Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Life Jacket of 2021

The NRS Vapor is a simplified paddling vest that's comfortable and wor...
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg
By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Friday April 23, 2021
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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


Best All-Around Life Jacket

Stohlquist Fit

Intended Use: Recreational | Entry Style: 3 front clips
Universal sizing
Accommodating for larger chests and women
Spacious armholes are comfortable
Good strap management
Top strap harder to pull tight
Lots of seams around edges

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.

The Stohlquist Fit is one of few universally sized PFDs that...
The Stohlquist Fit is one of few universally sized PFDs that actually manages to be comfortable for a wide range of sizes!
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Best Paddle-Specific Jacket

Astral V-Eight

Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Front zip & 1 outer clip
Excellent breathability
Good mobility
Great strap management
Useful pockets
Back may be wide for narrow shoulders
Pockets are cumbersome when stuffed
Front a bit bulky

The Astral V-Eight is a super-versatile vest featuring just about everything we seek in a 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 "normal" 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 paddle jacket that's comfortable and versatile, this one is our favorite.

Read the full review: Astral V-Eight

We love the comfort and versatility of the Astral V-Eight for a day...
We love the comfort and versatility of the Astral V-Eight for a day out paddling.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Best Bang for Your Buck

Stearns Adult Classic

Intended Use: Recreational | Entry Style: 3 front clips
Universally sized
Reasonable arm mobility
Somewhat stiff
On the larger side
Durability concerns

The Stearns Adult Classic is an impressively low-cost vest that just works. Its universal sizing makes it a great choice as a spare jacket for the occasions when your friends or family want to join you on the water. It's a solid performer with armholes large enough to be reasonably comfortable and mobile for all the normal movements you'd do hanging out on your boat. Some budget life jackets tend to be too close and tight on the neck, but this one maintains an appropriate distance.

This vest is a bit stiffer across the chest than others, making it more challenging for some to wear comfortably all day. Also, we found that the straps sometimes slipped off the bottom of the back panel, but this can be remedied with a quick readjustment. This model isn't a knockout when it comes to durability, but it's not terrible either — and for the price, it's less devastating when you do need to replace it. This is a great choice if you're on a budget or want to have an extra life jacket around for company.

The Stearn's Adult Classic is a solid universal vest that's...
The Stearn's Adult Classic is a solid universal vest that's inexpensive, making it a great back-up option to keep around for when friends come calling.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Great Value for a Kids Jacket

Stearns Child Hydroprene

Intended Use: Children 30-50 lb | Entry Style: Front zip, 2 clips, leg strap
Softer material
Zippered front
Leg strap off to the side
Not much room to grow

The Stearns Child Hydroprene is a solidly comfortable jacket. Made of hydroprene material, this vest is comfortable against the skin without necessitating a swim shirt. The front zipper helps create a more evenly distributed, snug fit, rather than squeezing your child's chest between narrow straps. Paneled sides stop the security straps from rubbing against your child's skin while they play the day away in the water. And though it's not the most comfortable child's vest we tested, it's much more affordable than other hydroprene models.

We do have some bones to pick with this vest, though. Rather than centered, the leg strap is oddly quite far off to one side of the jacket, and can contribute to leg rashes if too tight. It's also not as flexible and not quite as soft as other hydroprene models we tested. And while we think the zippered center does a great job achieving a more even, comfortable fit, this lack of expansion — along with a slightly shorter leg strap — makes it less adaptable to children with greater circumferences or longer torsos. Despite these design drawbacks, we think the Stearns is a great value for what you get.

The Stearn's Child Hydroprene is a great value for a comfortable...
The Stearn's Child Hydroprene is a great value for a comfortable kids jacket, though the leg strap is farther to one side than we'd prefer.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Most Comfortable Fishing Vest

Astral Ronny

Intended Use: Fishing | Entry Style: Front zip
Comfortable fit
Good arm mobility
Back works with boat seats
Pockets are small
Closes with zipper only

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 and in place, 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.

