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Looking to go paddling and need the best PFD to keep you safe and happy? We researched 90+ life jackets for paddling before buying the best 16 models to test side-by-side on and in the water. Our aquatic-adventuring testing team wore them for months while kayaking, paddleboarding, and swimming. We know the right life vest is much more than just a buoyant jacket, so we scrutinized each one's floatation, fit, feel, features, and quality of construction. We paddled all day under a beating sun, portaged across beaches, and swam circles to test each model's mobility and versatility. Whatever water sport you love or the size/shape of your body, we've got recommendations to keep you safe and comfortable all day.
You can't put a price on safety, but if you need something a bit more affordable than the higher-end products, our lineup of the best life jackets spotlights some non-paddle-specific PFDs, including models for children and canine companions. From there, if you're excited to try some new water sports, we've tested and can recommend the best SUP boards and the best kayaks so you can spend less time researching and more time paddling. To get you fully outfitted for a day on the water, we have also tested the best sandals and lightweight sunshirts on the market.
Editor's Note: We updated this review on August 17, 2022, retesting new versions of the Astral E-Ronny and Astral E-Linda. We also added the Kokotat Naiad and Proteus, as well as the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic. The other jackets in the testing lined up were re-purchased and retested for this update alongside the new additions.
Intended Use: Recreational, touring, fishing | Entry Style: Front zip
REASONS TO BUY
Articulated, ultra-comfortable fit
Great arm mobility
Thin profile back works with a boat seat
REASONS TO AVOID
Closes with zipper only
Not the highest flotation available
The Astral E-Ronny is a standout PFD due to its comfortable slim-line fit, simple closure system, and dialed features such as pockets and attachment points. The zipper-only front closure provides an exceedingly comfortable fit. This jacket has no waist clip, so you can avoid that uncomfortably tight squeezing of the stomach that so many other vests create after hours of sitting in your boat. In addition, the side adjustments create an evenly distributed overall feel that we love. Many testers appreciated the thinner top front section, which gives it a natural contour. Narrow shoulder sections and large armholes help keep your arms free for longer paddling journeys. The thinly padded back works well with boat seatbacks, and vented sections in numerous places provide breathability.
In addition to comfort, the E-Ronny also shines thanks to its utility. A larger pocket accommodates phones, radios, or tackle with a smaller pocket that is perfect for snack bars and multi-tools. Functional lapels tuck away loose ends such as a radio antenna or straps. However, if you're the kind of fishing fanatic who loves to keep half a tackle box worth of gear in your PFD pockets, the E-Ronny may not be your best bet as it doesn't have the largest pockets. And if you prefer a more streamlined approach, consider the Astral E-Linda, which is almost identical but with smaller pockets. Overall, if you are looking for a life jacket that's comfortable, versatile, and great for paddling, the E-Ronny is our favorite.
Intended Use: Whitewater, sea paddling, touring, SUP, sailing | Entry Style: Side zip
REASONS TO BUY
Articulated comfortable fit
Compatible with a rescue harness
Adjustable and great sizing options
REASONS TO AVOID
Runs slightly large
The Astral Layla is a standout life jacket due to its comfortable fit, high-quality construction, and versatility. Many PFDs claim to be designed for females, but women know we're all different shapes, and finding something that fits can be challenging. Enter the Layla, which was unanimously loved by all our female testers with a wide variety of body shapes and bust-to-waist ratios. With more adjustable straps than most competitors, the Layla adjusts to provide the perfect fit. In addition, an articulated cut allows this jacket to flex and move with your body. For those trained in basic river rescue, the opportunity to add a quick-release rescue harness is a desirable feature that stands out on this paddling jacket. Typically, rescue jackets have been more expensive and male-focused, so the Astral Layla is a welcome change.
With fewer open panels than some of the competition, this vest is warmer than others with open back panels or large mesh holes. The Layla is also a bit larger than we expected it to be but comes in four sizes, making it easier to find your perfect fit. River professionals may want more pocket space than the Layla provides, but when it comes to women's models, we found no better option than this comfortable and adaptable vest.
