The Ultimate Guide to Buying the Best Life Jacket

hobie cat sailboats

Finding a safe life vest is a priority for any family seeking adventure on or in the water. But there are so many choices from sizing, styling and type of activity. How do you know which is the best life jacket to buy? A simple search on the internet will give you everything from cheap life vests to custom life jackets and everything in between. Not all life jackets are equal and you will need to find the right fit and right type for your activities.

5 Categories for Who Will Wear the Life Jacket

  • Infant Life Jacket: 9-30 pounds
  • Toddler Life Jacket: 18-30 pounds
  • Kids Life Jacket: 30-50 pounds
  • Youth Life Jacket: 50-90 pounds
  • Life Jackets for Adults: above 90 pounds
  • Life Jackets for Dogs: varies by weights

Sizing is of crucial importance. A life vest that is too small will cause chafing and discomfort, while a life vest that is too large may not keep you upright correctly while floating. The best description for how a PFD (personal flotation device) should fit is “comfortably snug”. Adjust the straps so that the vest fits comfortably against your body without gaps. If you pull the straps as tight as possible and there are still gaps, the vest is too big. If you are unable to fasten the straps when let out completely, the vest is too small. Coast guard approved life jackets have manufacturing standards that are met during production, but it is up to the user to ensure the proper fit. Every brand has a different sizing system, so read the sizing guides carefully prior to purchasing.

Life Jacket Types

Type 1 PFD: Off shore life jackets made for open waters, rough waters or remote water where rescues may be slow to arrive. They can also be known as abandon ship life jackets for commercial vessels. The best off shore life jacket….

Type 2 PFD: Near shore buoyant vests for general boating activities and calm inland waters were rescues will be much quicker.

Type 3 PFD: Flotation aids meant for general boating and other water sport activities such as water skiing, canoeing or kayaking.

Type 4 PFD: Throwable devices designed to be thrown to a person in distress. This type is not to be worn, but should be readily available in an emergency water situation.

Type 5 PFD: Special use devices for special conditions and common for kayaks, man overboard situations and board sailing for example. Also included in this class are hybrid inflatables that are deflated, but become an inflatable life vest.

With the different classes of life vest types, it is important to know how you will use the life jacket. Your adventure activity will determine what type of PFD life jacket you will need to purchase. This article will focus on the wearable type 1 life jacket, type 2 life jacket and type 3 life jacket. If you want further information on other best flotation devices, look here….

**Note that pet flotation devices do not have classes. However, a dog life jacket will cover more of your dog, provide more buoyancy and give more visibility to the pet owner. A dog life vest provides less coverage and is more appropriate for pool swimming as opposed to boating or deeper water swimming.**

Type 1 Life Jacket

Type i life vests can be bulky because they have the most buoyancy. These are specifically designed to turn an unconscious person to a vertical or slightly backward position. You will mostly see these in off shore circumstances and on commercial vessels. If you are on a cruise ship for vacation, these type i life jackets will be on board. Wear a type 1 pfd if you need an off shore fishing life vest or a boat racing life vest.

Type 2 Life Jacket

Often called the universal boating life jacket because this type is meant for inland cruising, fishing and sailing. You will see these life vests on ferry boats as well as extras on board personal boats to stay uscg compliant. This type is not meant for prolonged individual use in an activity situation because they just aren’t that comfortable or easy to wear while moving your body. Although they look similar to type Type 1, the classification has everything to do with buoyancy capacity.

Type 3 Life Jacket

The most common life vests you will see for water based activities is the type iii pfd. You will find a wide variety of styles from an auto inflate life jacket to a standard life vest. Materials will vary as well for a type iii life jacket. Neoprene life jackets and nylon life vests are available in all shapes and sizes. Wake boarders, sailors, and kayakers will find styling important for their specific activity both for look and comfort. For example, a stand up paddle boarder may prefer a waist life jacket for full freedom of movement.

The Best Life Jackets for Water Sports

The Best Life Jacket for Kayaking

Kayakers are looking for excellent upper body and arm mobility. More movement and less restriction are the keys to a great kayak life jacket. Our kids wanted to start kayaking at a fairly young age, so again it’s important to find the right kayak life vest for kids that fits properly but also gives them range of motion.

*This post contains affiliate links, and we sometimes earn commission by our audience clicks. We like to be completely up front that our blog can earn money if you click thru our guides. By doing so, you give us opportunities to share more of our experiences so that we can help you to connect with your teens through travel*

Adult Buying Comparison

Onyx MoveVent Curve $100

Yukon Sport $52

NRS Ninja $130

Kids Buying Comparison

Onyx Youth Paddle Jacket $38

Stohlquist Kids Escape $58

Astral Otter 2.0 $130

The Best Jet Ski Life Jackets

First, always look for a uscg life jacket. Next, find a jet ski vest that is very secure. High speeds of jet skis sometimes mean that when you hit the water the vest can move around too much on your body. You want it nice and snug. We have found that a neoprene jet ski life vest hugs the body best.

