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Need a life jacket? We researched 50+ of the best vests and purchased 15 to test side-by-side. With hundreds of competitors to choose from and dozens of outdoor activities for you to enjoy, we chose a range of jackets and activities. We've tried everything from value buys and perfect paddle partners to fisherman's friends and options for your dog or kids. We paddled, floated, and frolicked in the water, testing every model's flotation, comfort, and components. Whether you're a pontoon partier or a solo SUPer, we've found a great life vest for you.
Editor's Note: We updated this life jacket review on August 8, 2022, retesting new versions of the Astral E-Ronny and the Ruffwear Float Coat. We also added the Astral Otter 2.0, Stolquist Child, and Astral Bird Dog to our testing lineup. The other jackets were re-purchased and rested for this update alongside the new additions.
The Astral E-Ronny is a stand-out life jacket due to its comfortable slim line fit, simple closure system, and dialed features such as pockets and attachment points. The zipper-only front closure provides an exceedingly comfortable fit. The lack of a waist clip avoids that uncomfortably tight squeezing of the stomach that so many other vests create after hours of sitting in a boat. In addition, the side adjustments create an evenly distributed overall feel that we love. Many testers appreciated the thinner top front section, which gives it a natural contour. Narrow shoulder sections and large armholes help keep your arms free enough for longer paddling journeys or activities such as fly fishing. The thinly padded back works well with boat seatbacks, and vented sections in numerous places provide breathability.
In addition to comfort, the E-Ronny also shines thanks to its utility. A larger pocket accommodates phones, radios, or tackle, and a smaller pocket is perfect for snack bars and multi-tools. Functional lapels tuck away loose ends such as a radio antenna or straps. If you prefer a more streamlined approach, consider the Astral E-Linda, which is almost identical but with smaller pockets. However, if you're the kind of fishing fanatic who loves to keep half a tackle box's worth of gear in your PFD pockets, the E-Ronny may not be your best bet as it doesn't have the largest pockets. But if you're on the hunt for a life jacket that's comfortable, versatile, and great for paddling, this one is our favorite.
Intended Use: Paddling | Entry Style: Side entry, 2 side clips
REASONS TO BUY
Great arm mobility
REASONS TO AVOID
Full coverage is less breathable
The NRS Vapor is a comfortable and simple solution for a full day of paddling while costing less than most of its paddle-specific competitors. Even distribution of foam throughout the entire vest eliminates the added front bulk of many other paddle jackets, making it comfortable to move in. Flexibility is enhanced due to its multi-piece panel construction, which is actually made up of several panels laying side-by-side. Side adjustment helps this vest stay comfortable, uniformly secure, and not too tight in any place. Exceptionally large armholes eliminate underarm paddle rash, and the interior fabric helps wick sweat that you work up while powering your boat.
However, you may want to look elsewhere if you appreciate places to stash things. Though this vest boasts quality construction, there's not a single pocket or knife attachment anywhere. The sister jacket, the NRS Siren, is almost identical in design but sports two small and useful pockets. Depending on your stature, both of these may be a bit longer in the torso than is ideal for kayaking. The Vapor runs a touch large — folks on the lower end of the recommended chest size may have a harder time achieving a snug fit. And, of course, its full coverage doesn't offer the same breathability as a vest with large mesh panels. Yet, for a simple, comfortable, and effective paddle jacket, we're fans of this one's performance and its reasonable price tag.
Intended Use: Recreational | Entry Style: 3 front clips
REASONS TO BUY
Accommodating for larger chests and women
Spacious armholes are comfortable
Good strap management
REASONS TO AVOID
Top strap is harder to pull tight
Lots of seams around edges
The Stohlquist Fit is a "universal sized" life vest that is surprisingly comfortable throughout the range of sizes it manages to accommodate. Both large and small testers across genders find this vest easy to wear and simple to adjust to the correct fit. A thinner top front section allows this vest to bend more easily than many others, which our female testers particularly appreciated. Some similar life jackets we tested fit too high and tight around the neck and collar bones, but we found this one to be just right. Relatively large armholes keep it decently comfortable and potentially even spacious enough for you to wear on a short paddling trip. Numerous loops all the way around the vest also help keep strap tails secure.
