Reviews You Can Rely On

The 8 Best Life Jackets of 2024

We've tested life jackets for adults, kids, and dogs from Astral, NRS, Ruffwear, and more to help you find the right match for all your watery adventures
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Best Life Jacket Review
Credit: Cheyenne Summer
By Sara James and Maggie Nichols  ⋅  Mar 1, 2024

The Best Life Jackets for 2024


Need a life jacket? We researched 60+ of the best vests and purchased 16 to test side-by-side. With hundreds of competitors to choose from and dozens of outdoor activities for you to enjoy, we chose a range of jackets and activities. We've tried everything from value buys and perfect paddle partners to fisherman's friends and even options for your dog or kids. We paddled, floated, and frolicked in the water, testing every model's flotation, comfort, and technical components. Whether you're a pontoon partier or a solo SUPer, we've found a great life vest for you.

Our favorite water gear can help you prepare for your next paddling adventure. In addition to the best PFDs for your excursions on the water, we've tested everything from the best water shoes to top-rated dry bags to ultra-portable water vessels like the best inflatable kayaks to help you find the gear you need for fun and safe water adventures.

Editor's Note: We updated our life jacket review on March 1, 2024, to share more advice on which products we recommend as alternative picks to our award winners.

Top 16 Life Jackets - Test Results

Displaying 1 - 5 of 16
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award  
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$155 List
$155.00 at Amazon
$67.46 at Backcountry
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$160 List
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$60 List
$59.95 at Amazon
Overall Score
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78
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Pros Comfortable articulated fit, multiple pockets, thin ventilating backSecure and comfortable fit, integrated handle, removable harness, high quality constructionTop-notch flotation, very secure, no flapping strap tails, available in 6 sizesBuilt-in work stations, high back panel, durable design, multiple mounting and attachment pointsVery breathable, comfortable, large pocket
Cons No bottom security buckle, can ride upNot suitable for below 50 pounds, priceyNot breathable, stiff, priceyNot cheap, minimal high visibility detailing, scratchy shoulder strapsLess secure, takes time to adjust, less flotation than some
Bottom Line With a comfortable slimline profile and high functionality, this well-designed PFD was an all-around favoriteIf you are looking to get your kid the best life jacket on the market, this is itA well fitted canine flotation aid with the right amount of coverage to protect your pup without hindering their movementsA high utility and comfortable jacket that's sure to be appreciated by anglers who want a handy mobile workstation right on their chestA very comfortable and breathable jacket for laidback dogs and confident swimmers in calmer waters
Rating Categories Astral E-Ronny Astral Otter 2.0 Ruffwear Float Coat Stohlquist Fisherman NRS CFD Dog Life Ja...
Fit (30%)
8.0
8.0
9.0
8.0
8.0
Comfort and Mobility (25%) Sort Icon
9.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
Quality of Construction (20%)
9.0
9.0
9.0
8.0
7.0
Features and Versatility (15%)
9.0
9.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
Flotation (10%)
7.0
9.0
8.0
9.0
9.0
Specs Astral E-Ronny Astral Otter 2.0 Ruffwear Float Coat Stohlquist Fisherman NRS CFD Dog Life Ja...
Intended User Mens/Unisex Youth (50-90 lbs) Dog Unisex Dog
Manufacturers Stated Intended Use Recreation, touring, fishing Paddling and sailing Dog safety Fishing Dog safety
Entry Style Front zip 2 chest, 1 waist buckle Over-the-head, bottom clip Front zip 1 neck and 2 bottom clips
Wear Type Vest Vest Top and bottom flotation Vest Top and bottom flotation
Sizes Available S/M (31-37”)
M/L (38-44”)
L/XL (45-51”)
Youth (50-90 lbs) XXS (13-17")
XS (17-22")
S (22-27")
M (27-32")
L (32-36")
XL (36-42")
S/M (33-39")
L/XL (40-46")
XXL (46-52")
XS (14-21" chest, < 12 lbs)
S (20-24, 13-24 lbs)
M (25-31", 25-59 lbs)
L (30-36", 60-79 lbs)
XL (35-41", > 80 lbs)
Size We Tested M/L (38-44”) Youth (50-90 lbs) Large (30-37") S/M (33-39") Large (30-36")
Measured Weight 24oz 21 oz 18 oz 28 oz 13 oz
Foam Type Gaia + flotation foam Organic kapok & PE foam Foam buoyancy cells Gaia flotation foam Not specified
Main Material 300D diamond RPET 200D and 400D ripstop nylon Nylon 500D cordura shell, 200D oxford liner 420-denier ripstop nylon
Claimed Designed Buoyancy 16 lbs 11.5 lbs No rating provided 16.75 lbs 6.4 lbs
USCG Classification Type III / performance level 70 Type III N/A Type III N/A


