The 9 Best Life Vests of 2023 For Every Age and Sport

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The 8 Best Life Vests of 2022, According to an Expert

TripSavvy / Chloe Jeong

Not only are life vests, or PFDs, vital safety equipment on the water, they’re often legally required,p depending on where you are and the type of water you’re on. The type of water may dictate your type of PFD. Warm, calm waters call for one type of vest, while cold, turbid waters require another. Kevin Foley has been guiding whitewater rafting trips on Colorado’s Arkansas River for over 35 years with Performance Tours Rafting and says, “Cold water immersion is a very serious situation, so you want a PFD that will perform and function the way it’s supposed to.”

While you should still have basic water-survival skills, such as swimming and water-treading capabilities, a PFD can keep you afloat in an emergency and make it easier to stay above water until you can get safely to a boat or land. Below, we detail our top picks in a few categories to help you choose the life vest that’s right for you and your activities on the water, as well as what to look for in terms of fit, comfort, and inflation method.

If you’re planning a fun day out on the water, a personal flotation device (also known as a PFD, buoyancy aid, lifejacket, or life vest) is a legal requirement in many states. Wearing one can save your life, as Verne Gifford, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division, points out. According to him, “the single greatest cause of death while boating is drowning, and nearly all victims are not wearing a lifejacket—between 83 and 86 percent in each of the last ten years.” 

There are many different kinds of PFD from which to choose. Samantha Hughes, a water safety partner with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, sums them up as “buoyancy aids or fixed foam life vests, waist belts, and manually or automatically inflating lifejackets.” Each option varies in how it provides flotation, its level of flotation, and the activities for which it’s most suited. 

According to Matt Dann of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, choices come in two main categories: buoyancy aids or life vests. Life vests typically feature inherently buoyant, padded foam, and they include lifejackets, which are inflated by a gas cylinder once in the water. The former type is ideal for when you expect to be in the water (when stand-up paddling or wakeboarding, for example). The latter is intended for accidental overboard situations and will “turn a casualty onto their back and maintain their airway above the water—even if they’re unconscious,” Dann points out.

Whatever your requirements, here are the best life vests for every on- and in-water situation. Each one is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard or an equivalent agency to meet legal requirements and for your peace of mind. 

Here are the best life vests available.

Best Overall

O'Neill Reactor Life Vest

O'Neill Reactor Life Vest


What We Like
  • Dual belt system for a personalized fit

  • Flex points provide unrestricted movement

  • Comfortable polyester lining

What We Don't Like
  • Relatively expensive for a life vest 

  • Not suitable for extreme offshore conditions

The USCG-approved O’Neill Reactor Life Vest may be a relatively expensive choice, but its clever design makes up for its high price tag. Constructed of closed-cell PVC marine foam and lined with 100 percent polyester, it features ultimate comfort—with a segmented core, anatomical flex points, and expansion panels that combine to ensure unrestricted movement. 

As a Type III inherently buoyant vest, it’s intended for wakeboarding, water skiing, and any other water sport that is conducted close to shore and involves a high likelihood of ending up in the water. A concealed dual belt system with quick-release buckles fastens the vest, and it features a high-quality YKK zipper and overlock stitched, super-strength seams. There are five sizes to choose from, with separate women’s and kids’ Reactor models also available. 

Price at time of publish: $100

Sizes: SM, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL | Material: Foam inner, polyester outer | Flotation: At least 15.5 pounds | Weight: 2.35 pounds

Best for Kayaking

Astral EV-Eight PFD

Astral EV-Eight PFD


What We Like
  • High mesh back

  • Designed for superior ventilation

  • Lifetime warranty

What We Don't Like
  • An expensive, specialist choice

  • Won’t turn an unconscious wearer face up

If you want a USCG-approved Type III life vest designed especially for kayaking, look no further than the Astral EV-Eight PFD. Filled with PE and EVA foam and lined with 100 percent recycled polyester, this bluesign-approved vest includes a high mesh back that sits comfortably against your kayak seat; and low-cut sides for unrestricted, 360-degree arm movement. It also features the brand’s patented Airescape technology for superior breathability. 

This is an expensive product aimed at serious athletes, but the investment is likely to be worth it, considering the quality of its construction. The vest features a self-locking YKK front zipper and adjustable heavy-duty straps around the front and sides for a customized fit. Choose from five eye-catching colors, and rest assured that your purchase comes with a lifetime warranty.

