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Published Sep. 27, 2021

The best life jackets help keep you afloat and upright in water should you fall overboard while fishing, hunting or relaxing on a boat. Every angler or hunter likely has a memory of wearing a bulky blaze orange PFD as a kid and wishing for a zip-up life jacket like Dad was wearing. Or maybe learning to swim while wearing one in the river, lake, or pool.

From those early days, we knew that life jackets were important, and they still are. We all enjoy our time on the water and safety should be foremost among our thoughts. Make one mistake or careless misstep when you’re in a boat, kayak, or canoe while out hunting ducks or catching fish and things can turn bad in a matter of minutes. That’s why having a dependable life jacket for everyone in the boat makes sense.

Life jackets are designed to provide buoyancy and keep your head above water. That’s it. Everything else is secondary. The best life jackets fit around your chest and torso snugly enough so they don’t ride high if you fall in, but not so tightly to be uncomfortable. When fitted and worn correctly, should you fall overboard a good life jacket should help keep you upright until you can get back to the boat, make it to the shore or be rescued. When choosing a life jacket for yourself or children, safety should be your first and foremost consideration followed by comfort. Having a U.S. Coast Guard stamp of approval is important. Style should be way down the list. You don’t need to look chic for Bubba and the bass club.

Best Inexpensive Life Jacket: Airhead Adult Universal Type 2 USCG Approved Life Jacket

Key Features

  • Dimensions: 21 x 12.5 x 12.25 inches; 3.25 pounds
  • Color: Orange (bright!), or Stars & Stripes
  • Materials: Nylon shell, 1-inch nylon adjustable strap, PE foam, and polyester

Why It Made the Cut

This is your basic model life vest that is used at summer camps or on commercial vessels. It’s approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. The “keyhole” design has been in use for decades, and a basic floatation device has been recommended in some fashion for sailors for 220 years. This model works for adults 90 pounds or more, and others in this keyhole design can be found for children.

Pros

  • Available in just about every marina, lakeside gas station, tackle shop and sporting goods store with an outdoor section
  • Inexpensive, so you can buy several to have for everyone and guests who may pop in
  • Unisex

Cons

  • Blocky, bulky, and ill-fitting if not the correct size or properly fitted

Product Description

This Airhead life jacket is the best inexpensive life jacket, well known, and works well when fitted correctly. This may be the one you wore as a kid learning how to dog paddle around the boat or family dock on vacation. They’re known among some older adults and sailors as the “Mae West.” Pull the life jacket over your head, secure the belt around your torso and you’re good to go.

There certainly are more fashionable life jackets to be had but looking cool doesn’t matter when you’re treading water waiting for help to arrive. When you need sensible, practical gear that works, this kind of life jacket is what you hope to find in the storage box. Keep them out of the sunlight when not in use, check all buckles and straps, and buy new ones every few years if necessary.

Best Life Jacket for Paddlesports: Astral V-Eight Fisher

Key features

  • Three sizes and weighs just 1.37 pounds, so it’s comfortable in kayaks or canoes
  • Designed with open shoulders for freedom of movement to paddle or cast
  • Made from non-toxic, recyclable foam 

Why It Made the Cut

In a canoe or kayak, you’re seeking safety and comfort without bulk. The Astral V-Eight Fisher does all this and more. A minimal design allows you to move freely. It also fits boaters with chest sizes to 51 inches, which is good for adults and teens.

Pros

  • Fits boaters with chest sizes from 27 to 51 inches (Layla model is XS, 27-31”)
  • Eco-friendly with durable and recyclable materials in two colors
  • Lightweight and breathable, which helps on long days

Cons

  • No smaller sizes or models for children

Product Description

The Astral V-Eight Fisher truly is the best life jacket for paddlesports designed by paddlers for paddlers. Soft padding in the chest and back is supportive and yet out of the way when you want to cast a fly, lure or just paddle along. The patented Airescape system lets your body heat dissipate, and if your rig has a high-backed seat the V-Eight Fisher has a ventilated mesh back. It’s made with 400×200 Denier ripstop nylon and tough hardware. Ample pockets handle fishing tools, lures, or other gear.

I’ve been in canoes and kayaks with ill-fitting life vests that I wanted to remove but knew I shouldn’t. Shifting, twisting, scooching around and adjusting it non-stop was a pain. With the Astral V-Eight Fisher, those things won’t be an issue because it’s designed quite well for safety and comfort. This is a solid life jacket that should become a paddling best-buddy for years.

Best Life Jacket for Kids: Gogokids Kids Swim Vest Life Jacket

Key features

  • Wraps around the child’s torso like a jacket for good buoyancy
  • Soft neoprene design is comfortable but also provides warmth
  • Comes in four sizes for ages 3-8 years old

Why It Made the Cut

This life jacket fits true to size and offers enough freedom of movement for a child to swim. 

Pros

  • Adjustable chest strap with quick-release buckles
  • Fitted with a crotch strap that can be adjusted to ensure the vest doesn’t ride over the child’s face or head
  • Well designed and constructed, with bright colors kids enjoy

Cons

  • I wouldn’t lift a child just with the back strap
  • Not U.S. Coast Guard approved

Product Description

Most will find the Gogokids Kids Swim Vest fits true to size. For children ages 3 to 8 years old with small bodies, it’s a good idea to use a wraparound vest-style life jacket like this with multiple buckles and a crotch strap. When sized and fitted correctly your child should enjoy the water.

If you’re chilling out at the dock or paddling around and have a small child, this life jacket should provide security for a fun outing. I’m leery of the strap at the top of the back and would not use it alone to lift a child. But for relaxing and having fun under close supervision, the Gogokids Kids Swim Vest is the best life jacket for kids.

