Best PFD of 2020
Best Overall PFD
The Astral V-Eight is a highly versatile option that our team unanimously enjoys and appreciates on long paddling days. Its strategic buckle and clip placement on top of the flotation foam help stop straps from digging in, and the interior fabric is comfortable enough to wear over bare skin. With a tapered top and several ventilation holes, as well as a mostly mesh back, this PFD is comfortable on hot days and works well for most women. The shoulder straps have handy Velcro to quickly and easily secure loose ends away from your face and arms. With a high back, you can easily lean back and relax in your favorite kayak seat without interference. Made of some of the thickest ripstop material we tested, this jacket is sure to last through many adventures.
The V-Eight runs a tad large, especially for women. And though we appreciate the mobile design of a high back pad, that pad can be restrictive for women and those with narrower shoulders. Its location directly behind the head can also be a bit annoying when swimming, though we hope you won't have to do too much of that during your paddle. All in all, we love paddling and hanging out on the water in this vest and think it's an excellent choice for staying comfortable while you play.
Read review: Astral V-Eight
Best Bang for the Buck
The NRS Vapor is a simplified paddle vest that has all of the function without all the frills. Made of six different flexible flotation panels, this side-entry jacket conforms readily to the shape of your torso. Located low on the vest, the two adjustment straps provide a secure fit without restricting our breathing. Narrow shoulder and chest paneling, wide arm openings, and soft fabric on the front of the armholes maintain easy mobility and help keep you from getting a nasty rash on the inside of your arms. It uses sturdy construction and is made of 400D urethane-coated ripstop nylon.
If you're after pockets, loops, and tabs, the Vapor isn't for you. This pocketless option has only one subtle feature: a loop on the back to hang it up. It also lacks any strap management for its exceptionally long shoulder straps. Shorter people may find the Vapor's torso too long to sit comfortably in a kayak — though our 5'4" main tester didn't mind too much. It's also a full-coverage vest without the mesh back panels of so many others. However, if you like a simple but efficient life vest that's comfortable to wear and easy to move in, the reasonable pricing on this model is just the icing on the cake.
Read review: NRS Vapor
Best on a Tight Budget
Onyx MoveVent Curve
We're pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Onyx MoveVent Curve. Sporting vertical panels joined together with mesh, this vest is above average in comfort, particularly when wet. The front is slightly tapered in thickness, facilitating a better fit over chests, and a better fit for women than un-tapered models. Its fabric is comfortable and soft, and we didn't find it to rub during paddling — a definite plus. It's easy to adjust and fit well across our panel of testers. A mesh lower back helps with ventilation, and the strap placement holds it in place even when falling spectacularly off your SUP. Some of our team even declared it to be their favorite one to wear.
Though it does come in a range of sizes that provide a pretty good overall span, we found the triangular shape of this PFD makes it hard to cinch small enough around the waists of testers on the smaller end of the scale. And while we like the vertical paneling for movement, securing it around the chest closes those mesh vents and cuts off significant air circulation potential on the front. It also lacks any pockets or loops, but if you're after a simple vest that's comfortable to paddle in and gets the job done without breaking the bank, the MoveVent Curve is a great choice.
Read review: Onyx MoveVent Curve
Best for Women
Though there are many PFDs that claim to be designed for females, women know we're all different shapes, and finding something that fits can be a challenge. Enter the Astral Layla, which is unanimously loved by all our female testers with a wide variety of body shapes and bust-to-waist ratios. We love how comfortable it is both for paddling and wearing all day in the sun (usually both). With more adjustable straps than most, it's easy to get exactly the right fit over varying sizes and shapes. It's secure without being restrictive, has useful pockets, and is made from more durable, natural foam than many of its competitors. Numerous interior panels help this jacket flex and move, and conveniently placed stretchy mesh keeps it comfortable and breathable no matter how you paddle. Style isn't a factor we measured in our testing, yet we also love the bright colors that go beyond traditional pinks and purples, and we appreciate the flattering cut.
With fewer open panels than some of the competition, this vest may be a bit warmer than others with open back panels or large mesh holes. And though it's a bit larger than we expected it to be, the Layla comes in four sizes, making it easier to find your perfect fit. When it comes to women's models, we found no better option for our female friends than this comfortable and cute vest.
