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The Best PFDs of 2024

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You can have all the paddling chops in the world and still take the dunk. That’s where a quality PFD comes in clutch, and has the potential to keep a bummer from going bad. We’ve tested a spectrum of life jackets on the market today, and from blue to whitewater, we’ve keyed in on the best for any paddler.

Our testing team consists of paddling industry old hands to expedition kayakers fresh off of first descents in South America. From casual SUP cruising in Colorado to whitewater packraft runs in British Columbia, we saddled up in 11 of the best PFDs for this guide, and we made sure that each earned their keep here.

Unlike life jackets, PFDs aren’t just about the float, and we sought to challenge their all-day comfort, paddling mobility, and organization chops as well. We willingly went overboard in these vests, swimming class 3 rapids and bobbing like a cork in the chilly Puget Sound. After being worn hard and put away wet, the following PFDs made the cut.

If this is your first foray into the world of personal floatation devices, consider digging a little deeper into our detailed Buyer’s Guide and comparing vests in our Comparison Chart. And if you’re after even more, the FAQ section should have you coming back up for air.

The Best PFDs of 2024

Best Overall PFD

  • Entry Style
    Side-Entry
  • USCG Rating
    Level-III
  • Floatation
    15.7 lbs. (Size M/L)
  • Foam
    PVC-free Ethafoam
  • Materials
    Recycled 420-denier ripstop nylon shell; 200-denier nylon and 70-denier knit polyester lining
  • Sizes
    XS/M (30-38″); M/L (36-46″); XL/XXL (44-56″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 12.8 oz.

  • Orbit Fit system of layered foam plates wraps around torso

  • Large and soft handwarming pocket

  • Drop-down clamshell pocket stores a good amount of essentials

  • Freestyle cut doesn’t impede strong paddle strokes


  • Front of vest protrudes a good bit, can make wet reentries more difficult

  • Isn’t available in petite sizes

Best Budget PFD

  • Entry Style
    Front-Zip
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16 lbs. (Size L/XL)
  • Foam
    PVC-free foam
  • Materials
    400-denier ripstop nylon shell; 200-denier nylon lining
  • Sizes
    XS/M (30-42″); L/XL (42-52″); XL/XXL (50-56″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 9.2 oz.

  • Budget price

  • Large sizing range for a broad span of body types

  • Mesh-lined high-back design for seat compatibility


  • Pockets aren’t very spacious

  • Flat foam panels don’t curve with the body the best

Best Rescue PFD

  • Entry Style
    Pullover
  • USCG Rating
    Type-V
  • Floatation
    16.5 lbs.
  • Foam
    PVC-free Gaia foam + polyethylene foam
  • Materials
    500-denier Cordura nylon canvas shell; 200-denier nylon liner
  • Sizes
    S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L-XL (45-51″)
  • Weight
    2 lbs., 14.4 oz.

  • Full-spec swiftwater design with integrated rescue features

  • ‘Foam Tectonics’ design moves with the torso during paddling

  • Large and organized clamshell pocket stores essentials

  • Strap adjustments all on torso for a clean profile

  • Quick-release rescue harness integrated for live-bait swimming


  • Hefty PFD for casual use

  • Doesn’t fit paddlers with a bust very well

Best Inflatable PFD

  • Entry Style
    Belt-Worn
  • USCG Rating
    Type-V when worn on waist, Type-III when overhead
  • Floatation
    27.8 lbs.
  • Foam
    N/A
  • Materials
    420-denier ripstop nylon
  • Sizes
    One-size fits most, 27-50″ waists
  • Weight
    1 lb., 4.8 oz.

  • Out of the way design for low-risk activities

  • Waist band fits a wide range of paddlers

  • Small storage pocket for essentials like keys or sunglasses

  • Can be rearmed and used multiple times


  • Can be difficult to get inflated PFD over your head

  • Only uses 24 g CO2 cartridges, which are harder to find and more expensive

Best Women’s-Specific PFD

  • Entry Style
    Side-Entry
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16.3 lbs.
  • Foam
    Organic kapok, PVC-Free Gaia PE Foam
  • Materials
    200-denier x 400-denier ripstop nylon shell; 200-denier high-tenacity nylon liner
  • Sizes
    XS (27-31″); S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 9.6 oz.

  • Very comfortable no matter the chest size!

