Paddle floats may not be the coolest kayaking accessory, but they’re certainly among the most useful. If you spend any amount of time kayaking, you’re likely to need a paddle float at least once while you’re in the water. In fact, you’ll probably need to use one much more than once. In certain cases, they can even save your life.
Most kayakers seriously underestimate the importance of this useful tool. Today, we’re going to cover some important things you need to know about the humble paddle float and take a closer look at some of the best options on the market.
They say that there are only two guarantees in life, death, and taxes. I humbly submit a third: at some point in your life as a kayaker, you’re going to fall out of your yak, or worse, capsize.
A paddle float is the easiest way for you to right the ship, and get back into your kayak. The float slips onto the end of your paddle blade, which turns your paddle into an outrigger. This simple outrigger greatly widens your base, which makes it much easier for you to get back into the boat.
There are two types of paddle floats available: the inflatable bladder type and the foam type. Each type serves the same purpose and is used in the same way. Paddle floats have a pocket or strap that allows you to attach the float to the paddle. Most also include a strap which allows you to secure the float to the paddle further.
While each type of float functions the same way, each float has its advantages and disadvantages.
The most popular style of paddle float is the inflatable bladder type. These floats are usually made of heavy-duty nylon and feature either one or two inflatable bladders inside, which must be blown up before the float, well, floats.
Since these floats are completely flat when the bladders aren’t inflated, they’re incredibly easy to stow away in your kit, which helps you save precious space on board your kayak.
Inflatable floats are also more buoyant than foam floats, which makes them even easier to use during a self-rescue. This is especially true of inflatable floats that have two bladders since they fill with much more air than the single bladder varieties, which makes them considerably more buoyant.
The inflatable types also serve several other purposes beyond self-rescues, and we’ll discuss those in greater detail in just a moment.
With the inflatable type, there are a few downsides to be aware of. First, since these floats are so easy to stow anywhere on your boat, they may end up being difficult or impossible to get to if your yak capsizes. If you can’t get to your float, it’s essentially useless, and you’ll need to pursue other methods of self-rescue since you won’t have access to your float.
Also, you need to be aware of the inflation element of these floats. You’ll need to inflate the float before you can use it. This means that ninety-nine out of a hundred times, you’ll be inflating the float in the water after you’ve capsized or been thrown overboard. For beginners and novice kayakers, this can prove to be an especially difficult task in cold or rough water.
Floats that utilize closed cell foam are also popular, and they work just about as well as the inflatable variety.
This style of float doesn’t need to be inflated. It features a large piece of closed cell foam that’s wrapped in a durable nylon shell. A major benefit of the closed cell foam floats is that they are ready to use the second you hit the water, so you won’t need to worry about inflating them in adverse conditions.
Unlike inflatables, the closed cell foam type floats are nowhere near as easy to stow away, and they take up precious space in your kayak. Most kayakers who use the closed cell foam variety store the float on their back deck, where space doesn’t come at as high of a premium.
The foam floats are also less buoyant than inflatable floats, so they can be a little more difficult to use during self-rescues, especially if you’re a bit larger than average.
Ultimately, which type of float you prefer is going to depend on your needs and skill level.
For experienced kayakers who are at home dealing with adverse weather conditions such as rain, cold and rough seas, an inflatable float is usually preferred. Inflatables also offer an added level of versatility and may be a better fit for large kayakers who can benefit from the extra buoyancy of an inflatable.
Meanwhile, if the idea of fiddling with an inflatable while you’re in some degree of danger, stranded in the water, you may be better served with a closed cell foam float. These floats are the easiest to use, and they provide adequate buoyancy for virtually everyone to perform a self-rescue.
The easiest way to decide which float is best for you is to try both and go for whichever style feels most comfortable.
We know how helpful paddle floats can be when it comes to self-rescues. They make it considerably easier to get back into your yak, especially in rough water. But, are you aware of the other useful ways you can use a paddle float?
Both inflatable and closed cell foam varieties make a helpful tool for practicing your Eskimo rolls, and the added buoyancy of your paddle lends an extra level of confidence during practice.
