The earliest example of a PFD being used can be found on a marble carving at the British Museum in London. It depicts a group of Assyrian soldiers swimming while holding onto inflated animal skins.
PFDs began to be commercialized in the UK in the early 19th century and Brands such as Mallison’s Seaman’s Friend or Bather’s Companion made their appearance. These early jackets were basically sheets of cork held together by a series of straps, one of which went through the legs. About mid-way through the same century, wooden ships were starting to be replaced by iron vessels.
If an iron boat sank, there was much less floating debris. Wooden boats, on the other hand, offered the sailors some chance of survival by hanging onto the planks, masts and spars.
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So, the need for a commercially viable product was created. After the Titanic sank in 1912, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention began to regulate PFDs and established a set of guidelines in 1914. This convention paved the way for the creation of the International Marine Organization (IMO) in 1948. The organization has 172 member states and is responsible, among other things, for international maritime safety.
These days, PFDs can be, on the one hand, life jackets that are designed to keep you afloat, even when unconscious. This is generally achieved with the aid of a foam collar. On the other hand, flotation devices can also be what is known as a buoyancy aid.
This is designed to help you to stay afloat and swim. The latter is more commonly used when kayaking as it allows for greater maneuverability. For obvious reasons, life jackets (as opposed to buoyancy aids) are the recommended device for children, regardless of the water sport.
The 5 Best PFDs For Kayaking Reviewed
Although developments in materials and technology have obviously changed over the years, the essential purpose of the PFD remains the same: to save lives.
There have been numerous studies carried out in different parts of the world to analyze the effectiveness of PFDs and although they may differ with respect to how the material was analyzed and the results calculated, there is a common finding in all of this research: wearing a life jacket increases your chance of survival in the water and, if it wasn’t already evident, this is the core reason for buying a PFD.
Any other considerations you may want to give the idea of purchasing one should have more to do with the type of use you’re going to give your jacket without overlooking other important factors such as comfort and features. We mustn’t forget that local legislation may make PFD usage compulsory (or not) where you live.
As part of a regatta crew on a J24 sailboat, I travel to different parts of the World to compete and I’m always amazed at how some countries are real sticklers for PFDs to the point of being obsessive while others are much more laid-back. In the US, for example, it’s estimated that fewer than 30% of PFD owners actually use it regularly.
Whether it’s for your own personal use or for your family’s, a PFD must be a compulsory part of having fun with your kayak. So, when you’re researching and budgeting, don’t overlook this essential part of your kit.
Here’s the review the 5 best PFDs for Kayaking.
The NRS Zen
What I like most about this type 5 PFD is the amount of movement it gives the user. Your arms are completely unrestricted with no chance of rubbing or getting friction burns. You’ll feel comfortable in it in all environments. Because I live in a very hot climate, I personally appreciate a PFD that lets your body breath and keeps you cool during long expeditions.
The padded shoulder straps are very sleek and comfortable. I’d never be tempted to remove it even under the midday Sun! It comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a PFD in this price range: a karabiner tow-clip, a strobe attachment and a large clamshell front pocket (with an additional inside zipper pocket) that gives you a decent bit of storage space. The belt has a quick release clasp that’s a bit like an airplane seatbelt so it can be removed quickly if and when necessary.
The hand warmer is a nice add-on although I can’t say I’ve used it. It has its downsides too: the large pocket can be a double-edged sword, in a way: you can actually pack too much stuff in there and it can bulk you up a little but at least you’ll have everything you need at hand. It’s also missing a reflective strip on the back, a feature that should be a must on a device with this price tag and quality materials.
As there’s nowhere to really tuck them in, the adjustment straps also tend to just hang there after you’ve tightened them properly but, to be honest, they won’t get in the way or hinder you or affect the safety of the device at all. The 360º padding makes for a comfortable paddle and adds to the overall safety of one of the best PFDs you can buy.
The Kokatat Neptune
This top-end women’s PFD comes with a total of six pockets, which is a lot for a PFD. They’re nicely located in convenient spots around the device I especially like the way the clamshell-like front pocket is divided into two by the main front zipper. Personally I’m not a big fan of huge front pockets because we can sometimes pack them so full of gear (the ‘just in case we need it’ syndrome!) that can add too much bulk and weight to the front of your device and make it virtually impossible to reach anything you may have on the floor of your kayak, in between your legs such as a water bottle.
The split down the middle makes for a much more comfortable user experience. The bottom of the device is trimmed with neoprene so, if you’re wearing bikini, you won’t get rub or friction marks on your midriff of back. That’s a really nice detail that other PFDs in the same price range don’t have. The reflective tape on the back may be overlooked by a lot of paddlers but it’s an essential addition, in my view, to any decent PFD and certainly one you’d expect with this price tag.