Best Overall Life Jacket


Astral E-Ronny


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 8.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 9.0
  • Quality of Construction 9.0
  • Features and Versatility 9.0
  • Flotation 7.0
Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Front zip
REASONS TO BUY
Articulated, ultra-comfortable fit
Great arm mobility
Thin profile back works with a seat back
Multiple pockets
REASONS TO AVOID
Closes with zipper only
Not the highest flotation available

The Astral E-Ronny is a stand-out life jacket due to its comfortable slim line fit, simple closure system, and dialed features, including pockets and attachment points. The zipper-only front closure provides an exceedingly comfortable fit. The lack of a waist clip ensures you can avoid that uncomfortably tight squeezing of the stomach that so many other vests create after hours of sitting in a boat. In addition, the side adjustments create an evenly distributed overall feel that we love. Many testers appreciated the thinner top front section, which gives it a natural contour. Narrow shoulder sections and large armholes help keep your arms free enough for longer paddling journeys or activities such as fly fishing. The thinly padded back works well with boat seatbacks, and vented sections in numerous places provide breathability.

In addition to comfort, the E-Ronny is also a utilitarian workhorse. A mid-sized pocket accommodates phones, radios, or tackle, and a smaller pocket is perfect for snack bars and multi-tools. Functional lapels tuck away loose ends such as a radio antenna or straps. If you prefer a more streamlined approach, consider the Astral E-Linda, which is almost identical but with smaller pockets. 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 E-Ronny may not be your best bet as it doesn't have the largest pockets. But if you're on the hunt for a life jacket that's comfortable, versatile, and great for paddling, this one is our favorite.

Read more: Astral E-Ronny review

life jacket - the astral e-ronny sports large arm holes which allow great range of...
The Astral E-Ronny sports large arm holes which allow great range of movement for paddlesports. It also has a single zipper closure eliminating the pressure points caused by individual waist straps.
Credit: Sara James

Best Bang for Your (Paddling) Buck


NRS Vapor


69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 7.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 8.0
  • Quality of Construction 7.0
  • Features and Versatility 5.0
  • Flotation 6.0
Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Side entry, 2 side clips
REASONS TO BUY
Flexible fit
Great arm mobility
Very durable
REASONS TO AVOID
Slightly long on the torso
No pockets
Full coverage is less breathable

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. Evenly distributed foam throughout the entire vest eliminates the added front bulk of many other paddle jackets, making it comfortable to move in. The multi-piece panel construction enhances the flexibility of the vest, which is comprised of several panels lying side-by-side. Side adjustment helps this vest stay comfortable, uniformly secure, and not too tight in any specific place. Exceptionally large armholes eliminate underarm paddle rash, and the interior fabric helps wick any sweat you work up while powering your boat.

If you appreciate places to stash things, look elsewhere. Though this vest boasts quality construction, there's not a single pocket or knife attachment anywhere. The sister jacket, the NRS Siren, is almost identical in design but sports two small and useful pockets. Depending on your stature, both of these may be a bit longer in the torso than is ideal for kayaking. The Vapor 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 more: NRS Vapor review

life jacket - 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.
Credit: Sara James

Great Value for a Universal Vest


Stohlquist Fit


63
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 6.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 6.0
  • Quality of Construction 6.0
  • Features and Versatility 7.0
  • Flotation 7.0
Intended Use: Recreational | Entry Style: 3 front clips
REASONS TO BUY
Universal sizing
Accommodating for larger chests and women
Spacious armholes are comfortable
Good strap management
REASONS TO AVOID
Top strap is harder to pull tight
Lots of seams around edges

The Stohlquist Fit is a “universal-sized” life vest that is surprisingly comfortable in 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 front section allows this vest to bend more easily than many others, which our female testers particularly 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 secure.

