After testing more than a dozen life jackets for use on kayaks, skiffs, and stand-up paddleboards, we decided that NRS’s Ion PFD is the best all-around Type III life jacket for most paddlers. It’s comfortable, streamlined, and lightweight, and it has just the right pocket space for a whistle, a small flashlight, a cell phone, and a small set of keys, without being too cumbersome.
The NRS Ion PFD is the most ergonomically designed life vest we came across. It will help keep you safe without getting in the way of your water fun. Offering everything from a zipperless entry and soft neoprene-padded shoulder straps to a fleece-lined hand-warming pouch and minimal but sufficient foam and pockets, this is the all-around life vest we would choose to take paddling.
While zipperless entry may be the more pragmatic choice for saltwater paddlers, some may prefer the old-fashioned zipper. Kokatat’s Bahia PFD includes almost all the features of NRS’s Ion but has a zipper for front entry.
The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest is a no-frills, low-profile vest that allows free movement of your arms but provides an ample three straps to ensure a snug fit should you end up having to put it to the test. It is notably rudimentary, however, as it uses inexpensive nylon and incorporates no storage space at all. It can keep you afloat just like any other life vest five or six times its price, but a few too many days left out in the sun or a slight snag could tear the lining and end this jacket’s life prematurely. If you take special care, and find creative storage alternatives—small carabiners or keyrings could be the ticket—it could last just as long as any other PFD. Just don’t expect the plush comfort of Astral’s BlueJacket or Kokatat’s Bahia.
The Astral BlueJacket is overkill for most people—you won’t see me spending over $200 on a life jacket anytime soon. That said, if you plan on paddling day in and day out, or if you undertake multiple long-distance excursions throughout the course of a year, this model is a great choice. Padded shoulder straps, large armholes, just enough pocket space, and an integrated hydration sleeve make it the avid paddler’s ideal life vest. Thanks to its rugged nylon lining, stainless steel hardware, and zipperless entry, salt, sand, rocks, and brush all have their work cut out for them if they’re going to damage this vest. You can find worse accessories to allocate a little extra dosh towards.
NRS’s Chinook Fishing PFD is so heavily laden with pockets and built-in fishing accessories, it’s a fishing vest in its own right. Fly fishers especially will appreciate this PFD: From its coil tool retractor to its rod-holding tab and innumerable other loops, tabs, and D-rings, the Chinook is a worthy companion for anglers, in and out of a boat.
While the pared-down Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest from Coleman won’t replace your fly vest like NRS’s Chinook might, this vest still has a coil tool retractor. It minimizes pockets, but it does have one large pocket that rests over the life vest zipper and folds open to reveal a “work station” with just enough room for you to tie or mend tackle in a somewhat secure space; the pocket also has a foam pad for copious fly storage, another feature that fly anglers will appreciate.
Why you should trust us
Having paddled, rowed, and fished through salt marshes and ponds, across tidal flats, and on lakes, bays, and sounds all across North America, I’ve come to recognize what I like, desire, and ultimately need in a life jacket. I also enlisted the help of Charleston, South Carolina–based kayak guide and American Canoe Association member Dallas Baker, who inspects, services, and, most important, depends on life jackets every single day he’s on the job.
I also picked the brains of several members of the United States Coast Guard, who, while unable to discuss or endorse specific brands, led me in the right direction as far as certain features to seek out—most notably a verifiable USCG seal of approval.
Who this is for
The Type III personal flotation devices in this guide are designed for paddlesport enthusiasts who want a life jacket that offers reasonable comfort and a pocket or two for moderate storage without compromising breathability or mobility. Some kayaks—especially “sit-in” or sea kayaks—can be particularly narrow, so paddlers want a PFD that’s not too bulky but still has a pocket or two for stashing a small flashlight, a knife, and maybe a phone or wallet. Any US Coast Guard–approved life jacket of the proper weight and size, purchased from a reputable source, is bound to float you (remember, though, that the only kind of life vest that will keep your unconscious head above the drink is a Type II). Even so, addressing factors such as comfort, mobility, durability, and storage can go a long way.
Where we tested
We tested these PFDs in the sun and salt of the intercoastal creeks around Charleston, South Carolina.
