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Published Aug 5, 2022 7:30 AM

Life jackets, or personal flotation devices, used to be bulky, ugly, and fatiguing to wear. Now they’re fashionable, high-performance, and better than ever — and with more people choosing to beat the heat out on the water, they’re also more necessary than ever before.

I spent four years as an active-duty Coast Guard small boat crewman, so suffice it to say, I know a little more than the average bear about what makes for a quality life-saving product and what will turn a potentially deadly accident into just another fun story to tell at parties. With that knowledge and experience in mind, here’s your guide to the best life jackets worth wearing.

Best Overall

The O’Neill Superlite is a versatile performer that’s Coast Guard-approved, durable, stylish, and has a comfortable anatomical cut that won’t have you aching to tear it off after just a few hours.

With four adjustment straps, the Superlite gives you much more room to customize your fit than cheaper options, along with extra reliability. Oversized arm holes also prevent the underarms from getting pinched and cutting off arm circulation, one of the most common complaints of cheap life jackets. The deep-cut neckline also mitigates chafing so you won’t be afraid to move your head around. The Superlite is most at home doing nearshore and freshwater watersports, but is a versatile design that can be used for boating and jet skiing on calm seas as well.

Unless you have more specialized needs, the O’Neill Superlite is a fashionable choice at a reasonable price point with an emphasis on comfort. And with a Type III Coast Guard approval, it also keeps your head above water pretty well, too.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Small – 6XL
  • Materials: Nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Type III
Why It Made The Cut
  • A versatile all-rounder with lots of adjustments and ergonomic features, the Superlite has all the features of what a Type III life jacket should be in an attractive package at a good price point.
PROS

Versatile

Simple to use

Four adjustment straps

Comfortable anatomical cut

CONS

Best for nearshore activities

No pockets

Make sure to use O’Neill’s sizing chart for correct fit

For a no-frills life-saving device that won’t break the bank, the Airhead Universal Type II does what it says on the tin. It won’t win any awards for its looks, but as a Type II PFD, it will keep your head above water even if you’re unconscious. The standard bright orange color is better for safety, too, with the highest visibility of any color in all weather and lighting conditions. The single waist strap works better than you’d expect for getting a correct fit, and is easy to use even for the most panicked boaters in an emergency. U.S. Coast Guard approval also means you don’t have to worry about the low price compromising the life-saving ability of the product.

Keyhole designs like this one will keep you face-up if you’re unconscious, but they’re more fatiguing for long-term usage because the PFD is held so close to the neck. As such, the Airhead Universal Type II is best for short canoe or kayaking outings, or for boaters to keep around and hand out at the first sign of trouble. A budget-friendly yet reliable PFD, it’s easy to keep spares of these onboard in case there’s more guests than expected and always meet Coast Guard regulations to have at least one life jacket for each passenger onboard.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Child, Youth, Adult, Adult Oversized
  • Materials: Nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Type II
Why It Made The CUt
  • Basic yet effective, the Airhead Universal is affordable and great for short outings, and stows easily for a handy backup life jacket.
PROS

Type II safety at an incredible price

As easy to use as it gets

Compact for easy storage

CONS

Very basic design

Less suited for long-term wear

Not designed for high-speed impacts

Best for Women

Every woman I’ve talked to hates the trend of making “women’s products” that are just the same as the men’s version with a different color or print pattern on it. Mustang bucks that trend with its Destiny women’s life jacket, designed from the ground up for women’s bodies. An uncomfortable life jacket is less likely to be used, exposing people to risk when that unexpected wave or wind gust hits, so a women’s-specific design is about more than just creature comforts. A specially sculpted racerback, six points of adjustment, and Mustang’s innovative adjust-a-bust panels afford a comfortable fit for any woman’s body that won’t ride up into your neck or underarms. Extra padding provides all-day comfort and mesh pockets with integrated key clips make for a versatile vest.