Slimmer folks should be aware that 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 on the long side for activities requiring scrunched-up postures like kayaking. Though it's unlikely to blow your Aqua Socks off, this simple design is comfortable enough that you'll actually be able to wear it all day. If you need a life jacket offers better mobility, check out the Astral YTV from our best pfd review.

Read more: Stohlquist Fit review

life jacket - 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.
Credit: Cheyenne Summer

Best Youth Life Jacket


Astral Otter 2.0


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 8.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 8.0
  • Quality of Construction 9.0
  • Features and Versatility 9.0
  • Flotation 9.0
Intended Use: Children 50-90 lbs | Entry Style: 3 center clips, optional leg strap
REASONS TO BUY
Integrated rescue handle
Adjustable at torso and shoulders
Has pockets
REASONS TO AVOID
Pockets are small
Not suitable for kids under 50 pounds

The Astral Otter 2.0 stands out as an exceptional youth PFD due to its secure and comfortable fit, integrated safety features, and attention to design quality. The short torso length makes this more comfortable than most other youth jackets we tested, which is particularly important when sitting in a kayak, but also for when kids are generally playing around. Notably, the Otter doesn't rise up when young ones bend, sit, swim, or crawl. In addition, the large arm holes allow for excellent freedom of movement when paddling, swimming, or cannonballing off a boat. This was the easiest jacket to achieve a secure fit in, and side panel adjustability allows for easy girth adjustments for various body shapes.

This jacket boasts numerous additional features lacking in many other youth life jackets. Firstly, the Otter has a removable crotch strap, which is helpful when needed but can also be removed to provide comfort for your child. Our older paddlers particularly appreciated the pockets for storing essentials such as a whistle, chapstick, or your favorite rock. Although many jackets have handles, none are as ingeniously integrated as those on the Otter 2.0. This handle has a reliable grip, was the easiest to carry children in, and was the most comfortable for the wearer. We love the Otter 2.0 for its quality construction and well-thought-out design. However, this is not the right choice if your child is under 50 pounds. If your kid is between 30-50 lbs, check out the Stohlquist Child.

Read more: Astral Otter 2.0 review

life jacket - the astral otter 2.0 is easy to secure and adjust providing a snug...
The Astral Otter 2.0 is easy to secure and adjust providing a snug fit for smaller paddlers.
Credit: Sara James

Best Flotation for Dogs


Ruffwear Float Coat


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 9.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 8.0
  • Quality of Construction 9.0
  • Features and Versatility 8.0
  • Flotation 8.0
Intended Use: Dogs | Entry Style: Over-the-head, 2 bottom clips
REASONS TO BUY
Exceptional flotation
Secure fit
No loose ends
REASONS TO AVOID
Coverage is less breathable
Stiff

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 for your doggie's dimensions. PVC-free 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 or chafing, and velcro bands secure loose ends. A sturdy handle on the back lets you pull your dog out of the water if needed. 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 less 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. This life vest is optimal for a dog who spends a lot of time in the water and could use the impressive flotation it provides. If you want to save a few bucks, we also like the NRS CFD Dog Life Jacket.

Read more: Ruffwear Float Coat review

life jacket - 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.
Credit: Sara James

Most Functional Fishing Vest


Stohlquist Fisherman


81
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 8.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 8.0
  • Quality of Construction 8.0
  • Features and Versatility 8.0
  • Flotation 9.0
Intended Use: Fishing | Entry Style: Front zip
REASONS TO BUY
Pockets fold down into workstations
Great arm mobility
Secure fit
REASONS TO AVOID
Scratchy shoulder straps

The Stohlquist Fisherman stands out for its thoughtful construction, boasting a comfortable design packed with storage and useful attachment options. Supporting D-rings ensure that anglers have all their tools on hand, with no risk of losing things overboard. The signature Stohlquist chest cinch strap helps give a comfortable and secure fit that keeps this jacket in place despite the lack of a waist buckle. The absence of the classic waistband and any chest buckles helps make this jacket is comfortable to sit in for a long time with no pressure points on the waist or sides.

