The 8 Best Life Vests of 2021

Find the right personal floatation device for your next water activity

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TRIPSAVVY-best-inflatable-life-vests

Chloe Jeong / TripSavvy

The Rundown

Best Overall: Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable Life Jacket at Amazon

"Exceptionally comfortable, thanks to its lightweight, low-profile design."

Best Budget: NRS Crew Universal PFD at NRS

"This affordable PFD from respected river equipment company NRS provides flotation for calm waters."

Best Type III: Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto Activation PFD at Amazon

"Exclusive Membrane Inflatable Technology makes the vest lighter and more flexible."

Best for Kayaking: Astral V-Eight Life Jacket at REI

"Is especially suited to kayaking because the mesh back allows for a comfy fit against high seat backs."

Best for Fishing: NRS Chinook Fishing PFD at Moosejaw

"Stash your fly box or tippets in one of seven different-sized front pockets."

Best for Whitewater: NRS Big Water V PFD at Amazon

"A rock-solid life vest that has 25 pounds of floatation and four fastening buckles."

Best for Kids: Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device at Amazon

"Features wrap-around flotation that automatically turns the child face-up in the water."

Best for Dogs: Outward Hound Granby Splash Dog Life Jacket at Amazon

"A front neck float helps keep the dog's head above water, while the neoprene belly band supports their chest."

Not only are life vests, or PFDs, vital safety equipment on the water, they’re often legally required depending on where you are and the type of water you’re on. Additionally, the type of water may dictate the type of PFD you choose. Warm, calm waters may 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.

Here are the best life vests available.

Best Overall: Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable Life Jacket

What We Like
  • Durable

  • Comfortable

  • Inflates automatically

What We Don't Like
  • Requires recharge kit

  • One size

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. 

Sizes: One-size | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 22.5 lb.

Best Budget: NRS Crew Universal PFD

NRS Crew Universal PFD

Courtesy of NRS

What We Like
  • Affordable

  • Adjustable

  • Easy to get off and on

What We Don't Like
  • Bulky

  • Meant for calm waters

If you’re outfitting a boat to make sure you have a PFD for each person, the cost can add up quickly when you’re spending over $100 per vest. The Crew Universal PFD from respected river equipment company NRS keeps it simple and affordable while still providing Type III floatation and comfort.

The 16.5 pounds of floatation is moderate compared to some of the more expensive and serious vests on our list, but it’s plenty for calmer waters. The size is average so it can work for a wide range of ages and sizes, meaning you don’t have to buy extra vests just to make sure you have ones that fit any arrangement of guests on your boat. The fitting is simple, too, with a front zipper, waist buckle, and side adjustment straps to ensure a snug, safe fit.


Sizes:
One-size | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 16.5 lb.

Best Type III: Mustang Survival Corp M.I.T. 100 Auto Activation PFD

What We Like
  • Automatically inflates

  • Lightweight

  • Doesn't limit mobility

What We Don't Like
  • Less buoyancy than a traditional PFD

  • Requires recharge kit

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 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 black and grey, and is recommended for low-impact water sports only. 


Sizes:
One-size | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 26 lb.

Best for Kayaking: Astral V-Eight Life Jacket

Astral V-Eight PFD

Courtesy of REI

What We Like
  • Versatile

  • Lightweight

What We Don't Like
  • Boxy

  • Mesh pockets

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.


Sizes:
S/M, M/L, L/XL | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 16.2 lb.

Best for Fishing: NRS Chinook Fishing PFD

NRS Chinook Fishing PFD

Courtesy of Moosejaw

What We Like
  • Ventilated

  • Pockets for gear storage

  • Adjustable

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

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 red and green. 


Sizes:
One-size | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 16.5 lb.

Best for Whitewater: NRS Big Water V PFD

What We Like
  • Adjustable

  • Durable

  • High-quality materials

What We Don't Like
  • Could use pockets

  • Expensive

Whitewater is often the coldest and roughest water you’ll encounter, so it calls for a rock-solid life vest. The Big Water V PFD from NRS is Performance Tours Rafting’s go-to pick for outfitting their hundreds of guests each summer. “For us, the Big Water PFD is the best option. It has 25 pounds of floatation, four fastening buckles, and is easy to adjust and fit to any body type which is essential for the wide range of guests that join our trips,” says Kevin Foley, owner of Performance Tours.

Because it’s solid foam and doesn’t rely on an inflation mechanism, there is less to go wrong and break, making it a reliable choice for personal use as well. And because it’s made by NRS, it comes with a reputation for durability and quality, to boot.


Sizes:
One-size | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 25 lb.

