Gear Review


NRS Ninja PFDI’ve had a love/hate relationship with my pfd (personal floatation device) since the day I bought it. It was the same day I bought my first boat, a paddle, a roof rack, and a bunch of other things like dry bags, a sponge, etc. It was essentially an afterthought, and I made my choice on a red Stohlquist based on the price because my wallet was already feeling the burn. Basically, unlike everything else in my life, I bought it with very little thought or research.

But ironically, it’s probably the most important item in turns of your return on investment (ya know, your own life), but it wasn’t even in my considered set of additional things I needed (it was kinda like, oh yeah, I should probably be safe). Since I was reluctant to spend even more money than I already had that day, I basically just grabbed one on the low end of an already blown budget and left the store.

And ten years later, I still have it. It’s got its battle scars – starting with the faded stitching area that resulted from the removal of some lame patches with lame logos. Then, there are years of caked dirt and mud, evidence of scrapes and abrasions from numerous rocks, and general wear-and-tear by being tossed into and out of boats and under, over, into, and out of cars. It’s even been a little burned, and hooked by more than one jig. Yeah, it’s rendered rather shabby. It’s ugly and I’ve never really liked it except for one feature – a super convenient pocket on the front that has given me easy access to my phone/camera.

So, it got me thinking a couple years ago, is there a time limit on a pfd? An expiration date? Like, should I be worried that I’ve had this thing forever? I started my search for a new one in 2017, and when I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing (and trying on), I waited until this year, hoping I found what I was looking for in the new models. Although, after ten years, I figured it was time to upgrade regardless, so I was willing to settle for something a bit more stylish and comfortable even if it didn’t have the functionality I wanted – but only if it didn’t exist. 

I had two requirements for the new pfd. Specifically a front pocket for my phone, GoPro batteries and hopefully a little more. And it had to be low profile, and of course, high-backed to allow for comfortable seating in a kayak. The fitting is easy, it’s the smart pockets that are missing in the personal floatation device market.

But I hunted. Everywhere. And after trying on every single pfd possible at Canoecopia, subsequent trips to Rutabaga, and searching online reviews and articles, I settled on the NRS ninja, a low profile side-entry pfd. 

So far, I’m happy with my decision after one season of using it, but I still think there is one aspect that could be improved on not only this pfd, but EVERY pfd on the market…

What We Like:
First, it checked the fitting box, but only half-a-box for me on the accessible pocket aspect- the major selling point for me (I’ll say more about this below). It’s not huge but it has enough room for my phone, those extra batteries and maybe some beef jerky. Short of buying a fishing vest with all the pockets in the world, I find this just enough without the added bulk for most creekin’ and river trips.

The entry is different than my previous jacket. Where that one was a traditional front-zip pfd, this one is side-entry style, secured by quick release buckles. With four side and two shoulder adjustments, it provides a secure fit, and it’s not as awkward as I thought it might be. But as with everything, it takes some getting used to.

The most noticeable improvement compared to my rutty old Stohlquist is the freer movement of my arms and shoulders. It kind of feels like wearing nothing because the straps are narrower and lighter. It immediately just felt good, and I feel unrestrained with each and every stroke on the water.

I was kind of unsure of the make/design of this but I’ve grown to like it – so long as I can keep it from riding up and scratching my chin. But I’ve learned it’s a common mistake – it shouldn’t ride up. To avoid this, make sure you’re adjusting it correctly: Always cinch the bottom adjustment strap below the rib cage to prevent ride-up. It also breathes well despite it being a little bulkier in the front than my previous NRS lifejacket. The chest is a little bulkier – almost inflated but neither that or the backside felt uncomfortable.

Finally, there are the aesthetics. A PFD is something you wear (or should wear). People are choosy about what they wear as they should be, so you really should like to wear something as important as a life jacket. Amiright? (Don’t get me started on any one person not wearing a pfd in any of our pictures – to each their own. For me – I always wear one. The main reason is I need my equipment and I NEED accessible pockets).

Lastly, I love the Ninja’s sleek, uncomplicated design. It’s relatively clean – no unneccesary extra buckles and straps and geegaws (love that word), save for the front lash tab/emergency knife holder (a standard on most vests, I know, but I’ve never understood the rescue knife thing – seems more dangerous to have a knife lashed to my chest).

And though it’s been a few years since the redesign, might I add that the NRS logo is much nicer looking than it was before? So even the branding is sleek.

Now if there’s one thing I don’t care for with this PFD, it’s a relatively simple one. The name. Ninja? Really? This is a vest for adults, right? I mean, it does say Adult. My five-year-old is really into ninjas right now. I never got into them, and I’m hoping he’ll grow out of it soon. Have ninjas ever been cool? The NRS Tax Prep Specialist PFD sounds cooler, more secure, and more relevant to me at this point in my life (sorry NRS – I like your logo now but I don’t care much for your naming on this one).

Lastly, back to the pocket and my gripe – not only with this specific PFD – just every pocket on every pfd available on the market for kayakers as of 2019 (correct me if I’m wrong and I just missed a whole line). Seriously, why is there no pfd on the market with waterproof pockets? It seems like a no-brainer. Not to mention a million- (ok, maybe thousand-) dollar idea. Phones, cameras, batteries, GPS, Keurigs – most everyone carries devices on the water or would like to. Is this not a no-brainer? Why am I pointing this out? Is there some safety issue I’m not aware of? Long story, short. For the love of God, someone please make a pfd with waterproof pockets.

(Wait for it – by 2020, I’m hoping you’ll see a ton of waterproof pfds due to this post. And pfd manufacturers, please send me a cut of all those sweet, sweet profits).

The Final Word:
As with kayaks and paddles, pfds must be tried on and tested. They need to feel right for you. One size/brand/model doesn’t fit all. But I do say that the NRS Ninja is worthy to be in your considered set if you’re shopping for personal flotation devices. Despite the name, is a great combination of comfort, looks and, of course, safety.

I hope the next PFD I buy isn’t ten years from now. In fact, I’m hoping that it’s much sooner when pfds makers realize that there’s some dinero to be made with waterproof pockets to hold devices for outdoor enthusiasts.

Photo Gallery:

Key Info:

Manufacturer: NRS
Model: Ninja
US Coast Guard Type: III
Entry System: Side Buckle
Weight (M/L): 1.95 lbs
Fabric: 200-denier urethane-coated ripstop nylon
Pockets: 1 (front)
Adjustments: 4 side, 2 houlder
Colors: Black, Charcoal, Pink, Red

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