We love the comfort and fit of the Astral Ronny. Though it has...
We love the comfort and fit of the Astral Ronny. Though it has minimal pockets, it does have one just for holding your beverage!
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Best for SUP

NRS Zephyr

Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Waist belt, inflatable
Comfortable belt
Easy to use and repack
Bonus pocket
Bulkier than some inflatables
A bit stiff

If you're a confident swimmer but still need something to wear on your paddleboard to keep you legal and safe, the NRS Zephyr is ideal. This inflatable belt features a wide strap with soft padding behind the main pack. The pull tab is off-center, to help it not get caught between your legs. It inflates quickly when triggered and is easily rearmed with a 16g CO2 canister. While not all inflatable manufacturers carefully consider the comfort and fit of the bloated bladder, the Zephyr has a long neck strap that's easy to don and adjust to your height even as you flounder in the water.

Though this belt pack is a bit beefier and stiffer than some competitors, the comforting hip protection panel and clever strap management had us quickly forgetting we're wearing it. The tiny pocket isn't the most useful but will fit a (waterproof) car key and a tube of SPF lip balm. It's also recommended to be refilled with a whole kit that includes a little green tab, indicating through the window 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 on the front may have you second-guessing if you remembered to do so. Still, the Zephyr is our favorite model for doing some serene SUP-ing.

Read the full review: NRS Zephyr

It's important to remember that inflatable flotation devices like the NRS Zephyr are intended only for very confident swimmers. Though it may be tempting to wear this minimal belt on a hot day, if you aren't a strong swimmer, this type of device is likely not enough to keep you safe.

Keeping your torso totally free while you SUP is easy with the NRS...
Keeping your torso totally free while you SUP is easy with the NRS Zephyr.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


A Simple, Comfortable Paddle Vest

NRS Vapor

Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Side entry, 2 side clips
Flexible fit
Great arm mobility
Very durable
Slightly long
No pockets
Full coverage is less breathable

The NRS Vapor is a comfortable and simple solution for a full day of paddling. Even distribution of foam throughout the entire vest eliminates the added front-bulk of so many other paddle jackets, and flexibility is greatly enhanced due to its construction, which is 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 also runs a bit large — folks on the lower end of the recommended chest size may have a harder time achieving a snug fit. And, of course, the 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.

Read the full review: NRS Vapor

Though it may not be covered in bells and whistles, the NRS Vapor is...
Though it may not be covered in bells and whistles, the NRS Vapor is a comfortable paddle jacket that's easy to love.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Excellent Comfort for the Kiddos

O'Neill Child Reactor USGC

Intended Use: Children 30-50 lb | Entry Style: Front zip, 2 clips, leg strap
Material is soft on skin
Buckle covers help prevent rubbing
Very flexible foam
Not very adjustable
Less breathable

This child's vest feels like a dream against the skin. The O'Neill Child Reactor is made of soft, hydroprene material that, while a bit heavy, is 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 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, if it does, it's an exceptionally comfortable option to wear.


Best Flotation for Dogs

Ruffwear Float Coat

Intended Use: Dogs | Entry Style: Over-the-head, 2 bottom clips
Exceptional flotation
Secure fit
No loose ends
Coverage is less breathable

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 it will charge big waves and swim 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.

Ruffwear updated the Float Coat since we tested it. The latest version as of June 2021 is pictured above and features flexible PVC-free Gaia Foam, a more streamlined and tailored design, and some fresh colors. We're now linking to the updated model.

The Ruffwear Float Coat provides buoyancy on top AND underneath your...
The Ruffwear Float Coat provides buoyancy on top AND underneath your dog, for extra security.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Most Comfortable for Dogs


Intended Use: Dogs | Entry Style: 1 neck and 2 bottom clips
Breathable design
Wide, comfortable straps
Large pockets
Less secure fit
Less flotation

With all the foam flotation panels concentrated on your dog's back, the NRS CFD (Canine Flotation Device) leaves the sides and chest open. This extra breathability is excellent for hot days, especially if your dog is more into relaxing with you on the boat than going for a dip. The straps wrapping under the chest and stomach are wide, soft, and buckle on the foam core, keeping the clips from tugging on your dog's fur. The open design on the bottom provides more comfort for dogs to sit and lie down compared to a full-coverage doggie vest like the Ruffwear Float Coat. The CFD also has a single, large zippered pocket that's great for stashing waterproof items like poop bags or a leash.

