Need a life jacket? We researched 40+ of the best vests and purchased 14 to test side-by-side. With hundreds of options to choose from and dozens of outdoor activities for you to enjoy, we chose a range of jackets, from value buys and perfect paddle partners to fisherman's friends and options for your dog or kids. We paddled, floated, and frolicked in the water in these jackets, testing every model's components and ability to move. No matter if you're a pontoon partier or a solo SUPer, we've found the perfect life vest for you.Related: Best PFD of 2021
Best Life Jacket of 2021
|Price||Check Price at REI|
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|$99.95 at Amazon||$65 List||$89.95 at REI|
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|Pros||Tapered front, comfortable, breathable, good strap management, large pockets||Comfortable fit, good mobility, easy to use, stays put, durable||Comfortable, great mobility, back is boat seat compatible||Soft material, buckle covers, flexible||Top-notch flotation, very secure, no flapping strap tails|
|Cons||Back panel high for swimming, runs large, pockets may be in the way while paddling||No pockets, a bit long, full coverage is less breathable||Smaller pockets, zipper-only closure||Less adjustable, less breathable||Not breathable, stiff|
|Bottom Line||A versatile paddling jacket with good ventilation and big pockets||A simple, comfortable paddle vest that's a great value||A comfortable, breathable fishing vest with smaller pockets that's easy to love||A very soft jacket that feels pleasant against the skin, and adds a little extra warmth for all-day fun||Supreme flotation, a secure fit, and a durable design for your dog|
|Rating Categories||Astral V-Eight||NRS Vapor||Astral Ronny||O'Neill Child React...||Ruffwear Float Coat|
|Specs||Astral V-Eight||NRS Vapor||Astral Ronny||O'Neill Child React...||Ruffwear Float Coat|
|Intended Use||Paddling||Paddling||Fishing||Child Safety||Dog Safety|
|Entry Style||Front, center zip and bottom clip||Side entry, side clip||Front zip||Front zip and clip, between leg strap||Over-the-head, bottom clip|
|Wear Type||Vest||Vest||Vest||Vest||Top and bottom flotation|
|Sizes Available||S/M (31-37")
Womens - Linda
|Size We Tested||S/M (31-37")||XS/M (30-42")||S/M (31-37")||Child (30-50lb)||Large (30-37")|
|Measured Weight (ounces)||20 oz||28 oz||20 oz||25 oz||17 oz|
|Foam Type||PE foam & EVA foam||Soft foam||PE foam||PVC foam||Foam buoyancy cells|
|Main Material||200 x 400D ripstop nylon||400D urethane-coated ripstop nylon shell, 200D nylon liner||200D high tenacity nylon||100% nylon||Nylon|
|USCG classification||Type III||Type III||Type III||Type III||N/A|
Best Overall Life Jacket
The Astral V-Eight is a super-versatile vest featuring just about everything we want in a great paddle jacket. The flotation foam is positioned high on the back, and the majority of the back panel is open, airy mesh — any paddler's dream. The front clip is on top of the foam paneling, avoiding that uncomfortably tight squeezing of the stomach that so many other vests create after hours of sitting in your boat. Spacious pockets help you keep necessities close at hand, while our lady testers greatly appreciate a thinner top section. A front zipper and side adjustments create a more evenly distributed overall feel that we love, and velcro sections on the shoulder straps hold those up and out of your business.
While the high back paneling works with most small watercraft seats, it is a bit obnoxious if you spend a lot of time swimming in this vest, as it can be in the way of your head when tilted back. It may also be a touch wide for narrow-shouldered folks, though it doesn't interfere with standard paddling maneuvers. Though we appreciate the versatility of the expandable pockets on the V-Eight, stuffing them completely full can create an obstacle for your inner arms. The front is also thicker and not the most flexible, but we honestly didn't find it a problem, even after long periods of wear. For a life jacket that's comfortable, versatile, and great for paddling, this one is our favorite.
Read the full review: Astral V-Eight
Best Bang for Your (Paddling) Buck
The NRS Vapor is a comfortable and simple solution for a full day of paddling while costing less than most of its paddle-specific competitors. Even distribution of foam throughout the entire vest eliminates the added front-bulk of so many other paddle jackets. Flexibility is greatly enhanced due to its multi-piece panel construction, which is actually made up of several panels laying side-by-side. Side adjustment helps this vest stay comfortable and uniformly secure and not too tight in any one place. Exceptionally large armholes essentially eliminate underarm paddle rash, and the interior fabric helps wick sweat that you work up while powering your boat.
