A life jacket, life vest, or personal flotation device (PFD), is a safety apparatus designed to keep you afloat in water when things go awry. It is made of buoyant materials such as foam, and covers the upper half of the body. In most places, wearing a life jacket is required by law before entering a body of water.
No two life jackets are made the same and that’s why it’s important to consider the right one for your next water adventure. In this article, we’ll go over the key features of a good life jacket including its intended use, buoyancy level, fit, and general performance in varying water conditions.
Types of Life Jackets
What do we love as much as the sports we play? The gear that goes with it! And water sports are no different. In this section, we’ll cover the most prominent and well-tested categories of life jackets. So toss grandpa’s old yellow and red PFD aside and read on:
Foam life jackets
As the buoyant superstar, these foam-filled life jackets are the most reliable option on our list. Foam life jackets and life vests are low-maintenance and ready-to-use. Though these life jackets work well in any situation, the bulkiness can partially restrict your range of motion.
This classic life jacket can be found under such monikers as Salus, Level Six, and Stohlquist—all of whom make some of the most reliable devices on the market. Or, opt for a form fitting jacket by O’Neill Wetsuits for maximum mobility.
Inflatable life jackets
Inflatable personal flotation devices provide a good range of motion, are easy to store, and are highly buoyant compared to other devices out there. Designed with inflatable chambers to keep you high above the water, these jackets can inflate in two ways: automatic and manual. Automatic life jackets inflate upon contact with water, while manual life jackets inflate with the pull of a cord.
NRS manufactures high-quality inflatable life jackets and life vests. You can also check out Mustang Survival Corp for an emergency inflatable device worn as a waist belt. Remember, an inflatable PFD requires regular maintenance as it relies on technology to function, but it’s definitely worth it.
Hybrid life jackets
Hybrid life jackets are designed with all the benefits of foam and inflatable life jackets, while minimising their disadvantages. The core of the jacket is filled with readily buoyant foam and inflatable chambers. These chambers fill with air either automatically or manually.
Though this life jacket requires some degree of regular maintenance, the foam component acts as a reliable back-up in case of emergency.
Specialised life jackets
The term ‘specialised life jackets’ typically refers to any personal floatation devices intended for dogs, children, people with special needs, or emergency personnel (think Search and Rescue technicians).
Specialised life jackets may include additional foam or inflatable chambers, multiple adjustable straps, extra pockets, and may come in irregular sizes and shapes. Basically, these life jackets are designed for specific use cases where most life jackets don’t cut it.
What to Look For in a Good Life Jacket
Like picking out your next paddleboard or kayak, there are a number of key features to look for when choosing the best life jackets. A worthy PFD will depend on its intended use and the following characteristics:
This is the most important aspect of a life jacket. Essentially, it’s the feature that makes a PFD a life-saving device. Buoyancy is a measurement of how well something floats (in air or in fluids). In the case of life jackets, we’re specifically referring to buoyancy in water.
How buoyant a life jacket is largely depends on the materials (usually foam and inner tubes filled with air), as well as the weight of the wearer. Note that the distribution of buoyant material keeps the wearer in an upright or face-up position, rather than a face-down position.
Fit and comfort
Check the manufacturer’s label or size chart to verify that the life jacket is the right fit for your size and weight range. To determine if you’ve purchased a properly fitting life jacket, follow these steps:
- Fasten your life jacket as you would before entering the water;
- Hold your arms above your head to test range of motion and torso coverage;
- Have a friend try to tug the life jacket off of you—the life jacket should stay put;
- Lastly, test the life jacket in the water to make sure that the device is buoyant enough, does not slip off, and is comfortable to wear.
Although a life jacket with a snug fit is important for comfort, you don’t want it to fit too tight. Choosing a life jacket that allows you to move freely out on the water will maximise your performance and prevent accidents, too.
In the event of an emergency, the most important factor aside from staying afloat is being easy to detect. It’s therefore a good idea to choose a life jacket that doesn’t blend into your surroundings.
Instead, opt for a life jacket with reflective features and brightly coloured fabric.
US Coast Guard Rating System
The US Coast Guard has a rating system that measures the buoyancy of life jackets from Type I to Type V. Think of it as the American equivalent of our Transport Canada certification system.
The guidelines state that most adults require a minimum of seven to twelve pounds of extra buoyancy to safely stay afloat. The US Coast Guard also recommends additional life jacket safety measures that include regular care and maintenance checks, how to wear your life jacket, and how to test a new purchase.
