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How to Choose the Right Life Jacket
Published: July 15, 2021
A life jacket, also known as PFD or Personal Flotation Device, will provide you buoyancy to help you stay afloat. It is an essential gear for a kayaker, stand up paddle boarder, and canoer.
To choose a life jacket, you need to know what kind of activity you will be doing to be able to assess what type of PFD is best for you. You should also look for the features you prefer and determine what size you need.
To help you choose the right life jacket, or PFD, read our guide below. It covers the types of PFDs, sizing, features, and specs that you may want to consider.
Standard life jackets or PFDs
These life jackets are mostly worn by recreational kayakers, canoers, and stand up paddle boarders. They look like a vest, rely on flotation material or foam for buoyancy, and are labeled as Type III USCG-approved PFDs.
- Low maintenance
- Don’t need to be activated to provide flotation
- Versatile, can be used for many different water sports
- Have pockets for stashing small essentials or snacks
- May be too bulky and restrictive
- Can be a bit warm for the summer
One of our best overall choices when it comes to a standard life jacket are Astral Life Jackets/PFDs. The Astral YTV is a Type V USCG-approved life jacket, with a buoyancy rating of 16.5 lbs. It provides a secure and easily adjustable fit, and has a pullover style with adjustable buckles. It only weighs 1.76 lbs., which is pretty lightweight. It is made of a 200 x 400 denier ripstop nylon shell, and a 200 denier high-tenacity nylon liner, PolyPro webbing, heavy-duty hardware, and has zippers with self-locking vislon teeth. It allows for a full range of motion, is compact, low profile, and slim-fitting. Click here to check the price of this PFD on amazon.com.
One of our best budget-friendly standard life jackets is the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Jacket. This life jacket is USCG-approved and TC-approved, which means it is available and can be used in both American and Canadian waters. It features a SOLAS grade flotation foam, which is soft and lightweight. Plus, it has reflective details for visibility, an expandable zippered pocket with mesh drainage, and lash tabs for small accessories. It is affordable, durable, and perfectly fits if you follow their size chart — XS/S (28″-36″), M/L (36″-44″), X/2XL (44″-56″). The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic hugs your body perfectly and is not too bulky. It also has a lower back net or mesh to allow for airflow during those hot summer days. Click here to see the current price on amazon.com.
Inflatable life jackets or PFDs
These include vests and waist packs, which can also be used for kayaking, canoeing, or stand up paddle boarding. They have a slim profile when not inflated, making them comfortable to wear, and are labeled as Type III or Type V USCG-approved PFDs, depending on the design. They can either be inflated manually or automatically.
- Comfortable thanks to its slim profile
- Cover less of the body to keep you comfortable on a hot day
- Need to be inflated before it can provide any flotation
- Require maintenance, such as replacing CO2 cartridge after each inflation
- Not for use during high-impact activities
- Not recommended for children under 16
- Not recommended for non-swimmers
Our choice for the best overall inflatable waist packs is the NRS Zephyr Inflatable Waist Belt, as it is comfortable to wear, simple to use, and reliable. The NRS Zephyr is made of soft and durable materials, and features a 24g CO2 cartridge, D-ring attachment points, and is manually deployed. It can be used by both men and women and comes in one universal size. It is a Type V PFD with a Type III performance. It wraps around your waist, which means it will give you top-notch mobility. The Zephyr is only intended for expert swimmers and must be worn on the front. It is easy to use when deployed, simple to rearm and repack, and will provide you with a good combination of comfort and reliability. Click here to see the current price on amazon.com.
One of our choices for the best inflatable life vest is the Mustang Survival Corp. It is an inflatable PFD with 1F auto Hydrostatic Inflator Technology (HIT) that will automatically inflate under water pressure. It also features a bright fluorescent yellow-green inflation cell for a more improved in-water visibility. Plus, it comes with SOLAS reflective tape, a safety whistle, and a strobe light attachment on the inflation cell. It also features a SecureZip closure for it to stay shut even in high winds, and will still open easily on inflation. It provides 35 lbs. of buoyancy when inflated, and contains a CO2 cylinder inside to avoid corrosion. Click here to see the current price on amazon.com.
Hybrid life jackets or PFDs
Sometimes, you’ll find PFDs that are a combination of a standard and an inflatable jacket. Also used for kayaking, canoeing, and stand up paddle boarding, they are specialized solutions that can provide inherent buoyancy in a compact and comfortable design. Although, those typically cost more.
One of our top choices when it comes to hybrid PFDs is the Mustang Khimera Hybrid Dual Flotation PFD Admiral. It features a combination of foam floatation and inflatable technology. It has 20.5 lbs. of buoyancy, which consists of 7.5 lbs. of foam buoyancy at all times, and 13 lbs. of buoyancy when inflated. It also features bright reflective shoulder patches for visibility, a front storage pocket, and a slot to hold an extra CO2 cylinder. This hybrid life vest gives you the best of both worlds, as it is comfortable, easy to wear, and will give you a full range of movement. Click here to see the current price on amazon.com.
Sizing and fitting
To determine the right-sized PFD for adults, you need to check your chest size — not your weight. Measure the circumference of your chest at the broadest point and use this number, along with the manufacturer’s size recommendations, to find the perfect size for you.
- Steps to get the right fit:
- Step 1: Loosen all the straps, put the standard PFD on, and zip it up. If using an inflatable vest, put it on over your head, or clip it around your waist if using a waist pack.
