A PFD is more than just a piece of gear; it's a safety device and an essential part of any water-based adventure. There are tons of options you could choose from to keep you safe, and while any US Coast Guard-approved jacket meets the minimum safety requirements, not all are the right fit for your individual needs. We tested these jackets for months to assess how comfortable they are, how well they fit folks of many sizes and shapes, and what they're best used for. We pushed each one to see how it stacks up to the competition, and here's how we did it.
Comfort is king when it comes to what you wear, and a PFD is no exception. We broke our comfort testing into three main components to get a better idea of each: feel, fit, and adjustability.
We judged how comfortable the contenders are to wear against bare skin, over base layers and sun shirts, and for hours in the hot sun. We noted where the zippers, clips, and straps are and how those feel and move as we did. We paddled and swam in each to see if and where they rub and if they're comfortable to sit in or lean back on a kayak seat. We wore them dry and wet and evaluated the fabric feel over long periods.
To gauge fit, we asked a ton of our friends to wear every PFD. They all judged how well it conformed to their specific shape and size, taking note of areas that didn't fit quite right, things that felt off, and pieces they enjoyed. Unisex models were tested on men and women that fall within the specified size, and women's models were tested by women of varying body shapes and bust sizes. Each was evaluated on how well they are able to conform to the variable shapes of humans that they are advertised to fit.
To test the adjustability of each PFD, we tested the range of measurements each claims to accommodate. Beyond how well they can fit that range, we also considered how easily they do so. We tested how well the straps adjust and how easy it is to change each one's size for a new wearer. We checked each to see if they run large, small, or true to size. And though we tested just one size of each model, we also considered how many other sizes are available and considered if that range is likely to satisfy the diversity of life jacket wearers.
To test mobility, we looked at the contenders' performance under pressure and their functionality in various situations. We jumped in the water to see if they stay put or need to be readjusted. We swam around and considered their performance while doing so, asking questions like: is it too tight or loose, do you still have free range of motion to swim, does it make you feel safe and confident to float in?
For inflatable belts, we also considered their inflating function. We tested them repeatedly to see how quickly they inflate and deflate, and how easy it is to inflate them by mouth if the cartridge fails or is empty and you're already in the water. We also evaluated the usability of each model in both the still waters of lakes and the flowing waters of lazy summer rivers.
Most of us who love water sports like to indulge in several different kinds, and having a PFD that can do it all is important. To test the versatility of each life jacket, we first considered the activities the manufacturer advertises and recommends for each. We then went ahead and pushed the boundaries a little bit to see what each is capable of. We kayaked, paddleboarded, swam, and did all our favorite activities at the lake and on the river. We dove into all the pockets, straps, and other little features of every model. We stuffed them with snacks, keys, and phones to see what fit, what worked well, and what was less than ideal. We also considered some aspects of portability and ease of use, like weight, storage, and the ease of repacking and rearming the inflatable options.
None of us want any piece of gear to fail while we're using it, but especially not one that's supposed to aid in your safety. And as we all know, the water can be particularly tough on gear — even more so if your preferred play water is salty. While we can't pack years of sea kayaking into a single summer, we tested the durability of every jacket as thoroughly as possible. We checked the materials, seams, thickness, and construction of each model. We tested buckles and zippers when wet and full of sand. We looked for weak spots and took note of anything that didn't stand up to the ravages of the waves. We also read cleaning and care instructions for each, to get a sense of how picky or forgiving they are to being tossed on the garage floor soaked and forgotten for months. We considered lifetime expectations given by manufacturers as well as warranties offered. And to expand our pool of knowledge, we scoured the internet for any complaints from other users.