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The Best Life Jackets for Kayaking, Fishing, Sailing and Swimming

Creative Commons "Closeup of Inflated PFD" by Florida Fish and Wildlife is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
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Introduction

Whether you’re paddling, sailing, swimming, fishing or boating, the best life jacket is the one you’ll wear.

The excuses are almost endless: “It’s too hot outside.” “They’re not stylish.” “I’m a good swimmer.” But given that 83 percent of all water-related deaths involve someone not wearing a life jacket, your life could depend on it.

That said, a life vest doesn’t have to be uncomfortable — or even out of style, for that matter. These days, marine manufacturers specifically design personal flotation devices for kayaking, fishing and a host of watersports to fit your body type and active lifestyle. Let’s take a look.

Below, American Paddler covers life vest reviews for a host of activities, including:

A QUICK RUNDOWN: THE BEST LIFE JACKETS OF 2018 (COMPARISON CHART)

LIFE JACKETU.S.C.G. RATINGBEST FORPRICEAP RATING
Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life VestType IIIKayaking and canoeing$
Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life JacketType IIIWomen$$
Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Flotation DeviceType IIIFishing$$
Onyx Kayak Fishing Life JacketType IIIFishing (budget)$
Mustang Survival Lil’ Legends 100 Flotation VestType IIKids, infants and toddlers$$
O’Neill Wake Waterski Infant USCG VestType IIKids, infants and toddlers$
Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life JacketType IIISailing$$$
Onyx Automatic/Manual 24 Inflatable Life VestType V (Type III performance)Fishing, SUP or kayaking$$
Onyx M-24 Inflatable Belt PackType VSUP$$
Stearns Adult Watersport Classic SeriesType IIINon-Swimmers$

Best Kayak Life Vests

Since kayaking requires long period of sitting and rowing, your life vest should allow you to do both comfortably. Life vests designed for kayaking have large arm slots and shorter waists that won’t restrict paddling motions, while still providing enough buoyancy to save your bacon if you need it.

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest

USCG rating: Type III

While sitting in your kayak seat, the last thing you want is a bulky piece of foam jutting into your back.

Onyx got it right with this one. One of the most popular life vests for paddlesports, the MoveVent’s mesh backing keeps you cool and doesn’t push you forward in your seat — while retaining buoyancy to support you in case of an accident.

Comfort was high on the manufacturer’s priority list, with soft, lightweight foam that doesn’t rub against your skin and neoprene comfort pads at high-contact points. Paddlers will also appreciate the wide arm slots that allow for a free range of motion without chafing.

With expandable straps on the shoulders, torso and locking lateral straps, the Onyx is designed for a snug fit on almost anyone. Zippers replace bulky plastic clips, and a loop on the back makes it easy to hang to dry. The MoveVent also comes with a zippered, mesh pocket for valuables, and a safety whistle is included.

Stohlquist Women’s Flo Life Jacket/Personal Flotation Device (link to men’s version)

USCG rating: Type III

While the Onyx MoveVent claims plenty of women as customers, for ladies looking for a more comfortable fit designed specifically for them, the Stohlquist Women’s Flo PFD is perfect.

Like all good lightweight kayak life vests, the Stohlquist has high-back flotation that doesn’t interfere with your seat and large, open sides for ventilation and freedom of motion. The women’s version also features built-in supportive cups for larger busts and a cross-chest cinch harness that prevents the unit from riding up.

With a neoprene waist band and soft inner mesh liner, chafing and sweat aren’t an issue. The front of the vest also features large pockets for gear and safety whistles.

An intelligent design for their female customers, the Stohlquist Women’s Flo is one of the best women’s kayak life vests, and it comes at an affordable price. Stohlquist also makes a men’s version without the cups.


Best Kayak Life Vests for Fishing

In addition to the features that make for a good kayaking life jacket, the best life jackets for kayak fishing also provide loops, pockets and accessories for gear. A great fishing PFD can even become an extension of an angler’s tackle box, with pockets that fold out for extra tables and storage for smaller gear that might otherwise get lost.

Stohlquist Fisherman Personal Flotation Device

USCG rating: Type III

You’ve got plenty of space on your kayak for lines, lures, tackle boxes and coolers, but darn it if you don’t always lose those pliers when you need them.

