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.
We researched the design buoyancy of each PFD as advertised by the manufacturer. We then compared this against our own in-house flotation testing. While floating in a pool, we suspended and attached a weight to each jacket and measured how much flotation each jacket offered.
We then put on each jacket and spent time actively swimming and leisurely floating in the water. We climbed on and off our paddle boards and kayaks and compared how the PFD supported our bodies in the water.
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.
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 whether that range is likely to satisfy the diversity of life jacket wearers.
Comfort and Mobility
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 better understand each aspect: 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 with the wearer. We paddled and swam in each to see if and where they rubbed 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 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 stayed put or needed 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, and 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 inflated and deflated and how easy it is to inflate them by mouth if the cartridge fails or is empty and you're already in the water.
Quality of Construction
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 each model's materials, seams, thickness, and construction. 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 and considered lifetime expectations given by the manufacturers as well as warranties offered. And to expand our pool of knowledge, we scoured the internet for complaints from other users.
Features and Versatility
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. We then pushed the boundaries a little bit to see what each can do by kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, etc. We dove into every model's pockets, straps, and other little features. 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.