Intended Use: Canoeing, kayaking, sailing | Entry Style: Front zip
REASONS TO BUY
Comfortable, adjustable fit
Lower mesh back for ventilation and high seat comfort
Stays in plays
REASONS TO AVOID
Upper back panel is bulky
Fuller chest coverage
The Stohlquist Flo is a comfortable budget option for women. Available in three sizes, there are several ways to adjust the straps for a secure, personalized fit that can be suitable for a wide range of shapes and dimensions. Constructed with a 400x200 denier ripstop outer shell and soft 200D inner liner, this jacket is durable and comfortable for a very fair price.
The tapered front makes the Flo more comfortable on the chest, and the handy cross-chest cinch strap was a favorite feature. The high-back flotation fits comfortably above the seat backs found in sit-on-top kayaks, and the mesh lower back allows for airflow to help you keep cool when paddling on hot days. The two pockets are large, with room to stash a soda can or waterproof camera, and there is even an attachment point to secure essentials. A budget option that doesn't cut any corners, the Stohlquist Flo is well worth its price tag.
Intended Use: Canoeing, kayaking, sailing | Entry Style: Front zip
REASONS TO BUY
Stays in place
REASONS TO AVOID
Pockets have no closure
Stiff front panel
The Stohlquist Spectrum is a great budget option for recreational paddling. This one-sized universal PFD fits paddlers of a wide variety of sizes thanks to the multiple adjustment points (shoulder, chest, and lower torso). The center zip entry is cut with large arm holes, making it comfortable for extended paddling days. For a budget-priced PFD, we were pleasantly surprised with just how much we enjoyed wearing the Spectrum.
There are multiple small stash pockets on the Spectrum that can be used to store essentials like snack bars and chapstick. These pockets lack a closure system or attachment points, making them convenient but not the place for valuables. The back panel is made of thinner foam layers, making it comfortable when worn against various kayak seats. Compared to other 'universal' life jackets, we found this had the shortest torso length, making it more comfortable to wear against a spray skit for closed cockpit paddlers. Keep in mind that due to the one-size-fits-all design, smaller paddlers found it ill-fitting with a tendency to ride up by the small-torso paddler's ears. But if this vest fits you, it's a great budget-minded option to consider.
The NRS Vapor is a functional paddle vest without all the frills. This side-entry jacket is comprised of six different flexible flotation panels that readily conform to the shape of your torso. Two adjustment straps are located low on the vest to provide a secure fit without restricting 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. The Vapor uses sturdy construction and is made of 400D urethane-coated ripstop nylon.
If you're after pockets, loops, and tabs on your jacket, the Vapor isn't the PFD 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 a 5'4" 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.
With the most open shoulder area and lowest core padding of any vest we tested, the NRS Ninja is an obvious choice for paddlers searching for a low-profile vest. Soft interior fabric makes it comfortable on bare skin, keeping you nice and cool, no matter how hard you paddle. The Ninja is made for movement and works well, even on short torsos, fitting over sun shirts and wetsuits without restriction. With features like a hand-warming pocket and a large zippered front pocket full of organizational features, this vest is practical yet minimal.
The low profile creates a large, unbending design that can be difficult to adjust comfortably around more rounded torsos and across breasts. The Ninja also has rougher straps than we prefer on bare skin that tend to dig in a little too much when properly adjusted. Still, paddlers are sure to love the extra freedom of movement provided by this comfortable, low-profile design; however, serious paddling professionals may consider the rescue-focused NRS Zen, which comes with the rescue harness that the Ninja lacks.
Intended Use: Paddlers that are expert swimmers | Entry Style: Belt
REASONS TO BUY
Simple to wear when inflated
REASONS TO AVOID
Vest neck hole is very narrow
Deployment leaves a small piece of trash in the water
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 with padded buckles and out-of-the-way velcro to help you forget you're even wearing it. When you need it, the Zephyr is one of the fastest and most reliable to inflate and is easy to use if you need extra buoyancy. A simple vest with no additional straps to worry about pulls on over your head, offering above-average flotation. It also features a large padded pocket with a key clip that fits a large smartphone. On the outside are two D-rings with reflective loops for additional gear attachment or storage.