I took the life vests in our test group out in the oppressively muggy, salty tidal creek behind my house in Charleston, South Carolina, allowing each vest a healthy dose of sun, salt, and pluff mud before leaving them out to bleach, rust, and deteriorate as they ordinarily would. The dizzying maze of waters around the area islands gave me ample opportunity to test out the fit and durability of these life vests.
How we picked
We sorted through field tests and roundups published in every major outdoors-related media outlet from Outdoor Life to On The Water, as well as on smaller, more specialized websites and blogs such as Life Jacket Advisor.
You can find five kinds of PFDs (only four of which are life jackets), distinguished by the Roman numerals I through V. However, a Type III is really the only life vest someone engaging in paddlesports should consider. Most of the other kinds, namely Type I (offshore), Type II (inshore/nearshore), and Type V (inflatable), are only for survival situations, and a Type IV is a throwable PFD, usually (and hopefully) only ever employed as a seat cushion.
Ultimately, we decided that with paddlesports being our focus, the best life jacket would have to allow for substantial mobility and ventilation without compromising durability or comfort, with storage being a relatively small but still important concern (generally, at least two pockets, and one lash tab), except for the fishing PFD category, which requires pockets and accessories for fishing gear.
To test, we not only paddled in each vest but also walked and sat ashore, noting particular hang-ups or points of discomfort. We also gave each vest a healthy dose of sun, salt, and mud, curious to see how they would stand up to the particularly harsh elements of South Carolina’s lowcountry marshes.
NRS’s Ion PFD vest is ultraslim, providing flotation where it counts without bulk. Most important, it has no zipper to corrode or break. To stash your accessories, the Ion PFD includes a pair of pockets and a lash tab for a knife or flashlight—just enough without getting in the way. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t, taking a little extra care for comfort.
Unlike with most PFDs, you put the Ion PFD on by pulling it over your head or entering from the side by way of plastic buckles. Zippers, in my experience, are among the first things to break on a life vest, so eliminating them is an excellent idea. Dumping the front zipper also allows for a single chestpiece of foam, freeing up the torso and shoulders.
Overall, I found the zipperless-entry style both more comfortable and more adjustable. The Ion PFD has a conveniently placed large buckle (almost 2 inches wide) and a smaller one (about 1 inch) below for finer adjustments. Made of heavy-duty plastic, they’re easy to reach and open, and they don’t poke, constrict, or bite like some others I’ve used. The nylon fabric is tough, with a bit of reflective coating for extra measure, and the neoprene on the upper inside of the chestpiece (something that shirtless and bikini-clad paddlers will appreciate) is ultrasoft—though this material, I assume, might be slightly more prone to damage. The inner back part has a series of foam and mesh ridges, increasing in size from top to bottom so that the lower back receives more support. The two zippers that do exist on the vest give way to one large pocket (with room for phone, keys, wallet, and all) and are as corrosion resistant as they come; the design also gives you a lash tab over the pocket for a penlight or knife. The shoulder straps—the most important part of the safety equation, save for the foam—are wide, tightly woven, and well-padded to keep them comfortable over long use.
The most unique feature of the Ion PFD, however, has to be the hand-warming fleece pouch, which is similar to what you might find on a hoodie and is something that cold-weather paddlers will easily appreciate. (I certainly would have opted for a life jacket with this detail when my father would wake me up on winter weekends at dawn to paddle through ice in Long Island Sound.)
Who else likes our pick
The staff at Rapid: The Whitewater Magazine write: “[T]he Ion from NRS is comfortable and low profile. It features a flat back and cool flow air system, the six-panel design and flexible foam easily conforms to body shapes. Extras: Padded shoulder straps, soft interior lining and a large front pocket with hand-warmer pouch.”
Dallas Baker at Coastal Expeditions in Charleston, South Carolina, wore the Ion PFD while demoing several kayaks we were testing, and apart from trying to walk off with it (just kidding!), couldn’t stop remarking about how simply comfortable and well-aerated it was.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As noted above, the Ion PFD includes a padded back, which, however thin, may feel uncomfortable for some kayakers. (If that’s the case for you, look into the high-backed Kokatat Bahia, or the Stearns Surge-series paddling vest.) The non-waterproof zippered pockets might come as a surprising disappointment to some people at this price. That said, waterproof zippers corrode all too easily, and are a feature that I would recommend against for anyone getting anywhere near salt. If you need to keep something dry, use a dry pack instead.