Inflatable floats can be particularly useful when practicing Eskimo rolls. A fully inflated float is a great way to practice your hip snap, while a partially inflated float is a great tool to improve your setup and brace positions. Once you become more confident in your rolls, you can begin to wean yourself off the paddle float.
Paddle floats can also be useful for more serious tasks, as well. In a rescue scenario where the paddler is unconscious, physically injured, or seasick, a paddle float attached to each side of the paddle allows for much greater stability during a single person tow.
Now that you’re armed with a bit more information on what paddle floats are and the different types that are available, we’re going to cover how to use one.
Once you’ve selected the best float for your needs, it’s important you practice using it, so you’re well prepared for when you need to use it in open water. Trust me, using a paddle float is exceptionally easy, and you’ll be able to master it in no time.
Of course, these words offer little solace in a scenario where you’re in the water with waves crashing around you. But, the more prepared you are, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with the situation.
The first and most important thing you can do is remain calm. Take a moment to relax and take a few deep breaths before you prepare to re-enter your boat.
Next, you’ll want to blow up the bladders on your float (skip this step if you have a foam float.) Once inflated, stick your paddle into the paddle float, and secure it with whatever cord or strap your float includes.
Once your float is prepared, position yourself just behind the cockpit of the kayak and place the side of the paddle without the float across the boat. Grab onto the shaft of the paddle at the near side of the kayak, and place your fingers through the decklines.
Now, you’re ready to re-enter the boat. Kick your legs as you begin to pull yourself up using your paddle, and land with your chest first on the back deck of the kayak. Now that you’re on the boat, you can reorient yourself and enter the cockpit. It’s that simple!
This video does a great job of illustrating just how easy it is to perform a self-rescue with a paddle float. If you prefer a more step-by-step approach, you may find these illustrations of the process helpful as well.
Now that we’ve covered virtually everything you could ever need to know about paddle floats, we’re going to take a closer look at the best options on the market.
NRS has built a sterling reputation as one of the most reliable brands in kayaking, and that reputation certainly extends to their paddle floats as well.
This float is made from heavy-duty nylon, which is a bright safety yellow color for increased visibility in low light situations. There’s also high visibility safety strips along the sides of the float for even more visibility.
When it comes to ease of use, this NRS model excels, thanks to it’s easy to use straw-like air tubes with twist valves. This float features dual air bladders, which can be inflated together or separately depending on how much assistance you need in returning to your yak.
Compared to many competitors, the NRS float is larger, so it can accommodate even the largest of paddle sizes. Once the paddle is inserted into the float, it’s secured with a cinch cord and as an added layer of security, a quick-release buckle as well.
The bottom of the bag is mesh, which quickly allows excess water to drain from the float. However, the mesh panel is a bit small, and if you’re using this float to practice Eskimo rolls, you may find that it retains a bit more water than you’d like, which makes it more difficult to practice rolls.
This float from Seattle Sports offers the best of both worlds - it performs well while delivering plenty of value for the money.
Similar to the popular NRS float, this model features dual air bladders, and an easy to inflate mouthpiece with twist valves. It’s made from highly visible yellow nylon which should be easy to spot in low-light conditions, even though there’s no additional reflective piping along the sides.
Attaching the float to your paddle is also similar to the NRS float, as it features a cinch cord and quick-release buckle. This float also features a tether with carabiner clip so that you can attach it to your deck rails to prevent it from ever becoming lost. This feature could end up coming in handy, since this float is very large, and could easily get blown far away by the wind.
So far, virtually every feature of this Seattle Sports float is in line with the NRS float above. However, this float doesn’t include a mesh drainage panel at the bottom, which makes it very susceptible to filling with water. For that reason, this float isn’t very useful for roll training.
It certainly serves its purpose as a paddle float, though, and it’s a solid option for anyone looking for a quality float with plenty of features that’s also affordable.
If you’re looking for a foam float, this option from Beluga Outdoor is one of the most popular on the market.
This float measures in at 18 inches long by 9 inches wide and 3 inches thick, which is large enough to accommodate virtually any kind of paddle. Since no inflation is necessary, this float is ready when you are and can be used the second you need it.