This belt officially re-arms with a kit that includes a 24g CO2 cartridge and 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 if you leave that off. Once inflated, the hole that slides over your head is quite narrow, resulting in some modest struggles for our large-headed testers. Like all inflatable waist belts, this pack is not recommended for less-than-expert swimmers. But out of all the belt packs we tested, the Zephyr offers the best combination of comfort, mobility, and reliable functionality when you really need it.
Each year, we research the newest and most promising paddling PFDs to test the best in head-to-head comparisons in the water. Since 2019 we have spent hours leaping off paddleboards, overturning kayaks, swimming through lakes, and paddling during hot days to find out what makes each Coast Guard-approved model different from the rest. From paddling to swimming to just being silly in the water, we pushed these vests and inflatable belts to their limits to bring you the best for any paddling use.
The five metrics we zoned in on for assessing these PFDs were as follows:
Flotation (25% of overall score weighting)
Fit (25% weighting)
Comfort and Mobility (20% weighting)
Quality of Construction (15% weighting)
Features and Versatility (15% weighting)
Sara James and Maggie Brandenburg lead this review, joined by a veritable slew of water-loving testers. Sara has been floating around in a PFD most of her life. She spent her early childhood living in East Africa, where she could be found jumping off boats in Lake Malawi and playing in the Indian Ocean. Rafting trips and kayaking adventures dominated her 20s, with Sara traveling around the world in search of whitewater. For the last ten years, she has been settled in California, and her love for white water kayaking has morphed into a new love for white water stand-up paddle boarding. Needless to say, a good PFD has been essential on this journey. Sara can't remember a time when she didn't own a PFD, but she sure remembers some that were better than others.
Maggie has spent summers on the water for about as long as she can remember. She grew up sailing and canoeing on Midwestern waters, completing the highest level of canoe paddling certification through an American Canoe Association accredited summer camp. Adding kayaking to the mix as a young adult, she spent summers and school breaks teaching paddling and leading on-water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing trips across the US. She worked as a kayak guide in the Caribbean for a year and took up paddleboarding with her dog soon after. As an educator of aquatic sports, Maggie is adamant about boating safety and has been wearing, caring, and advocating for PFDs for over 20 years.
Analysis and Test Results
To adequately assess every contender, we designed a battery of tests and comparisons encompassing the components of every PFD's performance: their flotation, fit, comfort, mobility, features, versatility, and quality of construction. We scored every PFD's performance across each metric and combined those scores --weighted based on their overall importance to usability- to get a final score showing how each model does overall. To better inform your purchase decisions, we outline the individual metrics and detail which PFDs score best in specific areas.
It's pretty easy to walk into most sporting goods stores and pick up an inexpensive life jacket that's Coast Guard approved. 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, you're unlikely to have your PFD on when your life 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 into this life-saving piece of gear. Premium life vests offer a new tier of designs that almost always make them more mobile and comfortable.
Even with price and performance being fairly well-correlated, certain pieces stand out from the crowd with exceptional performance for their cost. The Stohlquist Spectrum is a perfect example of this. It's a no-nonsense jacket that makes up for a lack of pocket closures with its secure comfort and superior adjustability — without costing as much as top-tier options. The NRS Vapor, Onyx MoveVent Dynamic, and Onyx MoveVent Curve are also noteworthy in this regard. They bring reasonable wearability while costing less than most — great if you're trying to save money while still staying safe. The Vapor is a particularly popular budget option for smaller paddlers as it's lower profile and more adjustable. There are also some higher-priced options like the Astral Layla that offer enough extra durability, comfort, and fit versatility to make them worth a little extra investment, if you can swing it.
The purpose of a personal flotation device is to help you keep your head above water. These jackets are not designed for people recreating far away from potential rescue, and they will not float a helpless body or turn an unconscious swimmer. Basic swimming skills are still required to use these PFDs safely. All the jackets tested are US Coast Guard certified as Type III PFDs delivering at least 16 pounds of buoyancy. The waist belts are certified as Type V PFDs with Type III performance.