The Neptune has an add-on that a lot of devices don’t: a place to insert a hydration bladder located in a pocket on the back. I think it’s a nice feature but it can get in the way depending on the type of seat you have in your kayak – you may end up leaning on it as you paddle. Blue (‘Reef’) isn’t the best color if you’re paddling in the sea as you don’t stand out and the purple trimmings don’t really offset this issue. Having said that, the Neptune is a very comfy option for long distance paddlers.
MTI Livery Sport
This all-rounder affordable type 3 PFD is ideal for paddlers on a low budget who want to stay safe on the water. Sure, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles you’d find on a top-end device but your get what you pay for without any trade-off in personal safety. It does what it’s designed to do: keep you afloat!
These are the type of vests you’ll usually see kayaking schools use as they are cheap and light and adapt to pretty much any body shape as long as you get the size right. They’re also very easy to adjust using the three front straps and can be worn by both male and female paddlers. You don’t usually get this amount of adjustment options on such an economical device.
One of the things I especially like about this PFD, apart from its price, is how light it is. Its weighs just over a 1lb, which makes it ideal for paddlers who like to combine their activity in the sea with a bit of trekking etc. because it’s so featherweight you’ll forget you’re carrying it. It’s also a pretty durable jacket. If you look after it there’s no reason why you won’t have it for a few years.
It comes in a standard range of sizes that are grouped into twos: XS/S, M/L, XL/XXL. That might be a limitation for some users. In any case, the Livery Sport is a perfect PFD for the casual user of for someone (like me!) who needs to have a few extra devices handy for those weekend visits without breaking the bank in the process.
The NRS Ion (for men)
This is a really neat little PFD. I say ‘little’ because it’s a lot less imposing as other PFDs in the same mid-price range. It’s designed with paddlers in mind but it is also suitable for regatta sailing because the amount of freedom of movement it gives the user is a feature a lot of crew appreciate, myself included.
One of the things I like most about this PFD is the way its front pocket opens – it has a vertical zipper as opposed to the much more common horizontal zipper you find on clamshell pockets. Granted it’s designed for right-handed users but it’s much easier, I find, to zip up and down rather than horizontally when you’re in a kayak. Personal preference.
It only has this one main pocket but I’m not a big fan of stuffing my PFD with bits and bobs so the Ion is a nice, sleek jacket. Another nice feature is the fact that the adjustment straps have what the designers call ‘strap garages’, which is a fancy way of saying that they won’t be hanging down as happens with so many other PFDs, even in the higher price bracket.
They tuck away nicely once you’ve adjusted them. Nice feature. This PFD has outstanding ergonomics. If you’re used to wearing a bulky device, you’ll forget you’re wearing this one because it’s light and adjusts well to most body shapes (as long as you get the size right). It doesn’t ride up on you either so it scores high for comfort too.
The hand-warming pouch is another nice feature that a lot of users in colder climes will appreciate. Although the device targets paddlers, it’s actually suitable for all sorts of water sports. The Ion is a really good buy if you’re looking for a mid-range PFD that will do its job without being cumbersome or excessively bulky.
This type 3 (USCG) PFD is popular with sailors and crew on small racing yachts and that is generally a good sign because it’s an indication of flexibility and ease of movement, which are essential features on any PFD whose user is going to be moving around a lot. If it’s correctly adjusted you’ll forget you’re wearing it. The Ion it has a side zipper that stops quite close to the right underarm, so be 100% sure your jacket is the right size for you otherwise chaffing occurs.
I personally love this feature but I can see how it might be uncomfortable for some users. I won’t buy a PFD if it doesn’t have some type of reflective material and the Ion doesn’t disappoint – the accents are high-vis so you’ll be easily spotted in the water. It has the standard clamshell pocket with the horizontal zipper that is really quite spacious.
In fact, you need to remember not to overload it because, even though you’ll manage to fit quite a lot in there, you’re just making yourself heavier and the device will just be too bulky. Getting the size right is, obviously, basic for any PFD but perhaps even more so with the Ion. If it’s not the right fit it’s quite simple unusable and extremely uncomfortable so be sure to get it right.
The shoulder adjustment straps will give you a bit more leeway than other PFDs that don’t have this feature but they obviously won’t solve any size issues you might encounter. The Ion is a comfy, quality PFD that can be used for a number of different water sports that require a lot of maneuverability but I wouldn’t recommend it for users who are slightly bulkier or who have a large chest. It’s too short and can get a little restrictive on your upper body.
How To Choose The Right Life Jacket For Kayaking
Although, in theory at least, any jacket can be used for kayaking, that’s not strictly speaking the case. Some are quite simply too bulky and can severely limit the paddler’s mobility and general comfort when on the water.
Thanks to the growing popularity of leisure kayaking in the last 15 to 20 years, the demand for suitable PFDs for the sport has pushed manufacturers to produce a fantastic range of products with the leisure kayaker in mind.