Kokatat’s Bahia PFD offers almost exactly what NRS’s Ion does, only in a more traditional front-entry design with a high back made especially for kayakers who, understandably, don’t like having their life jacket resting between them and their seatback. It has neoprene-padded shoulder straps, along with two small pockets and a lash tab. Kokatat vests are also very durable: I’ve owned one for nearly 20 years without a hitch.
Many paddlers find front-entry life jackets to be more comfortable; before purchasing one, decide which style you like (just be sure to factor in whether it will come into contact with seawater, and how well you envision yourself taking care of the zipper).
The Bahia seems to have a little more foam area in the front compared with NRS’s Ion PFD, but that’s probably to make up for having much less foam in the back. A relatively thick (though thinner than the front) piece of foam fills the upper back, leaving a small gap of mesh midway down that connects to a thin lower back piece. This design specifically accommodates kayak paddlers who prefer not to have much between them and their seatback, and it becomes almost necessary in some cases, especially with certain sea or “sit-in” kayaks, depending on the seat configuration.
As for functionality, the pockets are a spartan pair, arranged one over the other, but well designed with clips inside to secure keys, a knife, and the like. You’ll also find the obligatory lash pad just beside them, so all of your accessories remain available in the same place, which can never hurt in an urgent situation.
The zipper seems strong (I haven’t been able to coax it off track), the lower plastic buckle and its strap are sturdy (though relatively small), and the shoulder straps are nicely padded all the way across from front to back with an adequate amount of neoprene, which feels good even on bare skin. However, the mesh that connects the top and lower foam in back is coarse, and while it adds to breathability, it might leave some comfort to be desired for some people, but only when worn without a shirt.
The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest features open sides, allowing air to pass through and eliminating the need for nylon mesh or any other breathable material. This vest has no pockets or lash tabs, but it does offer at least five places to attach lanyards, rings, or carabiners for a whistle, a pen light, a knife, or keys. It’s a cheap option, but with three firm straps and strong buckles, it’s also highly reliable.
I had no particular complaints in wearing this vest, and my only thought afterward—apart from wishing it had a lash tab or pockets—was that the lack of pockets and a zipper (the three straps and buckles make up for a zipper) meant that it had many fewer mechanisms with the potential to fail. Nothing on this life vest suggests it will deteriorate, much less corrode, being that there’s not a single piece of metal on it. Overall, I found it entirely reliable, if spartan.
Astral’s BlueJacket represents a serious investment, one that most people don’t need to make up front. That said, we tried on a few of the life vests offered at the top of the category and were particularly pleased with the BlueJacket’s Foam Tectonics technology, which gives you more mobility by separating the front foam pad from the life vest’s buckling straps. This design lightens the load while still leaving plenty of room for a large clamshell pocket in front that’s capable of containing—and organizing—a surprising amount of gear. The clamshell pocket’s stainless steel zipper provides assurance that you won’t have to replace it (at least not anytime soon, we hope). Lastly, a hydration pouch in the back, along with routing tabs for the mouthpiece, make this model the ideal expedition PFD.
Apart from the hydration pouch and the conveniently placed, easily accessible clamshell pocket (which, in my experience, turned out to be almost completely waterproof), my favorite part of the BlueJacket’s design was its lack of foam in the shoulder and underarm areas (on many other vests, foam in those areas inhibits paddling to some degree). All in all, I felt infinitely more comfortable paddling in Astral’s BlueJacket, which ultimately quelled my early skepticism about its prohibitive price tag.
NRS’s Chinook Fishing PFDis a fly fisher’s dream life vest, with seven front pockets, a rod-holding tab, a D-ring for a net attachment, and a coil tool retractor for forceps and clippers. The Chinook offers just about everything a fly vest would but adds the security of flotation, something that wader-clad shore-bound and personal-watercraft-paddling anglers alike can appreciate. It’s also exceptionally accommodating, with eight adjustment points, plus a mesh lower back for breathability and paddling comfort. The Chinook has quickly become an industry favorite this year, highlighted in publications such as On The Water and Paddling.com.