However, this flotation concentration on just your dog's back does put a large damper on the vest's overall effectiveness. With straps so close together, it's difficult to get a very secure fit, leaving the back end of the jacket rather loose. We think this model probably isn't the best for dogs who love to swim or who may end up tackling big waves or swiftly moving water; the small amount of flotation provided by this loose-fitting back panel isn't going to be much help. However, if your dog enjoys hanging out on the boat all day or lounging on the beach, with occasional forays into calm waters, the extra comfort and breathability of this vest are sure to be appreciated under the hot sun.


Great Organization for Fishing

NRS Chinook

Intended Use: Fishing | Entry Style: Front zip & 1 inner clip
Vented back panel
Large, versatile pockets
Good strap management
Velcro strips on shoulders may catch on clothing
Back panel fit is difficult

This fairly comfortable life jacket is breathable and pleasant to wear, with large pockets to keep your tackle close. An open back panel concentrates the inner foam at the top of your back, enclosing your lower back with just mesh. This design works well for nearly any low seatback in a fishing kayak. Velcro tabs on the shoulders keep your strap tails in check, and an extra clip at the bottom of the vest makes it easy to unzip the front and relax as you take a break for lunch. Flip-top pockets are decently sized and versatile enough for you to implement your personal organizational style, while a VHF radio attachment and rod holder keep your hands free for paddling.

Though we like that the bottom clip is on the inside of this vest, allowing you to unzip the jacket when you're safe on land and need a breather from its constriction, the clip itself digs into the stomach a bit while paddling. The upper foam section of the back panel also can be challenging to get to lay flat against your back, floating up when you're in the water and jutting out awkwardly behind you even when you're not. And though we appreciate the extra breathability from the half mesh back panel, the tightened adjustment straps on the sides dig in unpleasantly. We also had some issues with the Velcro strap management strips on the shoulders snagging our clothes while casting, pilling the fabric of our shirt's shoulder. Still, overall, the NRS Chinook is a solid choice for kayaking fisherfolk who dig extra breathability and appreciate larger pockets.


Comfortable Recreational Coverage

O'Neill Superlite USCG

Intended Use: Recreational | Entry Style: 4 front clips
Comfortable fit and adjustability
More pleasant fabric feel
Very flexible
Smaller armholes
Coverage can feel excessive on some

The O'Neill Superlite is solidly comfortable to wear all day long — as long as you don't need an extreme range of motion (like for paddling). The entire thing is made of thinner, flexible foam covered in pleasant ripstop nylon that's easy to wear right against the skin. Four very wide buckles gathered around the waist make it more comfortable to wear tightly without restricting the ribcage. It comes in six sizes and a women's specific version, so you can find exactly the one you need to hone in the right fit.

If you're hoping to do a little paddling in your life jacket, this one isn't the best option. Its armholes are smaller, and its more full-coverage design isn't conducive to sweating in a cramped kayak. However, if you're on the hunt for a seriously comfortable vest to wear all day on the pontoon party boat, then the O'Neill is a superb choice.


Room to Grow for Little Ones

MTI Adventurewear Child Livery

Intended Use: Children 30-50lb | Entry Style: 3 front clips, leg strap
Longer leg strap
Fits wider children
More breathable
Less comfortable feel
So-so construction

Though it's certainly less elegant than some of the competition, the MTI Child Livery does have its merits. Open sides aid in breathability on a hot day, and long straps help accommodate children of a wider range of proportions. A longer leg strap makes this model a better fit for taller children as well, and a handle on top makes it easier to lift your child to safety if needed. Alternating buckle colors help ensure you're clipping everything in the right place — even if your child doesn't want to sit still while you do it.

Compared to the soft, pliable hydroprene models, the more traditional-feeling fabric on this vest just doesn't quite live up. The back panel is also quite wide for some children, hitting uncomfortably against their arms. The open sides, while breathable, provide an opportunity for the straps to rub directly on your kid's skin if they're not wearing a swim shirt. And though this is one of the lightest child vests we tested, its sloppy seams and thin materials don't give us a ton of confidence in its durability. But if your child is taller, thicker, or just growing quickly, the added adjustability of the Livery may be exactly what you're looking for.


