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- Whether you’re headed out for a paddling trip on a placid lake or a deep sea fishing adventure on heaving swells, if you’re not wearing a good life jacket, you’re doing it wrong.
- The Astral BlueJacket Kayak Life Vest is our top pick because it fits securely yet comfortably and doesn’t limit your range of motion while ensuring your buoyancy if you end up in the drink.
Let’s get one thing crystal clear here: If you’re going out on the water, whether in a kayak or canoe, on a jet ski or wakeboard, or aboard a fishing trawler, if there’s any chance you are going to end up in the water, you should be wearing a life jacket, live vest, or personal flotation device, AKA a PFD.
Maybe you think you’re a great swimmer and you don’t need a life jacket? Well Michael Phelps is a pretty terrible swimmer when he has been knocked unconscious by a wayward paddle or a slip on a slick boat deck. Are you a better swimmer than 23-time Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps? So yeah, flotation devices: wear one.
Before you choose a specific best life jacket for yourself, you need to understand the various types of personal flotation devices available. They are generally sorted into four categories, with Type I PFDs being those intended for use during longer emergency periods in the water, such as after a seaman falls overboard and cannot be immediately retrieved. They are often bulky, but they can keep even an unconscious person above the water and alive.
Type II life jackets are the kind commonly stocked on commercial vessels (like cruise ships) and while they are not that comfortable and tend to limit range of motion, they can keep a person’s head above the waves. Type III PFDs are life jackets designed for extended wear during all sorts of aquatic activities, such as fishing, paddling, water skiing, or boating generally. Type III PFDs are generally comfortable and won’t limit your movement or activities, and they are our focus today.
This list includes PFDs that are perfect for all sorts of activities, from paddling to fishing to watersports to general use, and we have included options suitable for everyone in the family, too. Even the four-legged, tail-wagging family members. Take a minute to choose which PFD is the best fit for your needs, and then spend the cash to get it. Safety first, folks. Safety first.
Here are the best life jackets, life vests, and PFDs:
- Best life jacket overall: Astral BlueJacket Kayak Life Vest
- Best for fishing: NRS Chinook Fishing PFD
- Best for small children: O’Neill Wake USCG Vest
- Best inflatable vest: Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest
- Best affordable vest: Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest
- Best for dogs: Outward Hound Granby Dog Life Jacket
Updated on 10/29/2019 by Owen Burke: Updated formatting, links, and copy.
The best life jacket overall
The Astral BlueJacket Kayak Life Vest provides excellent flotation support without hampering the free movement of your arms or torso.
If you have ever paddled a kayak or canoe while wearing a big, bulky life jacket, you know it’s not much fun. The thick collar gets pressed against your chin with each stroke and the torso twisting motion necessary for paddling is limited by the shape and size of the vest. Waterskiing, casting with a fishing rod, and other such activities are also a lot less enjoyable when you’re wearing one of those classic clunky orange life vests.
But with the Astral BlueJacket Kayak Life Vest, your arms are free to move without being encumbered at all. And thanks to the flexible foam used in the vest, your torso can twist and bend and move freely as well. Even as you move around while kayaking, fishing, tubing, and so forth, the BlueJacket will stay firmly in place on your body thanks to its multiple adjustment points that allow for a customized fit.
If you work up a thirst during all that activity, a built-in hydration sleeve can store a water bladder, while several pouches can be used to stash snacks, your keys, or a phone or camera, provided you have one seriously reliable waterproof case.
I use one of these vests when I kayak and canoe, but I’m not biased, I’m merely convinced by the excellence.
A gear tester from Outside loved the freedom of motion allowed by the “oversized armholes” and independent foam panels, and also appreciated all the “storage space” the BlueJacket offers.
Pros: Excellent freedom of motion, built-in hydration pocket, multiple adjustment points
Cons: Quite expensive
The best life jacket for fishing
- NRS Chinook
The NRS Chinook Fishing PFD will keep you above the water if you fall off the boat or dock, and it keeps all your gear organized and reachable with its multiple pockets.
When you picture fisherman’s apparel, what do you see? Probably a brimmed hat, rubber boots, maybe waders, and of course a vest with multiple pockets. If a fisherman (or fisherwoman) is already going to be wearing a vest packed with pouches, why not also make said vest a personal flotation device?
The NRS Chinook Fishing PFD will keep you afloat when you end up in the water, and it will give you an edge over the fish while you’re still on the boat, dock, or the shore.
This life vest has seven pockets of varying size, so you can easily arrange your tackle for quick and easy access, while multiple D-ring attachment points allow for additional supply storage. And a pair of rod holder loops can help you manage fishing poles, while a strobe holder loop can keep you safe after dark.
With nearly 200 reviews posted on Amazon at the time of this writing, the NRS Chinook has an astoundingly good 4.8-star average rating. Perhaps the highest praise about the vest came from one user who said it is so comfortable “you forget you’re wearing it.” Another called it a “keeper” and said he “love[d] the many pockets.”
In a write up about the NRS Chinook, the experts from Paddling.com called it “more than a safety aid,” but a piece of “gear that makes you more effective on the water.”
Pros: Multiple pockets and attachment loops, full front zip entry, large armholes
Cons: Rides up torso during flotation
The best life jacket for kids
When it comes to a child’s safety, there is zero room for error, and you can trust the Coast Guard-approved O’Neill Wake USCG Vest to keep your kid safe.