In terms of safety, Mustang knows its stuff and the Destiny not only has the expected level of flotation, but also has reflective trim and a tethered whistle. While in the Coast Guard, I’ve seen women fall out the bottom of improperly fitted life vests during emergencies, robbing them of crucial protection when they need it most, and that’s precisely what the Mustang Destiny was built to avoid. The Destiny comes in at a higher price tag, but a cheaper vest is wasted money if it comes off the second you need it, or it’s so uncomfortable you hardly wear it. And with Mustang Survival’s legendary brand reputation, you get peace of mind along with the best fit for women on the market.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Small/Medium, Large/XL
  • Materials: 200D Nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Harmonized Level 70 (equivalent to Type III)
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Destiny was designed for women from the start, and it’s not just a resized men’s life jacket. Great durability and thoughtful features make for a competent general-purpose women’s life jacket.
PROS

Specifically designed for women, not an afterthought

Fantastic range of adjustments

Easy to use

Versatile and mobile

CONS

Higher-end price

Only one color option

Best for Fishing

In addition to having a really cool name, the Kokatat Leviathan represents the pinnacle of fishing life jackets. The expertise Kokatat brought in during the design process shows as the Leviathan is not only safe and durable, but also works with the angler and not against them. With 14 pockets of various types, this vest has unrivaled versatility (hand warmer pockets included, too). Customizable fixture options for lures, flies, tools, and sinkers mean what you need is always close at hand. Plenty of high-quality zippers in a well-thought-out layout also keep gear stowed properly in the event of a tumble or big wave.

Comfort is integral to the design with articulated and contoured buoyancy foam, Ariaprene quick-drying mesh liner, adjustable side straps, and a high back to accommodate a wide range of kayaks. It’s also compatible with Kokatat’s Tributary hydration pack. The Leviathan was designed for the most demanding kayak fishing pros but works great for all types of rod and reel fishing, from fly fishing to deep sea angling. I can’t guarantee you’ll catch bigger fish with the Kokatat Leviathan, but you’ll immediately notice the extra comfort, convenience, and durability of this life vest.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: XS/Small, Medium/Large, XL/2XL
  • Materials: 210 High Tenacity ripstop nylon, Ariaprene mesh, Gaia® PVC-free foam
  • Life jacket type: Type III
Why It Made The Cut
  • Kokatat already has a reputation for making top-end equipment, and it brought in professional fishermen for consultation when it designed the Leviathan, making for an intuitive and reliable fishing life jacket.
PROS

Excellent working space and pocket layout

Durable yet breathable

Contoured foam feels like a custom vest

Adjustable everywhere

Unisex that properly fits women, too

Dual certification in both U.S. and Canada

CONS

Professional-grade means professional price

Best Inflatable

I can think of no higher pedigree for a life jacket than that of the Mustang HIT. It’s what we use to protect ourselves on Coast Guard small boat crews. The HIT is our go-to PFD on patrol unless we need special cold water protection from a float suit or dry suit, and this inflatable PFD holds up under some truly spectacular conditions. When uninflated, the HIT lays flat, so you can move unimpeded. The hydrostatic inflation also doesn’t trigger prematurely, even from heavy splashes, rain, or landing in a puddle during heavy seas, but inflates quickly and reliably when submerged in four inches or more of water. Even the heaviest winds never burst the zipper, and the high-quality Cordura shell can withstand scrapes, scuffs, and snags without issue. For backup inflation methods, the HIT also includes a manual ripcord as well as an oral inflation tube.

For more civilian purposes, the HIT also has plenty of utility with optional sailing rings and harnesses, water-resistant pockets, belt extenders, and an overall unobtrusive design, affording maximum mobility during all boating activities, recreational or commercial. Being an inflatable PFD type, maintenance is more complex than your typical foam life jacket, so Mustang makes it easy with an easily visible indicator panel and a straightforward rearming kit (make sure to use Re-arm Kit C). For regular boaters and sailors looking for a low-profile option they can rely on in even the worst conditions, the Mustang HIT is second-to-none.