Each float is made of two slabs of microcell foam wrapped in a shell of 200-denier nylon and mesh. There’s 3M taping along the side of the float for an added level of visibility in low light conditions.
The top slab of foam is curved, which provides an added layer of versatility, allowing the float to be used as a camp pillow or a cushion. The float can also be placed under the back of your knees to provide added comfort during long trips.
The foam inside provides a high level of buoyancy, so this float is also useful when practicing rolls. However, since there’s no way for water to escape the shell of this float, it can become bogged down with water, which makes it more difficult to use during roll practice.
This float from Riverstones features some slight tweaks on the classic, tried-and-true design of the inflatable float, which may make it an ideal fit for some paddlers.
Design-wise, it’s not too different from the other two inflatables we’ve discussed. It’s made from high visibility yellow nylon, it’s large enough to accommodate virtually any paddle, and it features dual air bladders with easy to use twist valves.
Where this float differs from the competition is in the way the paddle attaches to the float. Unlike other inflatables where the paddle is inserted directly into the float, this Riverstones model features a mesh pocket that you insert the paddle into. The insides of the float are completely sealed by its nylon exterior.
This design element virtually eliminates water from entering your float, which increases is buoyancy. When it comes to a self-rescue, all of the floats we’ve covered are more than adequate. But, if you’re planning on using your float to practice your rolls, this one is one of the best options.
This float is also on the large side, and you may want to consider tethering it so thatPros
it doesn’t end up blowing away if the wind whips up. There are two loops on the bottom of the float that make it easy to attach a tether.
While this float doesn’t have the impressive build quality of the NRS inflatable, it does offer remarkable value, and it’s a great option for those learning to roll.
If you’re interested in snagging a float from an industry leader like NRS, but would prefer a foam float to an inflatable, this may be an ideal float for you.
This float features the build quality we’ve come to expect from NRS. It has a 400-denier nylon outer shell which houses a large slab of EPE foam. This particular foam doesn’t hold water and its designed to stand up to years of use.
Similar to the inflatable version from NRS, this float features a high visibility exterior that’s further bolstered with reflective 3M taping on either side. Instead of yellow, this model features an orange shell.
This float is ready to go as soon as you are, and it’s exceptionally easy to use; just slide your paddle in, clip the quick-release buckle, and you’re ready to get back in your kayak.
This float is a bit on the small side, so you may want to double check that it can accommodate your paddle before buying. Most paddlers will appreciate the smaller design because it’s less to carry and store. But, if you use a large paddle, you may want to look for a float that can better accommodate it.
Harmony takes a slightly different approach with their inflatable float, and their model, the Blade Aid might be worth a try if the other floats you’re considering didn’t thrill you.
The hands-free auto-valve is the longest you’ll find, which makes this float one of the easiest to inflate, which is sure to come in handy, especially in rough waters. There are grommets on either side of the float’s bottom, and one already has a wrist strap attached, which is helpful in the water.
Unlike other floats, which you blow up and then attach to your paddle, the Blade Aid is designed to be blown up with the paddle already inside. The paddle locks inside of the float as it inflates, eliminating the need for a cinch cord or quick-release buckle.
They say that the cream always rises to the top, and that’s certainly true when it comes to paddle floats. The six floats above represent some of the absolute best options on the market, and you really can’t go wrong with any of these options. In fact, there isn’t much that separates these floats from each other. They’re all really good choices.
But, we feel that one float has a slight edge over the competition. The NRS Sea Kayak float is our winner, and we believe it’s the best paddle float available.
This float fits virtually every paddle, and it inflates easily. But, that can be said about every paddle we’ve discussed. What separates this model from the competition is the intuitive safety and security features, and the exceptional build quality.
NRS added a mesh drainage panel to the bottom of the float which helps to increase its buoyancy. A cinch cord and quick-release buckle provide for stable attachment to the paddle, and reflective strips along the sides make it easy to see in low light conditions. It’s also built well from quality materials, so it may be the only float you ever need.