The Fisherman is designed to provide 16.75 pounds of flotation; this is 0.75 pounds more than the other fishing-focused PFDs we tested. This additional 5% of flotation is appreciated, as the storage pockets on this vest provide ample opportunities to (over)load with heavy tackle such as weights. The Fisherman also sports reflective trim on the top of shoulder panels. If you want a true high visibility option, brighter colors are available than the one we chose to test. The NRS Chinook Fishing and Astral E-Ronny are other great fishing-focused models we tested.

Read more: Stohlquist Fisherman review

life jacket - the high back of the stohlquist fisherman makes it comfortable to...
The high back of the Stohlquist Fisherman makes it comfortable to wear when sitting in a kayak.
Credit: Sara James

Best Inflatable Belt


NRS Zephyr


70
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 7.5
  • Comfort and Mobility 8.0
  • Quality of Construction 6.0
  • Features and Versatility 5.0
  • Flotation 8.0
Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Waist belt, inflatable
REASONS TO BUY
Comfortable belt
Easy to use and repack
Bonus pocket
REASONS TO AVOID
Bulkier than some inflatables
Requires rearming after each inflation

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 pack. A single large pocket is big enough to fit today's bulky smartphones and has a key clip as well. The pull tab to inflate the vest portion is off-center to avoid getting caught between your legs. When triggered, the Zephyr inflates relatively quickly and is easily rearmed with a 24g CO2 canister. When pulled over your head, the inflated belt achieves a snug fit, helping keep you safely afloat when needed.

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 were wearing it. It's recommended to be refilled with a whole kit that includes a little green tab, which indicates 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 and forgo the tab, but the red “not ready” status may have you second-guessing if you remembered to rearm. Still, the Zephyr is our favorite model for doing some serene SUP-ing in relative safety.

It's important to remember that inflatable flotation devices like the NRS Zephyr are intended only for very confident swimmers in calm conditions. 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 not enough to keep you safe. It should not be used for whitewater situations.

Read more: NRS Zephyr review

life jacket - the zephyr self-inflating pfd is stored in a waist pack and is the...
The Zephyr self-inflating PFD is stored in a waist pack and is the most adjustable option we tested.
Credit: Sara James

Best Life Jacket for Young Kids


Stohlquist Child


69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Fit 7.0
  • Comfort and Mobility 6.0
  • Quality of Construction 7.0
  • Features and Versatility 7.0
  • Flotation 8.0
Intended Use: Children 30-50 lbs | Entry Style: Front zip, 2 buckles, leg strap
REASONS TO BUY
Grab loop
Double neck/head pillow
Adjustable wrap-around torso
Open back for seat comfort
REASONS TO AVOID
A bit bulky at the front

The Stohlquist Child is a tried-and-tested child PFD designed to float young ones 30-50 pounds. The foam wraps around the lower abdomen and sides but has an open-back design, delivering a comfortable jacket to sit, float, paddle, and play in. Wide armholes provide unrestricted freedom of movement so your child can enjoy themselves regardless of the activity. Additionally, this jacket has much more adjustability around the waist than some of the other child jackets we tested.

A front zipper has a backup quick-release buckle that will help keep this jacket on your child even if the zipper is broken. An additional major safety feature is the large grab handle on the top of the neck pillow, which can be used to hoist a child out of the water. At times like this, the crotch strap is incredibly useful for ensuring this PFD stays on. This may cause a moment of agitation, especially as your kiddo gets heavier, but could be a literal lifesaver. The 200-denier nylon finish is comfortable enough against the skin but won't tear as easily as some of the softer neoprene-lined options we tested. This is a great life jacket option for the youngest aquatic lovers or even those still getting used to the idea of being on/near the water.