Read review: Astral Layla
Best for the Serious Paddler
With the most open shoulder area of any vest we tested, the NRS Ninja is an obvious choice for hardcore paddlers. Soft interior fabric and cushy shoulder straps make this jacket comfortable on bare skin, keeping you nice and cool, no matter how hard you paddle. This low-profile PFD is clearly made for paddling and works well, even on short torsos, fitting well over sun shirts and wetsuits without restricting movement. With useful features like a hand-warming pocket and a large zippered front pocket, this vest is useful even while being minimal.
The low profile creates a large, unbending design that can be difficult to adjust comfortably around more rounded torsos and across breasts. It also has rougher straps than we prefer on bare skin that tend to dig in a little too much when properly adjusted. And though we like the large, top-zip pocket on the front, the key loop inside easily catches on the zipper. Still, at the end of the day, intense paddlers are sure to love the extra freedom of movement provided by this comfortable, low-profile design.
Read review: NRS Ninja
Best for an Inflatable Belt
The point of any inflatable belt PFD is to be out of the way while you play but functional when you need it, and the NRS Zephyr does exactly that. Though it's not the smallest or thinnest belt pack we tested, it manages to combine comfortable fabric and padding with well-placed buckles and Velcro to help you forget you're even wearing it. When you need it, it's one of the fastest and most reliable to inflate and is easy to use if you find yourself in need of extra buoyancy. A simple square pillow-like design with an adjustable neck strap makes this inflatable straight forward to use and a cinch to refold and repack. It also features a clear window on the front to easily see the status of your CO2 cartridge and a small pocket to store your keys or SPF chapstick.
This packed belt's added security makes it a bit larger and bulkier than some, which is less comfortable for sitting down or swimming. It also officially re-arms with a little green plastic tab that flies off when you pull the deployment string, leaving trash in the water. While the belt functions without the green plastic tab, you'll lose the ability to see if it's armed with an unused CO2 cartridge or not. Like all inflatable belts, this belt must also be worn on the front of your body and is not recommended for less-than-expert swimmers. Using it appropriately is essential. Out of all the belt packs we tested, we found that the Zephyr gives the best combination of comfort, mobility, and reliable functionality when you really need it.
Read review: NRS Zephyr
Why You Should Trust Us
Maggie Brandenburg leads our pack of testers for this review, having spent summers on the water for as long as she can remember. She became an expert canoer certified through the American Canoe Association as a young teenager and taught paddle sports and water safety to kids for four summers on Midwestern waters. Branching out into teaching and leading kayaking trips, she guided whitewater adventures in the West and sea kayaking excursions in the Caribbean. Maggie even spent several seasons as a rafting guide and is currently obsessed over paddleboarding and kayaking with her water-loving dog. This avid passion for teaching and guiding paddling adventures interlaced with water safety has put her in contact with an almost ridiculous variety of PFDs over the past several decades, and she has become intimately familiar with their pros and cons over her 20+ year career on the water. To round out this review, she enlisted the help of her paddling friends and novice adventurers alike.
We spent hours searching for the best contenders to test before selecting the top options for paddling PFDs. We then spent an entire summer flipping kayaks, jumping off paddleboards, swimming across lakes, and paddling through sunny days to really get at the details of each Coast Guard-approved option. From activities like leisurely paddling down the river to swimming across lakes, we did our best to push these vests to their limits.
Related: How We Tested PFDS
Analysis and Test Results
Each model we selected for testing is evaluated across four major metrics, weighted based on overall importance. Within each metric, we asked a lot of questions and subjected every life jacket to many tests to find out where each measures up and where they may fall short.
Related: Buying Advice for PFDS
It's pretty easy to walk into most sporting goods stores and pick up an inexpensive life jacket that's Coast Guard approved and can get you out on the water. However, there are a lot of less-than-comfortable cheap vests on the market, and if it's not comfortable enough to wear all day, then you're unlikely to have it on when your life quite literally depends on it. When it comes to the money you invest in the right jacket, we've noticed that comfort significantly increases when you're willing to invest a little more than bottom-barrel cost into this life-saving piece of gear. Premium life vests offer a whole new tier of designs that almost always make them more mobile and more comfortable.