  • Great range of motion; no rubbing near arms while paddling

  • Durable, lasts a long time

  • Good float protection if you take a swim


  • No hi-vis color options

  • Knife loop is in the wrong spot when sitting (canoes, kayaks)

  • Higher price point

Best Fishing PFD

  • Entry Style
    Front-Zip
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16.5 lbs.
  • Foam
    PlushFit foam
  • Materials
    400-denier ripstop nylon shell
  • Sizes
    XS/M (30-42″); L/XL (42-52″); XL/XXL (50-56″)
  • Weight
    2 lbs.

  • Organization packed design with three front pockets and plier garage

  • High-back design plays well with fishing kayak seats

  • Built-in rod holder

  • Small details such as four retractor tabs and a knife lash tab

  • Very broad size range for all types of anglers


  • Front panel doesn’t allow for the most mobility or quick paddling

  • On the heavier side at 2 pounds

Best Dual-Floatation PFD

  • Entry Style
    Pullover
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    7.5 lbs. foam; plus 13 lbs. when inflated
  • Materials
    Polyester Cordura shell; nylon spandex liner
  • Sizes
    One size, fits chests 30-52″
  • Weight
    1 lb., 15.2 oz.

  • Sleek design when uninflated makes moving around a cockpit easy

  • CO2 inflation adds significant buoyancy and makes this a 20 pound floatation vest

  • Uses easier-to-source 12 g CO2 cartridges


  • Storage pocket is secured with Velcro, which isn’t the most secure

  • One-size fits most won’t fit everyone

Best of the Rest

  • Entry Style
    Pullover
  • USCG Rating
    Type-V
  • Floatation
    16.5 lbs.
  • Foam
    PVC-free Gaia foam + polyethylene foam
  • Materials
    Post consumer recycled 300-denier shell; 200-denier high-tenacity nylon liner
  • Sizes
    S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 2.1 oz.

  • Freestyle cut doesn’t impede paddle strokes

  • Low-profile chest and thinner shoulder straps

  • Hidden phone pocket behind chest panel

  • Fully postconsumer recycled and Bluesign-approved shell


  • No handwarming pocket

  • Fit might benefit from a lower belly strap to prevent riding up

  • Entry Style
    Front-Zip
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16 lbs.
  • Foam
    Polyethylene foam + EVA foam
  • Materials
    Post-consumer recycled 300-denier ripstop polyester shell; 200-denier high tenacity nylon and mesh liner
  • Sizes
    S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 3.2 oz.

  • Very lightweight at close to 1 pound

  • High-back design and rear mesh panel provide a good fit with all watercraft seats

  • Supreme ventilation with air channel in front vest panel

  • Bluesign-approved and post consumer recycled shell fabrics


  • Minimal storage options

  • Velcro shoulder strap storage isn’t our favorite

  • Entry Style
    Front-Zip
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16 lbs.
  • Foam
    Lightweight polyethylene
  • Materials
    240-denier ripstop nylon shell; 200-denier nylon and mesh liner
  • Sizes
    S/M (40-46″); L/XL (48-54″); XXL/XXXL (54-60″)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 7.4 oz.

  • Large and expandable pockets

  • Handwarming pockets

  • Large size range can accommodate bigger paddlers


  • Higher price compared to similar PFDs

  • Velcro-secured shoulder straps instead of a strap garage

  • Entry Style
    Front-Zip
  • USCG Rating
    Type-III
  • Floatation
    16 lbs.
  • Foam
    Gaia + recyclable polyethylene foam
  • Materials
    Recycled 300-denier PET shell; 200-denier high tenacity nylon liner
  • Sizes
    S/M (31-37”); M/L (38-44”); L/XL (45-51”)
  • Weight
    1 lb., 8 oz.

  • Low-profile and thin panel design

  • Well designed pockets including a large phone pocket

  • Recycled and Bluesign-approved shell fabric

  • Relatively affordable


  • Strap garages are of the pass-through variety, which can be nice for adjustments, but on smaller paddlers the straps can hang low