At 16.5 pounds, the Stohlquist Spectrum is designed to deliver the most flotation, with the Layla following close behind with 16.3 pounds of buoyancy. We confirmed this data during our in-house testing, where they outperformed all the other jackets during our flotation tests. When worn in the water, the Layla outshines the Spectrum as it delivers a more secure fit and therefore doesn't have a tendency to ride up when you are swimming. You may be wondering why these two vests didn't score the highest in our lineup. To reach our final score, we noted the designed buoyancy as claimed by the manufacturer and then also considered performance and feel in real-life scenarios. No matter what a manufacturer claims, it is crucial that you feel supported by your PFD when you're actually in the water. When we factored all these things together, many other PFDs scored a little bit higher. That said, there isn't a wide spread in scores here because every PFD is designed — and guaranteed — to provide at least the minimum amount of flotation as defined by the USCG.
When deployed, the inflatable waist belt devices delivered the most flotation, with the NRS Zephyr boasting 27.8 pounds. The Onyx M-16 can get close to that amount of flotation through additional oral inflation. Although they had superior buoyancy, none of the inflatable options were as comfortable as the vests for actually floating and swimming in the water.
We evaluated the fit of each vest and belt by observing how well they adapt to the varying shapes of the humans they're advertised to fit. With multiple points of adjustability, the Astral E-Ronny and Astral E-Linda shine in this category, delivering a contoured fit thanks to articulate panels. The Astral Layla is also a favorite among women, as its four sizes and 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 Stohlquist Spectrum is notable for being a universal size for chest measurements from 30 to 52 inches — we found it comfortable to adjust for all but the smallest of paddlers.
The NRS Siren and NRS Vapor both feature six panels in their construction that wrap around the torso to provide a more personal and comfortable fit — these two jackets are particularly comfortable for those with smaller frames. The Ninja is a good choice for folks with a shorter torso, as it has less padding confined to a smaller area, but larger paddlers also enjoy the minimalism the Ninja provides.
The Onyx MoveVent Curve and Onyx MoveVent Dynamic are designed to accommodate the widest range of paddler sizes compared to any of the other PFDs we tested. Larger and smaller paddlers also appreciated the adjustability of the NRS Zephyr and Onyx M-16 inflatable waist belts. The Zephyr has its single clip securely attached to a padded section and covered by an elastic strap, making it virtually impossible to catch the clip on your skin or clothing, a detail we appreciated.
The Astral Layla has the most significant accommodations for people with breasts. For plus-sized paddlers, the Kokatat Naiad is available in larger sizes and is notable for its accommodating design. In addition, the Stohlquist Flo and Astral E-Linda are also noteworthy for their contoured paneling designed to give a more comfortable fit. The NRS Siren and NRS Vapor have an identical low profile cut that suits the female form well. That said, you can ignore their gender tags on these two NSR PFDs as both jackets offer an identical low profile but snug fit.
The Spectrum and Flo boast a chest "cinch" strap unique to the Stohlquist brand. This can be used to loosen or tighten the top front panel of the jacket around the chest. Smaller and larger-breasted paddlers of all genders appreciated this feature. Not only does it make the PFD more comfortable but as it's more secure it will be less bothersome if and when you are floating in the water.
Comfort and Mobility
Comfort and mobility are important aspects of any PFD. We asked people of many shapes and sizes to try on each of the models in our lineup to assess these aspects across activities. To adequately evaluate the complete picture of this metric, we considered how it feels to sit, paddle, and float in each vest. We also tested and retested the inflatability function of each belt-style option to see which ones work when you need them most. The E-Ronny, E-LindaLayla, and Ninja stood out for this metric, with the Njina offering the lowest profile design and therefore delivering outstanding mobility.
To test feel, we tried each model on over clothes, on bare skin, and during as many activities as we could think of to assess where they rub, which breathe best, and which ones you forget you're even wearing. The Kokatat Proteus, and Naiaid, as well as the NRS Ninja and Siren, feature the softest interior fabric of any models we wore. The material is less slick and more absorbent-feeling and wears very well against wet or dry skin. The Astral EV-Eight and Layla both have well-protected straps to keep pressure points off the skin as you move, which we appreciate.