Even when price and performance are fairly well-correlated, certain pieces stand out from the crowd with exceptional performance for their cost. The NRS Vapor is a perfect example of this. It's a simply-designed jacket that makes up for a lack of pockets with its fantastic comfort and mobility — without costing as much as top-tier options. The Onyx MoveVent Curve is also noteworthy in this regard. It's even less expensive while still bringing reasonable wearability, making it a popular option for those on a tight budget. However, even some higher-priced options like the Astral Layla bring enough extra durability and comfort with a versatile fit that, in our opinion, makes it worth a little extra investment.
Comfort is one of the most important aspects of any PFD. We asked men and women of many shapes and sizes to try on each of these models to assess their comfort during paddle activities, in the sun, and in the water. To adequately assess the complete picture of comfort, we broke this complex metric into three areas: feel, fit, and adjustability.
To test feel, we tried each model on over clothes and on bare skin and during as many activities as we could think of to figure out where they rub, which breathe best, and which ones you can forget you're even wearing. The NRS Ninja and NRS Siren both feature the softest interior fabric of any models we wore. Their less slick and more absorbant-feeling material wears very well against the skin, wet or dry. The Astral V-Eight and Layla both have well-protected straps to keep pressure points off the skin as you move, which we appreciate. The MTI Fluid 2.0 features the widest belt webbing and a padded section behind the buckle to protect bare skin.
We evaluated each vest and belt's fit by seeing how well they adapt to the varying shapes of humans they're advertised to fit. The Stohlquist Spectrum is notable for being a universal size for chest measurements from 30 to 52 inches. While it's not the most comfortable in other aspects, we are impressed at how wide a range of measurements this vest serves. The Layla is also a favorite among women as its three adjustable side straps allow for a versatile fit. Our female testers of many shapes found it to be the most secure and comfortable of any we tested. It also has three panels on the front that cleverly and effectively wrap around the torso. The Siren and Vapor both feature six panels in their construction that similarly wrap around the torso to provide a more personal and comfortable fit. The Ninja is a good choice for folks with a shorter torso, as it has less padding confined to a smaller area, making it a better fit for shorter paddlers.
Every PFD in our lineup has several buckles, clips, or zippers, and we tested them all to see how easy they are to use and adjust. We also considered the sizes available for each model and how adequately that range lines up with real people's measurements. The V-Eight is not only easy to adjust, but it also has convenient Velcro on the shoulder straps to quickly and easily secure those loose tails out of your way while you paddle. The Layla has the most available sizes (four) of any model we tested, allowing you to get a more specific fit for your form. The Zephyr is by far the most adjustable inflatable model we tested, with a long strap that easily slides over your head while you're treading water and a buckle that's simple to pull snug and stay afloat.
Beyond the comfort of any PFD you may wear, performance and mobility are key to your willingness to wear it. We tested how each model reacts to the many situations you may find yourself in on the water, from paddling for hours under the sun to falling unexpectedly off a paddleboard. We also tested and retested the inflatability function of each belt-style option to see which ones really work when you need it most.
One of the biggest factors affecting the security of vest-style models is the number of foam panels they have and the configuration of those panels. While simple single-panel PFDs tend to flex less and offer less mobility, multipanel options are much more comfortable to move in. As previously mentioned, the Siren and Vapor both feature six separate foam panels that provide extra security and flexibility to anyone wearing them. They also have narrow sections between the shoulders to facilitate easy arm movements. The low profile design of the Ninja concentrates the padding away from the shoulders, freeing them up for easy movement. The MoveVent Curve is comprised of vertical panels attached via mobile mesh that allow a fair bit of motion to the wearer. All the inflatable belt options we tested are obviously less restrictive than their jacket-style cousins, but the Onyx M-16 stands out from the rest with its slim profile which cuts out as much excess bulk as possible.
