Updated on: January 11, 2024
When enjoying time on the water, safety is critical. No matter if you’re boating, paddle boarding, or jet skiing, you want to wear a life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device) to keep you afloat. Even if you’re an expert swimmer, the unexpected can happen, and adults, children, and even your dog will benefit from wearing a personal flotation device.
After reviewing the best life jackets, you’ll be ready for a safe day on the water.
A PFD is worn when you intend to be in and around the water, while a life jacket is designed for weak swimmers and children if they accidentally enter the water. A personal flotation device does not offer as much buoyancy as a life jacket, but they are more comfortable and less bulky for water-based recreational activities.
A life jacket is worn in case there’s a water-based emergency and is designed to keep you afloat with your face above water. A child or non-swimmer should wear a life jacket because of its increased buoyancy in the case of an unintended water immersion.
Often the terms life jacket and PFD are used interchangeably.
Even if you’re a lifeguard with years of swimming experience, a life jacket could save your life in an emergency. Most boating fatalities and drownings occur because people are not wearing a life jacket. Besides being an overall good idea for safety, it is required to have a US Coast Guard (USCG) approved PFD when operating any vessel on the water.
In most regions, anyone twelve years and younger must be wearing a life jacket. As an adult, you are required to have flotation devices on board for every passenger, but they do not have to be worn.
Life jackets and PFDs can differ in their style, fit, cost, and overall function. We’ve taken a look at some of the best on the market and separated our favorites into best for overall recreational use, best children’s life vest, best fishing life vest, and, let’s not forget, dog life vests.
We’ll review our favorites and let you decide which is the best life jacket for your needs.
We’ve narrowed down the best overall life jackets that can be used for any activity. These life vests can adapt to general boating, paddle boarding, kayaking, or sailing, but some may fit a specific activity better than others. This list is geared toward adult use, and the life jackets vary in style - from inflatable to vest styles.
The Onyx A/ M-24 inflatable life jacket is lightweight and comfortable. It inflates automatically upon immersion in the water or you can manually pull a handle for instant inflation.
It is not recommended for weak or non-swimmers nor for users under age sixteen because it is not inherently buoyant unless inflated.
The Stearns Adult Classic life jacket is comfortable and lightweight and comes with a great price tag. It is a USCG Type II vest (see below for complete USCG rating system) that works for general recreational use and water sports. It is cheap enough to keep an extra life vest on board for your boating friends.
The Astral BlueJacket is a lightweight PFD with a clamshell design that is great for active water sports and paddling. It is compatible with a water bladder for long floating trips with additional storage for other valuables. An overall comfortable jacket for all-day trips.
The O’Neill Men’s Superlite is an inexpensive life jacket that is reliable and perfect for a day of boating, skiing, or simply floating with friends. With four straps to buckle around your chest, you ensure a snug fit for safety. Generous arm holes provide more mobility than others, and it comes with a great price tag.
The Stohlquist Fit is a lightweight life jacket with plenty of room for mobility. You’re secured with three front straps over the chest and a thin back panel that is more comfortable when sitting in a kayak with a bulky padded back.
The NRS Vapor has a side entry design to make it easy to put on and off quickly, and it has storage compartments and a lash tab to attach extra gear such as a knife or light. The PFD is designed with open space for plenty of room to move.
The Astral V-Eight PFD is designed perfectly for kayaking but can be used for multiple water sports. The mesh back and breathable design provide more comfort when seated in a kayak, and it has storage compartments for small gear.
When fishing in a kayak, on a paddle board, or in a boat, you want a life jacket that gives you the mobility to cast and reel while also providing pockets and attachment points for fishing gear. We’ve narrowed down the selection to two of our favorite fishing life jackets.
The Chinook is designed for fishermen and offers multiple storage compartments of varied sizes. You can keep lures, leaders, or pliers handy right at your fingertips. It has a comfortable, breathable design perfect for a day of fishing in your kayak or on your SUP.
The Astral Ronny Fisher PFD is a high-end life jacket designed for fishermen, but it can be used for kayaking and general recreation. It has a front zipper closure with multiple pockets and attachment points for fishing gear.
