Staff, Courtesy of Chinook
Whether you’re a seasoned water pro or more of a land-lubber, you know that safety comes first on the water. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing: sailing, paddling, snorkeling or fishing, wearing a life vest is a non-negotiable.
That said, especially if you plan to spend several hours on the water, your life jacket should be reliable, but also comfortable and suitable for the activity you have in mind. Life vests are essentially wearable personal flotation devices that keep you above water. If you’re a true water sports enthusiast, you may need more than one life jacket for all of your activities.
What to Consider
When purchasing a life jacket, safety is the top consideration, but other factors should come into play as well. Keeping these few parameters in mind will pave the way to many happy and safe days on the water this summer.
Depending on the type of activity you have planned—water skiing vs. sailing, for example—the amount of flexibility your vest should have will vary considerably. We included a few universal options below, and several that are best suited for specific sports and activities.
Every single vest, save one, is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.
No fit will be perfect, but the chances of being comfortable will rise considerably if you follow each vest-maker’s sizing guidelines. Another way to guarantee flexibility is to select a vest with a lot of adjustable straps.
Do you love and need pockets to stash all of your water sport accessories? Some vests have them, some do not.
How We Selected
We reviewed hundreds of life jackets in order to create a selection of the safest life vests around, but also ones that will suit a number of different purposes and budgets. We also took other professional recommendations and customer reviews into account, and only included products from reputable companies that were highly rated.
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Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
This Onyx vest earns an average of 4.8 stars from more than 8,100 users on Amazon. It is designed to conform to your body, and comes in x-small to xx-large. The vest features front-zip closure, front and back ventilation, adjustable side belts and shoulder pads and zipper pockets that expand. The vest is made from heavy-duty nylon, and features SOLAS-grade reflective material for visibility.
This vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved, and a life jacket intended for boating and paddling activities, in addition to water-skiing and personal watercraft operation.
Onyx Automatic-Manual Inflatable Life Jacket
If wearing a bulky life jacket on the water doesn’t appeal, this Onyx is a great option. Uninflated, it’s a lightweight, strappy vest with a front buckle; it automatically inflates upon immersion in the water, or when you pull the “jerk to inflate” handle.
Reviewers love the soft neoprene design, especially if they spend hours on the water in heat. The vest has reflective piping for night visibility and a D-ring attachment for safety accessories. It can also be blown up orally. This one-size fits all vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved for safety, but is not recommended for non-swimmers.
Stearns Hydroprene Life Vest, Set of 2
This Stearns life vest is a top seller on Amazon, with an average 4.7 stars from more than 1,100 reviewers. It’s understandable why it’s so broadly popular: the vest is built to be comfortable and move with you, and can be worn for a variety of activities.
Constructed from lightweight hydroprene, the jacket is also tough and features two 1.5-inch webbed straps. The vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved. Reviewers say that the “high-quality” vest performs better than many more expensive vests, but warn that it does run small, so order one size up.
Stohlquist Waterware FIT Personal Floatation Device
This Stohlquist vest is made from neoprene with a high-profile cut around the arms that prioritizes mobility, making it ideal for paddlers and those who really need to move on the water. It also features a non-zip three-buckle front entry design for an easy on-an-off fit. The vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
One negative is that the vest doesn’t offer pockets, which can come in handy for long days on the water.
Hardcore Water Sports Type II Yellow Life Jacket, Set of 2
This Hardcore Water Sports vest is basic, but it does the trick if you’re looking for a straightforward personal flotation device without a lot of bells and whistles. The vest is made from polyester and is U.S. Coast Guard-approved. This vest is ideal for lake boating expeditions, and near-shore activity. It is not intended for rough water. The vest does not have storage pockets and features one adjustable buckle.
Best for Kayaking
Astral V-Eight Adult Life Vest
This Astral vest features lightweight and ergonomic design, making it a great fit for a range of water sports, but especially ideal for kayaking. The high-cut design around the arms allows for a big range of motion, and the Astral’s airflow system keeps you cool even if you’re pushing yourself in the hot sun.
The vest comes in a range of sizes, features two expandable mesh pockets, a lash tab and adjustable side and shoulder straps. This vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
Best for Fishing
NRS Chinook Adult Life Jacket
This made-in-the-U.S.A. NRS jacket was created for fishing enthusiasts. The soft PlushFIT foam molds to your body type and comes with multiple adjustment points and a front zipper. The vest is equipped with two large zippered pockets, two accessory pockets and one tool holder, plus a loop to hold your strobe, loops for attaching rod holders, and a lash tab. This NRS is also U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
Best for Rafting
NRS Big Water V Rafting Life Jacket
This NRS vest features contoured foam panels for a comfortable and adaptive fit, four heavy-duty front buckles and webbing loops for leg straps. The vest is U.S. Coast Guard-approved and designed with big water rafting, safety and durability in mind. Some reviewers say it’s a bit bulky, but it was also praised for the high range of arm mobility its cut allows. There are no pockets.
Best for Snorkeling
Zeraty Adult Life Jacket and Impact Vest
This vest offers UPF 50+ protection, and is crafted from tear-resistant, high-density neoprene. This vest is ideal for snorkeling, swimming training, or sea surfing. Large arm holes provide maximum movement. Reviewers say that you should follow the size guidelines carefully and measure yourself to ensure a snug and safe fit. The vest comes with two buckles, but it is not U.S. Coast Guard-approved, making it a serious deal-breaker for many.
Best for Water Skiing
O’Neill Superlite Adult Life Vest
O’Neill is a popular brand among surfers and water-skiers for its open sides and large front and back panels, which lead to a snug and compact fit. This vest also comes equipped with four heavy-duty 1.5-inch-wide front-buckles and a zipper, and is made from quick-drying nylon. The vest comes in small-XX-Large, so it will fit just about anyone. The vest is U.S. Coast Guard approved.
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