The 7 best life jackets, vests, and personal flotation devices of 2021, with guidance from a boating expert

Rate this post

When you buy through our links, Insider may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.

  • Whether you’re headed out to the lake or going deep-sea fishing, you need a life jacket for safety.
  • We spoke to a boating expert about life jacket features, safety, and how to use them.
  • The Onyx MoveVent is our top pick because it’s adjustable and comes with a recommended whistle.

Whether you’re fishing for flounder on shallow waters or cruising through waves on a sailboat, a life vest is important to wear. There are many different styles available, and you may need a different type depending on your activity and skill level, the most important things to note are comfortability, adjustability, and visibility in the water.

Life vests are considered a “wearable” personal flotation device (PFD), while other PFDs are “throwables” that keep you buoyant. Whether you’re kayaking, boating, or paddleboarding, all PFDs are designed to help someone floating in the water while help is on its way.

Amanda Perez, Director of Education at the BoatU.S. Foundation, said it’s important for your PFD to best fit your activity, whether you’re fishing in calm water or boating in rough waves. This may mean owning multiple life vests, if you’re a true water sports lover.

We did the research to compile a list of picks that are safe to use, adjustable, and durable, referring to U.S. Coast Guard-approved guidelines. We included at least one of each life vest type — Type I to Type V — and their intended use.

Perez also answered everything you need to know about life vests and PFDs — from their uses to how they should fit to how to best maintain yours — in an FAQ below.

Here are the best life jackets, vests, and PFDs of 2021

  • Best overall: Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Vest
  • Best for offshore fishing: Stearns Flotation Vest
  • Best for sailing: Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable Life Vest
  • Best for small children: Super Soft Child Vest
  • Best on a budget: Hardcore Water Sports Neon Yellow Life Vest
  • Best for dogs: Outward Hound Dog Granby RipStop Dog Life Jacket
  • Best throwable PFD: Bradley Boat Cushion

The best overall

The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Vest has a contoured design for a comfortable fit, front and back ventilation, and a slew of safety features.

Pros: Flexible design to conform to your body, front and back ventilation for cooling comfort, front zipper closure, adjustable side belts and shoulder pads, expandable zipper pockets, great to store small items, easy to dry

Cons: Doesn’t cover the entire midsection, may be too bulky for petite figures

For your outdoor excursions, you want something that’s comfortable and built to last. The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Vest is an all-in-one durable option that will provide flexibility and safety support. Its front zipper closure is easy to take on and off, too.

It’s our top pick because of its multi-material design that allows for easy movement when rowing, steering, or reeling fish ashore. The front and back ventilation will keep you cool while in the water and the mesh located at the vest’s lower back is ideal for high-backed seats and sitting atop a kayak.

The soft flotation foam has adjustable side belts and shoulder pads to make your vest fit for your body type, though it may be bulky for petite body types and doesn’t completely cover the midsection. Still, it’s a premium option that has SOLAS-grade reflective material so you can be seen, expandable mesh zipper pockets to pour out any water, and a tab to latch on small accessories.

When you’re out of the water, the life jacket will dry easily, thanks to the included drying loop at the back.

The best for offshore fishing

When rounding up your reels, bait, and tackle, pack the Stearns Flotation Vest with you for comfortable protection.

Pros: Flexible V-neck design; slim, not bulky fit; durable buckles; front pocket

Cons: Less storage and standout features, the front buckle may be restrictive for larger bust sizes

You may not think of wearing a life jacket when fishing offshore, but it’s recommended by the BoatU.S. Foundation for protection. With the Stearns Flotation Vest, you won’t feel like it’s on when you’re reeling in flounder and other bait-on fish, thanks to its comfortable V-neck design and non-boxy fit at the front.

The two rows of durable buckles will keep your vest snug for a full day out on the dock and there’s even a front pocket to store bait, tackle, and fishing wire. Because the vest isn’t clad with multiple pockets, slinging a tackle bag over your shoulder will effectively store everything you need for your fishing trip.

Despite its simple, no-bells-and-whistles design, it’s a practical pick that meets all safety standards.

The best for sailing

The Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable Life Vest allows for free movement when steering or handling a sailboat mast and auto-inflates for at-the-moment protection.

Pros: Automatically inflates, lightweight design, comfortable V-back design, included reusable mesh carry bag

Cons: Doesn’t completely cover upper body clothing, not approved for children younger than 16

For more advanced outdoor excursions — like captaining a vessel — protection is necessary and the flexibility to move your arms is equally important. The Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable Life Vest has two durable front panels that offer safety and auto-inflate if submerged in water. It can also be manually inflated in case of failure.

Its lightweight design is certainly a plus, in part due to its V-back design for a comfortable fit. If you’re in deep waters, the reflective piping will ensure you’re noticed, along with a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that can be activated in case of an emergency, according to Perez.

