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
Are for near-shore calm inland water where rescue would be imminent, will turn some, but not all, unconscious users face-up in the water.
Usually has a headrest meant to help turn a child from face down to face up in the water
Usually has a crotch strap to keep life jacket from floating up and child from slipping out
Usually has a grab handle to make it easier to pull them out of the water by an adult
TYPE 3 (TYPE III) for kids
Usually looks more like a mini version of an adult life jacket
Does not always have a crotch strap, the grab handle, or a headrest, though some do
Is generally thought of for kids who can swim and are comfortable floating in the water
Will float a child, but the child needs to be able to tip own head back to float as life jacket will not do it for them
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:
My 3-year-old wears a CHILD-sized TYPE 2 life jacket.
My 8-year-old who has low-functioning Autism and intellectual disability also wears a TYPE 2 but in a YOUTH size.
My 9-year-old son who is a swimmer paddles his kayak in a YOUTH SIZED life jacket that is a TYPE 3
My sister's young baby wears an INFANT TYPE 2 life jacket while her mom holds her in the canoe.
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
O'Brien Infant Neoprene is the top-seller on Amazon for neoprene infant life jackets. This is what we used for our babies and they lasted all 3 kids and now our guests use them for their babies when we go out on the river together. They are very soft and easy to put on and have lasted for over ten years. For colors and current prices check here.
O'Neill Wake Waterski Infant Vest is an affordable, high-quality well-made infant life vest. This life jacket is comfortable and does the job of turning an infant face up very well. Babies love floating on their backs in this life jacket. It is more expensive than basic nylon vests, but it is consistently highly-rated, and I think it is worth it for the peace of mind and comfort. It is one of the best nylon PFDs for infants. It comes in four or five colors.
Best CHILD TYPE 2 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest is designed for a child who cannot swim to have the best chance of turning them face-up in the water. Be careful to select child size before ordering, as it comes in infant, child and youth sizes. This is the classic child life jacket that you have seen your whole life. The most economical life jacket that still has excellent safety ratings.
Best CHILD TYPE 3 NEOPRENE Life Jackets for Kayaking
O'Brien Child Neoprene is made of super comfy stretchy material and has a leg strap. Great for paddling. My kids love to put on these neoprene jackets because they fit like a glove We started with this same one when they were in the infant size and now we are in the child sizes. My son with autism likes to wear it even when we are done paddling for the day.
O'Neill Child Reactor is a high-rated very comfortable life jacket for kids. There is a longer option and a shorter option. Shorter tends to be more comfortable for kayaking.
Stearns Child Hydropene Vest is very comfortable but fits narrow, which is great for kids built like my kids. Although it is a TYPE 3, it does have a crotch strap, which I love for an older kid who is still learning to swim (like my son with autism). I just like knowing that the life jacket can not slip off or up around his head. The Stearns is comfortable and a great price. Look at pictures and prices here.
The O'Neill Child Superlite is like a hybrid between the features of a neoprene vest and a nylon vest. Definitely an upgrade from a basic nylon vest. Has a crotch strap. Runs small, fits snugly.
Best CHILD TYPE 3 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Stearns Child Watersport Classic is a good basic type III life jacket for a great price. Remember that type III life jackets are the ones that do not flip children onto their back, they are just for floating in the water until rescued, and the child needs to be able to flip themselves onto their back. That said, they are also more comfortable to play in because they don't have the part around the neck of the life jacket.
Best YOUTH TYPE 2 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Stearns Heads-Up Youth Vest is a good Type 2 youth jacket for kayaking. Be sure to note that this life jacket comes in infant, child, and youth sizes so be careful when ordering. This is the classic life jacket that you have seen your whole life. The most economical life jacket that still has excellent safety ratings.
Best YOUTH TYPE 3 NEOPRENE Life Jacket for Kayaking
Stearns Youth Hydropene Vest is soft and comfortable, doesn't ride up, and is a very nice, moderately priced life vest for youth 50-90 lbs. It comes in blue or pink. Look at pictures, reviews and the current price here.
GNAR Kwik-Dry Neolite Flex is specially designed for mobility with a deep neckline and armholes so it won't rub on your child's arms or chin. It is also made of premium fabric. This is a very good option for kids 50-90 lbs with known clothing sensitivities or who are always running, jumping, etc. and would prefer the less restrictive feel.
Best YOUTH TYPE 3 NYLON Life Jacket for Kayaking
Stearns Youth Classic is the basic nylon life jacket and comes in different colors. This is the best option if you just want an affordable youth life jacket. This was the first life jacket our family used.
Legal Information: This site is meant as a log of our family's opinions and experiences, but is in no way a comprehensive safety guide for kayaking. Kayak at your own risk and research well anything pertaining to your family's safety. This site shares our experiences and products we have tried and researched. There are affiliate links used to reference the products being reviewed.