With the Stohlquist Fisherman PFD, that problem is solved. With eight built-in loops and two large mesh zippered pockets, your vest can be more stocked than Batman’s belt on a date with the Joker. In addition to protecting your gear, two stiffened outer pockets also fold down into 7.5” tables, providing you with extra workspace.

Like other Stohlquist watersports PFDs, the Fisherman is designed to offer a full range of cast motion, with large arm slots and a high back that won’t interfere with your seat. Dual side adjustments, padded shoulder pads and a cross-chest cinch guarantee you’ll get a snug fit, too.

The Fisherman comes in both high-visibility and low-visibility colors, and a loop on the back for quick drying and storage.

Onyx Kayak Fishing Life Jacket

USCG rating: Type III

A little more affordable option for kayak anglers is Onyx’s kayak fishing PFD. While we think the Stohlquist offers a few more gear options, the Onyx has plenty of loops, straps and pockets for tippets and smaller tackle.

With a foldable push-button dropdown pocket that can store a small tackle box and a wide-mouthed cargo pocket for a radio or smaller electronics, the Onyx is thoughtfully designed for kayak anglers. Two more zippered pockets store smaller gear such as line leaders and pliers, but their locations can be harder to reach for bigger paddlers.

While the Onyx is comfortable with six adjustable straps, padded shoulders and a breathable mesh back, it can be a little hotter than higher-end fishing PFDs. Large arms slots and a high-back design are ideal for most paddling styles.


Best Life Jacket for Toddlers and Infants

Life jackets for kids, unlike adult PFDs, are sized according to the child’s weight, not chest size. Generally, there are three universal sizes: infants/toddlers (10-30 lbs), children (30-50 lbs) and youths (50-80 lbs). Depending on your toddler’s weight, he or she might fall in between sizes, so pay close attention to manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure your child’s life vest fits properly.

Mustang Survival Lil’ Legends 100 Flotation Vest

USCG rating: Type II

For children who will be spending time on the water, Mustang’s industry-leading Lil’ Legends series is among the best kids life jackets for safety, comfort and mobility. For tots who are apt to rip off an uncomfortable vest while Mom’s not looking, all three are critically important.

Available in three sizes, the Lil’ Legends 100 is designed to fit a toddler comfortably, with a breathable, cooling mesh back and smartly designed buoyancy panels that move with your toddler. A full-length zipper and segmented head pillow support your child’s neck and ensure his or her head won’t slip below the vest.

Like all good infant and toddler life vests, Lil’ Legends features a heavy-duty handle for parents to quickly grab, and a crotch strap to ensure the jacket won’t slip off.

The Lil’ Legends comes in three bright colors: green, red or yellow.

O’Neill Wake Waterski Infant USCG Vest

USCG rating: Type II

The O’Neill Wake Waterski infant and toddler life vest is perfect for parents concerned about comfort and safety. An oversized type II life jacket, this vest is designed to flip over if your child lands face-first in the water to cradle their neck and head above water.

A little bulky for smaller tots, the O’Neill nevertheless offers a lightweight foam and neoprene exterior for a comfortable fit. With two heavy-duty waist buckles and a crotch strap, your child won’t wiggle out easily, either.

O’Neill includes a strong neck strap for parents to quickly grab if a child starts to struggle, and the ergonomic head support is up to U.S. Coast Guard approved standards.

The Wake Waterski comes in boy and girl-friendly colors: yellow/blue, pink and unisex pink/blue.


Best Life Jacket for Sailing

Whether you’re competing in a regatta or simply sailing the afternoon away on your local bay, a good life jacket is essential. Life jackets designed for sailing don’t differ much from those designed for kayaking, but sailors generally prefer fewer loops and minimal straps that don’t catch easily.

Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life Jacket

USCG rating: Type III

Most U.S. adult and youth sailing competitions require the use of a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket (as opposed to European-approved buoyancy aids), and the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life Jacket is a great one.

The V-Eight offers all the buoyancy required by the USCG, while still being slim and breathable enough to allow a full range of motion on deck. Astral’s patented AirEscape design allows the vest to breath in both the front and back to prevent overheating, and a small strap at the bottom allows adjustability without getting in the way.

The V-Eight can be used for most watersports, including kayaking, fishing and touring, and features side pockets for quick access to a sailing knife or other gear.

