The Best PFDs for Paddling in 2020
Best Overall PFD
The Astral V-Eight is a highly versatile life jacket that our team unanimously enjoyed and appreciated for long paddling days. Its strategic buckle and clip placement helps 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 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 and sporting a lifetime manufacturer's warranty, this jacket is sure to last many adventures.
Our testers found that the V-Eight runs a tad small. And though we appreciate the mobile design of a high back pad, that pad can be restrictive for women and those with more narrow 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 and safe 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 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 your lung capacity. Narrow shoulder and chest paneling, wide arm openings, and soft fabric on the fronts of the armholes maintain easy mobility and keep you from getting a nasty rash on the inside of your arms so easily. With sturdy construction and made of 400D urethane-coated ripstop nylon, the Vapor is a durable vest.
If you're after pockets, loops, and tabs, the Vapor isn't for you. This pocketless PFD's only features are subtle: a loop on the back to hang it up. It also lacks any strap management for its exceptionally long shoulder straps. Short paddlers may find the Vapor's torso to be too long to comfortably sit in a kayak — though our 5'4" main tester didn't have this issue. 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 budget-friendly Onyx MoveVent Curve. With vertical panels joined together with mesh, this vest is above average in comfort, particularly when wet. The front is slightly tapered, facilitating a better fit over human-shaped 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 was 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. 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 restricting, has useful pockets, and more durable, natural foam than many of its competitors. Numerous interior panels help this jacket flex and move, and conveniently placed stretchy mesh keep it comfortable and breathable no matter how you paddle. Style isn't a factor we measured in our testing, yet we love the bright colors that go beyond the traditional pinks and purples and 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 life jackets, we found no better option for our female friends than this comfortable and cute Astral vest.
Read review: Astral Layla
Best for Die-Hard Paddlers
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 made for paddling and works well, even on short torsos. It fits well over sun shirts and wetsuits, keeping you safe without restricting your movements. 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 to more rounded torsos and across breasts comfortably. It also has rougher straps than we appreciate 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 work 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 added security does make the packed belt 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 (warning: pollution alert!). However, the belt functions without the green plastic tab, although you'll lose the ability to see if the belt is armed with an unused CO2 cartridge or not. This belt, like all inflatable belts, also must be worn on the front of your body and is not recommended for less-than-expert swimmers, so using it appropriately is key to your safety. 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 life jacket testers, having spent summers on the water 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 currently loves paddleboarding and kayaking with her water-loving dog. This avid love for teaching and guiding paddling adventures interlaced with water safety has put her in contact with a huge variety of life jackets, and she has become intimately familiar with their pros and cons over her nearly 20-year career on the water. To round out this review, she enlisted the help of her paddling friends and novice adventurers alike to test this veritable gang of PFDs.
We spent dozens of 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 meat and potatoes of each Coast Guard-approved option. From activities like leisurely paddling down the river to swimming across lakes, we pushed these vests to their limits.
Related: How We Tested PFDS
Analysis and Test Results
It's no easy feat to figure out the best option in a sea of choices, but we do our best. Each life jacket we selected for testing is scored across four major metrics with differing weightings based on their overall importance. Within each metric, we asked many questions and subjected every PFD to many tests to find out where each measures up and falls short. By combining these weighted scores together, each product then receives an overall score out of 100 to show how it stacks up to the competition. Here, we tease apart our testing and the jackets' performances to give you a more detailed idea of which ones performed the best within each metric.
Related: Buying Advice for PFDS
One important factor to consider when making any purchase is the value of the product you're considering. The price of a product never affects our scoring of that product, but it is certainly an important consideration to keep in line with your activity budget. You can certainly purchase a cheap PFD at a local sporting goods store, but the chances are high that you won't enjoy wearing it. And if you aren't wearing it, it's not on your body when you might need it. In general, our testers found that comfort increases once you commit to spending more in this gear category. Premium models also have a higher level of design that tends to influence mobility positively.
One great example of a product with high value is the NRS Vapor. This impressive jacket may be a simple design, but it performed well in our testing and is a favorite among our team while costing less than much of the competition. The Onyx MoveVent Curve is also a solid value, performing surprisingly well for its relatively low price, though sacrificing some points in its lack of features and durability. A product like the Astral Layla, while being higher priced, also brings added durability, comfort, and a more versatile fit.
The best life jacket is the one you're wearing, which makes comfort one of the most important aspects of any PFD. We asked men and women, short and tall friends, thin and rounded friends, and people 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 it into three pieces: 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 ones breath best, and which ones you can forget you're even wearing. The NRS Ninja and Siren both feature the softest interior fabric of any models we wore. Their less slick and more absorbant-feeling material wears very well directly 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 dig. The MTI Fluid 2.0 features the widest belt webbing and a padded section behind the buckle to protect your bare skin.
We evaluated the fit of each vest and belt 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 of 30 to 52 inches. While it's not the most comfortable in other aspects, we are impressed at how wide of 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 that our female testers of many shapes found to be the most secure and comfortable of any we tested. It also has three panels on the front that cleverly wrap around the torso effectively. 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 that's confined to a smaller area, making it a better fit for shorter paddlers.
Every PFD 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 the measurements of real people. 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 reacted to the many situations you may find out on the water, from paddling for hours under the sun to falling unexpectedly off a paddleboard going downriver. We also tested and retested the inflatability function of each belt-style PFD to see which ones would really have your back — or rather your front — 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 your shoulders, freeing them up for as much motion as you could dream of. 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 packaging 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 unadjustable, and a rather tight fit that had some of our testers feeling a bit claustrophobic and can be a 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 rather short and not adjustable, the Zephyr's is the opposite, making it the easiest to put on in the water.
If you believe everything you read on the internet, you could have a different life jacket for all your favorite aquatic and marine paddle adventures. But if you're like us, you'd rather have just one option that can be used for everything you want to do. For this review, we chose PFDs designed to be reasonably versatile for most paddle sports. From lakes like glass to choppy grey 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 even easier to use. Portability and the repacking/rearming of inflatable belts also factor into each option's score 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 maximal 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, rearm, and repack into its belt. All three of the inflatable models we tested have instructions printed directly on them 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 life jackets) rather than a rectangle, which makes it harder to pack up nicely. And while the Zephyr and M16 both take widely available and inexpensive 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 the PFDs. 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 safe 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 fear 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 life jacket to be technically legal out on the water, if you're not wearing your life jacket because it's not comfortable, you're sacrificing actual protection. Over 80% of all boating fatalities happen to people who aren't wearing a PFD. And since the best PFD is the one you're wearing, we think it's worth it to find one you can wear without counting down the minutes until you can take it off. With your safety and comfort in mind, we tested the best 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