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Inflatable life vests, or PFDs, are different from true life jackets in that they’re intended to provide extra buoyancy for confident swimmers rather than to save the life of an unconscious person in the water. They’re typically more comfortable to wear, provide greater freedom of movement and should be Type II, Type III or Type V rated by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). In this article, we look at a few of the best PFDs, including ones that inflate manually, ones that inflate automatically, as well as vests that are specifically designed with certain watersports in mind.
Best Overall: Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Deluxe Inflatable Life Jacket
The Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Deluxe Inflatable Life Jacket is made from durable 420-denier ripstop nylon and USCG-approved as a Type V PFD with Type III performance. Pull the “Jerk to Inflate” handle to inflate the vest, or let it inflate automatically upon immersion. You can convert from auto/ manual inflation to manual-only inflation at will. Either way, the life vest provides a minimum buoyancy of 22.5 pounds when inflated.
It’s also exceptionally comfortable, thanks to its lightweight, low-profile design. Soft neoprene around the neckline prevents chafing, while the lower section, back and straps are equipped with padded air mesh panels. Reflective piping increases your visibility at night, while the D-ring attachment comes in handy for adding safety accessories like a whistle or torch. Stow your shades in the padded, fleece-lined sunglasses pocket and your other personal items in the vest’s utility pockets. It’s intended for people aged 16 and older (or over 80 pounds) and is not recommended for weak or non-swimmers.
Best Type II: Mustang Survival Deluxe Manual Inflatable PFD
A USCG-approved Type II PFD, the Mustang Survival Deluxe Manual Inflatable PFD is ideal for watersports that require good freedom of movement. It’s lightweight and close-fitting and reviewers love it for its comfort and for the fact that it takes up minimal storage space on a boat. It features an ultra-durable 500-denier outer shell and is manually inflated using the waist-height inflation cord. Once inflated, it provides 35 pounds of buoyancy.
Unlike the Absolute Outdoor Onyx, this PFD does not inflate automatically upon immersion. This is a bonus for sports where non-dangerous immersion is likely to happen on a regular basis (e.g. wade-fishing, paddling or swimming). It does mean that the wearer has to be conscious and able to deploy the life vest in order for it to work. Bonus features include a neoprene collar, a zippered pocket for your personal items and an inflator inspection window. Choose yours in blue or red.
Best Type III: Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto Activation PFD
The Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto Activation PFD is a USCG-approved Type III PFD (or a Type V PFD for commercial use). It boasts an exclusive Membrane Inflatable Technology™ inflation cell, which makes it lighter, more flexible and more comfortable. The automatic inflation kicks in within seconds of hitting the water and helps to self-right most wearers. The vest also includes a manual inflation cord and an oral inflator tube.
When fully inflated, it provides 26 pounds of buoyancy - which is half as much again as a traditional foam PFD. Use the transparent window to inspect the inflator, and the easy access flap to replace the CO2 canister. The vest has a 500-denier outer shell and a strong polypropylene waist strap and harness. It comes in a range of different colors (including black, orange and camo), and is recommended for low-impact watersports only.
Best Budget: MTI Adventurewear Journey PFD Life Jacket
With its simple design and affordable price-tag, the MTI Adventurewear Journey PFD is a great choice for occasional boaters or those that need to buy in bulk. It’s incredibly lightweight, weighing under one pound in total. Its contoured front foam panels provide a comfortable fit, while four adjustment points allow you to tailor the vest to your specific size. The outer shell is made of 300-denier polyester. The bright yellow color and reflective shoulder straps increase visibility and there’s a loop on the back for attaching your hat or helmet. It provides 15 pounds of buoyancy and is USCG-approved as a Type III PFD.
Best for Kayaking: Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life Jacket
Available in blue, gray or orange, the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight Life Jacket features an ergonomic design and lightweight construction. It can be used for a wide range of different watersports but is especially suited to kayaking. Firstly, a revolutionary airflow system prevents excessive heat build-up, keeping you cool even when you’re exerting yourself in warm weather. Secondly, the mesh back allows for a comfy fit against high seat backs.
Pre-shaped foam panels provide 16.2 pounds of always-ready buoyancy - enough for a confident swimmer in an area where a quick rescue is likely. Other handy features include a large front pocket, a quick access tab for attaching a knife and an interior storage sleeve. The USCG-approved vest also comes in a range of sizes and uses a reflective trim to increase your visibility in low light.
Best for Fishing: NRS Chinook Fishing PFD
The NRS Chinook Fishing PFD is specifically designed with fishermen in mind, whether you’re fly-fishing, wading or fishing from a kayak. It features foam flotation panels that conform to your body shape and provide 16.5 pounds of buoyancy; and a mesh lower back for added ventilation and a great fit for high-back seats. Use the eight adjustment points to customize the fit.
Best of all, the vest provides convenient gear storage. Stash your fly box or tippets in one of seven different-sized front pockets, and your line cutter on the coiled tool retractor. There’s a loop to hold your strobe, loops for attaching rod holders, a lash tab for your knife and extra D-rings for attaching anything else you might need. Colors include charcoal, black, green and orange.
Best for Kids: Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device
A USCG-approved Type III PFD, the Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device is an excellent option for children weighing between 30 and 50 lb. It provides 8 pounds, 6 ounces of buoyancy and features wrap-around flotation that automatically turns the child face up in the water. Dual support collars also help to support your little one’s head.
A grab handle on the back of the vest allows you to quickly retrieve the child if they fall overboard. The front zipper has a quick release buckle over the top for added security, while the adjustable crotch strap comes in handy for ensuring a comfortable fit. The vest’s outer shell is made from durable 200-denier nylon and comes in high-visibility red or yellow or a more neutral blue.
Check out our other reviews of the best inflatable life vest for toddlers available on the market today.
Best for Dogs: Outward Hound Granby Splash Dog Life Jacket
Adventurous dogs also need inflatable life vests - which is where the Outward Hound Granby Splash PFD comes in. Available in several sizes, it’s designed to provide buoyancy in the water without restricting movement on land. A front neck float helps to keep the dog’s head above water, while the neoprene belly band supports their chest and stomach. Use the dual grab handles to pull your dog out of the water in an emergency. The bright orange color and reflective piping make the vest easy to spot even in rough conditions, while velcro tabs prevent the vest’s straps from getting caught on submerged obstacles.