Read more: Stohlquist Child review

life jacket - the stohlquist child is a well-designed and comfortable floatation...
The Stohlquist Child is a well-designed and comfortable floatation device with excellent safety features.
Credit: Sara James

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price
85
Astral E-Ronny
Best Overall Life Jacket
$135
Editors' Choice Award
85
Ruffwear Float Coat
Best Flotation for Dogs
$90
Top Pick Award
85
Astral Otter 2.0
Best Youth Life Jacket
$155
Top Pick Award
81
Stohlquist Fisherman
Most Functional Fishing Vest
$160
Top Pick Award
78
NRS CFD Dog Life Jacket
$60
78
Astral Bird Dog
$75
75
NRS Chinook Fishing
$160
70
NRS Zephyr
Best Inflatable Belt
$150
Top Pick Award
69
NRS Vapor
Best Bang for Your (Paddling) Buck
$95
Best Buy Award
69
Stohlquist Child
Best Life Jacket for Young Kids
$70
Top Pick Award
67
O'Neill Child Reactor USCG
$80
63
Stohlquist Fit
Great Value for a Universal Vest
$45
Best Buy Award
62
Mustang Survival Child Livery
$50
61
O'Neill Superlite USCG
$45
60
Stearns Adult Classic
$35
27
Airhead Adult Type II
$25

life jacket - finding the right life jacket will help you have a great - and safe...
Finding the right life jacket will help you have a great - and safe - day out on the water.
Credit: Sara James

Why Trust GearLab


In order to comprehensively test all the life jackets in our review, we spent hours connecting with other water users to find out what they were using. We then scoured 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 lineup and wore them for hours on end, taking dips and voyaging on extended paddling adventures. We tested every feature, examining each model for functionality and durability. We wore them on and in the water, from boats to swimming pools, assessing comfort in the hot sun, mobility while splashing about, and the quality of each stitch and seam. 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.

Our comprehensive tests for all our life jackets spanned five rating metrics:
  • Fit (30% of overall score weighting)
  • Comfort and Mobility (25% weighting)
  • Quality of Construction (20% weighting)
  • Features and Versatility (15% weighting)
  • Flotation (10% weighting)

This review is headed by life-long water-lovers Maggie Nichols and Sara James. Friends, family, and a small army of dogs also contributed. 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. She also heads up our best inflatable kayak review.

Sara has been a paddlesport fanatic for 20+ years. Through college and as a high school teacher in the UK, she spent almost every vacation of her 20s traveling internationally with her kayak in search of whitewater. A two-month trip to California turned into a decade of summers working on the American River as a kayak instructor, safety kayaker, and whitewater photographer. Sara has logged thousands of miles on the water in a raft, kayak, or SUP, and has also spent a lot of time IN the water, sometimes on purpose and many times accidentally. From wild river rapids to serene alpine lakes, if there is water, Sara loves it, and she always carries an appropriate PFD. Sara also tests kayaks, kayak paddles, and dry bags for GearLab.

Available in only one universal size, this jacket is very...
Available in only one universal size, this jacket is very comfortable for a mid sized paddler and good enough for most other sizes.
The Astral Otter 2.0 is designed to provide 11.5 pounds of...
The Astral Otter 2.0 is designed to provide 11.5 pounds of floatation. This is less than an adult PFD, but plenty sufficient for a 50 to 90-pound kiddo.
We put together a crew of all shapes, sizes, and ages to test the...
We put together a crew of all shapes, sizes, and ages to test the life jackets in this review.

Analysis and Test Results


We evaluated every vest's performance across five comprehensive metrics to understand how each life jacket measures up. No matter your body type, activity preference, or budget, we've found a great life jacket to suit your needs and keep you safe out on the water.