Some sailors prefer side-zipping PFDs instead, which offer even less to get caught on deck rigging. If that’s the case, check out Gill’s side-zip PFD, which is also USCG approved.


Best Inflatable Life Vest

Onyx Automatic/Manual 24 Inflatable Life Vest

USCG rating: Type V (Type III performance)

For those who understand the need for a fishing or kayaking life vest, but still don’t want the bulk, an inflatable PFD is a great compromise. Designed to be worn like a traditional life vest, these PFDs only inflate when you need them to, leaving you free to paddle or fish with no restrictions.

Onyx’s A/M 24 inflatable PFD inflates automatically upon submersion in water, or manually when the user pulls the rip cord. When inflated, a CO2 chamber fills quickly with air and provides 22.5 pounds of buoyancy — more than enough for even the largest of paddlers.

Though not recommended for children under 16 years old or non-swimmers, the Onyx A/M 24 inflatable PFD is a popular choice for fishermen and kayakers who prefer to “forget” they’re wearing a lifejacket until they need one. A soft neoprene neckline feels just like a shirt and keeps you comfortable and cool.

The Onyx can be switched from an automatic/manual mode to just manual, and also features a backup tube for oral inflation. If inflated, you will need to re-arm the PFD with a replacement CO2 cartridge.


Best Personal Flotation Device
for Stand Up Paddling

Just like a kayak, a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) is considered a moving vessel when operated outside a designated swimming or surfing area. So, to be compliant with U.S. Coast Guard regulations, you’ll need a USCG-approved PFD. Really any life jacket designed for kayaking will also work for stand-up paddleboarding, but inflatable life vests — or just inflatable belts — are becoming increasingly popular for SUP boarding.

Onyx M-24 Inflatable Belt Pack

USCG rating: Type V

The best PFD for SUP — forgive the alphabet soup — is the one you’ll hardly notice. Part fanny pack and part life vest, this USCG-sanctioned personal flotation device allows for total upper-body freedom while still being safe when you need it.

Like Onyx’s inflatable vest above, the belt pack is inflated by a CO2 chamber that’s manually activated with a rip cord or oral inflation tube. Unlike the vest, however, it doesn’t have an automatic inflation function when submerged. Once inflated, you’ll need a CO2 rearming kit to inflate it again.

Lightweight and universally sized, this type V (special use) PFD is perfect for paddlers who don’t want their movement restricted, and a front zippered pouch can carry keys and smaller valuables. However, unsteady swimmers might be more comfortable with a traditional vest.

It’s worth noting that while the Onyx M-24 is Coast Guard approved, not all inflatable life belts are. Check before you buy.


Best Life Vest for Non Swimmers

Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series

USCG rating: Type III

Understandably, those who don’t swim well are likely to be a little more cautious when choosing a life jacket. If you’re concerned about buoyancy, don’t be. Virtually all type I, II and III life jackets will support your weight if sized correctly.

If you’re really anxious about water, we’d recommend a type I or II life jacket (the bright orange pillows we’re all familiar with). They’re not stylish, admittedly, but they are designed to flip the wearer’s head face-up in the water — a reassuring feature that means you won’t have to do anything in an emergency.

If you’re reasonably confident in your ability to right yourself, a type III life vest such as the Stearns Adult Watersport Classic should work just fine. With four buckles and a durable foam back, you’ll be fully supported and won’t slip out of the vest.

Other life vests designed for specific activities, such as snorkeling, also work well for non-swimmers.


The Best Life Jacket for You: How to Decide

best life jacketLike we’ve seen above, life vests and PFDs vary depending on their intended use. Which one is right for you or your child depends on what you’ll be doing with it. For instance, fishing PFDs often come with a boatload of pockets, loops and straps for more gear. The best life jackets for kayaking or sailing, on the other hand, are lightweight and offer a wider range of arm motion. For stand-up paddling, you might choose a manually inflatable life belt, which offers total freedom of movement.

Safety, however, is the most important consideration. For instance, if you’ll be far from shore, a class I or II life jacket is advisable. If you’ll be closer to shore or participating in a less strenuous activity such as kayaking, fishing or stand-up paddling, you might be able to get away with a class III life vest.

