Looking to go paddling and need the best PFD to keep you safe and comfortable? We researched 100+ life jackets for paddling before buying and testing the best 18 models on, around, and in the water. Over multiple seasons, our aquatic-adventuring testing team wore each jacket 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 flotation, fit, feel, features, and quality of construction. We paddled all day under a beating sun, portaged across beaches, and swam in circles to test each model's mobility and versatility. Whatever water sport you love, we have recommendations to keep you safe and comfortable all day.
Intended Use: Paddling, sailing | Entry Style: Over the head
REASONS TO BUY
Non-restrictive articulated cut
REASONS TO AVOID
The Astral YTV is designed to feel weightless, and it weighed in as one of the lightest PFDs we tested. The vest is non-restrictive but secure, giving you that comfortable hug-like experience. The bottom panel secures around the lower torso, leaving full freedom of movement for the upper torso. For those needing to move around a lot when wearing their PFD (freestyle kayaking, SUPing, racers, sailors), the YTV is hard to beat.
The YTV features a soft interior fabric that offers a comfortable feel against your bare skin, ensuring a cool and pleasant experience, even during intense paddling sessions. The fabric's breathable properties help regulate body temperature, keeping you comfortable and preventing overheating. The YTV's simplicity may be its only real flaw. The two pockets are very small, large enough to hold your chapstick and snack bar but not your standard-sized phone.
Editor's Note: The YTV 2.0 is due to be released shortly and is purported to have an extended pocket. An additional internal phone-sized pocket is also promised on this updated version. As soon as we can purchase and test this updated version, we'll update our review.
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
Pockets not that large
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, and the jacket has no waist clip, so it avoids squeezing the stomach like many other vests. On top of that, there are side adjustments that help facilitate an even feel overall, which we really appreciate. Many testers appreciated the thinner top front section, which gives it a natural contour, and narrow shoulder sections and large armholes help keep your arms free for longer paddling journeys. Vented sections in key areas help provide airflow and a padded-yet-thin back plays nicely with all kind of boat seat backs.
In addition to comfort, the E-Ronny also shines thanks to its utility. We love the pocket that is big enough for a phone, radio, or fishing supplies, and there's another smaller pocket that's great for a snack or multitool. The shoulder lapels tuck away loose strap ends or a rogue antenna from a radio. Despite these great features and pockets, if you want all your tackle on your person, you may want to look for something with even larger pockets. But at the end of the day, the E-Ronny was an easy favorite across our testing team, thanks to its comfort and versatility.
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 place
REASONS TO AVOID
Upper back panel is bulky
Fuller chest coverage
The Stohlquist Flo is a comfortable budget option for women. It is available in three sizes, and there are multiple ways to adjust the straps for a secure, personalized fit for a wide range of body shapes and dimensions. Constructed with a 400 x 200 denier ripstop outer shell and soft 200D inner liner, this jacket is durable and comfortable for a 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, keeping you cooler 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-size 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 by how much we enjoyed wearing the Spectrum.
Multiple small stash pockets on the Spectrum can store essentials like snack bars and chapstick. These pockets lack a closure system or attachment points, making them convenient for non-valuables. The back panel is made of thinner foam layers, and we found it comfortable against various kayak seats. Compared to other 'universal' life jackets, this one had the shortest torso length, making it more comfortable to wear against a spray skirt 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 paddler's ears. But if this vest fits you, it's a great budget-friendly option worth checking out.
The NRS Vapor is a functional paddle vest without all the frills. This side-entry jacket consists 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.
Intended Use: Whitewater, sea paddling, touring, SUP, sailing | Entry Style: Side zip
REASONS TO BUY
Articulated comfortable fit
Compatible with a quick-release belt
Adjustable with great sizing options
REASONS TO AVOID
Runs slightly large
The Astral Layla is a popular 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 properly can be challenging. Enter the Layla, which is 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.