- Step 2: Start at the waist and tighten all straps by finishing with the shoulder straps, if there is any. It should feel snug but not restricting.
- Step 3: Have someone pull up on the shoulders if using a standard PFD. If it moves past your nose or head, tighten the strap. If it still moves up, then it is too large.
- Step 4: Note that a properly-sized PFD will feel snug and fit like a glove but will still allow you to move freely.
A child’s weight is used to determine the correct size, instead of using a chest measurement like an adult would do. Kids’ life jackets are labeled for infants, children, or youth. Here is how to figure out what is the best size for your kid:
- For infants: 8–30 pounds
- For children: 30–50 pounds
- For youth: 50–90 pounds
Our top choice for the best life jacket for infants or toddlers is the O’Neill Wake Waterski. It is a Type II USCG-approved life vest for infants up to 30 lbs. It is made of a comfortable nylon shell, and an over-closed cell PVC marine foam that is shaped to make your toddler float face up. It features adjustable safety belts with durable Delrin quick-release buckles, a handy grab loop located in the head cushion, and an adjustable safety belt between the legs to keep the vest secure. It has a durable construction, nylon panels with PVC backing, improved ease of entry, and UV protection. Click here to check this infant life vest on amazon.com.
Another good option for PFD for infants is the Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket. It is Type II USCG-approved, with 7.6 pounds of buoyancy. It features a quick-release buckle and entry zipper for added security, as well as an adjustable crotch strap and a grab handle. It is also designed to safely keep your baby afloat, with their head fully above water, and will not enable them to turn onto their stomach. It allows for a perfect fit for toddlers from 8 to 30 lbs. It is very secure, does not restrict any air way or blood flow, and it is not too bulky. Click here to check this toddler life jacket on amazon.com.
While lots of dogs are good swimmers, some others lack the confidence to go into the water. They may also tire or panic away from the shore. Note that dog life vests, or PFDs, are not USCG-certified. However, they can still be a lifesaver and help your dog enjoy the water.
Here are factors you should consider when getting a life jacket for your dog:
- It should fit snugly so that your dog cannot twist, or swim or step out of it;
- A low-profile style will less likely catch a snag;
- Easy-release buckles are one feature to look for;
- It should be able to lift your dog out of the water.
One good choice, if you are looking for life vests for dogs, is the First Watch Hi-Visibility Flotation Dog Vest AK-1000. It can fit up to 60 lbs. Plus, it is brightly colored for high visibility, and it features a layered foam that creates a streamlined fit to allow for maximum mobility and comfort in both water and land. It will keep your dog’s head above water due to its optimal buoyancy and proper flotation positioning. It has 2-stage donning on the collar, chest closures for active dogs, and 3-point adjustability to accommodate a variety of breeds. Click here to ccheck this dog life vest on amazon.com.
Most standards or non-inflatable life jackets come with pockets. You should consider their size and locations, and the essentials you’d like to stash in them.
This feature will let you attach a whistle, a knife, strobes, and other essential gear. Consider the number of tabs and their location.
For improved visibility, choose a bright color.
If you usually paddle in hot locations, look for a life jacket that has built-in vents.
- Reflective tape
This feature is for added visibility, especially in low-light conditions.
- Fishing features
Some PFDs have multiple loops or tool hangers for a rod, and a drop-down pocket table for lure and flies.
- Type I
These are for rough or remote waters, where rescue may take a while to arrive. They are a bit bulky but have the most buoyancy and will turn almost all unconscious people into a face-up position. These are PFDs you’ll likely find on commercial vessels and are available in inherently buoyant, inflatable, or hybrid designs.
- Type II
These are for calm inland waters, where fast rescue is likely. It features a basic design that is less bulky than a Type I and somewhat less expensive, although they are not as comfortable as Type III. They will turn some unconscious people into a face-up position and come in inherently buoyant, inflatable, or hybrid designs.
- Type III
These are for most paddlers who are in a location where there is a chance for a quick rescue. They offer freedom of movement and comfort for continuous wear, and are designed so wearers can set themselves in a face-up position. However, they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in the water. They come in inherently buoyant, inflatable, or hybrid designs.
- Type IV
These are meant to be thrown to a conscious person who is in trouble and to provide backup to a PFD. These include life rings and buoyant cushions. They are not meant to be worn and are not required to use for canoers, kayakers, or anyone who uses SUPs.
- Type V
These are considered special-use devices and are for specific activities. They must be worn at all times and used for the activity specified on the label to be acceptable by the USCG. Varieties include kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing, deck suits, and hybrid inflatable vests, and come in inflatable or hybrid designs.
Also referred to as “buoyancy,” this is measured in pounds and is required to keep a person’s head and chin afloat. For most adults, an extra 7-12 pounds of floatation is needed to stay afloat. Any quality PFD will provide over 12 pounds, so you do not have to worry about analyzing this number, but it will give you a reliable way to compare one life jacket to another.
Note that a person’s weight, lung size, body fat, and clothing will affect their flotation, as well as rough or calm waters will. Here are steps to check the effectiveness of a PFD’s buoyancy:
- Wear your PFD and enter water deep enough so you can float without touching the bottom.
- Tilt your head back, then relax your body.
- Your chin should remain above water and your breathing should be relaxed and easy.
- Note that you need a PFD with more buoyancy if your mouth is not above water.