Astral Layla Review
Cons: Full coverage can be hot, runs a bit large
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Layla is a women's specific PFD with an impressive four available sizes. It's a full coverage type III jacket with Kapok fiber front panels covered in a 200 x 400D ripstop nylon shell with a 200D nylon liner.
While many full-coverage life jackets tend to be stiff and difficult to find a comfortable fit for curvy women, this is not the case with the Layla. The "princess" cut puts seams in helpful spots that facilitate the vest being able to wrap around the torso. The front panels are made of Kapok fibers, making them more flexible and softer than standard foam panels. The top section is also significantly thinner than the bottom, which leaves room for breasts, rather than forcing them to squeeze outward into the armpits like so many others. The Layla also comes in four sizes — the most of any model we tested, while still covering roughly the same size range. This allows you to get a better fit from the get-go, rather than trying to squeeze women of all shapes and sizes into a single size of PFD.
To get the best fit, the Layla has not two but three adjustable straps across the sides, helping each woman to be able to fit it to their specific body shape. Underneath those straps and buckles is a panel of mesh that keeps the straps from rubbing against bare skin. If all that isn't enough, the front panels are joined by a slightly stretchy mesh, helping you to get a secure fit without cutting off your ability to breathe. An overall more narrow top also leaves plenty of room for women with narrower shoulders to easily be able to paddle all day with no rubbing.
With a full-coverage back and mesh panels on the sides, the Layla does lose some breathability. However, we think the full-coverage back is well worth it, as our shorter female testers often found that seatbacks are too high for a half-back option to clear. The full-back spreads out the padding, so it's not too thick and gives comfortable support for leaning back against a backrest. We found that the Layla runs slightly large, as our main tester with a 35" chest circumference was tightening the S/M (31-37") nearly all the way to get the perfect fit. It's not as large as many of the others we tested, though, and over a shirt, we think this is much less noticeable. All our female testers loved wearing this jacket, no matter what size or shape, because of how adaptable it is to a huge range of bodies.
It was easy to find a secure fit, no matter what woman was wearing the Layla during our test period because it's so adjustable. That security helps keep the jacket in place, whether wet or dry. And because it's easier to find the right one of four possible sizes, the straps aren't excessively long and trailing everywhere. The Layla also has large, easy to use containment loops for the tails of the shoulder straps that keep them easily pulled away from the face. We had no problems paddling, jumping into the water, swimming around, and wearing this PFD all day without having to readjust it or feel like it was restricting movement.
We do have a minor complaint about the mobility of the Layla. The space between the bottom two straps leaves the bottom corner of the back of the jacket to jut out a bit when it's fully tightened. The back panels are less conforming than the front ones. Though this slightly protruding corner made little difference to our wearers, it did occasionally get hit by arms while swimming and is worth mentioning.
Astral advertises this jacket for all types of paddling, from whitewater to touring and the sea to a SUP. Not only do we think this is spot on, but we love the comfort of the Layla so much that we're happy wearing this jacket on a speedboat. We could even imagine wearing it while standing in the river fly fishing. It has some handy features and pockets that make it really useful. The front pocket top unclips and flips open to reveal two inner pockets and a bungee loop to help keep you organized. Behind this pocket, there's also a hand warmer pouch, and a knife tab is on the left panel. Though the looks of a life jacket don't play into our ratings, it doesn't hurt that this vest was also considered more flattering on women than any other we tested.
While we like and appreciate the features of the Layla, this is one area where we feel the vest isn't totally living up to its potential. Due in part to the cut, the front pocket and handwarmer pouches are narrow. It's difficult to fit a large smartphone in the pocket and be able to clip it shut. And to use the handwarmer pouch, you have to stack your hands on top of one another. The whole vest also weighs 26 ounces, which is a bit on the heavy side for models we tested. However, we don't really feel like we could tell much of a difference in weight when wearing any given vest, so we don't count the weight against it too much.
With a 200 x 400D ripstop nylon shell and a 200D nylon liner, the Layla is beefier than the average life jacket we tested. We had no issues with the durability of this vest during our several months of testing. Beyond quality materials and solid construction, one of the most impressive aspects of its longevity is in the Kapok front panels. Unlike the standard foam panels in the vast majority of PFDs that, if punctured, must be completely replaced, Kapok can be patched. The Layla comes with directions for drying, sealing, and patching a puncture, as well as a guarantee that Astral themselves will fix it if preferred. While the likelihood of puncturing your PFD isn't great, it's nice to know that if it happened to the Layla, you wouldn't have to purchase a whole new vest. Astral also guarantees their work with a lifetime manufacturer's warranty.
Overall, we're quite impressed with the construction and durability of the Layla. We had no issues with ours, and couldn't find anyone else online complaining about theirs breaking down prematurely either.
The bad news is that this excellent life jacket is one of the more expensive options we tested. However, according to our female testers, the comfort and performance are well worth the extra money. And knowing that you can patch it yourself instead of having to replace it means you're more likely to be able to use your Layla for longer.
We feel like we can't say enough good things about the Astral Layla. While there are many "women's specific" PFDs available, none of the ones we tested came close to the comfort and adaptability we found in the Layla, which is precisely why it earns a Top Pick Award. For women who've been dying to find a life jacket they're actually willing to wear all day, we believe that the Layla is the answer.
— Maggie Brandenburg