A guide to choosing a buoyancy aid for kayaking

The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Buoyancy Aid

A Buoyancy Aid, often called a Buoyancy Vest, Personal Floatation Device or simply a PFD, is an essential piece of equipment to keep yourself safe on the water. Should you fall into the water, a Buoyancy Aid will help you stay afloat. Whilst there is no law surrounding the use the Buoyancy Aids for Paddlesports, we think that you would be crazy not to keep yourself safe whilst out paddling!

With basic Buoyancy Aids available from as little as £30-50, there really is no excuse not be wearing a PFD whilst on the water. Thankfully most of us care enough for our own self-preservation to see a buoyancy aid as an essential piece of equipment to wear whilst venturing out onto the water. We sell a fantastic range of Buoyancy Aids to cover all paddling disciplines and budgets, so you can be sure to find a suitable PFD for your needs.

There are a wide array of designs and models available, from generic all-rounders to those designed for a specific type of paddling. We run through the different types of buoyancy aids in this guide, to help you make the best choice when buying a PFD.

But first, do you need a Buoyancy Aid or a Life Jacket?

Buoyancy Aid vs Life Jacket

The term life jacket is often used interchangeably with buoyancy aid, particularly for newcomers to the world of paddle-sports. It is important to be aware that a Buoyancy Aid IS NOT a Life Jacket. But, both Buoyancy Aids and Life Jackets are Personal Floatation Devices. Confused yet? There is a significant difference to be aware of...

Buoyancy Aids

A Buoyancy Aid does what is says on the tin... it will be an aid to buoyancy. Buoyancy Aids feature closed-cell foam to provide buoyancy. The buoyancy is inherent within the material and you do not need to activate this in any way should you end up in the water. Buoyancy Aids are worn like a jacket, but with the buoyant foam concentrated around the torso, usually within a front panel and a back panel with open sides. If you enter the water a buoyancy aid will rely on you being able to move / swim / kick your arms and legs in order to keep your head and airway clear of the water - this is a natural response for most of us when in the water. Buoyancy Aids are not so great if you have entered the water unconscious or are unable to swim. If there is a high risk of this, then a life jacket is the sensible option.

Life Jackets

Most Life Jackets makes use of an inflatable chamber, that rapidly fills with air upon activation via a small compressed gas cylinder. This provides lots of buoyancy. Activation is either manual by means of a pull-cord, or automatic when the jacket gets immersed in water. Inflatable Life Jackets also have a manual inflation tube incase the gas cylinder does not activate when required. Life jackets are worn around the neck and down the torso. Once inflated, a life jacket will force you onto your back to ensure your head and airway is kept clear of the water. A good option if you enter the water unconscious or are unable to keep your head and airway above the water. Not so great if you need to pull yourself back onto your kayak! A life jacket then needs to be re-armed with a new gas cylinder before it's next use.

Some lifejackets are constructed of buoyant foam. These essentially have the construction of a buoyancy aid but with buoyant foam fitted around the neck to force your head up out of the water. They tend to have a much higher buoyancy rating than a standard buoyancy aid, meaning that the wearer does not have to contribute any action to staying afloat. This requires a lot more buoyant foam than found within a buoyancy aid and this makes foam lifejackets quite bulky and cumbersome.

Right, so we now know the differences between a buoyancy aid and a lifejacket. So which one do i need for paddling?

Do I need a Buoyancy Aid or Life Jacket for Kayaking and Canoeing?

Buoyancy Aids are the most popular form of PFD for general paddle sports use. They have inherent buoyancy so there is no need to activate the buoyancy and they do not need to be re-armed after use. They are fairly compact, in most cases comfortable to wear and are easy to swim in. They are also much easier to re-enter a kayak with from the water when compared to an inflatable life jacket.

For almost all paddling situations, a buoyancy aid is the best option to keep you safe on the water.