However, if you're one who appreciates places to stash things, you may want to look elsewhere. Though this vest boasts quality construction, there's not a single pocket or knife attachment anywhere. Depending on your stature, it may also be a bit longer in the torso than is ideal for kayaking. It runs a touch large — folks on the lower end of the recommended chest size may have a harder time achieving a snug fit. And, of course, its full coverage doesn't offer the same breathability as a vest with large mesh panels. Yet, for a simple, comfortable, and effective paddle jacket, we're fans of this one's performance and its reasonable price tag.
Read the full review: NRS Vapor
Great Value for a Universal Vest
The Stohlquist Fit is a "universal sized" life vest that is surprisingly comfortable throughout the range of sizes it manages to accommodate. Both large and small testers across genders find this vest easy to wear and simple to adjust to the correct fit. A thinner top section of the front side also allows this vest to bend more easily than many others, which our women testers, in particular, greatly appreciated. Some similar life jackets we tested fit too high and tight around the neck and collar bones, but we found this one to be just right. Relatively large armholes keep it decently comfortable and potentially even spacious enough for you to wear on a short paddling trip. Numerous loops all the way around the vest also help keep strap tails out of the way, making your day that much more hassle-free and enjoyable.
However, for slimmer individuals, the top strap's first containment loop is a bit too close to the buckle, making it more challenging to tighten completely. And while the jacket is thin enough to be comfortable leaning back in your boat, it's a bit on the long side for scrunched-up postures like kayaking. Though it's unlikely to blow your Aqua Socks off, this simple design is comfortable and easy enough to ensure you'll actually be able to wear it all day.
Most Comfortable Fishing Vest
The Astral Ronny is the most comfortable fishing vest we tested. Though the zipper-only front closure takes some extra and more frequent adjustment, once on, it provides a comfortable and secure fit. The lack of buckles and clips, if you can get used to it, is exceptionally comfortable, eliminating the pressure points caused by individual straps. Narrow shoulder sections and large armholes help keep your arms free enough for fly fishing or paddling to your favorite fishing hole. The thinly padded back works well with boat seatbacks, and vented sections in numerous places provide breathability.
However, if you're the kind of fishing fanatic who loves to keep half a tackle box's worth of gear in your PFD pockets, the Ronny will likely not be enough. Its three pockets are rather small and fairly specific. It only has one very minimal general-use pocket. The largest one is designed to fit a radio, and the third is a pop-out drink holder. We also read numerous user complaints about the snap on the VHF radio pocket breaking after a season of use, and though this didn't happen to us, we read too many testimonies to ignore it completely. At the end of the day, unless you're in need of massive, versatile pockets, the comfort of the Ronny is sure to keep you happy even if the fish aren't biting.
Best Life Jacket for Kids
O'Neill Child Reactor USGC
This child's vest feels like a dream against the skin. The O'Neill Child Reactor is made of soft, hydroprene fabric that, though a bit heavy, is also exceptionally comfortable. If that isn't enough, the entire vest is flexible rather than stiff, with segmented foam panels inside that let your kid still be a kid. A front zipper helps to give even more security without compromising comfort and movement. The tops of the shoulders lack stiff foam, making it easy to do whatever stroke (or best attempts) your child is comfortable with. A loop on top of the jacket also makes it easier to grab and hoist your child with one hand if the need arises.
While the sides have expandable panels, they only expand so far, making this vest not a great fit for girthier children. Those panels also mean it's not as breathable as an open-sided design. The leg strap isn't as long as some of the others we tested, making it less conducive to kids who are sprouting straight up like beanstalks. The armholes could be larger — keep in mind that they might be a source of inner arm rash for some children. Though this vest may not fit larger kids, it's an exceptionally comfortable model to wear.