Top 8 Best Life Jackets
Now that we know what makes a worthy life jacket, let’s take a look at the goods! We love all the life jackets we stock equally, but to help you narrow down your gear options with ease, we’ve put together a list of our 9 top contenders:
Best Overall Life Jacket
If we had to choose just one life jacket for any water sport, it’s the Type III PFD O’Neill Reactor USCG Life Vest. This contoured life vest with anatomical flex points is the best choice if you’re looking for top-of-the-line quality, fit, and functionality.
Designed with some of the best features in life jacket technology, this device is outfitted with closed cell PVC Marine Foam, a heavy duty zipper closure and stitched seams, quick-release dual belt system, and ventilated mesh.
Best Budget Option
The Vapor PFD Life Vest by NRS has a reasonable price tag and doesn’t cut corners. It’s a reliable life vest constructed with a soft interior and a durable nylon exterior fabric.
This Type III PFD US Coast Guard-approved life vest features a side-release buckle system with three adjustable straps for a comfy, custom fit. The contoured torso with ultra soft foam and ample arm space allows for great mobility. It’s the perfect budget option for most water sports.
Best Kayaking & Canoeing Life Jacket
For your next kayaking or whitewater rafting adventure, we can’t recommend the Ungava Kayak Touring Vest enough. With Salus’ signature soft foam, smooth edges, and remarkable contour fit, you’ll feel comfortable whether you’re conquering freshwater rapids or touring the sea.
For a long day out on the water, this Transport Canada-approved life vest boasts ergonomic stash, a lash tab, hand-warmer and zippered pockets, reflective patches, a sturdy chest buckle system, and the option to attach features for added utility—nevermind its eye-catching design!
Best Kids Life Jacket
The Level Six Puffer Flotation Aid for infants is loved by even the fussiest babies (girl, boy), making it an all-round favourite for sub-20 lbs humans. It boasts a 3-piece collar to keep heads in a face-up position, is easy to adjust, gentle on bare skin, and includes a nifty crotch strap to make diaper changes a cinch.
Youth life jackets (girl, boy) need a little more room to move. For that, there’s no better option than the Transport Canada-approved Nimbus Printed Floatation Jacket by Salus. One of the best kids life jackets on the market, it comes in an array of fabric prints and features a bottom crotch strap, soft nylon fabric, stretchy back, and wide foam around the neck.
Best Canine Life Jacket
Keep your furry friend safe with the CFD Dog Life Jacket by NRS. This life jacket is designed with a well-balanced foam contour that even wraps around your doggo’s neck, a handle for easy hauling when it’s time to get back in the boat, and reflective tape so you can spot ‘em in the dark.
Best Paddleboarding Life Jacket
The Rocker Type III PFD by Stohlquist is a reliable all-day life jacket that should be on every paddleboarder's checklist. Multiple pockets, low-profile chest design, and a side-zipper entry makes this life vest a pleasure to wear and easy to take off. It features Stohlquist’s signature Cross-Chest Cinch to eliminate the dreaded “ride-up,” as well as padded shoulders with adjustment straps and graded sizing for a customised fit.
Best Jet Skiing Life Jacket
Mobility and seated comfort are the most important aspects of a good jet ski jacket. That’s why we’ve chosen the Horsepower Neoprene PFD by Mustang Survival Corp. Not only is this water skiing life jacket TS Marine approved, it also features chafe-resistant airsoft foam, a split-tail back panel, and large armholes for a high range of motion and zero ride-ups.
Best Boating Life Jacket
In this category our pick is the Assault USCG Life Vest by O’Neill. This life jacket features strong seams, a concealed dual belt system, great lumbar support, and NytroLite foam technology—all combined with a lightweight fluid foam Neoprene outer shell.
The minimalist design makes it the right choice for fly fishing mobility and comfort on long speed-boating trips. So, if you’re looking for a life jacket that is both incredibly sleek and US Coast Guard-approved, this is the right pick for you.
Q: What type of life jacket should I choose?
A: Choose a life jacket with a buoyancy rating that’s appropriate for your weight range and is designed for your water sport of choice. You’ll need to decide between an inflatable, foam, or hybrid jacket.
No matter what you choose, however, always invest in a good life jacket that fits well and is Transport Canada- or US Coast Guard-approved.
Q: How do I determine the right size for my life jacket?
Q: How often should I replace my life jacket?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine the best life jacket for your situation. Keep in mind that the most important features are:
- Fit, size, and buoyancy for your body type;
- Fabric-to-skin comfort;
- Roam VS inflatable technology;
- Range of motion.
Whether you’re into paddle sports, sailing, or just lounging on a yacht, wear a life jacket that will keep your head high enough above water to prevent drowning. Never underestimate the utility of a good life jacket and always wear one when engaging in water activities. Additionally, a brightly coloured life jacket will make you easier to spot in an emergency situation.
Now, the fun part—time to shop your next life jacket!