BUYER BEWARE: be sure that you are buying a quality buoyancy aid that meets relevant safety standards. Canoe Shops only sell buoyancy aids from reputable brands that meet ISO Approved Standards. Beware of sub-standard PFDs being sold on large internet marketplaces (who have probably never seen a PFD in real life!). This is an important safety item that could one day save your life. Buy a trusted brand from a trusted retailer, such as Canoe Shops!

Kayaking whilst wearing a buoyancy aid

Buoyancy aids are a popular personal floatation device (PFD) to wear whilst kayaking to keep your safe on the water

Life Jackets are recommended for Non-Swimmers

The main advantage of a life jacket over a buoyancy aid is that it would keep your airway clear of the water should you be unconscious as you enter the water, or are unable to keep your head clear of the water. For most paddlesports, it would be unlikely to be knocked out as you fall out of the craft. There are certainly scenarios where this is possible though: whitewater kayaking and canoeing, and rock hopping / cave exploring in sea kayaks being two examples. You can greatly reduce the chance of a knockout bang to the head simply by wearing a helmet! We sell a great range of helmets for whitewater and sea kayakers. There are also scenarios where someone may enter the water and be unable to right themselves, for example a non-swimmer, be this an infant or adult. In this instance it would be recommended to wear a fixed-foam life jacket.

Life jackets are highly recommended for babies and young children who are not confident swimmers.

We sell a range of life jackets for children - click here to view the range

A child wearing a lifejacket on a kayak

A lifejacket is the best option for children who are not yet swimmers

Which Type of Buoyancy Aid Do I Need?

Buoyancy Aids come is a variety of designs. Be sure to choose a buoyancy aid that has been designed for paddling, as opposed to a buoyancy aid designed for generic watersports.

A paddling buoyancy aid will be short in the body so that it fits best when you are in a seated position. The open-sided design will also provides plenty of freedom of movement so that you can paddle without hindrance.

Paddling a fishing kayak whilst wearing a buoyancy aid on the sea

A buoyancy aid designed for paddling will fit best when you are seated in a kayak, allowing you to paddle in comfort all-day long. Photo shows Andrew at Cornwall Canoes paddling a Viking Profish Reload whilst wearing a NRS Odyssey PFD.


A generic watersports or sailing buoyancy aid will usually be longer in the body and feature thicker foam to offer some impact resistance. You may see these reffered to as Impact Vests. This works well if you are on a sailing craft or dinghy where you may get struck with the sail boom. For paddling use, the longer body section will cause the buoyancy aid to push up as you sit down, making it uncomfortable to paddle in.

For kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding, you need a buoyancy aid designed for paddling!

All paddling buoyancy aids will do the primary and most important job of helping you stay afloat should you end up in the water. Some have been designed to provide secondary features, often specific for certain paddling disciplines and environments. Lets take a look through the different types of buoyancy aids and what they are best suited too.

Buoyancy Aids for Recreational Leisure Paddling

These are standard buoyancy aids for those who just need to stay safe on the water, without any extra bells and whistles. Recreational buoyancy aids are great for general leisure paddling on sit on tops, touring kayaks, inflatables, canoes and SUPs.

Most have a front entry zip making it really easy to put on and take off these buoyancy aids. Simply put on just as you would a coat or jacket. Some feature a pull-over entry, which are still easy enough to put on and take off, just as you would a vest. Adjustable waist and shoulder straps allow you to get a good fit. Some recreational buoyancy aids also feature a small pocket for small essentials.

These buoyancy aids are usually in the £40-100 price range. We sell a great selection of Recereational Buoyancy Aids - click here to view the range.

Features of a Recreational Buoyancy Aid for Kayaking and Canoeing

Typical features of a Recreational-style Buoyancy Aid for Paddlesports. Model shown is the Feelfree Advance PFD.

Kayaker wearing a buoyancy aid for safety

A paddler wearing a Yak Kallista PFD for Sit On Top Kayaking at the beach

Paddling sit on top kayaks wearing a buoyancy aid for safety

Leisure paddling on sit on top kayaks whilst wearing recreational buoyancy aids for safety. The paddlers are staff at Kayaks & Paddles and are wearing the Yak Blaze and NRS Oso buoyancy aids.

