What I Carry on my Life Vest for Kayaking

life vest for kayaking

What you carry on your life vest for kayaking varies based on personal choice and what you use your vest for. But, many beginners or intermediate paddlers skip carrying gear on their vest in favor of throwing it into a day hatch. That can be a bad choice. As the Coast Guard says, “If it isn’t on you, you don’t have it.” As an example of what to carry, I present to you what I carry on my life vest for kayaking.

Vest fit is personal, but also a bit of a compromise with features. The vest that fit me best only had one tight pocket and made it impossible to carry any gear. In order to get all the features that I wanted, I compromised a bit on fit. I ended up with a Kokakat Guide life vest that fit well enough and had all the features that I desired. Time has worn mine out and I need to buy a new one soon. I’ll get the Kokakat Guide again.

overview of my life vest for kayaking
Overview of my what I carry on my life vest for kayaking.

We’ll go panel by panel over my life vest to see what’s on it. I’ll also explain what I carry and why.

hydration pouch on back panel on life vest

On the back of my life vest, I carry a Kokatat Hydration Pack. I use this to carry two liters of water for longer paddles. It can also carry extra gear like a set of flares, emergency shelters or blankets or other rescue gear if needed. I don’t use it that way, but I know other paddlers who do use it that way.

Fixed to the shoulder is a Princeton Tec Aqua Strobe. I comes with a velcro strap that allows for easy attachment to the vest’s shoulder lash tab.

You’ll also notice there’s a belt that runs across the vest. This is a quick release belt. I thread an NRS Tow Tether to the belt. This works as a great short tow when needed. Since I don’t guide anymore, I haven’t used it much. But, if you paddle with a lot of people and push your limits chances are that you’ll use it.

right panel of life vest with VHF radio and watch

On the front right side of my vest, I carry a Timex Expedition watch on the shoulder strap. Watches help you navigate (see the articles at the link) and are an essential piece of gear to have with you. The Expedition is waterproof and lives on my vest even during rolling practice. I’ve had this one for 10 or 15 years now.

The carabiner is for the NRS Tow Tether. I’ve used a lash strap to create a loop for it to clip into. There’s a lash tab on the front of the VHF Radio pocket.

In the VHF pocket, I carry a ICOM M72. The update is the ICOM M73. It tethers into the pocket with the wrist strap to keep it secure. This is always on my vest even during rolling practice and it has held up for multiple expeditions, about 10 years of guiding and many years past that. I’d buy this model again in a second. Hopefully, you’ll never have to call mayday, but if you do this is a handy guide on how to call mayday.

Under the VHF pocket, you’ll notice the rescue belt. It attaches to the vest at this point. There’s a quick release that you pull and that releases you from whatever you are towing. It’s a fast way to get released if you have to.

I also carry a Listo Marking Pencil inside the VHF pocket. This is handy for marking up a kayak deck slate. We used to sell those on PaddlingLight, but are currently out with no plans to print a new batch. You can buy an ACA branded deck slate direct from the ACA (Hint: those were made by us).

life vest with gear on it

On the left panel, I carry a Gerber River Shorty Knife. I have a short length of bungee cord threaded through the handle and dropped over the top of the knife’s sheath to help keep the knife in the sheath during rescues and such. I’ve lost a couple of knives and know many people who have. The bungee keeps the knife in place. Since I added the bungee, I haven’t lost a knife. I’ve also used a NRS Co-Pilot Knife. That’s a solid choice as well.

There’s a small carabiner on the shoulder. That holds a short length of cordage with a homemade nose plug. I also have a Nexus Whistle tethered into an inside pocket that runs up through the carabiner. That was handy when guiding and I needed to signal to someone, but I probably doesn’t need to loop through the ‘biner anymore and could be kept inside the vest.

Here are a few close up shots of what I carry in my life vest for kayaking.

In the front pocket, I carry an extra homemade nose plug. This was handy when I taught rolling. I would give these away to the students as needed. I also keep a Silva Starter 1-2-3 Compass in the pocket tethered to small carabiner attached to a ring in the pocket. The cord holding the compass is long enough to reach my chart case on the front deck of the kayak. I like simple compasses and don’t mind doing the math required to account for declination or variation. But, if you don’t like doing the math, you should get a compass with an adjustable declination, such as the Suunto M-3nh Leader Compass.

Finally, I have a North Water Rescue Stirrup in the inside pocket of the vest. I don’t use this often, but when I guided I had to use it a couple of times to help heavy folks back into the kayak who couldn’t get onto the back deck with their own strength. With lighter people, I could often just pull them up onto the rear deck of their kayak if they gave a good kick. I usually carry this in a North Water Under Deck Bag, but I don’t have one installed in my new kayak, yet.

There are a lot of other pieces of gear that you could carry on your life vest for kayaking. For example, a buddy of mine liked to carry a coffee mug stashed between the vest and his body. If he positioned the handle just right, it hooked over his zipper. Even though you can carry more, keeping just the essentials on the vest keeps it simple and functional.

What do you carry on your vest? What did I miss that you consider essential?

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5 thoughts on “What I Carry on my Life Vest for Kayaking”

  1. You have lots of good ideas. I am mostly a fisherman from kayak and canoe. I strap on a Leatherman and have a small ditch kit with cordage, lighter and fire starter in a sealed tin in one large pocket of my Ascend pfd.

    1. That’s very similar to how I run my Kokatat OutFit Tour PFD, Bryan.

      In addition, I have a couple of pencil flares and a signal mirror (which is mostly used to put in and take out my contact lenses), a contact lens case and rewetting drops, a couple of Cliff Shot packets, Gorilla tape, a small waterproof headlamp, and a Lendal PadLok key.

      I also trade the strobe for a PLB on the shoulder.

  2. First off great gear list, however all the kit is going to be null and void unless you replace the PFD. We use the rule if it has faded in colour, the foam inside is also breaking down. Me personally after kayaking in New Zealand for 20 years, including helicopter trips into the mountains on the west coast of the South Island, keep it a lot simpler. A 5 meter sling with carabiner, a silver survival sleeping bag, knife, whistle, a folding saw capable of cutting tree branches and kayaks, food, plus tow tether, and a paddle sized carabiner on the end. To find your destination, follow the river down stream, it is when you leave the river when you get lost. The PLB is the best bit of safety kit you can carry (that’s a personal locator beacon) it sends a rescue helicopter to you.

    1. Good rule in vest replacement and one of the reasons I said I need to replace it soon.

      I also carry a tow rope, but it isn’t on my vest, so I didn’t list it.

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