A quick word of warning to professional aviators though: The HIT doesn’t have a manual conversion kit, so the auto-inflation can’t be disabled. Inflatable PFDs are great for pilots because they’re low-profile, but the last thing you want is an auto-inflated balloon to trap you or others inside an aircraft during a water landing. Check out Mustang’s Pilot 38 or MIT 100 manual inflation PFDs for more aviation-friendly devices.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Inflatable, one size fits all adults (belt extensions available)
  • Materials: 500D Cordura, neoprene collar
  • Life jacket type: Recreational Type II, Commercial Type V (Type II performance when worn)
Why It Made The Cut
  • I trusted the Mustang HIT with my life for four years, and it never let me down. With lots of personal experience, this was an easy recommendation.
PROS

Legendary durability

Easy to use and won’t activate prematurely

Lots of visibility and safety features

Lays flat when uninflated for fantastic mobility

Easy to maintain with kit

Good modularity options

CONS

Quite pricey

Only for adults or teens aged 16-plus

Inflatable PFDs naturally more complex to maintain

Not suitable for aviators as auto-inflation can’t be disabled on this model

Best for Kids

This probably isn’t news to any current parents out there, but kids grow fast. They also don’t always follow instructions, especially about wearing uncomfortable life jackets that fit at age six but not at age seven. The NRS Crew Child takes the guesswork out of child sizing in a high-quality and comfortable package that will keep your loved ones safe. As long as your child is between 33 and 55 pounds, this life jacket is plenty adjustable for a proper fit.

For those getting into their teen years or kids who run a bit heavier, the very similar Crew Youth is available for those within the 55- to 88-pound range. An adjustable leg strap also keeps the vest from riding up or popping off the top of your youngster if they fall overboard. The Crew Child also has specially shaped shoulders, plus enlarged arm openings for better comfort and mobility, so your kid won’t be aching to take the vest off the first time you’re not looking. Tough 200D nylon also stands up well to years of usage, and with dual U.S./Canada certification, it travels well.

NRS is an established whitewater rafting and kayaking company that has a history of supporting its customers, even publishing several helpful guides through its website for kid safety during any water activity. An excellent child PFD, combined with great support from the manufacturer, is sure to keep your child safe and foster great memories on the water that will last a lifetime.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Child (33-55 lbs), Youth (55-88 lbs)
  • Materials: 200D nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Harmonized Level 70 (equivalent to Type III)
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Crew Child has some of the best adjustability for a kid’s life jacket, while keeping a straightforward and comfortable design philosophy.
PROS

Great adjustability for proper fit

Kid-specific ergonomic features

Adjustable leg strap

Durable and safe

Front zipper design very easy to put on

CONS

No pockets

Light on features

Make sure to get the right weight range for best results

Best for Infants and Toddlers

Mustang makes fantastic life-saving products for adults, and they bring that same quality and attention to detail to the smallest adventurers with its Lil’ Legends lineup. Infants especially have trouble keeping their heads upright, so this Type II PFD with a three-piece head cradle gives excellent support, naturally positioning them upright in the water. The leg strap also keeps the vest in place on squirmy infants or in the event of a rough landing in the water. A large grab handle with reflective accents completes the safety features so it’s easy to find a bobbing infant and pull them to safety with ease.

The Lil’ Legends vest is also quite comfortable to wear for extended periods. With a soft fabric shell, mesh back, and a moisture-wicking liner, this vest combats the discomfort most Type II PFDs are known for. While more than one adjustable waist strap would be nice, there’s a lot to be said for simplicity when dealing with infants, so I don’t consider that a real drawback in this category. Similarly, it would be nice if the front zipper had a Velcro fastener or thumb snap to keep a fidgety wearer from tugging it open, though the waist belt and buckle are robust enough to keep the life jacket in place even if the zipper is fully opened.

Overall, the Mustang Lil’ Legends stands out from other infant-size life jackets for being comfortable and with enough safety built-in to keep even the most helpless infant breathing until help can arrive.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: Infant (up to 30 pounds), Child (33-55 pounds), Youth (55-88 pounds)
  • Material: Fabric, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Type II
Why It Made The Cut
  • Even with lessons, infants and toddlers are very weak swimmers and need extra buoyancy in an emergency. The Infant Lil’ Legends provides face-up flotation in one of the most comfortable Type II life jackets around.
PROS

Type II safety with extra head support

Moisture-wicking liner and mesh combat swampy interiors

Large reflective grab handle

Adjustable leg strap

CONS

Zipper can be opened by fidgeting (though not required for flotation)