Price at time of publish: $135

S/M, M/L, L/XL | Material: Foam inner, 100 percent recycled polyester outer | Flotation: 16 pounds | Weight: 1.22 pounds

Best for Rafting

NRS Big Water V Rafting PFD

NRS Big Water V Rafting Lifejacket (PFD)


What We Like
  • USCG-approved for commercial rafting

  • Flotation collar keeps head above water

  • Tested by a third-party laboratory

What We Don't Like
  • Intended for white water rafting only

  • Optional leg straps sold separately 

Whitewater rafting adventures require a special kind of PFD—one with a Type V USCG rating and plenty of extra flotation. This coast-guard-approved life vest from NRS fits the bill perfectly, providing 25.1 pounds of flotation, compared to the 15.5-pound minimum required of a regular inherently buoyant life vest. It’s filled with foam and lined with extra-durable nylon, and despite being bulky, it uses contoured foam panels to provide a comfortable fit. 

Use the four front buckles to adjust the fit further or to get into and out of the vest. A flotation collar keeps your head above water while floating on your back. There are webbing loops for attaching leg straps for added safety in big water, although you must purchase the straps separately. Choose an adult universal or adult plus-size vest in one of four highly visible colors.

Price at time of publish: $159

Sizes: Universal, Universal Plus | Material: Foam inner, nylon outer | Flotation: 25.1 pounds | Weight: 2.8 pounds

Best for Inshore Sailors

Onyx A/M-24 ALL CLEAR Inflatable Lifejacket

Onyx A/M-24 ALL CLEAR Inflatable Lifejacket


What We Like
  • Lightweight, low-profile design 

  • The indicator window shows when armed properly

  • Converts from auto/manual to manual-only inflation

What We Don't Like
  • Not suitable for those younger than 16 or under 80 lbs

  • Requires purchase of rearming kit after each inflation

Sailors typically use a different type of lifejacket—a low-profile, streamlined inflatable that’s barely noticeable until needed. The USCG-approved ALL CLEAR A/M 24 from Onyx offers best-in-class performance, using a built-in CO2 cartridge to provide 22.5 pounds of buoyancy (ideal for inshore conditions). An indicator window that shows green when the cartridge is armed correctly helps prep for an overboard situation. 

The default inflation method is automatic, meaning that if you hit the water unconscious, the lifejacket will still inflate upon hitting the water. However, if you want more autonomy, you can switch the inflation method to manual, using a pull cord that clips to the lifejacket to avoid snags. The front-zippered jacket is also supremely comfortable, with a wide, soft, neoprene-lined neck and webbing straps that adjust to fit chests between 30 and 65 inches.

Price at time of publish: $157

Sizes: Universal | Material: Foam inner, nylon outer | Flotation: 22.5 pounds | Weight: 0.7 pounds

Best for Offshore Sailors

TeamO 275N Ocean BackTow Lifejacket Deckharness

TeamO 275N Ocean BackTow Lifejacket


What We Like
  • Maximum flotation 

  • Unique BackTow technology

  • Foul-weather-proof auto inflation system

What We Don't Like
  • BackTow feature requires manual deployment

  • ISO and CE approved but not rated by USCG

If you're embarking on an ocean-going adventure involving extreme weather conditions and heavy gear, you'll need the added flotation of a 275N lifejacket. This one, from UK-based company TeamO, is ISO- and CE-approved and stands out as the only lifejacket on the market with BackTow technology. This means if you fall overboard while tethered to the boat, you can pull a handle and turn into a seated, face-up position for safe alongside towing. 

The lifejacket also features a lifting strop to winch you aboard again, while the ProSensor Elite inflation system is water-activated yet carefully designed so it won't trigger in heavy rain or spray. Other features include an integrated deck harness, a SOLAS-approved water-activated light, a whistle, and a spray hood. Designed to fit chests of 27 to 56 inches, the jacket also has twin crotch straps and double adjusters on the back.

Price at time of publish: $355

Sizes: Universal | Material: CO2 cartridge, nylon outer | Flotation: 275N (approx. 62 pounds) | Weight: Not published

Best Waist Belt

Onyx Unisex Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket (PFD)

Onyx M-16 Inflatable Belt Pack


What We Like
  • Lowest profile of any PFD on this list

  • Allows for unrestricted movement

  • Inflation handle clips out of the way when not in use

What We Don't Like
  • Manual inflation only 

  • Must be rearmed after each inflation

Competent swimmers who simply want the reassurance of a little extra flotation will love the M-16 inflatable belt pack from Onyx. Weighing in at less than a pound and designed to be virtually unnoticeable, it leaves your arms and shoulders entirely free for unrestricted paddling, casting, or rope handling. It features a CO2 cartridge protected by an Oxford nylon cover and must be armed manually using the inflation handle. 