Adult Buying Comparison

Stearns Watersport classic $30

O’Neill Slasher Comp $130

XGear $65

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Neill Child Superlite $27

Airhead GNAR Kwik-Dry Neo Lite $55

O’Neill Reactor $75

The Best Life Jacket for Kayak Fishing

Similar to kayak paddling, you want freedom of arm movement and enough clearance between torso and hips for comfort. It stands to reason that this type of kayak life vest will include pockets and features for fishing gear. Some kayak fishermen prefer a high back for comfort in the kayak seat while others like less coverage. One thing these fishermen agree on, though, is durability.

Adult Buying Comparison

NRS Chinook $140

Lixada Fishing Vest $46

Stohlquist Fisherman Jacket $109

Kids Buying Comparison

Airhead Youth Sportsman $34

Stohlquist Spinner $65

The Best Life Jackets for Boating

Boaters typically look for a lightweight life vest and a comfortable swimming life vest for versatility. A life jacket for kids is a must. All children under the age of 12 will need to wear a life vest while underway on any vessel. In some states, that age is older or younger depending on the laws. The bottom line is that if you are boating with your family you may need an infant life vest, a toddler life vest, a youth life vest, and an adult life vest.

Adult Buying Comparison

Airhead Quik Dry Neolite $65

O’Neill SuperLite USCG $40

Onyx General Purpose $27

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Neill Child SuperLite $30

Onyx General Purpose Child $20

Airhead SWOOSH $50

The Best Water Ski Life Jackets

If you or your family plans to do other water sport activities from the boat, you will need to consider that as well. A water ski vest and a wakeboard life vest are truly one in the same. Most often a neoprene material works best for high intensity water sports because they fit more snugly. An excellent wake board life jacket will pop you up after a fall quickly. Look for bright colors so you can spot your skiier quickly!

Adult Buying Comparison

O’Brien Impulse $75

Airhead NeoLite Flex $66

O’Neill Assault $105

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Brien Youth $90

Connelly V-Back $50

Hardcore Youth $22

The Best Life Jackets for Sailing

Sailing life jackets still fit into the type 3 category, but are designed similar to a kayak life vest. The aim is to give range of body motion while still providing adequate buoyancy. Sailors move around in their vessels quite a bit to manipulate ropes and sails accordingly. If sailing, you will want a sail life vest that doesn’t ride up, which can dangerously catch on a swinging boom. Also, a smooth exterior that won’t catch and a slimmer cut to avoid extra contact with the sailboat will be desirable. One feature you may want to consider is a life jacket that has a pocket large enough to carry a radio.

Adult Buying Comparison

Zhik USCG $120

Stohlquist Edge $96

Mustang Khimera Hybrid $200

Kids Buying Comparison

Stohlquist Kids Escape $58

Zhik Junior $119

Gogo Kids Youth $50

The Best Snorkeling Life Jacket

For those who are not strong swimmers or who want to snorkel with children who are not completely comfortable in the water you may want to wear a life jacket while snorkeling. Many people prefer a self inflating life jacket for this activity. Most have a horse collar design which is ideal for floating horizontally while snorkeling.

Adult Buying Comparison

Rrtizan Snorkel Vest $19

Rrtizan Zip Snorkel Vest $28

Omouboi Inflatable $35

Kids Buying Comparison

Wacool Inflatable $20

Appmoo Snorkel Vest $25

Rrtizan Snorkel Child Vest $19

The Best Stand Up Paddle Life Vest

Similar to other water sports, you will be looking for full range of body motion while on your SUP. The most common style for this activity are waist belts that have an auto inflate life jacket stored inside the pouch. However, I will warn you that every time you pull the release pin you will need to replace the indicator pin. Ultimately you will want. to find a comfortable life jacket that will keep you afloat if you run into a problem.

Adult Buying Guide

Onyx Absolute Outdoors $140

Stearns Belt Pack Life Jacket $69

Onyx MoveVent $50

The Best Infant Life Jacket

According to the U.S. Coast Guard an infant should not travel on a boat until their weigh 18 pounds and can wear a PFD. Look for the correct fit that offers a strap between the legs to keep the life vest from riding up above the head. Search for a super soft life vest so the material doesn’t rub baby’s tender skin.

Airhead General Purpose $22

Level Six Baby Flotation $98

Stearns Infant Life Vest $37

The Best Life Vest for Dogs

Adventuring with a pup is always a treat! Knowing your pup is safe on the water makes enjoying your time on the water even sweeter. A dog flotation vest will put your mind at ease and give him/her the adventure he/she was made for. Sizing will change according to how much your pup weighs, but you will want a close fitting vest that doesn’t flop around.

Buying Comparison

Vivaglory Life Jacket $28

Ruffwear $90


Finding and Buying the Right Life jacket

With thousands of options, it can be difficult to narrow down the choices. Ultimately as a family we look for comfort and durability that provides the most movement for our outdoor on the water activity. For kids, it’s important to have a life vest they can get on and off with ease and is something they want to wear so there is no fighting or arguing. As a mom I like my kids in a bright life jacket for visibility, but that’s just preference.

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