  • Jack-of-all-trades, master of none

PFD Comparison Chart

PFD Price Entry Style USCG Rating Sizes Weight
NRS Ninja $150 Side-Entry Type-III XS/M (30-38″); M/L (36-46″); XL/XXL (44-56″) 1 lb., 12.8 oz.
NRS Clearwater $128 Front-Zip Type-III XS/M (30-42″); L/XL (42-52″); XL/XXL (50-56″) 1 lb., 9.2 oz.
Astral GreenJacket $365 Pullover Type-V S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L-XL (45-51″) 2 lbs., 14.4 oz.
NRS Zephyr Inflatable $150 Belt-Worn Type-V; Type-III One-size fits most, 27-50″ waists 1 lb., 4.8 oz.
Astral Layla PFD $170 Side-Entry Type-III XS (27-31″); S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″) 1 lb., 9.6 oz.
NRS Chinook $160 Front-Zip Type-III XS/M (30-42″); L/XL (42-52″); XL/XXL (50-56″) 2 lbs.
Mustang Survival Khimera $200 Pullover Type-III One size, fits chests 30-52″ 1 lb., 15.2 oz.
Astral YTV 2.0 $150 Pullover Type-V S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″) 1 lb., 2.1 oz.
Astral EV-Eight $140 Front-Zip Type-III S/M (31-37″); M/L (38-44″); L/XL (45-51″) 1 lb., 3.2 oz.
Old Town Solitude II $175 Front-Zip Type-III S/M (40-46″); L/XL (48-54″); XXL/XXXL (54-60″) 1 lb., 7.4 oz.
Astral E-Ronny $135 Front-Zip Type-III S/M (31-37”); M/L (38-44”); L/XL (45-51”) 1 lb., 8 oz.

How We Tested PFDs

Beyond just keeping you alive (and this is the priority ask), PFDs must also be comfortable for all-day wear — not impeding your paddling or causing any hot spots. They also need to be functional enough to tote around your daily essentials in a secure and easy-to-access way. 

It’s all this that we aimed to test in our review of the best available today, and after also dunking ourselves a not small number of times, we got a pretty good handle on what makes a good one. Leading our PFD testing efforts is Editor Nick Belcaster, a late-entry water baby who paddles the Salish Sea and glacial-fed whitewater of Washington State and British Columbia. His craft of choice is typically a packraft, though he also gets down on a touring kayak and SUP from time to time.

Editor and Portland, OR resident Byron Dorr is a veteran of the paddling industry, with numerous designs notched under his belt. He has been both a whitewater and sea kayak instructor and has traveled the world chasing rough water. His eye for product detail kept us honest in our PFD reviewing, and brings deep insight to the testing team.

Tester Wil Henkel also brings plenty to the table, having hundreds of expedition kayak miles tallied up — most recently having completed a first descent of Ecuador’s Río Negro. He is a certified sea kayak guide in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, as well as a whitewater guide in South America. 

Our PFD testing aimed to challenge these vests not only on overall safety but also on general usability and comfort. Our testing team ran through the gauntlet of paddle strokes to test their comfort and mobility, and sat in seats both large and small to challenge fit.

And, finally, we took the dunk — multiple times in each PFD. In some, we swam rapids, and in others we doggy paddled in the salt, but all got a good test of overall buoyancy and fit while swimming. The PFDs we selected here were the best of the bunch, and as new models hit the market, we’ll also suit up in them to keep our selection up-to-date.

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a PFD

We all know that we should wear a life jacket, but there’s an ocean of difference between the orange rectangles of old and modern PFDs. Many are tailored for the specific type of paddling or boating you’re after — some are ideal for casual lake kayaking, while others are perfect for getting rowdy in some rapids. 

Knowing which one is right for you takes some know-how, but the following should aid you in choosing the right PFD for the job.

Life Jackets Vs. PFDs

First, a little terminology breakdown, because the line between a life jacket and a PFD is a blurry one, and understanding this ought to be your first step into the world of personal floatation. 

While both are made to provide added buoyancy to a swimmer, life jackets are rated to be able to turn most unconscious people to their back, where they are at a lower risk of drowning. More often worn when something has gone wrong, life jackets have a higher safety margin and are common on pleasure vessels.

Alternatively, PFDs are made for more recreational pursuits and are meant to be comfortable for all-day use. They often concentrate the foam out of the way of paddling strokes, and incorporate pockets or other mounting tabs for things like strobes or deck knives. Overall floatation can be lower in PFDs, as they are meant to aid a conscious swimmer, not support them completely.

Certifications and Floatation

As a piece of life-saving equipment, it’s important to know if the PFD you’ve got on is legit or bunk, and that’s why the United States Coast Guard has a vested interest in certifying PFDs for use. These certifications help distinguish between the best uses for each vest, and can be mandated on commercial vessels.

There are five different types of USCG-approved PFDs, and while some special uses require some of the more specific jackets, most recreational boaters will need either a Type II or III PFD:

  • Type II PFDs carry 15.5 pounds of flotation at a minimum, and are meant for in-land waters or rivers where rescue is close at hand. These vests will turn most people onto their backs, but not all, and some swimming is required to stay afloat.
  • Type III PFDs also carry 15.5 pounds of floatation, but their design is less restricting, and relies on the ability of the swimmer to be able to put themselves in a floating position. Because of this, these PFDs are also more comfortable for all-day use, and have better mobility than Type II PFDs.