Value


These water jackets come with a wide range of possible price tags. We tested the full gamut to see which of the pricier options are worth the extra cost and which budget-friendly models are actually worth wearing.

life jacket - we tested a wide range of life jacket options.
We tested a wide range of life jacket options.
Credit: Sara James

The Stohlquist Fit is one of the best universally useful, low-cost models we tested that's still enjoyable to wear. It fits the full range of its advertised chest size capacity and feels 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. Those looking for something as cheap as possible for infrequent use may find the Airhead Adult Type II meets their needs. 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.

life jacket - the stearn&#039;s adult classic is a solid universal vest that&#039;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.
Credit: Sara James

For dogs, the updated NRS CFD Dog Life Jacket came in lowest at the cash register but also delivered a reliable, secure, and comfortable fit.

life jacket - our test dog huxley out for a stroll in the nrs canine pfd.
Our test dog Huxley out for a stroll in the NRS canine PFD.
Credit: Sara James

We always want the best for our kids, but with growing bodies and many interests, it's likely you are hoping for something that will give you great value. The Mustang Survival Child Livery stood out in this area, costing a fraction of our favorite kids' option, the Astral Otter 2.0.

life jacket - though less comfortable than hydroprene options, the mti child...
Though less comfortable than hydroprene options, the MTI Child Livery has longer straps and open sides that better accommodate larger and growing children.
Credit: Maggie Brandenburg

Fit


We all come in different shapes and sizes, and finding a life jacket that fits you well is essential to the effectiveness of your life jacket. An adjustable model will be your best bet if you plan on sharing your PFD with others. The Astral E-Ronny provided one of the most secure fits, with two side straps to control adjustability. The articulated side panels' flexibility further helps provide a fit that feels personalized.


While the Stohlquist Fit and Stearns Adult Classic don't score the highest in this metric, they are worth mentioning due to their adjustability. The Fit is available to fit the widest range of sizes in our lineup, including Youth/Adult XS, Universal, and Adult XL. We purchased the Universal and expected it to fit on the bulky side, but we were impressed with how the adjustability of the paneling allows this jacket to be tightened down to suit a much smaller framed paddler. The Stearns only offers two sizes, Universal (30-52") and Oversized (52-62"), but these cover almost the widest range of sizes of any manufacturer we tested. These are worth considering for those looking to have a spare jacket covering all bases for visiting friends and family.

life jacket - the universal sized adult stearn jacket really does fit a wide...
The Universal sized Adult Stearn jacket really does fit a wide variety of sizes.
Credit: Sara James

The simplicity of the NSR Zephyr waist belt makes it suitable for the widest range of body sizes. The waist strap can be cinched tight for narrow waists and expanded full length for those in double XL sizes. That said, although it may fit youth under the age of 17, it is not considered appropriate.

life jacket - the nsr zephyr belt is easy to adjust to fit the waist of almost any...
The NSR Zephyr belt is easy to adjust to fit the waist of almost any paddler.
Credit: Sara James

Once a PFD waist belt is activated, you still need to fit the inflated portion over your head. Those with larger heads found it harder to get these on. Remember, you should be able to quickly and comfortably do this while treading water. For this reason, inflatable PFD belts should only be used on flat water and by those who are already very strong swimmers.

For dogs, the Ruffwear Float Coat provided the best fit. It is the quickest to secure, and it stayed in place when our dogs swam, jumped, and rolled. This doggie PFD is also available in six different sizes so that you can find the size that suitably fits your wagging friend. The NRS CFD has been updated to include more full coverage for your dog, and the adjustability in the strap system is improved, making it easier to get a good fit.

life jacket - the adjustment straps on the ruffwear float coat were the easiest to...
The adjustment straps on the Ruffwear Float Coat were the easiest to adjust and benefit from velcro tabs for management of any excess straps.
Credit: Sara James

Comfort and Mobility


Safety and comfort don't have to be at odds, as the hope is to achieve both. Being able to move in your life jacket is essential, and you also want to feel at ease when you are just sitting in your kayak enjoying your float on the water.