What impressed me most about this gadget-ready vest was how lightweight it was, whereas other vests offering similar storage options seemed to weigh more and bear considerable more bulk (even when empty). The nylon fabric, despite being extremely abrasion-resistant, is featherlight in the way that top-of-the line rain jackets are, something I encountered only in this vest and in Astral’s slightly less kitted-out (but still worthy) Ronny Fisher model.
Budget fisher-friendly pick
The Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest from Coleman is a pared-down version of NRS’s Chinookwith fewer pockets but all the necessary accoutrements for a fisher on the water. The padded clamshell pocket in front, which has a foam fly holder inside, makes for an outstanding workbench to tie and mend tackle, and the mesh lower back gives a kayaker added comfort. If you’re on a budget and on the hunt for a fisher-friendly life vest, it would be hard to find another one this good for $70.
When testing out the “work station” pocket to see if it actually lived up to its name, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it served its purpose. Specifically, I could imagine a giddy fly fisher frantically changing near-microscopic size-22 mayflies during a dusk hatch singing its praises, especially a veteran who either in moments of high excitement or low light has had the misfortune of losing many a $5 fly to trembling hands knowing full well that, had they been donning this vest, such tragedies might have never unfolded. The Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest, while not hemmed with the finest of threading or built with the sturdiest of nylon, earns a firm A+ in the design department.
Choosing between the Kokatat Bahia and the NRS Ion PFD would have been difficult had I not come to the conclusion that eliminating zippers for the sake of saltwater paddlers was imperative. While design seemed to change little among the $100 to $200 models, I easily dismissed certain budget-friendly options, namely Stearns’s Comfort Series, due to their poorly designed open pockets, along with their cheap stitching and nylon. The Comfort Series generally includes a coarse nylon material that does not grace bare skin very well, and we found that these models lacked enough straps to provide a confidently snug fit. I also found the rather flashy design something of an eyesore in comparison with other Stearns models, save for the collared angler model, which is a drab green and black with a soft nylon collar. (Still, the Stearns Hybrid Fishing/Paddle Vest offers so much more in the way of accessories and comfort that it’s worth the extra $20 to $30.)
Other vests we tested, including much of the Astral, Kokatat, and Stearns lines, included worthy contenders that didn’t make as much of an impression for one small reason or another—Astral’s Ronny Fisher fisher-friendly vest, for example, was a wonderfully designed, well-built model that lacked a variety of storage, such as rod-holding tabs or a small fold-out “work station” like that of the Stearns fishing model. I was a big fan of Kokatat’s Aries PFD, a front-zip design with minimal foam overall and a skinny piece of foam in the lower back for comfort against a kayak seat back, but at some point during testing, the single pocket—being made partially of a fine and apparently not so durable mesh—tore open.
What to look forward to
We have a lot more life jackets to test (and more usage scenarios to test them in). We will provide an update to this guide in the spring.
Care and maintenance
Just as with anything that finds its way near the sea, be sure to wash your life vest down after any outing. Get saltwater and grit out of any moving parts, open and empty the pockets, and store your life jacket in a shady but well-ventilated place to dry.
- Top Fishing Life Vests – Catch Fish, Don’t Join Them, Life Jacket Advisor
- guide, Coastal Expeditions, Charleston, South Carolina, interview, June 2017 ,
- naturalist guide/owner, Charleston Kayak Company, Charleston, South Carolina, interview, June 2017 ,
- PFDs: How to Choose, REI.com, December 2, 2014 ,
- Angler-Friendly PFDs Life jackets that won’t become seat cushions, Outdoor Life, April 30, 2004 ,
- PFD Basics, BoatSafe.com
- 2017 Best Life Jackets For Kayak Fishing, Boating & Water Activities!, Fishing Picks ,
- Take Your Pick: Personal Flotation Devices for Fishermen, On The Water, April 14, 2014 ,
(OWEN JAMES BURKE)