Buoyancy Aids For Touring & Sea Kayaking

The term 'touring' can be used for anyone who aims to spend much of their time on the water paddling over some distance. This may be a gentle day trip inland or along the coast. This could also be a multi-day expedition in more challenging conditions! When putting in many thousands of paddle strokes over a trip, you do not want your PFD becoming a hindrance. Comfort is key!

Touring buoyancy aids are great for anyone wanting enhanced comfort and extra features like pockets. This style of buoyancy aid works well for sit-inside touring and sea kayakers as well as those paddling sit on tops, canoes, inflatables and more. 

Front-zip entry is fairly standard with touring PFDs, although some designs are pullover. Multiple adjustment straps ensure a secure fit - this is important for sea kayakers who can often paddle in challenging sea conditions. Touring buoyancy aids tend to use a higher quality and softer foam than standard buoyancy aids. Quality foam will have a higher buoyancy rating for a given volume and tend to hug the body better for a comfortable and secure fit. All this makes for a nicer buoyancy aid to wear for longer paddling days.

Many touring PFDs also feature numerous pockets for carrying essential safety kit such as a VHF Radio, PLB, Mobile Phone and more. Most will also have accessory clip points allowing you to add navigation lights and safety knives.

Some models also have a large pocket on the back for a hydration bladder. Perfect for those days when you want to put in the miles and don't want to stop to have a drink. Simply drink as you paddle... easy!

These buoyancy aids are the best option for the regular paddler putting in the hours and miles on the water, or for those who just want that bit of extra comfort and security from their buoyancy aid. Check out our range of Touring and Sea Kayaking Buoyancy Aids by clicking the link.

Features of a Touring Buoyancy Aid PFD for Kayaking Canoeing

Typical features of a Touring-style Buoyancy Aid for touring and sea kayaking. Model shown is the Palm Kaikoura PFD - a premium touring-style buoyancy aid.

Sea Kayaking Buoyancy Aid

A touring paddler wearing a Yak Xipe PFD whilst paddling off the Cornish coast

Paddlers on an inflatable canoe wearing touring buoyancy aids

Jack from Cornwall Canoes on the water with his partner in the Gumotex Scout inflatable Canoe. They have chosen to use the Palm Peyto and Palm Meander Touring PFDs to offer comfort for long days on the water.

Buoyancy Aids for Kayak Fishing

Kayak anglers are a little different to the average paddler. They can often spend as much time drifting around or sat at anchor fishing as they can actually paddling when on the water. It is also not uncommon to be on the water for long days too during a fishing session. Again, comfort is key, but so is additional functionality. Pockets are favoured by many kayak anglers, for storage of small safety essentials and also fishing tackle. It is particularly useful to have a large pocket that will accommodate a VHF Radio and mobile phone. Accessory clip points are also particularly useful for clipping on scissors, pliers, a safety knife and more.

There are now a number of PFD's available specifically aimed at the kayak angler. These not only feature plenty of pockets, but also a 'High-Back' buoyancy design. This is where the buoyancy foam at the back of the buoyancy aid is concentrated on the upper half across the shoulders, with just a covering of mesh fabric on the lower half of the back. This works really well with the taller seat backs found on many fishing kayaks and makes for a more comfortable experience as you sit, fish and paddle.

Check out our range of Buoyancy Aids for Kayak Fishing by clicking the link.

Features of a Kayak Fishing Buoyancy Aid PFD

Typical features of a Buoyancy Aid for Kayak Fishing. Model shown is the Palm Kola Angler PFD.

Liam using a Palm Kola Angler buoyancy aid for kayak fishing

Liam from Cornwall Canoes uses a Palm Kola Angler PFD for kayak fishing - the numerous pockets and accessory attachment points are very useful for keeping safety items on the buoyancy aid such as a VHF and safety knife

Kayak fishing in the Palm Kola Angler buoyancy aid in Cornwall

High-back design buoyancy aids work well with fishing kayak seats. Liam at Cornwall Canoes is shown wearing the Palm Kola Angler PFD on a Vibe Sea Ghost 110 fishing kayak

Buoyancy Aids for Whitewater Kayaking

These PFDs are designed for use on whitewater rivers and surf, be it for river running, creek boating, playboating, surfing or general coaching. They tend to have additional buoyancy to help support a paddler should they have to swim in turbulent rapids and aerated waters. The thicker foam found on these PFDs offers better protection for the paddler against rocks and other bumps too.

