Life jacket, life vest or personal flotation device (PFD)— call it what you want, as long as you wear it. Anyone who plays on the water should wear a flotation device. Kayak anglers are especially at risk and require a specialized life jacket for fishing.
Fishing kayaks are more stable than recreational kayaks or canoes; their user-friendly design can lull anglers into a false sense of security. In fact, a sit-on-top kayak’s stability can work against an angler in the water.
Fishing kayaks are very safe and anglers rarely end up in the water, but the chance for immersion requires vigilance and preparation. The best life vest for fishing is ready when needed and not getting in your way the rest of the time.
The best kayak fishing life vest provides reliable flotation in case of an emergency, with pockets and clips for storing fishing tackle and tools. A comfortable life vest encourages the angler to wear it at all times.
Kayak fishing life vests fit into two categories: foam and inflatable. Foam vests employ closed cell foam to keep the wearer afloat. Inflatable vests use a CO2 canister to fill a latex bladder for flotation.
Foam vests provide inherent flotation, but they are heavier and bulkier than an inflatable. An inflatable PFD is so light and compact you hardly realize you are wearing it. However, an inflatable life vest relies on manual or automatic inflation making it a little less reliable than a foam vest.
The advantage of a wide variety of life jackets is improved comfort and performance. With so many flotation options, every angler can find the best kayak fishing PFD for his needs.
Top Picks: Best Kayak Fishing PFDs for 2024
Best Kayak Fishing Life Vests
All Adventure Child
M.I.T. 100 Manual Inflatable PFD
Pike Paddlesports Vest
Minimalist Inflatable Belt Pack
A/M 24 Inflatable Life Jacket
MoveVent Torsion Vest
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Kayak Fishing Life Vest Buying Guide
Types of Kayak Fishing Life Jackets
Separate the best kayak fishing life vests in two categories: inflatable and foam. To provide flotation, an inflatable life jacket uses a CO2 canister to inflate an expandable latex bladder.
Inflatable flotation devices are available as a vest or belt pack. Inflatable belt packs look like a small fanny pack. Pull a rip cord, and the bladder blows up in the shape of a life vest. Then, the wearer pulls the inflated vest over his head and secures a waist belt.
Manually inflatable life vests use a pull cord to activate the CO2 canister while automatic models inflate as soon as the triggering device hits water. Inflatable vests and belt packs are the lightest and most compact source of emergency flotation.
Foam life vests are filled with closed-cell foam. Foam vests provide inherent flotation for the highest level of safety. Foam life vests also offer more options for pockets and clips to hold fishing gear.
Foam vests feature different configurations of the foam flotation. For example, a highback design will have no foam in the lower and middle back panels to accommodate a highback seat. A high profile life jacket will have thicker foam to provide greater flotation than a low profile vest with thinner foam.
Both foam and inflatable life vests are available in a variety of styles and designs. There are even hybrid life jackets combining foam for 15 pounds of flotation with an inflatable bladder for extra buoyancy.
Paddling Life Jacket vs Other Types of PFDs
Life jackets for paddling and fishing are designed to be comfortable and safe. In addition to providing flotation to keep the wearer afloat, a paddling PFD allows full range of motion. Kayakers wear their life jacket all day, making comfort as important as performance. Many anglers look for pockets and clips to hold tools and tackle. Moreover, anglers fishing from sit-on-top kayaks need a life vest that will accommodate a high-back seat.
Highback PFDs vs Fullback PFDs
The development of fishing kayaks coincides with the introduction of highback PFDs. Whitewater and touring sit-inside kayaks have a lowback seat to increase range of movement for paddling and performing a roll.
Sit-on-top fishing kayaks, on the other hand, use a comfortable highback seat that provides greater leverage for paddling or pedaling a heavy boat. The high seat back requires a foam PFD with flotation over the shoulders and mesh across the lower back. When choosing the best kayak fishing life jacket, be sure the seatback doesn’t push the flotation over your shoulders and into your neck.