The Astral E-Ronny and NRS Vapor are stand-out leaders for their comfort and mobility while still being full life jackets. Both sport very wide armholes, allowing for excellent freedom of movement. In addition, the contoured paneling on these PFDs provides a secure wrap around the lower torso, keeping bulky sides from impeding your paddling. This is particularly noted in the E-Ronny, which has two side adjustment straps to get the ideal snug fit.

life jacket - the side straps can be adjusted on the astral e-ronny to provide a...
The side straps can be adjusted on the Astral E-Ronny to provide a really secure fit.
Credit: Sara James

No surprise, the NSR Zephyr waist belt also shines in this metric. The soft finish is comfortable against the skin, and the compact design makes it easy to forget you are even wearing a flotation device. Strong swimmers paddling in sheltered waters or calm, predictable conditions will appreciate this belt's minimalism. Once inflated, the jacket portion isn't the most comfortable to put on over your head, but this didn't stop us from being able to use it safely.

life jacket - once inflated, the zephyr slides on over your head without any extra...
Once inflated, the Zephyr slides on over your head without any extra straps or adjustments required.
Credit: Sara James

Despite a lot of pockets and features, the Stohlquist Fisherman also impressed us. Narrow shoulder straps allow for an excellent range of motion, and mesh paneling and open sides keep things breathable. Our child testers had the best experience in the Astral Otter 2.0, and the Float Coat took top marks for dogs. The NRS CFD Dog Jacket also fared well; its low profile meant it was a comfortable option with minimal mobility interferences.

life jacket - the otter has a shorter torso length than some other...
The Otter has a shorter torso length than some other children-specific PFDs. This makes it more comfortable when sitting, as it doesn't have such a tendency to ride up on the wearer.
Credit: Sara James

Quality of Construction


Although they all have the same goal in mind, not all jackets are constructed equally. Depending on construction, materials, and use, the life span of these pieces of gear can vary. Taking good care of your gear and storing it clean, dry, and away from sunlight will go a long way in preserving its integrity. However, the fact is that most life jackets will be thrown around and abused. Those designed with robust outer shells and reinforced stitching stand a better chance of avoiding the frays of time.


Astral stands out as a top-quality manufacturer for their PFD construction. The E-Ronny, Bird Dog, and Otter 2.0 were all top scorers, standing head and shoulders above the rest for their robust stitching, high-denier outer shells, and overall attention to design and construction detail. We have seen these jackets on the water for many years and don't see broken buckles or frayed seams. These Astral jackets dried quicker than some of our other tested jackets, which also helps to keep them fresh and ready to perform year after year.

life jacket - on the left is a brand new astral otter 2.0 and on the right is one...
On the left is a brand new Astral Otter 2.0 and on the right is one that has had four seasons of heavy use.
Credit: Sara James

The Stohlquist Fisherman is notable for its durable outer shell design and overall well-constructed finish. The plastic-lined pockets are particularly appreciated for managing the demands of hooks and tools.

life jacket - the pouch pockets on the stohlquist fisherman are protected with an...
The pouch pockets on the Stohlquist Fisherman are protected with an EVA stiffened outer shell to protect the pocket contents.
Credit: Abriah Wofford

Features and Versatility


Specific features make each model unique and can help you decide if a jacket is suitable for your chosen activities. For some jackets, simple versatility is their winning ticket. Each model in our review has a stated purpose for which it has been designed and approved. We evaluated the functionality of each feature and kept track of things like adjustable straps, pockets, padding, lash points, and any other unique attributes like breathable mesh panels or self-inflation.


The award-winning E-Ronny has been well thought out, with close attention to minor details. The mesh-lined patches increase comfort, and the pockets are appreciated so we can store essentials close at hand. A buckle-free design also makes this jacket stand out. The Stohlquist Fisherman boasts even more practical pockets, as they are larger and fold down into workstations if needed. The additional attachment points on both these PFDs make them leaders in this metric.

life jacket - the attachment points inside the pockets on the stohlquist fisherman...
The attachment points inside the pockets on the Stohlquist Fisherman can help ensure you don't loose any gear to the water.
Credit: Abriah Wofford

The top scorer for features and versatility for youth is the Astral Otter. With pockets, an integrated grab handle, reflective detailing, a softer inner lining material, and a padded waist strap band, the Astral team has thought of all your child's needs.