Children need quality life jackets to ensure their safety if they were to accidentally enter the water when not intended. A true life jacket that will turn the child upright with their head out of the water is recommended.
The Stohlquist Toddler life jacket has a sturdy design with double layer support at the collar to keep your child’s head above water as they float. The vest allows for movement, yet cinches snug to prevent your child from slipping out.
The O’Neill Child Reactor life vest has a comfortable, snug fit with a hydroprene cover. It zips closed in front with additional straps and buckle for extra security.
Even though most dogs are good swimmers, sometimes they tire before paddling to shore or might panic in certain situations. A dog life jacket provides the safety and confidence your dog needs to dive in and fetch the ball or to ride on your paddle board all day long.
Dog PFDs are not U.S. Coast Guard certified, but you should ensure that they fit properly. It should be snug enough that the dog cannot squirm or twist out of it, and you should look for easy to release buckles and grab handles to lift your dog out of the water.
For a comprehensive guide on the best life jackets for dogs, you can check out our full review. But for now, here are two of our preferred products to take a look at:
The Outward Hound Granby dog life jacket has two handles on the back for a quick doggie rescue. It supports the dog with a comfortable padded fit.
The NRS CFD dog life jacket is designed with an open belly for more freedom and breathability. It has leash attachment points and a grab handle for quick rescue.
You need life jackets for various activities, but some flotation devices might be better suited for certain sports. A flotation device used when kayaking should be non-constricting with plenty of room to paddle, but you’ll want a form-fitting full vest if you are a non-swimmer who might drown if you fall into the water.
There are many features that you can use to narrow down the life jacket varieties, and find one that works best for you.
The majority of flotation devices are standard, but an inflatable PFD might be a better option based on your needs.
Standard flotation devices typically fit like a vest and are made with flotation material such as foam for buoyancy. Standard life jackets are USCG Type III approved.
Inflatable PFDs are a newer style that have the advantage of being lightweight with room for better mobility. They work well for active water sports that require paddling, casting, and the freedom to move your arms. They are easily inflated either automatically, when it touches the water or manually, by pulling a cord to inflate.
It’s important that your life jacket fits snug so that it doesn’t chafe or ride up and off your shoulders when you’re in the water. When finding the correct size for an adult life jacket, use your chest size by measuring your chest circumference at its broadest point. For children, weight is used to determine size.
The first thing is to loosen all straps, put on your standard personal flotation device, and then zip it up, or pull your inflatable vest over your head. Start at the waist and tighten your straps as you go up toward the shoulders. Have someone pull up on your PFD at the shoulders, and if it rises above your shoulders to your ears, it needs tightened or you might need a smaller life jacket.
While wearing your life vest, practice the motion of your water activity. Grab a paddle and ensure your life jacket is comfortable and does not rub or chafe when you move. If you’ll be sitting in a kayak or boat, sit in the seat to see if the life jacket rides up or is uncomfortable behind your back.
Some of the best life jackets or PFDs will have extra features that make them more versatile.
The US Coast Guard has determined there are five categories of PFDs. Most wearers typically use a Type III or Type V because they are more comfortable for active sports such as kayaking, paddling, or canoeing. Knowing the different types of personal flotation devices helps you to choose the right one for you.
Type I PFDs are the most bulky and buoyant because they are designed for use when a water rescue might take a while. Type I PFDs can turn an unconscious person upright in the water, and they are mandatory for large commercial vessels.
Type II PFDs are used in calm inland waters where rescue would be rapid. They are less bulky than Type I PFDs but less comfortable than Type III. They can turn an unconscious victim face up in the water.
Type III PFDs are used when a quick rescue is possible. They are comfortable for long-term wear and offer freedom of movement. They are designed so the wearer can place themselves in an upright position in the water, but the user might have to tilt their head to prevent them from being face down.
Type IV PFDs are not meant to be worn but are devices that are thrown to a conscious drowning victim to assist with buoyancy. They consist of life rings or buoyant cushions.
Type V PFDs are considered special use items for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG they must be worn at all times for the specific activities indicated on the label. Examples of Type V PFDs are those used for kayaking, water skiing, deck suits, and windsurfing.
Finding the appropriate PFD for your intended sport improves your overall comfort and without being distracted by an uncomfortable life jacket.