The handle clips to the waist belt to prevent accidental deployments but releases instantly when needed. Manual inflation is necessary for sports that naturally involve getting wet; however, it does mean that the wearer needs to be conscious and in control in an emergency. The CO2 cartridge provides 17 pounds of buoyancy, increasing to 26.5 pounds using the belt’s oral-inflation tube. 

Price at time of publish: $64

Sizes: Universal | Material: CO2 cartridge, nylon outer | Flotation: 17 to 26.5 pounds | Weight: Less than 1 pound

Best Multi-Pack

Stohlquist Fit Adult PFD Life Vest | Pack of 4

Pack of 4 Stohlquist Fit Adult Life Vests


What We Like
  • Affordable bulk price 

  • Suitable for general boating and paddle sports

  • Sturdy foam and nylon construction

What We Don't Like
  • Not ideal for offshore use 

  • Adult fit only

Many states require that all passengers wear a PFD during recreational boating. One easy way to equip all of your potential passengers is to buy life vests in bulk—and this pack of four foam-filled Stohlquist Fit vests offers decent performance at a reasonable price point. Each Type III USCG-approved vest works for general boating use, with sculpted front and back panels that also afford the mobility needed for paddle sports. 

The back panel is slightly thinner, making the vests compatible with kayak seat backs. With a sturdy, 200-denier inner liner and outer shell, they’re built to last, giving you even better value. Best of all, the life vests are inherently buoyant, meaning that inexperienced wearers won’t have to do a thing for them to work in an emergency. Choose yours in red, blue, black, or green, and then adjust the three front buckles to achieve the correct fit. 

Price at time of publish: $100

Sizes: Universal, XL | Material: Foam inner, nylon outer | Flotation: 16 to 18 pounds | Weight: 1.6 pounds

Best for Kids

Stearns Child Classic Series Vest

Stearns Child Classic Life Vest


What We Like
  • Suitable for multiple activities

  • The crotch strap ensures a secure fit

  • Matching adult life vests are available

What We Don't Like
  • Will not turn an unconscious wearer face-up

  • Some reviewers report that the vest runs small

There’s nothing better than spending quality time out on the water with your family—just don’t forget that equipping your child with a life vest is both sensible and a legal requirement. The Child Classic Series vest from Stearns is USCG-approved for children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds and is ideal for multiple activities ranging from boating to tubing, swimming, and tow sports. It’s filled with PE foam and lined with durable nylon. 

It’s important to remember that this is a Type III PFD, meaning that it will not turn an unconscious wearer face-up. Children must still be able to swim. Nevertheless, with open sides that allow unrestricted movement and excellent breathability, it’s far more comfortable than a Type I or Type II vest and, therefore, kids are much more likely to wear it. You can adjust the fit using the three chest belts and crotch strap, all of which have quick-release buckles.

Price at time of publish: $23

Sizes: Universal| Material: Foam inner, nylon outer | Flotation: at least 11 pounds | Weight: 0.6 pounds

Best Budget

Guide Gear Universal Adult Life Vest Jacket

Guide Gear Universal Adult Life Vest Jacket


What We Like
  • One of the lightest adult vests on this list

  • Two sizes to fit most chests 

  • Highly adjustable

What We Don't Like
  • Some reviewers claim it isn’t snug enough 

  • Intended for general rather than specialist use

Despite fulfilling the same essential function as our overall winner, the USCG-approved Type III life vest from Guide Gear comes at roughly a fifth of the price. It won’t win any prizes for comfort, ease of movement, or specialist performance, but it is a reliable and cost-effective choice for those who are planning casual water-based fun. Suitable for anything from general boating to fishing or paddling, it features foam inserts protected by a polyester shell. 

There are two unisex sizes: Universal, which fits chests from 30 to 52 inches, and 2XL/3XL, for chests from 40 to 60 inches. Whichever you go for, use the one-inch webbing straps to adjust the fit to your specific measurements. Three of them have quick-release buckles that fasten across the torso. The life vest comes in two colors: red and blue.