Unique Work Stations for Fishing

Stohlquist Fisherman

Intended Use: Fishing | Entry Style: Front zip
Fold-out work stations
Tall back for boating
Pockets are bulky even when empty
Less comfortable shoulders

The Stohlquist Fisherman is an alright jacket with unique pockets that fold out into flat work stations. These pockets have several straps and tabs inside to keep extra flies and jigs, and turn into a flat work station to easily swap them out as needed. The main draw to this vest is these very unique pockets, but they kind of take over the aesthetic of the whole jacket. It also features a half-mesh back for easy use in small watercraft seats and added breathability.

The shoulder straps are a bit wide for narrow users and far too scratchy to enjoy wearing over bare skin. The unique pockets also protrude quite a bit, even when completely empty. They can easily get in the way of intense paddling, so this vest is not our favorite for fishing from a kayak. However, if the idea of having a small workspace attached to your body everywhere you go appeals to you, check out the Stohlquist Fisherman.

For a dog who doesn't need much help in the water, the NRS CFD...
For a dog who doesn't need much help in the water, the NRS CFD provides a little extra flotation on top, without restricting movement or breathability.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 11-year-old dog, Madeline, helps test gear too, from inflatable kayaks to dog beds to this current selection of dog life vests.

Before beginning our testing process, 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 options 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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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.

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?

Above all else, the number one question you should ask yourself when considering purchasing a PFD is, "will I actually wear this?" After all, if you aren't comfortable in your vest, you aren't likely to be wearing it when you find yourself in a life or death situation. As the US Coast Guard bluntly states, "the best life jacket is the one you will wear."

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.

Finding the right size and fit of a life jacket is critical to being...
Finding the right size and fit of a life jacket is critical to being comfortable wearing it all day.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

What Kind of Activities Make You Excited?

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 that 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.

Are you ready to hit the water? Having the right PFD can make all...
Are you ready to hit the water? Having the right PFD can make all the difference.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 and head on dry land, the flotation of the vest itself will cause it to do so in the water as well, 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 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 highly-adjustable back-up option.

General purpose recreational vests lack many of the frills that more...
General purpose recreational vests lack many of the frills that more specific jackets have, but are also simple, easy to use, and often much cheaper.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Paddling Jackets

If you're ready to head out on the water under your own power, it's super important to have full range of motion with your arms and increased 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 impressed 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, a long adjustable neck strap makes it easier to put on, even mid-panic.

Comfortable as a belt and adjustable once inflated, the NRS Zephyr...
Comfortable as a belt and adjustable once inflated, the NRS Zephyr is our favorite inflatable PFD.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Fishing Vests

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 Astral Ronny is the most comfortable fishing jacket we tested.
The Astral Ronny is the most comfortable fishing jacket we tested.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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. 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.

Though a bit protrusive, the Stohlquist Fisherman's mobile...
Though a bit protrusive, the Stohlquist Fisherman's mobile workstation pockets may be exactly what you're looking for.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 may not 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.

Using the top handle to hoist your child out of the water only works...
Using the top handle to hoist your child out of the water only works if the life jacket is properly fitted.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 thicker 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 weight limit.

You can practically see how soft a hydroprene jacket, like the...
You can practically see how soft a hydroprene jacket, like the Stearns Child Hydroprene, is.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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 enjoying 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.

The NRS CFD is quite breathable and comfortable - and has one large...
The NRS CFD is quite breathable and comfortable - and has one large pocket to keep your dog's belongings close at hand.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Maybe your dog is nervous around water, not wanting to go in deeper than her chest. Perhaps she is enthusiastic about water but inexperienced. Or, maybe she 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 they want to swim.

The Ruffwear Float Coat provides extra flotation underneath your dog...
The Ruffwear Float Coat provides extra flotation underneath your dog - ideal for dogs who are nervous in the water or will swim until they're exhausted.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

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.

Check and Recheck
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 regularly 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 Lucky gets in and out of the water. The goal is to find the range in between being too loose and too tight.

Keep your dog safe around the water with the right life jacket for...
Keep your dog safe around the water with the right life jacket for his abilities.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


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.

Enjoy the water safely and confidently in whatever life jacket you...
Enjoy the water safely and confidently in whatever life jacket you decide to wear.
Photo: Michelle Powell

Maggie Brandenburg