Best Flotation for Dogs
Ruffwear Float Coat
The Ruffwear Float Coat is a full-coverage life vest for your dog. This model comes in a wide variety of shapes and proportions, allowing you to find the best fit. Foam paneling extends not just on Fido's back but around the neck and under the chest as well. This extra security helps even the densest dogs float without compromising their legs' range of motion for swimming. Cleverly concealed buckles keep straps and clips from pinching, and velcro bands helpfully secure loose ends. A sturdy handle on the back allows you to assist your dog out of the water. Abrasion-resistant fabric and robust construction give this doggie life jacket an extra boost of durability.
Whether your dog is timid around water or prone to charging big waves and swimming for hours on end, this vest's flotation and comfort are ideal. However, the extra coverage — and the thickness and stiffness of that coverage — make the Float Coat not particularly breathable. If your dog spends more time enjoying the water from inside the boat or on the shore, this added warmth could be too much for a hot summer's day. And if you're into pockets, the Float Coat has none. This doggy jacket is optimal for a dog who spends a lot of time in the water and could use the impressive flotation it provides.
Best Inflatable Belt
If you're a confident swimmer but still need something to wear on your paddleboard to keep you safe and legal, the NRS Zephyr is ideal. This inflatable belt features a wide strap with smooth fabric backing the main pack. A single large pocket actually fits today's bulky smartphones and has a key clip as well. The pull tab to inflate the vest portion is off-center, to help it not get caught between your legs. It inflates quickly when triggered and is easily rearmed with a 24g CO2 canister. While not all inflatable manufacturers carefully consider the comfort and fit of the bloated bladder, the Zephyr achieves a snug fit when pulled over your head, helping to keep you safely afloat when you need it most.
Though this belt pack is a bit beefier and stiffer than some competitors, the comfortable outer fabric and clever strap management had us quickly forgetting we're wearing it. It's recommended to be refilled with a whole kit that includes a little green tab, indicating that it's ready for use. Unfortunately, that plastic tab is flung into the water when inflated, contributing trash to the ecosystem. You can rearm it with just a new cylinder, but the red "not ready" status may have you second-guessing if you remembered to do so. Still, the Zephyr is our favorite model for doing some serene SUP-ing in relative safety.
Read the full review: NRS Zephyr
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is headed by life-long water-lover Maggie Brandenburg and includes a wide swath of her friends and family, and even her dog, to help test and provide feedback on this army of life jackets. Maggie has been paddling for 25+ years, from the completion of an ACA canoe touring program in high school to working as a whitewater rafting and kayaking guide for four years and an ocean kayak guide for another year. She's guided thousands of water lovers on hundreds of adventures over the last 15+ years. Ever a staple on her adventures, Maggie's elderly dog, Madeline, helps test gear too, from inflatable kayaks to dog beds to this current selection of dog life vests.
We spent hours scouring the internet for the best options for paddling, fishing, children, dogs, and just generally enjoying the water safely. After choosing the best models available, we purchased the whole line-up and wore them for hours on end, taking dips and voyaging on extended paddling adventures. We tested every feature, clipping clips, snapping snaps, and zipping zippers, examining each model for functionality and durability. We wore them on and in the water, from boats to swimming pools, and under the blazing sun. By pitting these jackets directly against each other, we were able to tease apart differences big and small, identifying the best and worst aspects of each one. No matter your body type, activity preference, or budget size, we've found a great life jacket to suit your needs.
Analysis and Test Results
We evaluated every vest's performance in four different metrics to get an overall picture of how each measures up. We tested their comfort by wearing them with and without a shirt, in a boat, and under the hot sun. We evaluated their fit and tested adjustment points, comparing them to who they claim to fit. We paid particular attention to how different shapes of adults, children, or dogs fit into each vest.
We judged each jacket's mobility in the water and out, examining armholes, movement, and adaptability while trying to swim, paddle, fish, and enjoy life on and in the water. To assess versatility, we considered the activities each is made and advertised for and which ones they're actually good at. Can you wear a fishing vest paddling; would you want to? We looked at every feature each model has, used them, and evaluated how helpful they are.
We also scrutinized each PFD's durability, considering their construction and materials, putting them through the wringer in scummy ponds and on abrasive sand, and scouring the internet for other user complaints. The combination of all four of these metrics provides a thorough, honest picture of each vest's strengths and weaknesses.
These water jackets can be found with a very wide range of possible price tags. We tested the full gamut to see which ones are worth the extra cost and which budget-friendly models are actually worth wearing.