No dedicated tether attachment points

Best for Paddleboarding

Onyx markets the MoveVent Dynamic as a kayaker’s dream, but paddleboarders really love it, too. The extremely well-ventilated design is as breathable as can be, while also allowing the flotation panels to articulate and flex along with large paddling motions. The funnel architecture of the vest also mitigates the tendency other vests have of riding up when paddling for extended periods, lowering fatigue, and making for a more enjoyable experience. There’s plenty of adjustability, too, and soft neoprene shoulder straps prevent chafing. Expandable zippered pockets keep items from falling out when in motion, and a small lash tab allows you to tether small items where they’ll stay handy.

In terms of safety, the MoveVent is both US Coast Guard and Transport Canada approved, plus has extra SOLAS reflectors for visibility. The attached marine whistle is a small but useful inclusion, too. And with a ripstop nylon shell, the MoveVent Dynamic is tough enough for many outings to come.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: XS/Small, Medium/Large, XL/2XL
  • Materials: 200D Ripstop nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Type III
Why It Made The Cut
  • A paddlesport life jacket’s focused design with amazing ventilation means wearers stay cool and fatigue-free when out of the water and stay afloat in case of a tumble.
PROS

Purpose-built for paddlesports

Outstanding ventilation e

Articulated foam panels for great paddling range of motion

Won’t ride up during long paddles

Unisex sizing that actually works for everyone

CONS

Hard to tuck away lower back mesh panel when paddleboarding

Extra safety buckle near belly would be nice

Selfie stick not included

Best for Kayaking

While the above-mentioned Onyx MoveVent Dynamic is also a great choice for kayakers, the NRS Odyssey just brings more to the table for more serious excursions. It’s a truly top-shelf product with an intuitive layout, two large zippered pockets, two VHF radio pouches, three lash tabs, a multitude of D-rings and attachment loops, plus six points of adjustment. It’s also more flexible and breathable than it looks, facilitated by seven separate flotation panels and NRS’ Cool Flow System. Needless to say, the arm holes have a paddler’s cut for a full range of motion.

I personally like that the Odyssey uses a full back design, as even on high-backed kayaks I like having the extra cushioning, but if you prefer a smaller back panel, then keep that in mind. As for durability and safety, NRS also makes life jackets for swift water rescue teams, so it really knows its stuff. The Odyssey is built to high standards with an impressive 400-denier Ripstop nylon shell and has U.S. Coast Guard Type III certification, so it will keep you cool, comfortable, and breathing air for many years.

Product Specs
  • Sizing: XS/Small, Medium/Large, XL/2XL
  • Material: 400D Ripstop nylon, closed-cell foam
  • Life jacket type: Type III
Why It Made The Cut
  • Designed as a touring kayak PFD, the Odyssey is built to be comfortable on all-day open-water kayaking trips. Easily accessible storage and 400D Ripstop nylon make this PFD as convenient as it is durable.
PROS

All-day comfort

Zippered pockets big enough for compact binoculars

Lots of attachment points and lash tabs

Great flexibility

Stays cool with CFS ventilation

Adjustable waist strap for extra secure fit

400D Ripstop nylon is extra-tough

CONS

Premium price

Full back design can be a pro or a con depending on preference

Open water design focus means not great for whitewater kayakers, consider the NRS Ninja for more adrenaline-fueled kayaking

Things to consider before buying a life jacket

Purpose

Besides just keeping your head above water, life jackets can have a lot of specialized features. Consider what waterborne activity you’ll be doing the most and see if just a general Type III PFD works or if you might need something more purpose-built. For example, sea kayaking and whitewater kayaking have very different aspects and are best served by different types of PFDs. 

Comfort

An uncomfortable life jacket doesn’t get used nearly as much as the one you forget you’re even wearing. And with a lifesaving device, you never know when you’re going to need that PFD. A comfortable PFD will also make for a more enjoyable experience on the water overall, which is the whole point of recreational aquatics in the first place, isn’t it?

