FREE SHIPPING ON ORDERS OVER £39.99

December 01, 2021 17 min read

What's the best life jacket?

Women wearing the best inflatable life jackets

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.

Is a PFD the same as a life jacket?

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. 

Why Use a Life Jacket?

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.

Guide to Best Life Jackets

orange dog life jacket on a canoe

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.

Best Overall Life Jackets

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.

Onyx M-24 Absolute Outdoor

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.

Onyx M-24 Absolute Outdoor life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Neoprene neckline for comfort
  • Padded air mesh panels
  • Can be adjusted to manual or it can automatically inflate by pulling T-shaped rip cord
  • Made with durable ripstop nylon
  • US Coast Guard approved Type V life jacket for specific activities
  • Utility pockets - fleece lined for sunglasses
  • D-ring to attach valuables
  • Reflective piping to improve visibility in low light
  • Mesh carrying bag
  • V-back design

What we love:

  • Lightweight and comfortable for hot weather
  • Does not need to be inflated until necessary
  • Designed for ease of movement with good arm range of motion
  • Great option for paddle sports
  • Pockets and D-ring for storage
  • Low profile design

What we don't love:

  • Not recommended for weak swimmers
  • Not for children under age sixteen

Stearns Adult Classic

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.

Stearns Adult Classic life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Lightweight for comfort - weighs only one pound
  • 200D nylon shell with PE foam
  • Four adjustable one-inch straps
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type II PFD

What we love:

  • Lightweight design
  • Easy to put on and off
  • Four straps for snug fit and security
  • Inexpensive
  • Reliable design for safety

What we don't love:

  • Bulky for paddle sports
  • Hot on a sunny day

Astral BlueJacket Life Jacket

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.

Astral BlueJacket lightweight Life Jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III PFD
  • Made with PVC-free Gaia and PE foam inserts
  • Adjustable side-release buckle makes it easy to take on/off
  • Ripstop nylon shell with lightweight nylon liner
  • Hydration sleeve in back with hose routed to shoulders
  • Front small pockets for safe storage of valuables
  • Hip pockets for extra gear
  • Reflective piping

What we love:

  • Compatible with a hydration bladder
  • Comfortable with room to move for paddle sports
  • Two panel adjustability great for broad chested people
  • Comfortable for long trips yet supportive in the water
  • No chafing
  • Company free of toxic PVC and recycles scraps and materials

What we don't love:

  • More expensive
  • No lash tag to attach knife or tools

O’Neill Men’s Superlite

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.

O’Neill Men’s Superlite life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Coated nylon outer shell - lightweight
  • Easy fastening with four belts with a buckle
  • Overlock stitching of seams for durability
  • U.S.Coast Guard approved Type III PFD

What we love:

  • Easy to move around in
  • Secure fit with four buckles
  • Mesh lining for aeration
  • Dries quickly
  • Very lightweight

What we don't love:

  • Can run large - may need to size down
  • No included pockets or lash tags

Stohlquist Fit

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.

Stohlquist Fit lightweight life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Lightweight with nylon outer shell
  • An attached loop great for hanging to dry
  • Thin back panel - more comfortable and not as hot
  • High mobility with large arm holes
  • Adjustable three buckle system
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III PFD

What we love:

  • Comfortable secure fit
  • Plenty of room to move
  • Thin back provides more air movement
  • Bright red color for visibility

What we don't love:

  • Does not fit thin wearers as well
  • No included pockets or attachment points

NRS Vapor

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.

NRS Vapor life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • High quality 200D nylon shell
  • Built for mobility - large arm holes
  • Side entry design
  • Zippered pocket on front for whistle, keys, or small gear
  • Lash tab on front to attach knife
  • Can be used for multiple water sports
  • Reflective NRS logo for visibility
  • Six-panel construction to flow with your movement
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III  PFD - low profile

What we love:

  • Open arm space perfect for paddle boarding or kayaking
  • Lash tab to attach knife, light, or gear
  • Large front zippered pocket
  • Padded shoulders
  • Loop on top to hang dry

What we don't love:

  • Full coverage is less breathable

Astral V-Eight PFD

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.

Astral V-Eight PFD life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Lightweight construction
  • Designed to be mobile - great for paddle sports
  • Airescape air flow system prevents you from overheating
  • Ripstop nylon outer shell
  • Lash tab to attach a knife
  • Mesh back for comfort while seated
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III PFD
  • Two mesh pockets
  • Reflective trim

What we love:

  • Provides for excellent mobility
  • Breathable with mesh back and air flow system
  • Pockets for storage
  • Lash tab to attach light or knife
  • Astral uses recycled materials and toxic-free PVC

What we don't love:

  • Pockets awkward to access and are lined with mesh - cannot put phone or valuables in pocket

Best Fishing Life Jackets

Best fishing life jackets

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.

NRS Chinook Fishing

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.

NRS Chinook Fishing life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Mesh back comfortable for kayaking
  • Comfortable design with large arm holes for range of motion
  • Seven front pockets of different sizes
  • Integrated rod holder
  • Lash tabs, D-ring, and clips for tool attachment
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III PFD

What we love:

  • Multiple pockets and can store lures as well as small tackle boxes
  • Mesh back is breathable and comfortable in a kayak
  • Attachment points with lash tag, D-ring, and clips
  • Room to move arms for casting
  • Comfortable as well as useful

What we don't love:

  • Bulky front design can get hot

Astral Ronny Fisher PFD

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.