Though it’s not entirely water-protective for upper body clothing, you likely won’t experience much splash up high on a deck or ship, unless you’re paddling. Regardless, it’s optimal for special use and is easy to transport with the included mesh carry bag.

The best for small children

For protection personalized to children, the Super Soft Child Vest is durable, comfortable, and provides an extra lift for young swimmers with its UL-recognized foam.

Pros: Easy to put on and take off, adjustable straps, comfortable, durable buckles, quick-dry material, no inflation needed

Cons: None

Whether for swimming lessons or for adult-supervised rafting, the Super Soft Child Vest is a multipurpose protectant. Because it’s a Type III life jacket, it’s especially fit for inland water use and is one of the most comfortable types to wear.

It has adjustable straps and durable buckles typical in adult life jackets and is easy for children to wear for extended periods of time. Because of its vinyl material, you won’t find bacteria and stain buildup in this no-inflation-needed life vest. Plus, the UL-recognized foam gives children that extra lift in deeper waters or in shallow pools where they can’t yet reach the bottom.

The best on a budget

Hardcore Water Sport’s Neon Yellow Life Vest goes over the head, giving you just enough protection to float and be able to move your arms during water activities.

Pros: Slim padded design; affordable; adjustable buckle; lightweight, especially on the neck area

Cons: No storage pockets, limited adjustability, not recommended for rough waters or extended floatation

If you want a life jacket that is bearable to wear, Hardcore Water Sport’s Neon Yellow Life Vest is a no-frills option that will keep you protected in an emergency situation. Most notably is its slim padded design that’s durable and comfortable when you’re cruising along the waves. This life vest is not intended for use in rough waters.

Though there aren’t any storage pockets and there’s only one adjustable buckle, it’s budget-friendly and won’t strain your neck area with its over-the-head wear. And, because of its universal fit, it’s ideal for a variety of body types and activities that require more arm flexibility for holding onto water sports equipment, like paddles or handles.

The best for dogs

Your pups need protection, too, and the Outward Hound Dog Granby RipStop Dog Life Jacket is our top pick because of its dual handles, allowing you to grab your dog easily in case of an emergency.

Pros: Great variety for different sized dogs, reflective strips, easy-to-grip handles, adjustable side straps and padded panels, front float support keeps head above water

Cons: None

Regardless of your dog’s training, it’s still a good idea to have your pet wading in the water with wearable protection. The Outward Hound Dog Granby RipStop Dog Life Jacket is our top pick for its high-visibility reflective strips and front float support to keep your dog above water.

The vest has three adjustable straps and padded panels to ensure it fits comfortably around your dog. And, in emergency situations when you have to rescue your pet, the easy-to-grip handles on top of the jacket is a standout safety feature.

The best throwable PFD

If you want your boating equipment to be safely stocked, the Bradley Boat Cushion is fit to throw into the water in an emergency situation.

Pros: High-visibility color options, convenient straps for rescue throwing,

Cons: None

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) aren’t limited to jackets and vests. The Bradley Boat Cushion is a throwable PFD that has long straps to ensure a person who’s overboard will quickly latch onto the buoyancy aid.

With proper care, the nylon material will not scratch or tear, and PE foam is highly buoyant. Its box-like design is durably made so someone can hoist themself atop to swim ashore. The BoatU.S. Foundation highlights these PFDs must be immediately available for use during water activity and cannot be worn.

What to know about life jackets, vests, and PFDs

Whether you’re a first-time boater or an experienced fisher, it’s important to know the safety etiquette behind life jackets and PFDs. We spoke with Amanda Perez, Director of Education at the BoatU.S. Foundation, to explain different styles, proper fit, essential features, safety recommendations, and care.

What is a personal flotation device (PFD)?

“A personal floatation device is a piece of safety equipment designed to keep you afloat in the water,” Perez told Insider. “It can be either ‘wearable’ as in a life jacket or life vest, or it can be ‘throwable,’ such as a life ring or ‘seat cushion’ that’s meant to be tossed to someone who has fallen overboard.”

What are the different types of life jackets?

There are three different types of life jackets:

Inherently buoyant PFD: Life jackets of this type have collars that go around the back of the head to turn an unconscious wearer face-up. They offer the best protection but tend to be bulkier than other types. Because of its additional foam and fabric, it’s the best type for retaining body heat and keeps your head high above water. These jackets are great for cruising, racing, and offshore fishing. They are especially good for non-swimmers and all child-sized life jackets will be inherently buoyant. Most states require inherently buoyant life jackets for jet skis and wake sports, Perez explained.