Most adult flotation devices you’re going to find will be collarless buoyancy aids, much like a waistcoat in design. You either slip it over your head and adjust it using underarm side-zips and a belt situated just above your waist or belly or you put it on like a jacket and zip up the front. There’ll usually be a belt too.
The PFDs designed for young children should have a collar to support their heads, a grab-strap on the back of this collar and a strap between the legs.
There are two key aspects to take into consideration when choosing a PFD. The first thing you obviously need to consider is who is going to wear it? There is an extensive commercially available range of PFDs for the whole family, the dog included. Once you’ve done your research, the only issue you might possibly be faced with is deciding on a particular color or specific feature.
The second aspect to consider is where is it going to be used? If you live in a hot climate or plan on kayaking under the sun for long periods of time, then you’ll need a specific type of PFD for that type of environment.
If you live beside a body of water that can get rough and choppy, you’ll need to factor that in too. In synthesis, you need to think about the type of water and natural environment you’re most likely to find yourself in when kayaking.
This is a consideration I haven’t always given enough thought to in the past and, as a result, I have ended up with jackets that were not appropriate for the type of use I was going to give them. Sometimes they were uncomfortable because they rubbed my inner arms while others appeared to be great at first but restricted my breathing whenever a greater physical effort was required.
Getting it right is not easy and a good recommendation is be sure to get some advice from your vendor if you feel you’re not knowledgeable enough. Once they understand how their products are going to be used, they’ll be able to provide you with valuable tips and advice. Remember that most stores won’t allow you to return a used PFD. There’s no ‘trial period’. Try to get it right the first time.
PFD Size Guide
how your PDF fits you will determine how well it actually stays on you and how comfortable you feel when paddling so getting it right is essential. For adults, your chest measurement designates your size while weight is the measurement used for children. Gender is also a factor and most stores will have a range of PDFs for men and women.
Don’t forget to take into consideration that you’re going to be in a sitting position when paddling so, if you’re trying a PDF on in a store, try to wear a similar t-shirt etc. to what you would wear when kayaking to gauge the size and sit on a chair to see how well it fits you. Make sure you check the different adjustments available too, such as belts, buckles, straps and zippers.
Remember: the shorter the PFD is, the bulkier it’s going to be. Paddlers with a large chest size may feel more comfortable in a longer device. If you use a spray deck, shorter devices will be a better option for you as they leave some space around your waist to accommodate it. When buying online, contact the vendor if you have any doubt at all and be sure their returns policy isn’t too pricy in case you’re not happy with the product when you receive it (you can’t return it once it’s been used).
Whatever the case, be sure it fits you and that you feel comfortable wearing it while kayaking.
Life Jacket Color Choice
These days, PFDs come in every color imaginable. Gone are the days when you could basically choose between a nasty yellowish color and orange. Obviously, the brighter and more visible your device is, the easier it will be to spot you on the water. This is very important if you kayak in a body of water shared by other users in pleasure crafts and Jet Skis etc.
I live in a part of the World where the number of boats on the water increases exponentially during the tourist season between the months of June and September and I am very glad I chose an extremely bright PFD with reflective strips because you can see me from quite a distance.
Maneuvering through the sea traffic is not as daunting because, notwithstanding the occasional drunk driver, other users see and avoid me. The reflective strips on the back and front are nicely blended into the design of the device if, God forbid, the emergency services needed to look for me in the dark. Just this summer, a large group of kayakers ventured into a very large cave just down the coast from where I live.
The weather changed, the sea became rough and choppy and they couldn’t get out of the cave without capsizing. The only option was to stay inside and wait to be rescued. The coast guard later reported to the press that because of the poor visibility inside the cave, the only way they could locate the kayakers (some of them had abandoned their kayak and climbed onto rocks and ledges inside the cave) was by the reflective material on their PFDs.
It’s not usually a feature that’s championed by manufacturers but, in my view, reflective strips on PFDs should be compulsory as they are a simple yet effective safety add-on to your device.
Extra PFD Features
The more add-ons, pockets and attachment points a PFD has usually increases its price. In my experience, it’s better to keep it simple as some of these features can become cumbersome after a couple of hours on the water, especially if it’s a hot sunny day.
People who fish from kayaks appreciate being able to store their bits and bobs in handy pockets on their PFD but if you’re not planning to catch your lunch while out kayaking, opt for a simpler, sleeker design.
Remember: the more pockets full of gear you have on your PFD the heavier you are, which obviously affects buoyancy making it harder for you to move and stay afloat if you do end up in the drink. Some PFDs have other features such as a whistle, a towline attachment, hydration pockets or even a built-in flare.
PFDs to AVOID
These are to be avoided by kayakers. Although they may seem like an interesting option given that, when deflated, they are much smaller and less bulkier than standard PFDs, they’re just not practical. Auto inflate PFDs can inflate when soaked (and not necessarily immersed) meaning it might decide to pop when you get hit by a wave or jump into apparently shallow water to wade the last couple of feet to the shore.