Though it is available in four sizes so you can find a great fit, the Layla generally runs a bit large. It's also warmer than PFDs with large mesh areas or open back panels. But for those enjoying paddle boarding or who are trained in basic river rescue, the opportunity to add a quick-release belt is a desirable feature that stands out on this jacket. A full-blown rescue PFD is much more expensive, and all those on the US market are male-focused. The Astral Layla is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is not quite the full deal that Class IV-V river lovers will be looking for. River professionals may want more pocket space than the Layla provides or may want a full rescue vest such as the Astral Green Jacket. Bottom line: We found no better option than this comfortable and adaptable vest when it comes to models designed for women.
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 micro 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 precisely that. Though it's not the smallest or thinnest belt pack we tested, it is the most comfortable. The soft finish fabric, padded buckles, and well-placed velcro allowed us to forget we were even wearing it. It also features a large padded pocket that fits a large smartphone and that has a key clip. On the outside are two D-rings with reflective loops for additional gear attachment or storage.
In our tests, the Zephyr was one of the fastest and most reliable to inflate. Once inflated, it reveals a simple vest delivering above-average floatation. There are no additional straps to worry about pulling on over your head. However, the hole that your head is supposed to slip through is quite narrow, resulting in some modest struggles for our large-headed testers. 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. 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.
We research the newest and most promising paddling PFDs each year 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 adventure.
We divided our PFD testing across five rating metrics:
Fit (30% of overall score weighting)
Comfort and Mobility (25% weighting)
Quality of Construction (20% weighting)
Features and Versatility (15% weighting)
Flotation (10% 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 measuring 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 the comfortability of vests 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, with the Stohlquist Spectrum being a perfect example. It's a no-nonsense jacket that makes up for the lack of pocket closures with its secure comfort and superior adjustability without costing as much as top-tier options. The NRS Vapor, and Onyx MoveVent Dynamic 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. Some higher-priced options like the Astral Layla offer enough extra durability, comfort, and fit versatility to make them worth a little extra investment if you can swing it.
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 YTV was the best-fitting jacket style PFD we tested, delivering a contoured fit thanks to articulated panels. Based off a design for freestyle kayak paddlers, this jacket really has movement in mind. When swimming in water, the YTV continued to lead in this metric.
The Astral Layla and Stohlquist Flo are favorites among our female testers of many shapes and sizes. The Layla has the most significant accommodations for people with breasts and also stands out for having four sizes and three adjustable side straps that allow for a versatile fit. It also has three panels on the front that cleverly and effectively wrap around the torso.
The Flo boasts 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. It makes the PFD more comfortable and secure and will be less bothersome if and when you are floating in the water.
The Stohlsquist Spectrumand Ebb have this same useful cinch system as their sister Flo but a less contoured fit from the panels. The 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.
For plus-sized paddlers, the Kokatat Naiad and Kokatat Hustle are available in larger sizes, and they are notable for their 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.
When you first put them on, the waistbelt inflatables all offer a really comfortable fit. The NRS Zephyr, Astral Airbelt 2.0, and Mustang Survival Minimalist Belt are all simple to fit as they have just one waist strap and accommodate a similar range (30-50 inches). The Zephyr goes slightly smaller if needed (down to 27 inches), and the Mustang Survival Minimalist Belt is adjustable to reach 52 inches. Paddlers of all sizes appreciated the adjustability of the inflatable waist belts, easily accommodating layers, bumps, and lumps.
However, when inflated, this type of PFD drops to the bottom of the pack for fit, as the inflated version does not fit the same as when it's not yet activated. The inflated portions of the Astral Airhead, Mustang Survival Minimalist, and NRS Zephyr are all shaped like an emergency vest from an airplane, and they have 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 this part on, but it's very secure and will keep your head afloat.
The one belt outlier here is the Onyx M-16. When activated, 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. Less awkward than some, it is far from a secure ' fit'. Given the limited environments that inflatable PFDs are appropriate for, users should strongly consider what type will suit their needs best.