life jacket - the otter 2.0 offers excellent features, helping your child stay...
The Otter 2.0 offers excellent features, helping your child stay comfortable while keeping safe.
Credit: Abriah Wofford

All the doggie PFDs we tested feature a useful grab handle for wrangling your dog out of the water if needed, but some were better designed than others. The handle on the Astral Bird Dog is easy to grab, with an ergonomic cut and profile, which is particularly important with a heavy or more boisterous dog. The Ruffwear Float Coat also sports a robust handle, but it is slightly less padded than the one designed by Astral. The Float Coat does boast superior strap management, with covered buckles and velcro straps to help manage dangling excess material.

life jacket - the astral bird dog sports a wide padded handle to help you lift...
The Astral Bird Dog sports a wide padded handle to help you lift your dog out the water.
Credit: Sara James

Inflatable PFD belts are a unique product for those who are close to the shore in warm water and/or are strong swimmers. The ability to inflate on command makes them particularly helpful for those who don't want to wear a bulky vest while recreating on flat water like lakes or calm estuaries. However, it is important to note that these do not provide immediate safety without being inflated. The NRS Zephyr also stood out for its useful pocket, large enough to fit a phone, and the inclusion of a D-ring to secure a fin or car key.

life jacket - with the pull of a tab, the low profile nrs zephyr will self inflate...
With the pull of a tab, the low profile NRS Zephyr will self inflate providing users with 27.8 lbs of buoyancy.
Credit: Sara James

Flotation


The primary purpose of all of these products is to keep you afloat, so flotation is, unsurprisingly, a crucial metric in this review. That said, with USCG certification standards, all approved PFDs will at least meet the same minimum standard. Still, we researched the design flotation advertised for each model of life vest and compared it against the results from our in-house flotation testing. Finally, we donned the PFDs and hopped into the water ourselves, comparing how floating felt in a real-world scenario. All the life jackets met the required minimum flotation (as you would expect); what did surprise us was how some models significantly outperformed their advertised flotation.


Overall, the Stohlquist Fisherman shone in this metric, as it was approximately five percent more buoyant than the average jacket. This is ideal, considering anglers' penchant for carrying literal weights in their pockets. If you want a simpler and cheaper option, the Stohlquist Fit also provides outstanding flotation, although it's not the most comfortable when submerged in the water. For children, the Astral Otter 2.0 delivers significant flotation, exceeding the requirement for Type III certification. Another solid option is the Mustang Survival Child Livery. (This jacket was previously sold under the MTI Adventurewear brand, but has recently been rebranded.) Neither of these life vests will turn an unconscious swimmer, so some basic swimming skills are recommended.

life jacket - the astral otter 2.0 was the only child jacket we tested that had...
The Astral Otter 2.0 was the only child jacket we tested that had pockets.
Credit: Sara James

Aside from sheer flotation, it's important to consider how well your life vest feels as it floats you and helps you get to safety. This is an aspect we took into account when scoring, along with isolated float tests. For example, the Astral E-Ronny doesn't provide the most direct flotation but enables you to move efficiently when in the water. Easy to move and swim in, this jacket will truly help you in a rescue scenario.

life jacket - the astral e-ronny meets uscg certification for a type iii pfd...
The Astral E-Ronny meets USCG certification for a Type III PFD delivering at least 16 lbs of buoyancy.
Credit: Sara James

For our pup friends, the Astral Bird Dog floated even the heaviest of our hounds. Although the overall fit and mobility aren't as good as the Ruffwear Float Coat, it takes the cake regarding sheer flotation.

life jacket - the astral bird dog was one our dogs didn&#039;t mind wearing and it gave...
The Astral Bird Dog was one our dogs didn't mind wearing and it gave us confidence our canines would be safe on the water no matter what.
Credit: Sara James

Conclusion


From river trips to evening lake floats, a life jacket is a critical piece of equipment designed to help save your life. Whether you are a college athlete, a nervous swimmer, or even a dog, a life jacket is one piece of gear that should not be overlooked. We have spent months learning everything there is to know about these products so that you can find the perfect option to keep you happily afloat.

Sara James and Maggie Nichols