Type V PFDs are a bit tricky, as they are technically specified as ‘special use’ life jackets, which can take the form of an inflatable harness, deck suit, or float coat. For example, the most rough and tumble whitewater PFD we tested, the Astral GreenJacket, is a Type V-rated PFD, while the super compact NRS Zephyr is as well (when worn as a belt, when inflated, it is a Type III).

For most recreational users, going for a Type III PFD is going to be the way to go for active pursuits, while a Type II is a great way to go for less confident swimmers or kiddos.

Fit and Comfort

As important for comfort as it is for safety, the fit of your PFD needs to be dialed and fit your body with a snug embrace, leaving no room for potentially wriggling out and not so tight as to limit efficient breathing. 

Pullover entry PFDs are the most secure fitting, and ideal for rough water situations such as whitewater paddling. You’ll have to loosen up all the straps before donning, but once you’re in there’s little question of overall security. These types of PFDs will adjust at the torso, leaving your shoulders free from straps that might otherwise tangle or catch on deck lines.

Side-entry PFDs are similar to pullover styles, but place a zipper or buckles along the side of the vest to open it up further and make donning easier. The NRS Ninja is a side-entry vest that absolutely won us over, and features different-sized waist straps that ensure they don’t get mixed up. Pre-curved foam panels hugged us tight, and there was no awkward shifting while paddling hard.

Finally, front-entry PFDs command the lion’s share of the recreational life vest market, and are put on like a jacket, with a single zip uniting the front panels. The Astral E-Ronny and EV-Eight were the best fitting in our testing, and sport chunky zips that slide easily. 

In our own testing, PFDs with curved foam panels, like the Astral YTV 2.0, hugged the body tighter than those with flat foam panels, like the Old Town Solitude II. This isn’t a huge issue for casual paddling, but if you’re angling to be in your vest all day, a good fit can be important.

The Astral Layla is also noteworthy, as it won high marks from our female testers for its accommodating design. PFDs with high-back designs, such as the NRS Chinook or Astral EV-Eight, were also a bit more specialized, with the high seats of some kayaks in mind.

Mobility

To best understand the mobility of each PFD, we saddled them up on a range of humans and sent them out for a little cardio. Paddling a kayak demands a good bit more range of motion compared to paddling a SUP, and piloting a sailboat even more than that — where moving around the boat is common. To test the mobility of each of these PFDs, we had our testers get their calisthenics in on shore to check for any rubbing or hot spots, then jump in the drink and get to paddling.

Pullover and side-entry PFDs tend to concentrate foam around the torso compared to the front of the chest, keeping it out of your way while making paddle strokes. Freestyle vests like the NRS Ninja, Astral YTV 2.0, and Astral Layla scored highly in this regard, and were the nicest to paddle all day in.

High-back designs meant to keep your back cool tend to have to carry more foam on the front of the vest, which can make for slightly awkward paddling. We noticed this most in the Old Town Solitude II, which is a bit barrel-chested and better for shorter stints on the water — or slow stokes on a SUP.

While it might not initially look like it, the Astral GreenJacket is actually quite a mobile vest. This is due in large part to the ‘Foam Tectonics’ design, which separates the panels and joins them internally with rugged webbing. This enables the upper half of the PFD to pivot with your paddle strokes while the torso stays in place.

Because it only carries 7.5 pounds of foam, the Mustang Survival Khimera at times felt like wearing little at all. This was especially noticeable when sailing small craft and needing to move about the cockpit while changing tack.

For the greatest mobility, go with an inflatable PFD like the NRS Zephyr. For activities like standup paddleboarding or swimming from a kayak, our testers all grabbed for this vest, which rides like a fanny pack when not needed. The tradeoff here is the need to get the PFD over your head once inflated, but in low-consequence water, we agreed that the mobility was worth it.

Pockets and Organization

Wearing a PFD offers up some additional real estate for storing and accessing essentials throughout the day, and a good system of pockets and lash tabs can make things a lot easier to snag and stash.

Front chest pockets are by-in-large the most common, and vests like the Old Town Solitude II and NRS Chinook had some of the most spacious. Simple drop-in zippered pockets with internal organization work for most things, but the clamshell-style pockets of the Astral GreenJacket or NRS Ninja provide a small workspace for fiddling with your kit.

Alternatively, the front pocket on the Mustang Survival Khimera was fairly small, and we aren’t huge fans of the Velcro closure that could come undone. For anything essential, we’re after zippers to ensure it doesn’t come loose, and for those absolutely can’t be lost items like keys, an internal cord to further lock them down is essential.

