A life jacket is an essential part of any water-based adventure. This is not the time to just grab any old piece of gear you can get your hands on. There are many options to choose from, and while all US Coast Guard-approved jackets will meet safety requirements, not all will suit your individual needs. In order to give GearLab readers a full picture of the life jackets available, we spent months trying out a full lineup of different personal flotation devices. We assessed how well they float, how well they fit folks of a range of sizes, how comfortable they are, how easy they are to move in, quality of construction, versatility, and additional features. The following is a walkthrough of how we tested each of our key metrics.
Using an electronic hanging scale, we measured the mass of a 25-pound weight in the swimming pool. We then attached the weight to each life vest for 10 minutes and noted the recorded weight. We compared these results against the advertised buoyancy each jacket is designed to have. Finally, we put on each jacket and jumped into the pool, noting our observations on how it felt to float in each.
Fit is crucial, mainly because this will impact how well the jacket will float you. To assess this, we researched the range of sizes the jackets are offered in and compared this with how well our different-sized testers reported they fit when both dry and in the water. We paid particular attention to how each jacket can be adjusted to fit different body shapes, such as large busts, guts, arms, or small frames.
Comfort and Mobility
To assess comfort and mobility, we used these jackets for a variety of water activities. We kayaked, paddle boarded, boated, and floated, evaluating how the jacket design impacted our mobility. We also tried them on with sun shirts and against bare skin, paying particular attention to chafing and spots of discomfort. For the child and dog life vests, we tested out the handles, noting how comfortable it is for the hauler and the child/animal being carried.
Quality of Construction
We score each jacket for its quality of construction partially based on our observations during months of testing. We also consider the materials used for stitching, flotation, and the outer shell. In addition, we consider the reports of other users, particularly with regards to how well zippers, buckles, and stitching fair over time.
Features and Versatility
Based on the certification and manufacturers' report, we identified which sports each jacket is suitable for. We then considered the details of each jacket, such as pockets, placement of buckles, strap management system, handles, and any unique features it may have. We consider the different needs of various users and evaluate how versatile each product is for multiple use cases.