Inflatable PFD: Inflatable PFDs must be pre-inflated, typically with an oral inflation tube. These are not to be worn by anyone younger than 16 or less than 80 lbs, Perez advised. They can be much more comfortable than inherently buoyant life jackets, especially in hot weather. However, manually inflated jackets and belt-packs are best for strong swimmers, as they will need to perform additional steps to get the jacket inflated and in position. They are also generally best for those who will be close to help should an emergency occur.

Hybrid PFD: “Hybrid personal floatation devices are nearly always ‘special use devices,’ meaning they are intended for a specific activity and are only approved when worn,” Perez said. “The most common type is the paddling jacket, but you may also find some others made for commercial applications.” Some of these special uses include sailboard harness, deck suit, paddling vest, commercial white water vests, and float coats.

How should a life jacket properly fit?

Though this depends on the style of the life jacket, Perez said a standard vest-style jacket should fit snugly without riding up over your ears when you’re floating in the water. She recommends testing the fit of your life jacket by jumping in the water and seeing how you float when wearing it. It should not ride up above the chin.

How does proper fit affect safety?

“A life jacket that is too big runs the risk of letting the wearer slip out,” she said. “If it’s too small, it may not provide enough buoyancy or it may be uncomfortable — and you won’t want to wear it. If you aren’t wearing your life jacket, it can’t save your life.”

Do I have to service my life jacket?

An inherently buoyant life jacket will not need much regular maintenance, according to Perez. As long as the straps and zippers work and there aren’t any rips, tears, or discoloration, your inherently buoyant life jacket is ready to go.

An inflatable life jacket should be checked every time it is worn, however. It’s important to make sure that the inflator works and that the CO2 cartridge doesn’t show any signs of corrosion. Automatic inflatable life jacket models will also have a trigger mechanism for the inflator that should also be checked regularly. Any time an inflatable life jacket is activated, the CO2 cartridge will need to be replaced.

What features must my life jacket have?

All life jackets will have the means to secure it on your body, whether it’s a zipper, buckles, or a combination of both. Perez recommends life jackets having a whistle because they can be useful for attracting nearby boats to come and help you, especially when floating low in the water makes it difficult to be seen.

What does the number mean on a life jacket’s inflation chamber?

“An inflatable life jacket will always need a CO2 cartridge to inflate it,” Perez said. “The numbers on the cartridge will correspond to the capacity as well as the size of the threads for the attachment to the inflation mechanism.”

She noted the importance of double-checking your replacement cartridge matches the requirements of the life jacket. An inappropriately sized cartridge can spell disaster in an emergency.

Is a certain life jacket recommended for different body types, weights, genders, and heights?

Perez said adult life jackets are usually sized based on chest circumference, with some cut differently to fit a woman’s figure and others designed for specific activities — such as paddling or sailing — where a greater range of arm motion is needed.

What is the best life jacket for babies and children younger than 18?

Infant, child, and youth jackets will have varying weight indications — as well as additional features — meant to keep kids safe, such as a crotch strap to keep the jacket from floating over a child’s head or a collar meant to keep their head further out of the water.

Do life jackets and PFDs have to be replaced?

If your life jacket is broken in any way, do not attempt to fix it. When buckles break, or zippers fail it is time to replace the life jacket. Fabric discoloration is another factor: if the fabric is exposed to enough UV light and water to discolor, it’s a safe bet that the foam is deteriorating as well. If you properly store and maintain your life jackets — rinsing off any saltwater and storing out of direct sunlight — they should last for many years.

What is the best way to clean my life jacket and PFD?

Mild soap and water are the best for gentle cleaning, Perez explained. Never use harsh chemicals such as bleach; let them air dry before storing to avoid mildew.

What is the best life jacket for calm waters? How about rough waters?

For calm and rough waters alike, a Type 1 or 2 may be best because they will likely hold up long enough until help arrives. A Type 1 life jacket is inherently buoyant and is best for open, remote, or rough water when rescue may be slow to arrive. Type 2 life jackets can be inherently buoyant or inflatable and are less buoyant and more comfortable than Type 1 jackets. These are recommended for use when in a protected inland area, where immediate rescue is likely.

If you’re spending your day close to shore or near lots of other boaters — in calmer waters — you may opt for a type 3 or any number of inflatable devices. Type 3 life jackets are more comfortable than Types I and II, but provide far less buoyancy than a Type 1. These are also recommended for supervised activity with a good chance of immediate rescue.

Are there any accessories that would be useful in case of a water-related emergency?

“An added layer of protection for boaters going offshore, or in areas where help may be far off, is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that can be activated in the case of an emergency and send a signal via a satellite that you need help,” Perez said. A whistle and flashlight are also good to have.

Sign up for Insider Reviews’ weekly newsletter for more buying advice and great deals.
You can purchase logo and accolade licensing to this story here.
Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at [email protected].

You are viewing this post: The 7 best life jackets, vests, and personal flotation devices of 2021, with guidance from a boating expert. Information curated and compiled by along with other related topics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here