Slimmer individuals should be aware that the top strap's first containment loop is a bit too close to the buckle, making it more challenging to tighten completely. And while the jacket is thin enough to be comfortable leaning back in your boat, it's on the long side for scrunched-up postures like kayaking. Though it's unlikely to blow your Aqua Socks off, this simple design is comfortable enough to ensure you'll actually be able to wear it all day.
Intended Use: Children 50-90 lbs | Entry Style: Front zip, 3 clips, leg strap
REASONS TO BUY
Integrated rescue handle
Adjustable on torso and shoulders
REASONS TO AVOID
Pockets are small
Not suitable for kids under 50 pounds
The Astral Otter 2.0 stands out as an exceptional youth PFD due to its secure and comfortable fit, integrated safety features, and attention to design quality. The short torso length makes this more comfortable than most other youth jackets we tested, particularly important when sitting in a kayak but also for when kids are generally playing around — the Otter doesn't rise up when young ones bend, sit, swim, or crawl. In addition, the large arm holes allow for excellent freedom of movement when paddling, swimming, or cannonballing off a boat. This was the easiest jacket to get a secure fit in, and side panel adjustability allows for easy girth adjustments for a variety of body shapes.
This jacket boasts numerous additional features lacking in many other youth life jackets. Firstly the Otter has a removable crotch strap, which is helpful when needed; you can also remove this, adding comfort for your child. Our older paddlers particularly appreciated the pockets for storing essentials such as a whistle, chapstick, or your favorite rock. Although many jackets have handles, none are as ingeniously integrated as those on the Otter 2.0. This handle proves a reliable grip, was the easiest to carry children in, AND was the most comfortable for the wearer. Although this jacket can provide a secure fit on skinnier paddlers, this is not the right choice if your child is not yet 50 pounds. But for a high-quality and well-thought-out youth PFD, look no further.
The Ruffwear Float Coat is a full-coverage life vest for your dog. This model comes in a wide variety of shapes and proportions, allowing you to find the best fit for your doggie's dimensions. PVC-free foam paneling extends not just on Fido's back but around the neck and under the chest as well. This extra security helps even the densest dogs float without compromising their legs' range of motion for swimming. Cleverly concealed buckles keep straps and clips from pinching or chafing, and velcro bands secure loose ends. A sturdy handle on the back also allows you to pull your dog out of the water if needed. Abrasion-resistant fabric and robust construction give this doggie life jacket an extra boost of durability.
Whether your dog is timid around water or prone to charging big waves and swimming for hours on end, this vest's flotation and comfort are ideal. However, the extra coverage — and the thickness and stiffness of that coverage — make the Float Coat less breathable. If your dog spends more time enjoying the water from inside the boat or on the shore, this added warmth could be too much for a hot summer's day. This life vest is optimal for a dog who spends a lot of time in the water and could use the impressive flotation it provides.
The Stohlquist Fisherman stands out for its thoughtful construction, boasting a comfortable design packed with storage and useful attachment options. Supporting D-rings ensure that anglers have all their tools on hand, with no risk of losing things overboard. The signature Stohlquist chest cinch strap helps give a comfortable and secure fit that keeps this jacket secure despite the lack of a waist buckle. The absence of the classic waistband and any chest buckles helps ensure this jacket is comfortable to sit in for a long time with no pressure points on the waist or sides.
The Fisherman is designed to provide 16.75 pounds of flotation; this is 0.75-pounds more than the other fishing-focused PFDs we tested. This additional 5% of flotation is appreciated as the storage pockets on this vest provide ample opportunities to (over)load with heavy tackle such as weights. The Fisherman also sports reflective trim on the top of shoulder panels. If you want a true high visibility option, there are also brighter colors available than the one we chose to test.
