Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Life Jackets

Monday August 8, 2022
we tested a wide range of life jacket options.
We tested a wide range of life jacket options.
Credit: Sara James

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.

Flotation


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.

we measured the floatation of each life jacket in a controlled...
We measured the floatation of each life jacket in a controlled environment.
Credit: Sara James

Fit


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.

we tried each jacket out on the smallest paddlers it would fit...
We tried each jacket out on the smallest paddlers it would fit, analyzing to see how well it can be adjusted.
Credit: Sara James

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 chaffing 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.

we spent hours watching our dogs play, swim, and relax in all the...
We spent hours watching our dogs play, swim, and relax in all the doggie PFDs, using the wag test to determine how much fun our dog was having.
Credit: Sara James

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.

we spent hundreds of hours in these jackets and we also spent...
We spent hundreds of hours in these jackets and we also spent countless hours reading up on customer feedback to identify common accolades and complaints.
Credit: Sara James

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.

we zipped every zipper and clipped every clip, testing out the...
We zipped every zipper and clipped every clip, testing out the features of each jacket.
Credit: Abriah Wofford

Ad-free. Influence-free. Powered by Testing.

GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.

Learn More