Personal flotation device vs. life jacket

Though the terms are used almost interchangeably these days, there is a difference between a life jacket and a personal flotation device (PFD).

Life Jacket

A life jacket is just that — something specifically designed to save your life in the case of an emergency. Unlike a PFD, life jackets are designed to keep the wearer’s head face up in the event they are knocked unconscious in the water. They do this by having more buoyancy on the front of the jacket, which will turn you right-side up without your help. Life jackets are also generally made with bright colors (yellow, orange or red) and often have whistles attached.

 

Personal Flotation Device

A PFD, on the other hand, is designed to be less restrictive for watersports while still helping the wearer float in non-emergency situations or when the user retains consciousness. In a personal flotation device, the buoyancy material is on the back of the vest, making it less bulky and more comfortable, with wider arm slots for a better range of motion. It will not, however, turn you face up if you are knocked unconscious.

Although non-swimmers can wear either one, a life jacket will generally have more buoyancy and require less effort than a PFD.

Laws and U.S. Coast Guard safety ratings

Before you go, check your state’s laws on who must wear a PFD aboard a moving watercraft. Most states require children to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket while on deck, but even if it isn’t required, wear one anyway.

The USCG classifies life jackets and PFDs based on their buoyancy and intended use.

Type I (Off-shore Life Jacket)

  • Provides the highest amount of buoyancy
  • Designed for use in rough seas or areas where immediate rescue isn’t possible
  • Bright colors and reflective strips
  • Retains body heat due to bulk
  • Turns wearer’s face up in the water

Type II (Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest)

  • Designed for use closer to shore or in calm waters
  • Recommended for most children (unless off-shore)
  • Will turn most wearers’ face up in the water
  • Less buoyancy than type I but still very buoyant
  • Still fairly bulky

Type III (Flotation Aid)

  • Lightweight, comfortable vest for calm waters and recreational activities
  • Most popular PFD for kayaking, canoeing, fishing, boating or SUP
  • Less bulk than type I or II
  • Larger arm slots and less material on the chest (for better movement)
  • Allows conscious wearers to float easily (but won’t turn wearer’s face up if unconscious)

Type IV (Throwable Device)

  • Not a wearable lifejacket, but for emergencies only
  • A backup flotation device to be stored on a boat’s deck or poolside
  • Not required on kayaks or canoes
  • Meant to be readily accessible
  • Can be a ring, horseshoe or seat cushion

Type V (Specialty Use Device)

  • Made for very specialized uses
  • Some designed for cold climates to guard against hypothermia
  • Deck suits and work vests designed for ease of motion
  • May be carried in place of other types (in some states) but only if used as intended
  • Must be worn at all times

Sizing and fitting

A life jacket that’s not sized properly is barely better than no life jacket at all. Too small, and it might not provide the proper buoyancy. Too big, and it might not support your head, or worse, slip right off in the water. Your PFD should fit snugly without being uncomfortably tight.

best life jackets
The best life jackets for toddlers and infants have extra straps, handles and neck support.

Properly sizing a life vest is different for kids and adults. Infants, toddlers and children’s PFDs are sized according to weight, while adult PFDs are measured by chest size.

  • Infants and toddlers (8-30 lbs)
  • Children (30-50 lbs)
  • Youths (50-80 lbs)

While each manufacturer’s sizing chart is different, most unisex adult PFDs are sized according to small, medium, large and extra large. For example, Onyx sizes its life jackets according to the following chart:

  • Extra small/small: 28”-36” chest
  • Medium/large: 36”-44” chest
  • Extra large/XXL: 44”-56” chest

While women can wear unisex life vests, the best women’s life vests come with specially designed seams and supportive cups that might provide a more comfortable fit.

Materials and Buoyancy

Personal flotation devices support the wearer’s weight by adding buoyancy, which is measured by the pound. Most adults need just six to 12 pounds of added buoyancy to support their weight in the water, but those with more body fat could require more. Modern PFDs — including type III PFDs for kayaking — offer more than 15 pounds of buoyancy, meaning most life vests should support your weight. Still, it’s a good idea to test your life vest in shallow water before taking it out for the first time.

Life vests are typically made of nylon or neoprene. Nylon is typically bulkier and cheaper, while the best neoprene life vests stretch and conform better to your body. Neoprene PFDs are typically better for watersports.

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