How to Find the Correct Size Kayak Fishing Life Jacket
Life jackets are available in sizes ranging from extra small to extra-extra large. Each manufacturer provides a fit guide based on chest measurements and weight. Youth, child and women’s life vests use their own sizing and design to match specific body shapes.
Even within the size range, shoulder and torso straps further adjust the life vest for a snug fit. A properly fitted life jacket should be tight to prevent slipping over the wearer’s head but loose to permit movement without restricting breathing.
Kayak Fishing Life Jacket Labels
Coast Guard Ratings
To meet Coast Guard requirements for safety, life jackets are categorized into five “Types”:
- Type I life vests offer the most flotation to keep the wearer afloat for an extended time in rough conditions.
- Type II life vests have a little less flotation but still keep the wearer upright, even when unconscious.
Type I and II life vests are the safest, but they are not very comfortable.
- Type III foam life vests combine comfort with safety making them the best fit for a kayak angler. A foam vest is inherently buoyant to keep the wearer on the surface. According to the Coast Guard designation, Type III life vests are best for supervised activities and not designed to keep an unconscious person face up in the water.
- Type IV PFDs include throwable cushions and rings.
- Type V includes inflatable and hybrid life vests. The Coast Guard describes Type V life vests as appropriate for special uses with supervision. To meet Coast Guard requirements, the paddler must wear a Type V life vest while on the water.
Kayak Fishing Life Jacket Features
The best kayak fishing life vests provide features specifically designed for anglers. In addition to pockets and attachments for gear and gadgets, kayak fishing life jackets are built of tough materials and designed for maximum comfort.
The best way to personalize a life jacket is with pockets and tie-downs. Some anglers like to carry tools, tackle and safety gear in their life vests. Other anglers prefer to store minimal gear in their pockets to reduce weight and bulk.
In case a paddler is separated from the kayak, PFD pockets should hold a safety whistle, rescue light, smartphone in a waterproof case, handheld VHF and personal locator beacon.
Each angler can customize his PFD with tools to meet his needs. Stuffed in the life vest pockets, pliers, line cutters, scissors and other small gadgets are close at hand.
Cost of a Kayak Fishing PFD
Life jackets for fishing range in price from $50 to $200. Price isn’t based on the number of pockets or the amount of inflation, though—the price difference depends on the life vest’s design and construction.
The best life jacket for fishing is sturdy and comfortable, requiring premium materials and design.
A great life jacket uses rip- and fade-resistant nylon. Inside, the life vest uses mesh or breathable material to manage heat.
The foam flotation is a big contributor to price. The best PFD for fishing has environmentally friendly flotation that conforms to the wearer’s body shape.
On the design side, the life vest foam is shaped to increase airflow and reduce heat and moisture. Padded shoulder straps and multiple adjustment points add to a comfortable and snug fit.
Inflatable life vests cost more than foam vests ranging from $70 to over $250. More expensive life vests feature automatic triggering devices and sturdy, padded straps for a tight fight.
Where to Buy
The best place to purchase a life vest for kayak fishing is a kayak outfitter. A specialized shop will have the best selection of life jackets at a variety of price levels and the shop staff can match the angler to the best life jacket for kayak fishing. At a well-stocked kayak shop, the angler can try on different life jackets and check multiple sizes. The shop staff can assist with proper fit and provide safety equipment and fishing accessories to fill the pockets.
Purchasing a PFD online is the next best thing. After comparing online reviews, narrow down the best choices for the type of fishing you do and your budget. Then, look for a retailer with an easy return policy. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs before finding the best PFD for kayak fishing.
If large sporting goods stores are your only option for kayak fishing gear, note that these mega outlets may not have experienced staff or a large variety of life vests across the price spectrum.
The best kayak fishing life vest encourages an angler to stick with the sport. A comfortable and safe life jacket is a big part of enjoying the experience.
When to Replace Your PFD
Unlike faded jeans or a worn and torn fishing hat, to maintain reliable performance, a life jacket must be in perfect condition.