Whitewater buoyancy aids are either pullover or side-entry designs to offer a more secure fit. Most have a large front pocket for easy access and storage of a safety sling and rescue knife. Some models have an integrated quick-release chest harness for rescue scenarios too.

These buoyancy aids are best for any whitewater application, be it on a kayak or canoe. Check out our range of Buoyancy Aids for White Water Kayaking & Canoeing by clicking here. 

Features of a White Water PFD Buoyancy Aid for Kayaking

Typical features of a Buoyancy Aid for White Water Kayaking & Canoeing. Model shown is the Peak River Wrap PFD.

White Water Paddler Kayaking with a Buoyancy Aid

Henry from Southampton Canoes paddling a Titan Nymph white water kayak using a Palm Nevis PFD. This PFD offers plenty of buoyancy with an integrated chest harness for rescue applications.

A canoeist running white water wearing a buoyancy aid

A canoeist running white water wearing a white water style buoyancy aid.

Buoyancy Aids for SUP Stand Up Paddleboarding

Buoyancy aids designed for kayaking also make a great option for stand up paddleboarding. Compact, comfortable designs with lots of freedom of movement ensure you can SUP without feeling restricted in any way, but with extra safety should you go fall off your board. Any Recreational or Touring style PFD will be fine for use on a SUP. Another popualr option is an inflatable waist-belt lifejacket, such as the Palm Glide PFD. This is a manually activated lifejacket concealed within a low-profile waistbelt. Simply pull the cord if you need floatation assistance when in the water and a 100N life-jacket style floatation chamber is deployed from the belt!

Buoyancy Aids for Women

Many PFD's are made in a unisex fashion to suit all paddlers. Some brands offer buoyancy aids tailored specifically for women paddlers. Designed with the female body form in mind, you can be sure of increased comfort over a standard unisex or mens buoyancy aid. Ladies buoyancy aids often come in their own unique colour range too!

Check out our range of Buoyancy Aids for Women by clicking here. 

Buoyancy Aids and Life Jackets for Children

Be sure your child is safe on the water with a buoyancy aid or life jacket. Buoyancy aids are suitable for kids who can swim. If they are unable to swim or are not yet confident swimmers, we would recommend them using a life jacket to ensure their head stays clear of the water should they end up in the water. Crotch straps are a standard feature here. These straps run between the legs of the wearer and ensure the PFD is unable to ride up over their head should they end up in the water. This offers a very secure fit and you can be sure that the PFD wont just pop off the child if they go for a swim!

Check out our range of Buoyancy Aids & Life Jackets for Children by clicking here. 

Features of a Childs Buoyancy Aid PFD for Kayaking Canoeing

Typical features of a Childs Buoyancy Aid for Kayaking & Canoeing. Model shown is the Palm Quest Kids PFD. Suitable for children who can swim.

Children wearing buoyancy aids on a kayak

Many recreational buoyancy aids are available in junior sizes to suit children. Great for kids who are confident swimmers! These children are wearing the Palm Universal Kids PFD.

Features of a Childs Life Jacket

Typical features of a Childs Life Jacket for Kayaking & Canoeing. Model shown is the Crewsaver Spiral Life Jacket. Suitable for children who are non-swimmers.

Children wearing lifejackets on a canoe

Lifejackets are recommended for non-swimmers and young children who are not yet confident swimmers. These children are wearing the Crewsaver Spiral Lifejacket

Stay Safe On The Water!

We want all paddlers to be safe on the water. If you are still unsure which buoyancy aid will best suit your needs, please get in contact with us and we can advise on the best PFD models for your needs.