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 EV-Eight is easy to adjust and has convenient velcro on the shoulder straps to quickly 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 Onyx M-16 is by far the most adjustable inflatable model we tested, with a long strap connected to the inflated rectangle that easily slides over your head and a buckle that's simple to pull snug.
One of the biggest factors affecting the security of vest-style models is the number and configuration of their foam panels. Simple single-panel PFDs tend to flex less and offer less mobility; multi-panel 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 for the user. 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 full-range movement. The MoveVent Curve is comprised of vertical panels attached via mobile mesh that allow a fair bit of motion to the wearer.
Among the inflatable models in this review, the NRS Zephyr is the quickest to inflate by pulling the tab. It 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 did not instill high confidence. The M-16 is a rectangular pillow-like inflatable with a single adjustable strap to loop over your head and hold the air pillow close to your stomach. The Zephyr's inflatable is shaped like an emergency vest from an airplane, and it has no additional straps to adjust once inflated. Instead, this big yellow vest has a small opening to stick your head through with two short straps to pull the sides away from each other as you work to squeeze your head into this tight contraption. Some of our testers had difficulty getting it on, but it's very secure and keeps your head afloat.
Quality of Construction
By spending several months over multiple summers pushing these wearables to their limits, we noticed some noteworthy trends and issues. Additionally, 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).
The EV-Eight and Layla as well as the Stohlquist Flo and Stohlquist Ebb have some of the thickest material among their peers — 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, no loose ends sticking out, and helpful placement of buckles and straps, these performed among the best in our testing. Additionally, we found very few complaints from other online users about these vests' durability.
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 them, and just about all of them are "dead" if punctured. The only exception to this puncture rule is the Astral Layla and E-Ronny, which have front panels filled with organic Kapok fiber. Unlike the plasticizers in foam that inevitably leach out over time and cause the jacket to lose buoyancy, Kapok never does. It also can be dried, resealed, and used again. This is a great feature, though only the front panels are Kapok-filled — the back panels consist of standard PE foam.
Features and Versatility
For this review, we chose PFDs that are 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 in various environments. We also considered any additional features that might make them more useful or easier to use. Portability and the repacking/re-arming of inflatable belts also factor into each option's evaluation in this metric.
The EV-Eight is notable in this category. With the highest back of all the models we tested, it easily accommodates just about any seat height while simultaneously leaving your back open to the breeze for maximum ventilation. Mesh cut-outs on the front add even more breathability with large, expandable pockets that allow you to keep items on your person. The E-Ronny also stood out in this metric due to its convenient pockets and mesh-incorporated design. The overall thin profile of this jacket, particularly on the back panel, make it a comfortable jacket to wear with a range of kayak seat.
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. Uniquely, out of all PFDs tested, the Layla is compatible with a quick-release belt that can be purchased and easily slotted into place. It's not advisable to add this tool unless you have been trained in how to use it, but for those that are river rescue trained, it is an invaluable asset. These quick-release rescue harnesses also provide the ideal attachment point for a SUP leash, making this particular PFD extra versatile.
The Kokotat Proteus and Naiad were the only models tested that enable you to attach a hydration pack to the outside of the jacket. The Astral EV-Eight has velcro on the tails of the shoulder straps that quickly and easily secures to the top of the vest, keeping those pesky ends from dangling in your way. In an attempt to solve this same problem, the Layla, E-Linda, MoveVent Dynamic, and MoveVent Curve have lapels by the shoulder straps so you can tuck away extra shoulder straps. Some users preferred these options to velcro which can catch long hair.
Among inflatable models, all require a slight learning curve. No matter what shape the inflated sections are, they all have printed directions describing exactly how to repack them into their velcro-encased fanny packs. The NRS Zephyr is fairly easy to use, packing down into a simple three-sided velcro pouch. The Onyx M-16 is easier to fold, as it's a simple rectangle, but requires you to slide the end covers on, which takes some practice to get right. While the M-16 takes a widely available 16g CO2 cartridge, the Zephyr requires a 24g version, which is harder (and more expensive) to replace.
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 uncomfortable, 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 flotation wearables out there so you can identify the perfect fit 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.
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.