The handwarming pocket on the NRS Ninja was the largest in our review, and we could easily tuck our mitts into during cold-water paddling. These are common on whitewater-specific vests such as the Astral GreenJacket, as well as swiftwater-specific pockets for items such as a throw bag or a tow strap, which need to be immediately accessible to be deployed.

A lash tab is a common organization option that you’ll see on many PFDs, and is great for mounting a river knife for quick access. In our review, the only vests not to incorporate one were the NRS Zephyr — a fanny pack style inflatable — and the Mustang Khimera, which opts for spartan looks for a clean silhouette.

Price

Safety equipment like PFDs shouldn’t be skimped on, but there are a range of features and materials that come with bumping up in price. 

Budget PFDs like the NRS Clearwater ($128) typically command a bit over $100, and material choice will be an obvious tell here as to where the cuts have been made to hit the price point. Less-comfortable fabrics might cover the inside of the jacket, and the foam used is most often flat panels that will need to bend around your torso.

Even still, budget PFDs still have all of the safety features we’re after, and we wouldn’t hesitate to jump into any of them. Mid-range PFDs typically command a bit more and range from $135-160, and tuck in more functionality as a result. The Astral E-Ronny ($135) has an excellent pocket layout, while the EV-Eight opts instead to trim weight and focus on being breathable.

The NRS Ninja and Astral YTV 2.0 are both $150, which makes them highly comparable, and ultimately, the call comes down to whether you want a more low-profile or feature-rich PFD. The NRS Zephyr is also $150, and while it’s quite minimal you’re paying for the complex CO2 inflation system.

Premium PFDs command upward of $170 all the way to a little shy of $400, and the premium and tailored fit of the Astral Layla makes it well worth it, in our opinion. The Old Town Solitude II ($175) boasts extended sizing and some broad pockets for the price, and the integrated CO2 inflation cells of the Mustang Survival Khimera demand a $200 price tag. 

Finally, the Astral GreenJacket was our costliest PFD at $365, owed to the complicated design, safety features, and durable materials. This isn’t uncommon with swiftwater rescue-ready PFDs, and other similar vests command around the same sum.

FAQ

Without sounding too cliche, the safest life jacket is the one you wear. By this, we mean that taking the time to get into the correct life jacket will lead to frequent use and, thus, a higher margin of safety.

More technically, the safest life jackets are going to be USCG Type I vests, which are required to have 22 pounds of floatation at a minimum, and are rated to turn most people onto their backs in the water. These life jackets tend to be fairly bulky and uncomfortable, but have the built-in safety to keep even unconscious people alive.

For most general recreation, a Type III PFD with 15.5 pounds of floatation will be sufficient to keep them afloat, though this will depend on variables such as clothing, body fat, and water conditions. 

For higher-risk sports such as whitewater kayaking, higher buoyancy PFDs are a must, and it’s not uncommon to see floatation numbers near 20 pounds or higher. The new Astral Indus packs on 22 lbs. of buoyancy and is meant for rugged water where quick surfacing is essential.

Yes, a Type III PFD will keep most adult users afloat, though you will need to tread water to keep yourself oriented. A Type II PFD is meant to assist swimmers onto their backs while floating, which can be a safer position if you aren’t the strongest swimmer.

If you are a sailor and staring down the eye of a storm, a hydrostatic PFD can be a wise choice, which will inflate on contact with the water should you take a dunk. These PFDs look like horse collars when worn, and don’t need to be placed over your head like the NRS Zephyr does.

If you’re going to be paddling whitewater, a swiftwater PFD is going to be the ticket — if you have the correct training to use it. These PFDs pack additional safety features that allow for advanced swim and rescue techniques to be used, and also often have more on-board buoyancy and padding for bumps.

For most activities, size your PFD snug enough not to pull over your head while floating but not so tight that it limits your swimming mobility. PFD manufacturers publish sizing charts that you can compare to your own measurements.

A special consideration for whitewater and touring paddlers is that a bulky drysuit takes up extra space on your torso, and many find they need to size up to accommodate this. For example, almost all of our testers wear a larger size Astral GreenJacket compared to the recreational PFDs from the same brand, in order to accommodate bulky paddling tops.

The sport of recreational kayaking has been rapidly growing over the past several years, and there are hundreds of kayak options on the market. Here are the best kayaks and the gear you need to get started. 

Looking to invest in a standup paddleboard but don’t know where to start? Check out our list for the best SUPs of 2024.



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