When riding on a tube that’s pulled behind a ski boat or water skiing, you’re moving at a high rate of speed when you enter the water. Your life jacket should be fitted tight to your body so that it can’t be pulled off. Standard life vests with three or four belts work the best for these activities. Look for a PFD rated for “watersports” on the label to ensure it has the appropriate durability.
When sailing a small boat you want a personal flotation device that does not constrict movement and can be worn long term. The preferred type is a zippered vest with large arm holes for freedom of movement. As with most life vests, a snug fit is important to prevent it from riding up when you’re in the water.
Fishing vests offer the benefits of storage space with built-in pockets, D-rings, or lash tabs to store or attach gear such as hooks, lures, knives, or pliers. If you’re fishing in a bass boat and speeding across the water, you’ll need a life vest designed for high impact.
Life jackets designed for offshore sailing allow freedom of movement but also provide attachment points for a safety harness while sailing in a pitching and rolling ocean. These PFDs require a lot of buoyancy while allowing full range of motion, and often inflatable PFDs are used.
On large fishing boats, walking on deck in rough water can be life threatening. A high buoyancy PFD, such as a Type I PFD, is recommended at all times in case you’re accidentally pitched into the cold, rough sea.
Paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, and other sports require the protection of a PFD but also freedom of movement. Many specialized jackets have been designed for paddle sports and most have large arm holes to allow full range of motion. Kayakers usually wear life jackets with a high-cut waist to be more comfortable sitting in a seat, and if a kayak skirt is needed. Paddle boarders often choose a waist belt inflatable life jacket for freedom of movement if they’re a competent swimmer.
The law requires specific types of life jackets for commercial vessels. Type I life jackets are bulky and take up a lot of space to stow, and they are not recommended for general recreation.
Recreational power boats or sailing vessels need a PFD that is comfortable with freedom of movement. Standard or inflatable vests can be used and you want to find one that fits well and won’t chafe with long term use.
Life jackets are typically made with either a nylon shell or neoprene. Nylon is less expensive and dries quickly, but while neoprene costs more, it is more comfortable for most water sports. Neoprene is stretchable and durable to prevent tears and punctures so it will last for many years of use.
The price of a life jacket can range from $30 to $300 depending on the style, size, materials, and added features. If you need a life jacket on board in calm waters simply to be legal, then you can likely use a less expensive PFD. If you’re kayaking whitewater rapids all day, you want to spend more money to find a life jacket that is comfortable and fits like a second skin. A non-swimmer needs a reliable flotation device that they can depend on in an emergency. It might be worth the extra money for added pockets, attachment points, harnesses, or D-rings to attach tools or gear.
The best life jacket for a non-swimmer is a standard life jacket that fits their size requirement and one that is designed for their specific water activity. A weak swimmer can’t risk slipping out of a poor fitting vest. An inflatable vest is not recommended for non-swimmers.
You want a life jacket that will keep you afloat with little effort, and you want a vest crafted with quality materials so that it will not tear easily and will hold up in the water. Lastly, it is important to find a life jacket that is comfortable, because a non-swimmer is going to wear their vest for the entire day on the water. Look for one that does not chafe and has larger arm holes for comfort.
A USCG approved Type I PFD will have the best inherent buoyancy. They are designed for use in open waters and on commercial vessels where rescue might be delayed. They will ensure that an unconscious wearer is turned face up in the water after an accident.
A life jacket is designed to keep a person afloat and alive even if they can’t swim, while a buoyancy or life vest is intended to assist someone who is able to swim. If someone is unconscious, a life jacket will keep them afloat with their head out of the water, while a vest will not. A life jacket is recommended for all children and non-swimmers, and a buoyancy vest is designed for water sports such as sailing and kayaking where a less bulky flotation device can assist with active swimming.
You can buy a life jacket at large retail stores, sporting goods retailers, online, or at specific boat and marina retailers. No matter where you purchase your life jacket, check that it is crafted from quality materials and fits appropriately. Look for the US Coast Guard approval on the label and ensure it is the right size. Specialized retailers will likely have a larger variety of PFDs targeted to specific activities such as kayaking or sailing.
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