The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

NRS Ninja Review

Providing out-of-the-way, low profile protection that won't impede mobility
Top Pick Award
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Price:  $130 List | $129.95 at REI
Compare prices at 2 resellers
Pros:  Excellent paddling mobility, breathable and open design, comfortable fabric, works for short torsos
Cons:  Bulky, unbending and flat, rough straps, key loop catches in pocket zipper
Manufacturer:   NRS
By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor  ⋅  Jul 7, 2020
  • Share this article:
Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more

#3 of 12
  • Comfort - 35% 8
  • Mobility - 30% 8
  • Versatility - 25% 6
  • Durability - 10% 9

Our Verdict

The NRS Ninja is a low-profile life vest with wide-open shoulders that preserve a huge range of mobility, making it our Top Pick for Die-Hard Paddlers. Its comfortable inner fabric and wide range of adjustability make it easy to wear against your skin while you paddle hard up the river or across the lake. It has exceptionally paddle-friendly features like an off-center knife tab and large handwarmer pocket and is durable enough to see you through all manner of wild adventures. If you're a hardcore paddler, we think you'll love this freeing option from NRS.

Product Redesigned

Since our test period with the Ninja, NRS has tweaked a few things. See a comparison below.

March 2020

Compare to Similar Products

Our Analysis and Test Results

Ninja Updates

NRS has redesigned the clamshell pocket on the front of this PFD, giving it dual-direction zippers that wrap around the pocket and some new organization options. It also has a thicker exterior shell fabric that's 400D compared to the previous 200D nylon of the version we tested. Compare the two models below, with the new one shown first, followed by the version we tested. We haven't had a chance to test the newest version yet, but we plan to!

Hands-On Review of the Ninja

The NRS Ninja is a unisex life vest that comes in three sizes. It's a low profile, Type III vest covered in 200D urethane-coated ripstop nylon.

No matter how you paddle  the Ninja is a great choice.
No matter how you paddle, the Ninja is a great choice.


The Ninja has some of the softest interior fabric of any of the models we tested. It's much softer than the "standard" slick-feeling fabric of the average jacket, making it incredibly comfortable to wear against bare skin. Our testers unanimously agree on this point. Though the back of the vest is fairly thick, it also rides pretty low on the torso, which allows a reasonable level of comfort when you take a break to lean back during your epic paddle. Because of its low profile design with concentrated flotation, it's more adjustable to shorter torsos and can be more comfortable for shorter paddlers who are restricted by the length of some standard life vests.

We aren't in love with the feel of the NRS straps, though, and find them scratchier and less well-protected than we would like. NRS aimed for more mobility in the shoulder strap design, keeping things minimal. The downside here is a small drop in comfort. The bottom cinch strap also tends to dig in a bit around the sides when properly adjusted. As a low profile vest with concentrated areas of padding, those areas are thicker than found on a regular PFD. While they're also smaller, they're stiff, making it a challenge to bend them around narrower paddlers' waists or to accommodate some female testers' chests. Not all of our testers were stoked on the side entry system either, though once you get used to it, we think it's just as easy as any front zip jacket.

The bottom strap can cut in a bit on your stomach when it's snug.
The bottom strap can cut in a bit on your stomach when it's snug.


Because the Ninja concentrates all the padding into such a small, low area, the shoulder mobility of this PFD is unmatched by any other jacket-style model we tested. Riding low on the torso, this vest stays put well while you paddle or when you take a spill in the water. The small areas of padding come in handy again as the whole thing is out of your way while you swim back to your vessel.

The only mobility issues we have with this vest are tied to its unbending shape, and the subsequent fit struggles that many women testers have with it. Because it's difficult to fit over breasts or wrap tightly around smaller individuals, we were less able to get the right security of fit to keep it snugly in place in the water, without also squeezing the ribs and stomachs uncomfortably. Our male testers didn't experience this issue, and among female testers, it was only among the very slim body types. For those who can get the right fit, they love the added mobility of this low profile model.

The openness gives great mobility  but even for an average-busted woman  this thick  stiff life jacket is hard to get the right fit.
The openness gives great mobility, but even for an average-busted woman, this thick, stiff life jacket is hard to get the right fit.


Designed for paddlers, we can't find any paddle sport that doesn't work well wearing the Ninja. It fits shorter torsos well and is conveniently out of the way for paddle strokes of pretty much any kind. It even has a nice cozy handwarmer pocket in between the two layers of padding, helping to warm up those chilly digits even faster. It features an off-center knife tab and a single, zippered pocket with a key clip to store your essentials, and drain holes to keep you from carting water around.

While we love that wide, zippered pocket that seems to fit just about anything, we found that it easily catches on the key clip and is a bit of a struggle to free again — a pretty annoying feature if you need to grab something fast in between rapids. This vest also weighs 28 ounces, making it among the heaviest jackets we tested, despite its compact design. Still, we don't think it feels unduly heavy when wearing it, so we don't hold the weight against this vest too much. Though the Ninja is a pretty specific paddler's design, we found it to be pretty comfortable across activities because of how open it is. By concentrating padding into smaller, thicker areas, this isn't the best vest for lounging comfortably on the pontoon bench or leaning back in your favorite fishing chair. It's a more specific vest that's best suited to paddling and paddling hard.

We're not in love with the side entry  but only cuz it's different. It actually works quite well.
We're not in love with the side entry, but only cuz it's different. It actually works quite well.


NRS has a reputation for making some quality products, and the Ninja does not disappoint. Though it's constructed of standard materials — 200D urethane-coated ripstop nylon and PVC-free foam — it's clearly been made to withstand some hearty adventures. The seams are reinforced, and the straps are thick and durable, despite minor scratchiness. Plastic clips and buckles are sturdy and have no problem working even after we tossed them in the sand while wet. This jacket is also backed by a lifetime manufacturer's warranty.

We couldn't find anything that broke or frayed during testing. Our only durability complaint is that the zipper catches too easily on the key loop inside the pocket, which could lead to some issues with either the loop or the zipper over time. A few outside users also made some online mentions of the zipper pull coming off or the zipper breaking, though we found no issues during our testing period.

The key clip is located so close to the pocket zipper that it is incredibly easy to get stuck.
The key clip is located so close to the pocket zipper that it is incredibly easy to get stuck.


Though not the most expensive option we tested, the Ninja doesn't come cheap, and there's a reason for that. The specific design, clear paddler-centric fit, and obvious quality craftsmanship of this life vest make it an above-average performer. If you're truly intense about your paddle sports, we think the value of this model is worth what you'll pay. If you're a bit more casual about paddling, the Ninja is still a good value, but there are some other options for less that may also suit your needs.


The NRS Ninja is a low profile PFD built with the avid paddler in mind. Its top-notch performance, mobility, and durability make it our Top Pick for paddling hard aboard pretty much any watercraft. It features a high level of comfort and freedom to move that comes in handy during intense paddles. Though it's not the best fit for women or thin adventurers, it's a great choice for many hardcore paddle enthusiasts.

Paddle hard in the Ninja.
Paddle hard in the Ninja.

Maggie Brandenburg