Best Kayaking, Canoeing, and Rafting Life Vests – Gear You Really Need

Whenever you’re on or near water, it’s common sense to have the right safety gear, but it’s never more important than when you’re out kayaking, canoeing, or whitewater rafting. Kayaks and canoes are a ton of fun and very useful for hunting and fishing, but they’re also notoriously unstable and prone to landing you unexpectedly in the water.

Even if you’re a strong swimmer, you need a buoyancy aid to keep you afloat while you set about getting your kayak right way up and ready to move on.

Obviously, when in a canoe or kayak, you need to paddle. Freedom of movement is vital which means that the best life jacket for kayaking won’t interfere with what you’re doing. When you’re choosing a vest, you need to ensure you get one that won’t restrict you or rub uncomfortably. Here are some excellent choices for when you’re out on the water doing some kind of paddling that will let you get the most out of your time on the water.

See also:  Best Inflatable Kayaks

Our 5 Favorite Life Vests for Kayaking, Canoeing, and Rafting

ProductMaterialPocketsSizesColors
ONYX MoveVentNylon1 small34
Stohlquist TrekkerNylon2 large36
NRS VaporNylon1 large34
Astral V-EightNylon2 small36
Stohlquist RockerNylon2 small33

Kayaking and Canoeing PFD Reviews

#1 – Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest

There aren’t many vests that can compare to the MoveVent in terms of fit, comfort, and functionality. High-positioned bubble foam on the inner back improves comfort while also accommodating for kayak seats. Fully open sides and adjustable side belts mean zero restriction while paddling and unmatched ventilation.

The shoulders have neoprene comfort pads and are fully adjustable. Even the front of the vest is sculpted and designed to be so flexible and well-fitting that you forget you’re wearing the MoveVent. The comfort of the MoveVent also makes it our favorite PFD for stand-up paddle boarding.

An expandable zippered pocket with mesh drainage, zip assist loop, attached whistle, SOLAS grade reflective material, and drying loop round out the many features of this sports vest.

Finding the right size can be a problem for larger individuals, although those with a smaller build or or women with a larger bust seem to be able to fit into the recommended sizes without much difficulty. ONYX makes an excellent paddle vest for the big and tall that fits chest sizes up to 60″.

It should also be noted that the back is designed for normal kayak seating and may not be appropriate for kayaks with high seat backs.

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#2 – Stohlquist Trekker PFD

Stohlquist’s range of PFDs have a good reputation in the kayaking community. They’re compact and comfortable, and they don’t interfere with paddling. The Trekker is ideal for small craft, combining comfort and freedom with good performance in the water.

The outer shell is ultra-tough 500 denier Cordura, which is perfect for wear in a kayak where abrasion from the cockpit sides can damage lighter fabrics. Obviously it’s also ideal for whitewater rafting where you’re likely to end up scuffing against rocks. The inner lining is softer 200 denier oxford for improved comfort. The whole vest is easy to clean with soap and water.

The Trekker is well shaped for kayaking or rowing, with the back panel mounted quite high; it won’t catch on seats and ride up around your neck. The front panels are close fitting when properly adjusted and will also stay out of the way. Two adjustment straps on each side and two more at the shoulders, mean it’s very easy to adjust.

The sizes are slightly snug so it’s probably a good idea to go up one size from what you normally buy, but the good news is the Trekker can be adjusted to fit tall, thin figures as well as bulkier ones. Many otherwise good vests struggle at this. Stohlquist also makes a similar women’s version of this life jacket that’s worth checking out.

stohlquist-trekker-life-vest-reviewFinally the Trekker also has some good stowage options. There’s a slotted accessory tab on the left upper back, plus two big front pockets. These are high enough that you can still get into them if you’re kayaking with a spray deck, and they have plenty space for keys, snacks and so on. One word of warning – they’re not waterproof, so seal anything delicate in a Ziploc bag.

With its excellent build quality and comfortable fit, the Stohlquist Trekker is easily one of the best PFDs for kayaking, canoeing, rowing, or even as a kayak fishing life vest. Definitely recommended.

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#3 – NRS Vapor PFD

The Vapor is designed to give you that high-cost experience in a budget-friendly package. This Type III vest easily slips on and closes using two adjustable side buckles. The wide arm cut allows for unrestricted movement and soft, flexible floatation foam molds to your body to provide superior comfort.

A large front pocket is kept secure by a sturdy chest zipper and covers the front of the jacket. Behind the pocket is a hand warmer pouch for those chilly days. A lash tab and reflective piping add to the functionality and safety of this vest. While designed primarily for paddle sports, the Vapor also holds up well for fishing and other sports.

Tested by Underwriters Laboratories and Coast Guard-approved, this Type III vest exceeds the required floatation range at 16.5 pounds, making it a safe choice for your paddling excursions. Be warned: the comfort level and overall design may make you check occasionally to see if you’re still wearing it.

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#4 – Astral Buoyancy V Eight Life Vest

Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life JacketThis vest was designed to let you work hard, so it’s ideal for active kayakers and rafters. Open sides and unobtrusive shoulder straps mean it won’t cramp your paddling style, and six adjustment straps – two on each side and two on the shoulders – ensure a perfect fit. A lot of attention has been paid to keeping it well ventilated making it a top pick for warmer weather.

The Astral is also quite secure, with a tough zipper and quick-release waist belt. The foam panels flex comfortably as you move, so this vest can be worn all day with no chafing. The back panel is high enough to clear most kayak seats, and there are a pair of handy pockets too.

A few users have noted the PFD feels a bit bulkier than it looks and pockets aren’t located in ideal position but for the most part, the Astral Buoyancy V Eight gets rave reviews and is even one of our favorite sailing life vests.

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#5 – Stohlquist Rocker PFD

If you’re planning on tackling some seriously tricky rapids this pro paddling life jacket from Stohlquist could be just what you’re looking for. Compact and tough, it uses high technology materials to give you a great balance of comfort and security. Diagonal adjustment straps make for easy fitting, while textured inner panels grip your clothing and prevent the vest riding up.

The foam is concentrated round the waist, so there’s no obstruction at all for the upper body. It also has two zippered pockets for small items. If you’re on the larger side (both men and women), you’ll find the Rocker to be one of the most comfortable kayaking life jackets out there. The only comfort-complaint you may have is if you tend to paddle with your arms high where the shoulder strap can cause slight irritation if you’re sleeveless.

The Stohlquist Rocker can also be slightly restrictive if you try to bend forward too much, so it’s maybe not ideal for fishing, but for anything from whitewater kayaking or even floating down a river, it’s hard to beat.

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3 Responses to “Best Kayaking, Canoeing, and Rafting Life Vests – Gear You Really Need”

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  1. Tommie says:

    Thanks for your helpful writing. fishing accessories are different for boats and kayaks, therefore I am sure that there are lot of boat owners who will find this blog post very useful. I look forward to reading more from you about using kayaks.

  2. Nick Bentz says:

    Anything wrong with an auto inflating vest for kayaking?

    • Alex says:

      I wouldn’t recommend an auto inflating PFD. Sure it’s going to be the least restrictive but even if you’re an experienced kayaker, one simply dunk even in shallow water can cause it to inflate and then you’re done. If you must use one, at least have a recharge kit on hand.

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