ready for unforeseen circumstances. Don’t be a statistic. Wear a life jacket.

What Types of Life Vests Are Typically Used for Kayaking?

The most popular type of life jacket for kayaking is the type III life jacket, which is also referred to as a level 70 performance life jacket. The main reason for this is that they’re breathable and comfortable, and they’re coast-guard approved, so you don’t run the risk of facing a fat fine because you weren’t on the up and up.
Type II life vests are also coast-guard approved, but because they’re rather bulky, they’re probably not what you want when you’re out kayaking and really using your shoulders. Of course, they’re designed to make sure an unconscious user floats face-up in the water, which could be the difference between life and death in the case of an accident.
That being said, unless you’re a pro who knows what they want and is willing to go against the crowd, it’s probably best to stick with a type III life vest for now.

How Does Buoyancy Work?

If you’re not a mathematician (guilty as charged) then I apologize in advance, but we’re about to throw some numbers at you. As we mentioned earlier, a life jacket with a buoyancy of, for example, 15 pounds, can support someone who weighs much more than that. This is a little confusing at first, but the reason is fairly simple.
Your body is mostly water. This means that most of your body already floats, so your life jacket doesn’t have to support all of your weight. On top of that, about 10%-15% of your body is fat, which actually floats in water.
So, let’s say someone weighs 200 pounds. Once you subtract 80% percent of that (160 pounds) as water weight, you’re left with 40 pounds. Next, you have body fat, which will probably be somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds. This means a 200-pound adult needs only at most 20 pounds of buoyance to support them – and possibly less. Turns out we’re pretty water-friendly creatures.

Verdict: Your Best Kayak Life Jackets 

We’re reaching the end of our list, and you’re hopefully starting to get a good idea of which of our products is best for you. But if you haven’t made up your mind yet, not to worry. We don’t want to rush, and we know how important it is to make sure you’re getting the kayak life jacket that’s perfect for you. That’s why we’re going to recap all of our life vests and focus on their standout features. This way, you’ll be able to see the highlights and really know what each product has to offer for you.

If you want the best value for your money, pick the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest.

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest is the best life jacket on the market. That’s not just my opinion; that’s basically a fact at this point. Almost everyone agrees, so you probably don’t want to reinvent the wheel and get creative with your choice of a life jacket. The reason this product dominates the market is that it offers multiple sizes, features pockets, a built-in whistle, and is made from SOLAS-grade reflective material.

On top of the utility and safety, it features a mesh lower-back for improved comfort, and it has the mobility you’d expect from any top-tier type III life jacket. And to top everything off, this Onyx life jacket is one of the more affordable options out there. It’s pretty tough to beat a competitive price and all of the features you can ask for. And why would you want to? The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest is the best value on the market, and it should be the first life jacket any customer looks at.

If you need an environmentally friendly life jacket, pick the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest.

It just doesn’t feel quite right to enjoy the amazing water and then not treat Mother Nature right. That’s why the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest is so great. This BioLite life jacket is ideal for anyone who understands the impact they have on the planet. But it’s not just a green gimmick. This eco-friendly life jacket boasts a secure locking mechanism of a zipper reinforced by buckles, and it has a lanyard ring to help you keep some important items on hand. On top of that, it’s comfortable, breathable, quick-drying, and comes in a whole slew of sizes that will leave everyone satisfied. Save the earth and do your part with the O’Brien Traditional Life Vest.

If you want to keep the spending cheap, pick the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest.

You deserve a break from the big spending. Lord knows your kayak and everything else you’ll need for your trip cost more than enough. That’s why you should buy the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest. This super-cheap life jacket features 4 buckles to make it the most secure and adjustable vest on the market, and it has every size you can think of, so everyone will find the perfect fit. Plus, with all of its different color schemes, it’s just about the most stylish option out there, and the reviews speak for themselves. There might not be anything fancy about this life jacket, but it gets the job done and will save you a few bucks. Plus, it’s comfortable and airy. Sounds like a pretty good deal if you ask me. Add some flexibility to your budget by saving with the O’Neill Superlite USCG Life Vest.

That brings our list to an end. We’ve shown you five of the best life jackets out there, why they’re important, and what you should look for. If you still haven’t made your decision and the highlighted vests above weren’t what you’re looking for, you might be more interested in the strong and convenient NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD or the kid-friendly Stearns Youth Boating Vest.

All of our products have a feature that separates them from the crowd, so this is the best place to start your evaluation if you’re still struggling. Of course, you can also divide what feature is most important to you and work backwards from there.

That’s all for now. We hope this list has helped, and we hope you enjoy an amazing water-filled vacation!

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