Foam life vests are very durable, and the best kayak fishing life jackets use tough materials and quality construction. However, if the outer material is faded and brittle, the foam has broken down or the straps and buckles have snapped, it’s time to replace the life jacket.
Inflatable life vests require regular inspection and periodic maintenance. If the straps or outer cover are worn or broken or the trigger mechanism corroded and damaged, the life jacket may not inflate properly.
A couple of times each year, trigger the CO2 canister and inspect the inflated bladder for leaks. Then, replace the CO2 canister and repack the bladder.
To extend the life of a life vest, store it indoors, out of direct sunlight, and away from moisture. Leaving the PFD in a hatch or strapped to the kayak will quickly disintegrate the material and components. Take good care of the life jacket so it is ready when needed.
Buying a Used Kayak Fishing Life Vest
Be cautious when purchasing a used kayak fishing life vest. Since a life vest is essential safety equipment, it must perform flawlessly in the worst-case scenario. Inspect the outer material and foam for wear and tear. Sun, salt, moisture and fish slime take their toll on the life vest. Also, the best kayak fishing life vest will conform to the owner’s body. Before buying a used vest, be sure it fits your curves.
Q&A on Choosing the Best Kayak Fishing PFDs
What is the difference between a kayak fishing life jacket and other paddling life jackets?
Kayak fishing life vests have pockets on the front and foam high on the back. The pockets hold tackle, tools and safety items. The mesh back with foam over the shoulders accommodates the highback seat in a sit-on-top kayak.
Are life jackets required for kayak fishing?
Kayakers are required to carry a Coast Guard approved Type III or better foam life jacket. If you choose a Type III or V inflatable life vest, you must wear it at all times.
Can I use an inflatable PFD for kayak fishing?
Inflatable PFDs are great for kayak fishing. These lightweight, low-profile life jackets are more comfortable and less bulky than a foam PFD. For inshore fishing in protected waters within reach of assistance, an inflatable PFD is a good option. Anglers fishing from a standup paddleboard like inflatable PFDs because they are light and compact without restricting movement.
Can I buy a used kayak fishing life jacket?
Buying a used kayak fishing life jacket is a good way to save money on a great life jacket. However, be sure the life jacket is in perfect working order and fits correctly. Compromising safety is not worth saving a few bucks.
What is the best PFD for kayak fishing?
The best PFD for kayak fishing combines reliable flotation with comfortable fit and fishing-specific features. To meet Coast Guard requirements, all Type III life vests must provide 22 pounds of flotation and Type V hybrid inflatable life vests have 15.5 to 22 pounds of flotation. Any approved life vest will keep an angler afloat.
The best kayak fishing life jackets combine premium components with smart design to improve comfort. Look for a life jacket with foam shaped to fit snugly and still allow airflow.
To fish from a sit-on-top kayak with a frame seat, choose a life jacket with flotation high on the back.
Kayak fishing life jackets have pockets to hold tackle, tools and safety gear. The size, number and configuration of pockets allow the angler to customize the life jacket to meet their needs.
Wearing a life jacket is the best way to safely enjoy kayak fishing. Combining comfort, utility and safety, the best life vest makes kayak fishing more fun.
Kayak Fishing Life Jacket Reviews
Below you will find in-depth reviews from Kayak Angler contributors on the best kayak fishing life vests available today.
- Best New Tackle And Gear At ICAST 2022, Part III
- Best New Apparel And Accessories From ICAST 2021
- Onyx Pike Life Jacket
- Mustang Khimera PFD At Paddlesports Retailer
- Kokatat Introduces new PFD’s and Outwear
- New Onyx PFDs First Look
- VIDEO: MTI Redesigns Fishing Vests for Real Anglers
- Onyx Kayak Fishing Vest Packed with Fishing Goodies for a Great Value
- The Best New Inflatable PFD: MTI’s Neptune for Kayak Fishing
- Kokatat Super Nova Angler Gore-Tex & Bahia Predator PFD
Feature photo: Courtesy Wilderness Systems