The Stohlquist Fit is one of the best universally useful, low-cost models we tested that's still enjoyable to wear. It actually fits the full range of its advertised chest size capacity and manages to feel pretty good against the skin. The Stearns Adult Classic is another solid value pick, though it's not quite as nice to wear or move in as the Fit. The NRS Vapor costs more but is an exceptional choice if you plan to wear it frequently and need plenty of mobility for your arms — like if you're searching for a life jacket to go with your brand new kayak.
Who Needs a Life Vest?
Wearing a life vest isn't just a smart idea, in the US it's legally required for there to be a properly fitting, US Coast Guard approved flotation device for every single person on a recreational boat. And though (if you're above a certain age) you don't technically have to wear said vest to comply with the law, according to the US Coast Guard and the American Boating Association, more than 2/3 of boating fatalities and over 90% of drownings happen when the victim isn't wearing a life jacket. That's right: if you're thinking that having your PFD just an arms reach away is enough to keep you safe, the stats show that in over half of all drowning cases, the victim had access to a life vest on board, but chose not to wear one. Every dangerous activity has its life-saving safety equipment — from football helmets to car seatbelts — so why wouldn't you wear one?
To make sure your jacket is as comfortable and safe as possible, be certain to check the sizing before you pull out your credit card. Just like buying a new shirt, sizes across different styles and manufacturers are close, but not standardized. And unlike a shirt, wearing a life vest that's too small or large for you could leave you lethally exposed. Most PFD sizes are listed as an inch measurement, taken around the largest part of your chest. This is true for adult jackets and dog vests, but for children (or anyone under 90lb), sizing depends entirely on weight. Buying a life vest also isn't the time to aspirationally purchase a size smaller — this equipment is meant to save your life, but it can't do so if it doesn't fit.
How Do You Like To Get On The Water?
Perhaps the first and most obvious question you should ask yourself before purchasing a life jacket is: What do you plan to do while wearing it? Do you seek the solitude of a solo paddleboard mission across quiet waters? Are you headed out deep-sea fishing, trying to land a trophy? Did you just purchase a powerboat for wakeboarding or speeding around the lake? PFDs are specifically designed for different activities, from paddling to fishing to relaxing, and a few are versatile enough to span multiple uses. No matter how you like to enjoy the water, keep in mind what you plan on wearing your life vest for as you read on to find the right flotation vest for you.
Adjusting Your Vest
Once you've selected your jacket, make sure you're wearing it properly. An unzipped or loosely buckled jacket can easily come off your body as your boat tips over, you fall overboard, or even just in the current of the water while swimming. You'll need to readjust your vest every single time you put it on, and make sure to do the same for your child or canine companion. The basics of accomplishing this effectively are boiled down to a singular idea: If you can yank the jacket up over your ears, it's not tight enough. If it can be yanked up over your ears or head on dry land, the flotation of the vest itself will force it to do exactly that in the water, leaving you without a flotation device when you need it most. This applies to yourself, your friends, your dog, and your children. The specifics of adjusting will depend on the vest you're wearing and how it fits on your body, but if you give it a serious tug and it slides upwards, it's not adjusted properly.
Boating and General On-Water Recreation
Hitching a ride on a party barge or taking the speedboat out for a Sunday spin? If relaxing is your gig, you're likely on the lookout for a general recreation vest. These vests tend to be simple, with very few frills — and often a good value, too. Some design elements to keep in mind while considering different models are the neck and arm areas and the bottom strap. Many vests have narrow necks and small armholes, both of which reduce breathability and are significantly less comfortable to wear. Similarly, if the bottom strap of the jacket is too close to the bottom of the foam panels, it's more likely to slip off and rub directly against your skin — not ideal.
We tested several models for general use. The Stohlquist Fit is thin and flexible with easily adjustable straps and universal sizing. It's comfortable to wear and actually does a solid job accommodating the wide range of sizes that its "universal" designation claims to. The Stearns Adult Classic isn't quite as impressively accommodating but is still reasonably comfortable and adjustable, making this universal vest a great value. The O'Neill Superlite is very comfortable. It's exceptionally thin and flexible, with four wide buckles located lower on the torso, giving a much more even, relaxed fit. However, it also is less breathable and has smaller arm openings, restricting easy movement. It comes in specific sizes, which makes it even more comfortable to wear if it's your personal vest, but is less ideal as a spare PFD for guests or a highly adjustable backup option.
