Besides a kayak and a paddle, the only other thing you need is a life jacket (also called life vest, personal flotation device, PFD) to get your kid on the water. Strangely, choosing a life jacket can be more overwhelming than choosing a kayak! The following advice and recommendations will help you get your child outfitted in the right size, type and material so you can get them out on the water!
Kid Life Jackets: Neoprene Versus Nylon
Neoprene life jackets are softer, more fitted and tend to be more comfortable for kids but do cost more than nylon. Nylon life jackets dry faster and are less expensive, but tend to be bulkier and ride up, sometimes pushing on the child's chin when sitting on a boat and while floating in the water.
Kid Life Jacket Sizing
INFANT 0-30 lbs
CHILD 30-50 lbs
YOUTH 50-90 lbs
You will want to buy a life jacket that is US Coast Guard Approved (USCGA) so you know it will do what it is supposed to.
Each life jacket comes in different types, which are based on ratings by the US Coast Guard and tell you how likely they are to turn the user to a face-up position and what type of water they are appropriate to use in. The types you will need to consider for your child while kayaking are TYPE 2 (Type II) and TYPE 3 (Type III).
TYPE 2 (TYPE II) for kids
TYPE 3 (TYPE III) for kids
Infant, child, and youth life jackets are based on the user's weight and not by chest size like adult life jackets. For infant, child and youth sizes you have the option of either a TYPE 2 or TYPE 3 life jacket. So the TYPE 2 for young ages generally has the crotch strap, headrest and grab handle and the TYPE 3 does not necessarily have those. Type 2 is meant to flip kids on their backs and support their heads, while Type 3 is just to helps kids float and they need to be able to tip their heads back on their own.
What TYPE (TYPE 2 or TYPE 3) life jacket should I get for my kid for kayaking?
If you are going to a calm lake or lazy river and your child can swim, you will probably want the TYPE 3 for your child while they are kayaking. They don't need to crotch strap or headrest in their way if they are a swimmer and you are not on choppy or dangerous water. The Type 3 is less bulky and more comfortable than the Type 2, and the Type 2 is less bulky and more comfortable than the Type 1, which is for rough dangerous water, such as being stuck out in the ocean for an extended time.
If your child can not swim, tip their head back to float, or may wiggle out of a life jacket, you will want the TYPE 2 so that the crotch strap will keep them safely in the life jacket.
Some Type 3 and many Type 2 have a crotch strap. The Type is meant to tell you how likely the life jacket is to keep the child's face out of the water. If a child cannot turn themselves face-up in the water, then they need a Type 2 life jacket. Swimmers in calm water paddling a kayak usually prefer a Type 3 for boating activities.
Here are some examples:
What life jacket material should I choose and how much should I spend?
Neoprene PFDs are soft life jackets that often have a zipper instead of straps, or sometimes even both. If your child is sensitive to scratchy materials or would do better with a less-bulky life jacket, you will want to look at a neoprene type life jacket. There are similar names to Neoprene such as Hydroprene, Biolite, and others that are very similar and fall into the same category as neoprene such as Hyperlite.
If you are on a tight budget, or have rough and tumble outdoor kids that are not easily bothered, then the nylon traditional life vests will work just fine for many families. Yes, they are slightly bulkier, and not as super soft as the neoprene, but they do dry faster and have been used for a very long time with great success.
You probably already know if you have the kind of child who will have a hard time wearing a bulky or not super soft PFD. One of my kids couldn't care less about which type they are wearing, and I have one child that is much more annoyed by physical discomforts so neoprene is the better choice for him. For babies, neoprene is what moms tend to prefer because it is so soft. However, there are good quality infant nylon PFDs as well. I will list some we have tried later in this article.
When paddling a kayak, it is more comfortable to have a softer, well-fitted PFD that does not get in the way of paddling and does not ride up to the child's face when they are sitting. For this reason, I recommend a Neoprene life jacket unless the price is an issue for you, in which case, a more affordable nylon life jacket is fine. I will list some recommendations to look at in each category so you can see some highly-rated examples on Amazon and what each tends to cost.
Best INFANT NEOPRENE Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best INFANT NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best CHILD TYPE 2 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best CHILD TYPE 3 NEOPRENE Life Jackets for Kayaking
Best CHILD TYPE 3 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best YOUTH TYPE 2 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best YOUTH TYPE 3 NEOPRENE Life Jacket for Kayaking
Best YOUTH TYPE 3 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
When we moved to a house with a river in our own backyard we started venturing into the world of kayaking for our three young boys. After reading, buying, trying and learning, we decided to share everything we discovered along the way for other families who are ready to get their kid's feet wet in the world of paddling.