Among the inflatable models in this review, the MTI Fluid and NRS Zephyr are the quickest to inflate by pulling the tab. Each explodes out of the belt and is instantly floating in front of you. The M-16 tended to be a bit slow and sluggish coming out of its belt, which doesn't give us the most confidence. All three of the belts we tested offer a slightly different design, none of which are conducive to swimming. The Fluid is squeezed over your head like a tube-vest. It's not adjustable and has a rather tight fit, which caused some of our testers to feel a bit claustrophobic and struggle to get on in the water. The Zephyr and M-16 are both rectangular pillow-like inflatables that have a single strap to loop over your head. While the M16's strap is short and not adjustable, the Zephyr's is the opposite, making it the easiest to put on in the water.
For this review, we chose PFDs designed to be reasonably versatile for most paddle sports. From lakes like glass to choppy gray waves and quick-flowing rivers, we paddled and swam in each model. We also considered any and all additional features that might make them more useful and easier to use. Portability and the repacking/re-arming of inflatable belts also factor into each option's evaluation in this metric.
The V-Eight is the top performer in this category, outshining all the other options we tested with its all-around versatility. With the highest back of all the models in this review, the V-Eight easily accommodates just about any height of seat while simultaneously leaving your back open to the breeze for maximum ventilation. Mesh cut-outs on the front add even more breathability while large, expandable pockets allow you to keep items on your person. Among women's models, the Layla stands out with well-designed pockets and an easy fit that works well for a wide variety of uses. The MTI Solaris also offers several compartments and pockets, small attachment loops, reflective strips for better visibility, and even an emergency whistle tethered right to the front of the jacket.
Among inflatable models, the Zephyr is the easiest to deflate, re-arm, and repack into its belt. All three of the inflatable models we tested have instructions printed directly on them outlining how to fold them appropriately for future deployment, but the Zephyr is the easiest, and its 3-sided Velcro enclosure is the simplest to repack. The Fluid 2.0 is the most difficult to deflate and refold. It's shaped like a tube vest (think airplane PFDs) rather than a rectangle, which makes it harder to pack up nicely. And while the Zephyr and M16 both take widely available 16g CO2 cartridges, the Fluid requires a 24g CO2 canister that we discovered is a bit more challenging and expensive to replace.
Last but certainly not least, we tested and evaluated the durability of all our models. Though we spent several months over multiple summers pushing these wearables to their limits, we noticed some trends and issues that we found noteworthy. We also assessed the materials and construction of each model and scoured the internet to see what other users had to say about their longevity and ability to handle all manner of rough-and-tumble adventures. And because caring for your gear is a large part of making it last, we also looked at specific cleaning and storage instructions, guidelines for use and lifespan, and manufacturer warranties offered (or not) for each one.
Both the V-Eight and Layla are made of some of the thickest material among their peers, with 400D ripstop nylon shells. And, upon close inspection, the Ninja, Vapor, and Siren have some of the cleanest and most reinforced construction of the models we tested. With thick seams and no loose ends sticking out, as well as helpful placement of buckles and straps that help keep them from snags while you wear them, these performed among the best in our testing. Additionally, we found very few complaints from other online users about these vests' durability, barring a few mentions of zipper woes on the pocket of the previous version of the Ninja.
Just about every vest we tested mentioned cleaning by dunking and hanging to dry in a shady location for storage — fairly standard for any PFD. Several gave directions for testing the functionality and continued use of the jacket or belt to ensure it still works before you rely on it to save your life. Most vests require replacing every few years, depending on how you use and care for it, and just about all of them are "dead" if punctured. The only exception to this puncture rule is the Astral Layla, which has front panels filled with organic Kapok fiber. Unlike the plasticizers in foam that inevitably leach out over time, causing the jacket to lose buoyancy, Kapok never does. It also can be dried, resealed, and used again. This is a great feature of the Layla, though only the front panels are Kapok-filled. The back panels consist of standard PE foam.
While you can pick up any cheap PFD to be technically legal out on the water, if you're not wearing it because it's not comfortable, you're sacrificing actual protection. According to the American Boating Association, over 80% of all boating fatalities happen to people who aren't wearing a PFD. We think it's worth it to find the PFD you can wear without counting down the minutes until you can take it off. With your comfort in mind, we tested some of the top floatation wearables out there to help you identify the ideal one for your needs. We hope our efforts help you find your perfect PFD to stay above water and happy no matter where your paddle leads you.
— Maggie Brandenburg