If you have a young child who is a less-than-competent swimmer anywhere near the water, he or she should be wearing a reliable PFD. Likewise, if you have a little swimming machine on your hands … he or she should be wearing a PFD. And with the O’Neill Wake USCG Vest strapped to your child’s body, that little head will be kept above the water even if the kid can’t muster a single stroke.
This kid’s PFD closes using a front zipper and secures with dual adjustable chest buckles as well as a strap that passes between the child’s legs, which ensures that the vest stays in place and won’t ride up.
But the most important strap is arguably the grab loop atop the head flotation cushion, for if a child ever needs to be plucked from the water, this loop will make it easy for an adult to pull the kid to safety.
With hundreds of reviews in, this Coast Guard-approved life jacket has a solid 4.5-star average on Amazon. One former Coast Guard officer and current parent who says he has been “on boats all [his] life” calls it a “very well made vest.” Another calls it “great for infants,” and for the record, the O’Neill Wake USCG Vest is suitable for use on kids who weigh up to 30 pounds.
Pros: Reliable face-up flotation, high visibility colors, grab loop on head cushion
Cons: Limits range of motion
The best inflatable life jacket
The Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest is slim and compact before inflation but rapidly expands into an air-filled flotation device with the pull of a tab.
Unlike most PFDs, the Onyx M-24 vest is a minimalist piece of safety apparel until that harrowing moment when you actually need some assistance. The vest consists of two narrow, flat suspender-like panels, a thin shoulder pad, and a few straps that hold it in place on your torso.
It won’t impede your movement and is compact enough to be worn underneath a jacket if you choose. But when you pull down on the “Jerk to Inflate” handle, the vest will instantly fill with air and turn into a reliable safety flotation jacket.
Frankly, the term “manual” in the name of the Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest is almost misleading, but in a good way. The only manual input you need to provide is a quick pull of a single tab and a compact bottle of compressed air will do the rest of the work for you. If that fails, you can use a backup oral inflation tube, though.
This is not a single-use item, either: you can deflate the jacket and re-arm it with another bottle of compressed air. Though if you need to use it more than once in a short period of time, you should probably reexamine some of your life choices.
With dozens of ratings and reviews posted, Amazon customers have given the Onyx M-24 a 4.6-star rating. One customer who uses the vest for kayaking said it was so compact and comfortable he “felt like [he] wasn’t wearing it,” and when he tested the inflated jacket in a pool, it held his 6’1″, 220-pound body above the water with ease.
A writer from Top5Reviewed said the vest “works well” when inflated and is quite comfortable when not.
Pros: Comfortable minimal design, suitable for multiple uses, backup oral inflation
Cons: Fits too loosely for use in rapids or large waves
The best affordable life jacket
The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest will keep you above the water where you belong for a fraction of the price of many other PFDs.
Let’s not beat around the bush on this one: The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest is notable first and foremost for its low price. In fact, there really nothing else remarkable about this personal flotation device. But it’s a Coast Guard-approved device you can rely on for safety in the water.
With three adjustable buckle closure straps, the universal fit option is suitable for use by most adults and by older kids and teens, too.
This PFD doesn’t offer quite as much range of motion or comfort as its pricier counterparts, and there are no bells and whistles like pockets or gear loops, but the thing will help prevent you from drowning if you fall into the water, and it does that at a great price. And if that’s not valuable to you, I’m not sure what is.
More than 700 customers have chimed in on the Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest, and it has a fine 4.3-star average rating. One owner speaks for many when she calls this PFD perfect for “anyone looking for an affordable life jacket.”
Pros: Coast Guard approved, affordable
Cons: Simple design with no extras
The best life jacket for your dog
- Outward Hound
The Outward Hound Granby Dog Life Jacket comes in five different sizes, so you’ll be able to find the perfect fit for your four-legged friend.
Dogs naturally know how to swim, but that doggie paddle isn’t going to get Lassie safely back to shore if she goes overboard miles out to sea. The same is true if a doggo ends up in rapids, heavy surf, or if your pup simply doesn’t swim that well.
If you want to bring that furball out onto the water, he or she should be strapped into a brightly colored, reliably buoyant Outward Hound Granby Dog Life Jacket.
This canine safety vest has three adjustable straps and padded panels that wrap around a dog’s chest and belly, keeping the life jacket firmly in place even as a dog runs and jumps on land or paddles along in the water. If you ever need to haul that wet dog out of the waves, a pair of rescue handles on the top of the Granby jacket makes the Rover recovery easy.
With an astonishing 4,500-plus reviews posted online, the Outward Hound life vest enjoys a 4.3-star rating. A dog owner named Mark praised the “great fit” and loved the peace of mind that came with “knowing [his dog] is protected” while playing in the water.
Pros: Multiple sizes available, bright coloring, dual rescue handles
Cons: Sizing runs too small, so consider larger vests
Check out our guide to the best kayaks
- Jonas Tufvesson/Shutterstock
The best kayak is, generally speaking, the best kayak you can afford. While several of the kayaks on our list happen to be designed with anglers in mind, they’re also designed for comfort.
We’ve tested over a dozen kayaks, and having sent both anglers and non-anglers out in all of them, the fishing-specific kayaks were always preferred because they’re just more comfortable.