Best for Kids: Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device

Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device

Courtesy of REI

What We Like
  • Affordable

  • Wrap-around floatation

  • Head support

  • Highly visible colors

What We Don't Like
  • Meant for small children

  • Bulky

A USCG-approved Type III PFD, the Stohlquist Child Personal Flotation Device is an excellent option for children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds. 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, pink, and yellow or a more neutral blue.


Sizes:
One-size (children 30-50 lbs.) | Certification: USCG-approved | Weight: 8 lb. 6 oz.

Best for Dogs: Outward Hound Granby Splash Dog Life Jacket

What We Like
  • Affordable

  • Reflective

  • Grab handles

What We Don't Like
  • Sizing can be challenging

  • No leash hook

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. 


Sizes:
XS, S, M, L, XL | Weight: Varies

Final Verdict

The Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Deluxe Inflatable Life Jacket (view at Amazon) offers a great balance of price, comfort, and flotation thanks to its low-profile inflatable design. But if you just need to fill a boat with effective but affordable life vests, the NRS Crew (view at Amazon) is a great pick.

What to Look for in a Life Vest

Purpose

What you’re doing in the water can affect what kind of life vest you should wear. Inflatable vests should never be worn tubing, wakeboarding, or white-water rafting. For these activities, look for a solid foam construction. However, some inflatable vests are designed to be more streamlined than older models, with unobtrusive designs that let arms move without constriction. These types might be preferable for activities like kayaking and fishing. Additionally, certain models are specifically designed to be used only by people who know how to swim well—so be sure to check.

Inflation Method

Inflatable personal flotation devices can be inflated manually or automatically (and some offer both options). With manual inflation, you can swim with the uninflated PFD and only pull the cord to inflate the vest should you need to. However, automatic inflation means that if you’re in the ocean and in trouble—say, unconscious—the vest will inflate without you having to do anything.

Comfort

Not only does your height and weight matter when you’re looking to purchase a life vest, but other aspects of its construction can make a difference when it comes to the fit. Comfort is especially important because you’ll have to wear it against wet and dry clothing, sometimes for hours at a time. Make sure that the vest doesn’t rub awkwardly against your skin or any swimsuit seams before you decide to keep it. 

Fit

Proper sizing is key, but the number of adjustment straps and buckles can also affect how well you can dial in the fit. If you’re buying life vests to be used by lots of different people, consider buying universal-sized PFDs. Kevin Foley from Performance Tours Rafting says they keep a wide range of sizes on-hand, but that “the universal size, when fitted and adjusted properly, will fit most body types.”

FAQs

What do the different types and ratings signify?

The US Coast Guard provides a standardized rating system that divides PFDs into five main types. Type IV are throwable devices so those aren’t likely to be in your product search. The other types are broken out by certain features and a minimum floatation rating. Types II and III are common life vest styles that both have a minimum floatation rating of 15.5 pounds, which is plenty for the average adult. 

There are also “levels” in a separate rating system that correspond to the amount of flotation. The U.S. Coast Guard has more information about how to choose a life jacket here.

Do life vests need to be cleaned?

The most important steps to keeping a life vest in good condition is proper drying and storage. For PFD's that have gotten wet, make sure it’s 100 percent dry before storing it. The best way to get a PFD moldy is to put it away wet or even to store it in a damp location such as a humid basement.

If the PFD gets dirty, hand wash with warm water and soap, and thoroughly rinse before drying completely.

Do life vests help keep people warm in cold water?

A PFD is meant to do one thing and that’s keep the user afloat. For those playing in extra-cold waters, consider adding a wetsuit under the life vest. Different wetsuits work in different ways, but they provide insulation that’s vital to retaining body heat for those immersed in cold water for longer than a few seconds. Thicker wetsuits also provide some floatation, so while they’re not a substitute for a PFD, they can help users stay above water.

Foley offers “Farmer John” style wetsuits to his rafting guests. This style leaves the arms free for swimming and paddling but keeps the core insulated. For cold waters such as the Colorado High Country where he runs his tours, he recommends suits with a 3mm thickness like the NRS Farmer Bill wetsuit, which is made of comfortable nylon-coated neoprene and is available from XXS to 4XL.

What size PFD is right for a child?

The best way to decide if a life vest is right for a child (or anyone) is to use the stated weight ratings. Young or very light children may be better off with a kids’ PFD, but the best way to decide is to use the weight ratings and try vests on in-person if possible.

Can a life vest pop?

Inflatable vests can be punctured but usually feature durable fabric on the outside to prevent such occurrences. Non-inflatable vests are solid foam and cannot be deflated. For certain activities such as whitewater rafting where punctures are more likely, avoid inflatable vests.

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