kayak boat extreme sport river rapids danger fun excitement recreation paddle whitewater waves spray mist adventure person man
a kayaker
Gear Guy

What Are the Best Whitewater Life Jackets?

I’m looking to step up to a better personal flotation device (PFD) for whitewater. What are the big differences between models?

kayak boat extreme sport river rapids danger fun excitement recreation paddle whitewater waves spray mist adventure person man
Bob Parks

For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.

The waterways are swollen this week after a long dry spell. Don’t let the only thing holding you back be your personal flotation device, that essential piece of gear that protects you if, say, a paddle accidentally cracks you over the head, you fall overboard with an injury, or need to fish a buddy out of treacherous water. In other words, the freak events you never imagine happening until they do.

I certainly need to upgrade. Sure, my PFD still floats, but it gets swampy and chafes if I try to match cadence with friends. The good news is that the number of really well-designed open-cut jackets have grown, and this year has brought new models that stay cool in hot weather and move with you. Look for wide arm holes, a high waistline, and design that fully adjusts along the torso and vertically. Technical PFDs for challenging water should have discrete pockets and attachment rings for a whistle, a rescue knife, and other essentials.

Jackets with acceptable performance will most likely run you more than $100. But the good news is that for this price, what you get is a PFD you’ll want to wear religiously every time out. And you should. For those who ride without a floatation device, I always think of that riveting passage in Aaron Ralston’s book, 127 Hours, in which he falls into icy grip of the Colorado, and simply cannot get out. This is before his famed accident, before his hard-earned wisdom, when he was still a reckless young man. If it can happen to strong swimmer like Ralston, it can happen to anyone. Check out some of the best options on the following pages and paddle safely.

The Best Whitewater Life Jackets: Astral Willis USD

Made right in Asheville, North Carolina, the $159 Willis is the ultimate open-cut design. It moves like a second skin thanks to panels that conform to your torso. The jacket uses recyclable Gaia-brand foam (not PVC) so the jacket is more earth-friendly. Because of its compact design, it does have a pound or two less of float (15.5 pounds versus the 17 of some other models mentioned here). Bigger paddlers might chose another product. The Willis model is for male paddlers; Astral’s Bella is the female counterpart.

The Best Whitewater Life Jackets: MTI PF Diva SE

If you’re a woman and have tried on a few “comfort” life jackets, you might well ask whose comfort the designers had in mind. The $135 Diva has an Adjust-a-Bust fit system for women, along with nice features like fleece-lined hand-warming pockets, reflective accents on the outside for added safety, and a signal whistle.

The Best Whitewater Life Jackets: Stohlquist Rocker

The $140 Rocker feels like a second skin. Named after the fore and aft design of highly maneuverable kayaks, the Rocker has stretchy shoulder straps that follow your movements and an ergonomic shape that hugs the body. A cross-chest strap reduces the ability of the jacket to ride up, and a specially designed lumbar pad provides good airflow. There are lots of places to hook your whistle, knife, or strobe. The one downside? Where many other models come in three sizes, the Rocker has just two, sometimes causing fit problems for those who fall in between.

The Best Whitewater Life Jackets: Kokatat Ronin

Like most lifejackets, the $166 Ronin comes in several colors, in this case grey, yellow, and red. But the whole point of a technical jacket is visibility in an emergency, so stick with the yellow if you can. Kokatat makes the Ronin right in Arcata, California, out of PVC-free Gaia foam. Its thermal-molded shoulders, internal harness, and snug fit provide great safety and comfort. The large front pocket and lanyard attachment keep your knife or flashlight handy.

promo logo