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. You can ignore the gender tags on these, as both jackets offer an identical low profile but snug fit.
Finally, the NRS Ninja is a good choice for folks with a shorter torso, as it has less padding confined to a smaller area. That said, larger paddlers also enjoy the minimalism of the Ninja. If you can try before you buy, that's ideal.
Comfort and Mobility
Comfort and mobility are important aspects of any PFD. We asked people of many shapes and sizes to try on each model 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 tried each model on over clothes, on bare skin, and during as many activities as possible to assess where they rub, which ones breathe best, and which ones you forget you're even wearing.
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.
One of the biggest factors affecting the comfort 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. The Astral YTV stood out for its contoured fit, with the bottom section locking around the lower rib cage (likened to 'a nice hug') while also delivering freedom of movement in the upper body and arms. With minimal buckles restricting movement, this is a jacket we could wear for days on end.
The E-Ronny, E-Linda, and Ninja also fared well in this metric, with low profile, articulated designs that fit the body comfortably regardless of whether you're wearing them on a kayak, SUP, or in the water.
The Kokatat Naiad, Kokatat Hustle, and NRS 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.
The EV-Eight is also easy to adjust and has convenient velcro on the shoulder straps to get any excess tails out of the way while paddling. 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.
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.
Quality of Construction
Over several months and multiple summers pushing these wearables to their limit, we noticed some noteworthy trends and issues. Additionally, because how well you care for your gear significantly impacts how long it lasts, we also considered specific cleaning and storage instructions, guidelines for use and lifespan, and manufacturer warranties offered (or not).
With a 500-denier outer shell, the Mustang Survival Minimalist Belt uses the most durable materials of any PFD we tested. Following close behind are the Layla, Stohlquist Flo, and NRS Vapor, which use 400D ripstop nylon shells. And upon close inspection, the Ninja, Vapor, and Siren have some of the cleanest and most reinforced constructions of the models we tested. With thick seams, no loose ends sticking out, and helpful placement of buckles and straps, these models performed among the best in our testing. We found very few complaints from other online users about these vests' durability when doing our extensive research.
Almost every vest we tested comes with the instructions to clean by dunking and hanging to dry in a shady location for storage, which is 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 E-Ronny 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 option to wear with a range of kayak seats.
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 it is an invaluable asset for those who are river rescue trained. These quick-release rescue harnesses also provide the ideal attachment point for a SUP leash, making this particular PFD extra versatile.
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. On top of that, for extra strap maintenance, there is 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, and MoveVent Dynamic have lapels by the shoulders so you can tuck away extra straps. Some users preferred these options to velcro, which can catch long hair.
The Kokotat Naiad is the only model tested that enables you to attach a hydration pack to the outside of the jacket. For those wanting easily accessible hydration, this feature really made this vest stand out.
All inflatable models require a slight learning curve. No matter the inflated sections' shape, they all have printed directions describing 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.
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.
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 worn in the water, the Astral YTV, Layla, and Kokotat Hustle outshine all of the competitors, as they deliver a more secure fit and, therefore, don't have a tendency to ride up when you are swimming.
When deployed, the inflatable waist belt devices are designed to deliver 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 all are designed to deliver more buoyancy than the life jackets we tested, once activated, none of the inflatable options were as comfortable as the vests for actually floating and swimming in the water.
It is imperative to be aware that the type of inflatable PFD belts we tested require manual activation. If you forget to pull the tab or can't access it for some reason, no flotation is provided. For example, a capsized kayaker may have to tread water for a moment before they can initiate this process, so it is essential all users of these belts are strong swimmers.
Factoring all these things together, the YTV vest was overall one of our favorite PFDS to float in thanks to its simplicity of use, secure fit, and freedom of movement, ensuring a comfortable and safe float. That said, there isn't a widespread in scores here because every PFD is designed — and guaranteed — to provide at least the minimum amount of flotation as defined by the USCG.
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 finding 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.