If you're ready to head out on the water under your own power, it's super important to maintain the full range of motion for your arms and keep reasonable breathability while you stroke and feather. Paddle jackets often have narrower shoulder sections, integrated mesh panels, and larger arm openings. Many models concentrate all the foam and flotation on the back to the top of the vest to avoid interfering with the low seatback of most paddle-powered boats. They may also have varying pockets for specific purposes — from keeping a granola bar close at hand to warming your hands from the cold whitewater or even keeping your emergency knife easily accessible.
While we've also done a separate in-depth analysis of paddle jackets, we tested a few here that stand out from the crowd. The Astral V-Eight is exceptionally comfortable and impresses us with its breathability, versatility, and durability. With mesh paneling in all the right places, useful pockets, and a fit that works well when crunched into a kayak cockpit, there's a lot we love about this well-thought-out jacket.
The NRS Vapor is a simplified paddle vest that offers comfort and security without all the bells and whistles. It has even padding all over and perfectly placed adjustment straps that help you quickly forget you're even wearing a life vest. With no extra pockets or attachments, you can stay sleek and mobile in this uncomplicated vest. If you're a confident swimmer looking for a flotation device for your SUP, we recommend NRS's inflatable waist belt, the Zephyr. It is exceptionally comfortable and liberating to wear and our top choice for SUP-ing. And when you do need to pull the tab and use the bladder, its snug-fitting vest shape helps keep you afloat, even mid-panic.
The one thing that all fishing vests have in common is pockets. Some have a few modest pockets for small items, while others seem to be nothing but pockets. Whatever your pocket preference, it's still most important to have a comfortable jacket that you'll actually want to put on.
We tested three fishing jackets with very different pockets and quite a range of comfort. The Astral Ronny is the most comfortable of the bunch; its zipper provides an even, snug fit and there are clever mesh panels integrated throughout to increase breathability. However, it also has the smallest, most specific pockets of the models we tested. There is only one general use pocket; the other two are specifically designed to hold a VHF radio and act as a cup holder.
The NRS Chinook's adjustment straps run straight across the back, which we find to be significantly less comfortable. It does have a cleverly hidden inner clip that will keep the vest attached even when unzipped — though this also slightly detracts from overall comfort, as the plastic clip digs into the belly. The Chinook's pockets are decently sized and fairly versatile, allowing you to keep far more things on your person than the Ronny. The Stohlquist Fisherman is the least comfortable fishing model of the three. Its hard pockets make the front quite bulky, and the shoulder straps are particularly scratchy on bare skin. Yet it has some of the most unique pockets we've seen; they fold out at 90-degree angles to create mini workstations, right on your abdomen. For fly fishers or folks constantly changing out gear on their fishing lines, this built-in workspace could be a dream come true.
Child Life Jackets
When it comes to finding the right jacket for your kids, the rules of sizing are slightly different. Rather than measuring your child's chest circumference, these vests are sized by weight. This is incredibly important to get right, as the various sizes offer different buoyancy ratings. If you're putting a 53 lb child in a jacket designed for kids 30-50 lb, they won't float very well. The lighter jacket doesn't offer the same flotation power as one made for 50+ lb kids. Yet, as any parent knows, just because two children each weigh 40 lb doesn't mean they're the same height or girth. This adds an extra layer of difficulty in finding the right kids' vest, as some are less accommodating for taller or thicker children.
Additionally, younger children tend to be differently proportioned to most adults. With narrow shoulders, thin chests, and a center of gravity that's usually somewhere behind their belly buttons, it can be difficult to secure a life jacket onto a child. The normal rule of yanking it upwards to see if it comes off almost always results in exactly that outcome, simply because of the shape of young children compared to adults. This is why a life jacket with a leg strap is crucial for kids. That extra strap makes sure the vest absolutely will not come sliding up over their ears and off their heads. At the same time, it necessarily straps under a fairly sensitive area of the body, creating a delicate balance between being snug enough to stay put without being so snug it causes discomfort or a rash.