Astral Ronny Fisher PFD life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III 
  • Full length center front zipper
  • Mesh lined for breathability and comfort
  • Lightweight design of 200D nylon
  • Multiple pockets for lures, line, or tools
  • Back with thin foam and mesh for comfort while seated in boat/kayak
  • Stowable hood in the collar
  • Collapsible beverage holder
  • Lash tab and velcro for easy tool attachment

What we love:

  • Comfortable with breathable design
  • Room for free arm movement
  • Multiple pockets and attachments for fishing gear
  • A beverage holder!
  • Keeps all your gear within reach
  • Astral line uses toxic-free PVC and recycled materials

What we don't love:

  • Bulky and heavy for non-fishing life jacket use

Best Child’s Life Jackets

Best child's life jackets

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. 

Stohlquist Toddler

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.

Stohlquist toddler life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Zip front with additional strap and security buckle
  • Durable and lightweight 200D nylon shell
  • PVC-free
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type II - will turn “some” children face up
  • Allows freedom of movement for child to paddle and kick
  • Convenient grab handle to rescue quickly
  • Open back for air movement
  • Double collar to support head and neck
  • Adjustable chest and crotch strap 

What we love:

  • Zips and buckles to ensure child won’t wiggle free
  • The open back prevents overheating
  • Grab handle to clutch child quickly if needed
  • Comes in many vibrant colors

What we don't love:

  • No reflective tape

O’Neill Child Reactor

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.

O’Neill Child Reactor life vest

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Front zip closure with two straps with quick-release buckles
  • Mesh for better drainage
  • Comfortable hydroprene cover
  • Quick grab safety loop behind neck
  • Full jacket with stretchy sides
  • U.S. Coast Guard approved
  • Crotch strap
  • Overlocked stitching - strong seams

What we love:

  • Comfortable exterior that won’t chafe
  • Extra security with zipper, chest, and crotch straps
  • A durable life jacket that can withstand a lot of wear
  • Comfortable and not bulky

What we don't love:

  • Full jacket will be tight on larger children

Best Dog Life Jackets

best dog life jackets

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:

Outward Hound Granby

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.

Outward hound granby dog life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Adjustable buckles for tight fit
  • Front float supports head in the water
  • Padded panels for comfort
  • Two large grab handles for easy rescue
  • Reflective tape
  • Bright colors
  • Comfortable neoprene belly band
  • Durable with ripstop nylon and velcro

What we love:

  • Easy to get on and off with quick release buckles and velcro
  • Floating pad to support head above water
  • Quick grab handles on the back
  • Designed to allow for dog’s movement in water and on land
  • Does not rub or irritate dog

What we don't love:

  • Not very breathable on a hot day

NRS CFD

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.

NRS CFD dog life jacket

Where to buy:

Features & Specs:

  • Three adjustment straps at chest
  • Grab handle on back to pick up your dog easily
  • 1000D Cordura nylon shell
  • Open underside to allow dog’s belly to be in the water
  • Foam flotation concentrated on top of jacket
  • Reflective tape and bright colors

What we love:

  • Comfortable vest that allows freedom of movement
  • Open design is a great option for a hot day
  • Easy to get on and off with quick release buckles
  • Grab handle to lift your dog into the boat

What we don't love:

  • No floating flap under neck to keep head up

What to Look for in a Life Jacket

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.

What is the best life jackets

Standard vs Inflatable

The majority of flotation devices are standard, but an inflatable PFD might be a better option based on your needs. 

Standard PFDs

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. 

PROS

  • Easy to care for
  • Automatically float without activation
  • Versatile for many different water sports such as canoeing, jet skiing, boating
  • Most include pockets to store small items such as sunglasses or tools

CONS

  • Bulky and less comfortable for long days
  • Hot - the full coverage makes you hotter on sweltering days

Inflatable PFDs

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. 

PROS

  • Comfortable for better range of motion to paddle
  • Cooler to wear on a hot day

CONS

  • Require inflation
  • Maintenance necessary to replace CO2 canisters used to inflate
  • Not for high impact sports such as whitewater rafting or water skiing
  • Not recommended for kids under 16 years or for non-swimmers

PFD Sizing and Fitting

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.  

Fitting Your PFD

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. 

PFD Features and Specs

Some of the best life jackets or PFDs will have extra features that make them more versatile. 

  • Bright colors - to make you visible in the water
  • Storage - many include pockets to store gear or attachment points for tools
  • Reflectivetape - improves visibility in poor light
  • Fishingfeatures - it might include D-rings for placement of tools and pockets for lures
  • Mesh - breathable mesh to allow air ventilation

USCG Classification of PFDs

Characteristic of the best life jackets

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

What Type of PFD for Each Sport

Life jackets for different water activities

Finding the appropriate PFD for your intended sport improves your overall comfort and without being distracted by an uncomfortable life jacket. 

Water sports

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. 

Sailing

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

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.

Offshore Sailing

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. 

Offshore Power

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 sports

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.

Commercial

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.

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. 

FAQ’S

🏆 Are neoprene life jackets better?

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. 


👍 How much do life jackets cost?

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.


🏝️ What is the best life jacket for someone who can’t swim?

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. 


❓ Which type of life jacket has the best buoyancy?

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.


📦 What is the difference between a life jacket and a buoyancy vest?

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. 


📦 Where to buy a life jacket

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.

Pat McCaw
Pat McCaw


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in Gear Guides

GILI pet life jacket on a cat
The 7 Best Cat Life Jackets For 2022

October 09, 2022 12 min read

Read More
Best kayak seats for maximum comfort
15 Best Kayak Seats For Maximum Comfort In 2022

October 09, 2022 19 min read

Read More
Main advantage of a type iv PFD
What is the Main Advantage of a Type IV PFD?

August 03, 2022 8 min read

Read More