Best Inflatable Life Jacket: Onyx A/M-24 Automatic-Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Key features

  • Lightweight and comfortable for all-day use fishing or paddling
  • Can be inflated automatically two ways, or orally if necessary
  • Weighs just 1 pound

Why it Made the Cut

Best Inflatable life jackets like the Onyx A/M-24 Automatic-Manual Inflatable Life Jacket have been used by anglers for more than two decades. This style also is used by sailors and rescue personnel. They’re great for hot summer days when a bigger, bulkier life jacket would be bothersome. It has incredible buoyancy once inflated.

Pros

  • Lightweight at just 1 pound, which is great in summer
  • Trim design allows you to wear it all day if necessary and almost forget that you have it on
  • Can be re-armed with CO2 canister for reuse after inflation

Cons

  • Not recommended for temperatures below 40 degrees

Product Description

What you’ll find with the Onyx A/M-24 Automatic-Manual Inflatable Life Jacket is a tough, easy-to-use product for paddling, fishing, or other on-water activities. Bass anglers love the design because it’s out of the way of casting and catching, should they want to or need to wear it all day. The Onyx A/M-24 is U.S. Coast Guard approved and automatically inflates when immersed in water or if you pull the “jerk to inflate” tab. It also can be blown up orally via a mouthpiece. 

I’ve used the Onyx (and Mustang Survival) inflatable life jackets for more than 20 years while fishing for bass and other species throughout the country. These life vests have gotten better since the earliest models thanks to better designs, fabrics, and user feedback. If you’re on a boat in fresh or saltwater, consider getting one of these to wear and for your family and friends. They work. They can save your life. 

FAQs

Q: Can you drown with a life jacket on?

Of course, if the life jacket is not fitted properly or is old and past its good usage age. Take the first part: if you don’t get the right size and ensure it fits around your chest, you could not float adequately enough or have the jacket slide around your head. If the life jacket is too old, it could lose buoyancy. Life jackets are inexpensive life insurance. Don’t skimp.

Q: What type of life jacket is best for water sports?

If you’re skiing or paddling a canoe or kayak, you want to wear a kayak life vest with open or cut-out shoulders. This gives you more freedom of movement to paddle, make a cast with a fly rod or conventional rod, snap photos, or if you’re water skiing you can slalom, jump and move around easier. For water skiers, life jackets that wrap around the ribcage and have multiple buckles often are best. If you fall, the life jacket will help protect your torso and also stay on, thus giving you buoyancy until the boat comes back to get you.

Q: How long can you survive in water with a life jacket?

It depends on the water temperature. In warm water of 80 degrees or more, you should be fine for several hours. Once water temperatures hit 70 degrees, though, you’re looking at about 19 hours before hypothermia takes its toll. Hypothermia is a reduction of your body temperature that can have dangerous or fatal results. Your body temperature of 98.6 degrees can drop to dangerously low levels in water of 60 degrees in about five hours. That drops to less than three hours in 50-degree water, and continues falling as the water gets colder. 

Q: Is Stearns a good life jacket?

Yes, and it has been for 50 years. Stearns was founded in Minnesota in the 1920s and made windshield heaters. When vehicle production and technology improved, the company shifted into plastics. In 1971 the federal government changed regulations to allow for better, more comfortable life jackets. Stearns began making these for anglers, boaters, and skiers, and has been ever since.

Q: How much weight will a life jacket hold up?

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, life jackets must provide buoyancies from 15.5 to 22 pounds. The average adult male age 20 or older weighs about 197 pounds. The average adult needs about 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to float, which means a life jacket does not have to support the entire body weight. 

Evaluating the Best Life Jackets

Safety is the paramount requirement for a life jacket. Comfort and style are secondary, or should be. Who cares what you look like in your life vest if you’re unconscious or, worse, drowned? No one is going to say, “Wow, he looks good on that stretcher in his life jacket.” Think about what matters: having the best life jacket that will help keep you upright in the water so you can move to safety or be rescued. That’s it. Safety first is the key.

Here is how I evaluated the best life jackets: 

  • Is it approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for your intended use? The USGS has changed its rating system to be easier to understand.
  • What amount of weight will it support? 
  • What will I be using it for? While in a big boat for fishing or hunting? Paddling, which means I may find a more comfortable model that still is quite safe?
  • If it’s an inflatable, can I use it in humid or extreme cold conditions? Check with the manufacturer.
  • What is the recommended lifespan with normal use?
  • How durable is the stitching, buckles and zipper components? All need to be tough enough to withstand outdoor use in different weather conditions.

Choosing a Life Jacket

My first life jacket for fishing more than 45 years ago was the orange, blocky “keyhole” model with the strap around my torso. I recall wearing the belt model that cinches around your belly while trying to water ski (not a good experience). When I got older and started fishing with my father, I had one of his Stearns zip-up life jackets that we cinched snugly so it would fit. I felt like a big guy with one like he wore in the boat.

Since then, the zip-up models have improved with better, more buoyant padding and materials. So have inflatable models, from their roughly 20-year-old beginnings. Children’s life vests are better but always could be improved. Just like with my other gear, I’m always looking for something that may be better thanks to newer technology or materials. When it comes to possibly saving my life, that goes double for life jackets. Safety, strong materials, durable zippers, pockets for gear (for paddling outings) and comfort are all considerations. If you’re buying for a child, take them with you. If you’re buying something for use during hunting season, take a hunting parka or consider the layers of clothing you’ll be wearing.

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