I’ve seen it happen. Every time it inflates you’ll have to replace the internal inflation canister before using the PFD again. On the other hand, a PFD that requires the user to inflate it when needed by blowing into a nozzle is just not an option in case of an emergency or unconsciousness.
Life Vest Materials
There are different types of materials used to produce a device and each one has its own characteristics. PFDs have three parts: the outer shell, the inner flotation material and the straps used.
The outer shell is usually made of a product called Cordura or nylon. The inner foam (the part that keeps you afloat) can be made of Gaia, kapok or PVC. Gaia is an eco-friendly product that does a good job at regulating air flow and body temperature. Kapok is a sort of fiber from the kapok tree that is water resistant and never loses its buoyancy.
PVC is the cheapest, most popular and least ecological given that it contains non-biodegradable chemicals. An increased demand for eco-friendly products will undoubtedly create a more constant and varied supply of this type of PFD from which the user can chose. That can only be a good thing.
Official PFD Classifications
Don’t make any trade-offs on safety or comfort when purchasing a PFD. The vast majority of products currently available have undergone rigorous testing and received certification of some kind.
Be sure to check that your PFD is safety-certified wherever in the World you buy it. The price you pay is determined by, among other things, the features the jacket has, the brand and the materials used to make it – not by how safe it is. Of course, technology and materials used on the higher-end devices may render them safer in some circumstances than cheaper ones but there’s no such thing as a bad PFD.
What’s important is to know is which one suits your specific needs and requirements, from both a comfort and safety perspective. Whether or not a device meets a certain minimum level of safety is determined by the following organizations:
- In the US: US standards, USCG approved
- International Standards: ISO
- In the EU: CE ISO 12402
- Commercial standards: SOLAS (non-leisure PFDs)
With the exception of SOLAS, your new PFD should be approved by one of those bodies. A USCG flotation device is broken down into the following five categories:
- All waters
- Calm, inland waters
- Flotation aids (most commonly used by kayakers)
- ‘Throwable’ devices
- Special use devices
ISO and EU devices are ranked depending on their buoyancy (measured in Newtons – ‘n’) and are categorized as follows:
- 50n – Buoyancy aid – for competent, conscious swimmers
- 100n – Life jacket – for swimmers and non-swimmers, no self-right guaranteed
- 150n – Life jacket – for swimmers and non-swimmers in most conditions, may self-right
- 275n – Life jacket – for swimmers and non-swimmers, will self-right
Depending on where you purchase your PFD, you will see one or more of these terms being used so it’s a good idea to become familiar with them or research the standards used in your country if it’s not included in the previously mentioned categories
You want to be sure that your device is going to do its job correctly.
How To Properly Maintain Your Kayaking PFD
You can have a PFD for years if you take the time to look after it. Some kayakers overlook this and forget to give their device the care it requires, which accelerates mildew, rot and general deterioration of this essential part of your kayaking kit. After using it, remember to soak it in fresh water or hose it down thoroughly.
Hang it out to dry avoiding direct sunlight and don’t store it until you’re sure it’s 100% dry. Another top tip to ensure you get the longest life possible from your investment in personal safety is not to sit on it. It can be tempting to use as a cushion if you’re on a rocky coastline taking a breather, eating your sandwich or enjoying the views. The issue is that the clasps and attachments can break and the majority of PFDs have no replaceable parts, meaning you’ll have to buy another one. Look after it and it will look after you.
Conclusion: Picking The Best Kayaking Life Vest
Unless your local rules and legislation oblige you by law to use one whether you buy and use a PFD for kayaking may be entirely up to you. Back when I was a kid, I used to loathe wearing them.
My Father wouldn’t let us sail with him without one and our Sea Scout troupe would send you home if you turned up sans PFD. Of course, that was back in the 70s and 80s when PFDs really hadn’t developed much at all. In fact, we recently emptied out my Father’s boat of some of the gear he had onboard and were amazed to find some of the jackets we used back in the day.
I’m not surprised they were so unpopular! They were bulky, heavy, nasty looking things. ‘Buoyancy aids’ of the same era were a slightly more attractive option but they were still quite uncomfortable for leisure kayakers. These days, that has completely changed: the range of PFDs for every type of water sport imaginable can be really quite mind-boggling for the novice.
Now, Instead of being able to choose from just a handful of ugly devices, you’re spoilt for choice. Technological advancements in the sector and more attention to esthetics and safety features on devices mean that the demand for PFDs is greater than ever before and this can only be a good thing.
These devices save lives. This is not an opinion – it’s a statistically contrastable fact. A PFD must be an essential part of your kayaking kit. Wear it, look after it and stay safe on the water.