Longevity

One of the main drivers of the price will be how often a PFD is designed to be used. If you’re the type to go boating or paddleboarding just a few times every summer, then a budget-friendly choice will be right for you. If you’re a dedicated kayaker or boater who’s out on the water once or twice a week, then springing for a more durable vest is a more prudent choice. Chances are they’ll be more comfortable too.

Type

You’ve probably heard by now references to Type II or Type III PFDs, which are the most common you’ll encounter in the recreational boating world. 

A Type II PFD has most of the buoyancy at the front and neck so you float face-up in the water. It’s very useful for sailing, where a swinging boom is very likely to knock you overboard and knock you unconscious. 

A Type III PFD has the same minimum buoyancy requirement as Type II, but is more of a jacket or vest design. This means Type III PFDs are more comfortable and flexible. With a Type III, you get more comfort instead of more safety. 

Lastly, high-quality inflatable PFDs will often be categorized as Type V and have a second type listed after, which just means they’re a special use device to note they only provide the listed flotation when inflated. Note that I will always recommend a Type II PFD for infants or small children. 

FAQ about life jackets

Q: Do life jackets expire?

A: Most life jackets don’t have an expiration date. Over time, the outer shell or straps may get frayed or damaged, so if there are any rips or tears, the life jacket is no longer considered approved. Inflatable life jackets do have an expiration date, however, often printed on the inflation device or gas cylinder (often five years from date of manufacture). Replace or send in the vest for qualified maintenance before this date to ensure the vest will inflate properly when needed.

Q: How many life jackets are required on a boat?

A: There should be at least one life jacket for each person aboard, and they need to be the right size (adult, child, etc) as well as readily accessible. Children under 13 must always be wearing their life jackets unless they’re below deck or in an enclosed cabin. Any vessel over 16 feet in length must also have a throwable Type IV PFD (e.g., life ring).

Q: Can you drown with a life jacket on?

A: It is an unfortunate fact of life that no waterborne activity is absolutely safe, even with a life jacket on. Type II and Type III life jackets (the most common) are designed to keep the wearer floating in nearshore, relatively calm waters where rescue is likely to come soon, but there are many factors that can shorten that time period from cold to heavy surf. That said, 90 percent of drownings happen to boaters without their life jackets on, so life jackets save many lives each year.

Q: How do I know if my life jacket fits correctly?

A: A properly fitting Type III life jacket should be snug, but not so tight that it impedes breathing or normal motion. It should stay in place if you fall overboard even with your arms above your head (a little shifting is okay but not so much it falls off, covers your face, or chokes you). A Type II PFD will naturally be more snug around the neck and typically only has adjustment around the waist. The waist strap should be tight enough to prevent slipping out from under the PFD in the event of a rough water entry.

Final thoughts

Finding a good life jacket is mostly about finding the right fit and lining up your waterborne interests with your budget. The O’Neill Superlite provides one of the most versatile vests with great adjustment options at a very reasonable price. There are cheaper life jackets on the market and definitely some more expensive ones, but the Superlite really hit that sweet spot of price-to-performance ratio. Unless you need something more specialized like all-day kayaking comfort or an inflatable vest, the Superlite from O’Neill will keep you safe and secure while out on the water.

Methodology

As a former Coast Guard small boat crewman and a lifelong aquatics enthusiast, I relied on a great deal of past experience when making my choices for this list. I’ve personally used a variety of PFD types from many different brands, including more specialized devices like float coats and dry suits in about every kind of sea state there is and while performing complex tasks like law enforcement or search and rescue. This is why I harp on proper fit so much throughout my review, because it really does make a difference. Adjustability is the name of the game, so a generous range of adjustments is one of the top things I looked for. Brand reputation is another big one, so I only selected brands I personally trust to have great durability and consistently provide the safety they’re rated for.

For child and infant life jackets, leg or crotch straps were a major factor as it’s very easy for scrawny and squirmy youngsters to slip out of their PFDs without them. A Type II PFD was also a must for infants and toddlers, so that narrowed the field quite a bit in that category. For the best women’s life jacket category, I know a lot of women boaters and aquatic adventurers out there, so it was a simple matter of surveying them for their favorite and least favorite features.

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