We tested three children's PFDs, all with leg straps. The O'Neill Child Reactor is the most comfortable option we tested. Constructed of soft hydroprene, it has pliable paneling for easy movement. A zipper and two straps help give it even security, making it more comfortable. However, it's also a full jacket, with stretchy but closed sides, which is less ideal for girthier kids. It also doesn't have as long of a leg strap as some others, which rules out very tall children. The Stearns Child Hydroprene is very similar in its construction and size limitations. Though not quite as soft and flexible as the O'Neill, it's still impressively comfortable and a great value. The MTI Child Livery doesn't have the same silky hydroprene material, but it does have open sides and longer straps, making it much easier to fit on taller and wider children that are still within the advertised weight limit.
Dog Life Jackets
Choosing the right life vest for your canine companion requires a slightly different approach, as doggie jackets are very different. Before buying any jacket, picture your dog — how does he react around water? Does he love to leap off the end of the dock, spending hours retrieving sticks and balls from the water? Is your dog an experienced, comfortable swimmer with no hesitations running headfirst into crashing waves? Or does your dog prefer being around water without getting in it? Perhaps wading only to ankle-depth but happily enjoys boating adventures and shoreline excursions. If your pup likes to enjoy the water in a more passive way, consider prioritizing comfort and breathability in his new vest. A dog who swims confidently likely doesn't need intensive flotation, instead valuing a more comfortable design for paddling and playing. Similarly, a dog who doesn't want to swim at all but enjoys being with you around water will also appreciate a breathable vest that won't cause him to bake in the summer sun and a comfortable option that's easy to curl up and watch the waves in. If this is your dog, consider the NRS CFD, which has all the foam concentrated on the back panel, with wide, flexible straps holding it in place. This open design is very breathable and keeps your dog's underbelly free to sit, lay, or curl into whatever position he prefers.
Maybe your dog is nervous around water, not wanting to go in deeper than her chest. Perhaps he is enthusiastic about water but inexperienced. Or, maybe he loves water but isn't particularly buoyant — pugs, for example, are well-known for having a hard time staying afloat. Some dogs are excellent, experienced swimmers but so enthusiastically chase the stick into the waves all day that they wear themselves out. Or perhaps you plan on taking your dog through some big waves or rough waters, like on a whitewater or ocean expedition. If any of that sounds like your dog, a jacket with extra flotation is a great choice. It can add confidence for a dog (or owner!) who's nervous and extra safety for dogs who refuse to give up swimming or have a harder time keeping their noses above the water. The Ruffwear Float Coat is our choice for flotation. Buoyant foam wraps underneath the torso and around the neck, keeping your dog afloat no matter how long he wants to swim.
Every dog is a different size and shape, making it challenging to figure out if you've got the right fit. No matter what jacket you ultimately decide to use, there are a few tips and tricks to ensure your dog's safety in the water. First, make sure it's tight enough. Most doggie life vests have a top handle to grab — be sure the vest is tight enough that you can lift your dog with it. And just like you would for a human vest, yank the top forward toward your dog's head to make sure it won't slip off in the water.
Unlike your friend or your child, your dog can't tell you when their life jacket is too tight or too loose or if they're getting too hot. Any time your dog is in a life vest, check how tight it is frequently and carefully monitor your dog's heat levels while wearing these thick garments.
Next, make sure it's loose enough. This can sound contradictory to the first point, but if the jacket is too tight, your dog won't be able to breathe, may overheat, or could even develop painful hot spots — and they can't tell you about any of it. Check around the ribs — you should still be able to fit several fingers under the straps when your dog is breathing in. Ask yourself how you would feel with that level of tightness. Check for potential rubbing spots both behind and in front of Fido's front legs. Before getting out on the water, recheck all of this with your dog standing, sitting, and lying down — and continue rechecking periodically throughout your adventure, especially when he gets in and out of the water. The goal is to find the Goldilock's snugness, somewhere between being too loose and too tight.
While a life jacket probably isn't on anyone's list of top ten favorite clothing items, it is an essential piece of gear for any day out on the water. Finding a PFD that's comfortable and lets you do what you want while wearing it will go a long way toward your enjoyment of safe boating and floating fun. No matter what your aquatic adventures look like, we hope this article helps you figure out which life vest is the best choice for you and your loved ones.
— Maggie Brandenburg