Price at time of publish: $22

Sizes: Universal, 2XL/3XL | Material: Foam inner, polyester outer | Flotation: At least 15.5 pounds | Weight: 0.9 pounds

What to Look for in a Life Vest


Gabe Doring, a product development specialist and designer at Onyx Outdoor, lists the different PFD types as “inherently buoyant or foam-filled life vests, inflatable lifejackets, and hybrids that combine aspects of both.” Matt Dann of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency defines foam-filled life vests as best “for people taking part in water sports close to shore, with help available nearby if needed.” They usually provide the minimum buoyancy required and should boost flotation for a conscious swimmer. 

On the other hand, inflatable lifejackets have gas cylinders that are manually or automatically triggered upon entering the water and are “more suitable for those not expecting to be in the water.” They are low-profile and more comfortable, and (depending on the rating) they can provide more than 60 pounds of buoyancy. They will turn an unconscious casualty onto their back so that they can breathe and are best for inshore and offshore sailors. Inflatable lifejackets must be rearmed after every use and are typically considerably more expensive. 


Beyond the basic distinctions listed above, there are other factors you need to consider when choosing the correct PFD for your purpose. From a legal perspective, Doring points out that "you need to make sure your lifejacket satisfies the carriage requirement for the vessel you're on." For example, inflatable lifejackets are not approved for whitewater paddling or towed activities such as water skiing or tubing. USCG representative Verne Gifford adds that they are also unsuitable for riding a personal watercraft and for youth use.   

You should also think about the level of buoyancy required. A foam-filled life vest with the minimum Level 50 rating is sufficient for competent swimmers close to shore and with help nearby. However, the RNLI's Samantha Hughes suggests, "If you are planning on going offshore in extreme conditions or wearing heavy protective clothing, a Level 275 inflatable lifejacket would be more suitable." Regarding extreme weather, Doring adds the caveat that temperatures below 40 degrees F may affect the gas in inflatable lifejackets and prevent them from inflating correctly. 

Inflation Method

If you opt for an inflatable lifejacket, you also need to decide whether you want one that inflates manually or automatically upon hitting the water. Manual inflation models are cheaper; however, as Gifford points out, there is a danger that if the wearer cannot inflate it because they are injured, panicked, or incapacitated/unconscious, it won’t do its job. Some lifejackets can be converted from automatic to manual inflation when the wearer wants more control.


As Hughes asserts, “When purchasing a PFD, it is really important to find one that’s comfortable and well fitted as well as suitable for your activity.” She recommends trying various options and checking the manufacturer's guidelines carefully for recommended weight ranges and chest/waist sizes. Some brands also offer different versions for women to suit a more feminine body shape. Ultimately, Gifford and Hughes point out that “the best lifejacket is one that you will wear.”

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is the safest type of life vest?

    The safest type of PFD depends on your intended use. In Gifford’s words, it “should be suitable for the area of operation, the type of activity, and the anticipated time it would take for a rescue to be carried out.” This means choosing a PFD with sufficient buoyancy (for expected conditions and your swimming ability) and checking the label carefully to ensure that it’s approved for your purpose. When it comes to inflatable lifejackets, those that inflate automatically are usually safer than those that inflate manually.

  • What’s the difference between a life vest and a lifejacket?

    The terms “life vest” and “lifejacket” are often used interchangeably, along with other terms such as PFD or buoyancy aid. Usually, however, a “life vest” is an inherently buoyant, foam-filled vest that provides competent swimmers with added flotation and is intended for activities where users can reasonably expect to spend time in the water. A “lifejacket” is often an inflatable PFD, which has a lower profile, is more comfortable when dry, and uses a gas cylinder to inflate upon contact with the water. In an accidental overboard situation, it will right an unconscious person so that their face is above water.

  • How often should I replace my life vest?

    Gifford confirms that “the Coast Guard does not have a mandatory remove-from-service time frame for wearable PFDs.” Instead, he suggests that your vest’s lifespan depends on how well you take care of it. For inflatable lifejackets, check the manufacturer’s expiration dates for the gas cylinder and components, and be aware that the jacket will need to be rearmed after each inflation. Dann says that “lifejackets need regular servicing, and it’s important to have yours serviced safely at a place approved by the manufacturer.”

Why Trust TripSavvy

As a Royal Yachting Association-certified sailor and qualified scuba instructor, Jessica Macdonald has plenty of experience using different types of PFD. For this article, she sought the input of four industry experts: Verne Gifford, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division; Gabe Doring, product development specialist and designer at Onyx Outdoor; Samantha Hughes of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; and Matt Dann of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. She used their invaluable insights to create a shortlist of more than 20 different products, which were then narrowed down according to price, features, and user reviews. 

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