If you're a confident swimmer but still need something to wear on your paddleboard to keep you safe and legal, the NRS Zephyr is ideal. This inflatable belt features a wide strap with smooth fabric backing the pack. A single large pocket is big enough to fit today's bulky smartphones and has a key clip as well. The pull tab to inflate the vest portion is off-center to help it avoid getting caught between your legs. When triggered, the Zephyr inflates relatively quickly and is easily rearmed with a 24g CO2 canister. The inflated belt achieves a snug fit when pulled over your head, helping keep you safely afloat when needed.
Though this belt pack is a bit beefier and stiffer than some competitors, the comfortable outer fabric and clever strap management had us quickly forgetting we were wearing it. It's recommended to be refilled with a whole kit that includes a little green tab, indicating that it's ready for use. Unfortunately, that plastic tab is flung into the water when inflated, contributing trash to the ecosystem. You can rearm it with just a new cylinder and forgo the tab, but the red "not ready" status may have you second-guessing if you remembered to rearm. Still, the Zephyr is our favorite model for doing some serene SUP-ing in relative safety.
It's important to remember that inflatable flotation devices like the NRS Zephyr are intended only for very confident swimmers in calm conditions. Though it may be tempting to wear this minimal belt on a hot day, if you aren't a strong swimmer, this type of device is not enough to keep you safe.
Intended Use: Children 30-50 lbs | Entry Style: Front zip, 2 buckles, leg strap
REASONS TO BUY
Double neck/head pillow
Adjustable wrap-around torso
Open back for seat comfort
REASONS TO AVOID
A bit bulky at the front
The Stohlquist Child is a tried and tested child PFD designed to float young ones 30-50 pounds. The foam wraps around the lower abdomen and sides but has an open back design, delivering a comfortable jacket to sit, float, paddle, and play in. The very ample arm holes provide unrestricted freedom of movement so your child can enjoy themselves regardless of the activity. Additionally, this jacket has a lot more adjustability around the waist than some of the other child jackets we tested.
A front zipper has a backup quick-release buckle that will help keep this jacket on even if the zipper is broken. An additional major safety feature is the large grab handle on the top of the neck pillow, which can be used to hoist a child out of the water. At times like this, the crotch strap is incredibly useful for ensuring that this PFD stays on. This may cause a moment of agitation, especially as your kiddo gets heavier, but it could be a literal lifesaver. The 200-denier nylon finish is comfortable enough against the skin but won't tear as easily as some of the softer hydroprene-lined options we tested. Bottom line, this is a great life jacket option for the youngest aquatic lovers or even those still getting used to the idea of being on/near the water.
In order to comprehensively test all the life jackets in our review, we spent hours connecting with other water users to find out what they were using. We then scoured the internet for the best options for paddling, fishing, children, dogs, and just generally enjoying the water safely. After choosing the best models available, we purchased the whole lineup and wore them for hours on end, taking dips and voyaging on extended paddling adventures. We tested every feature examining each model for functionality and durability. We wore them on and in the water, from boats to swimming pools, assessing comfort in the hot sun, mobility while splashing about, and the quality of each stitch and seam. By pitting these jackets directly against each other, we were able to tease apart differences big and small, identifying the best and worst aspects of each one.
Our comprehensive tests for all our life jackets spanned five rating metrics:
Flotation (25% of overall score weighting)
Fit (25% weighting)
Comfort and Mobility (20% weighting)
Quality of Construction (15% weighting)
Features and Versatility (15% weighting)
This review is headed by life-long water-lovers Maggie Nichols and Sara James. Friends, family, and a small army of dogs also contributed. Maggie has been paddling for 25+ years, from the completion of an ACA canoe touring program in high school to working as a whitewater rafting and kayaking guide for four years and an ocean kayak guide for another year. She's guided thousands of water lovers on hundreds of adventures over the last 15+ years. She also heads up our best inflatable kayak review.
Sara has been a paddlesport fanatic for 19+ years. Through college and as a high school teacher in the UK, she spent almost every vacation of her 20's traveling internationally with her kayak in search of white water. A two-month trip to California turned into a decade of summers working on the American River as a kayak instructor, safety kayaker, and white water photographer. Sara has logged thousands of miles on the water in a raft, kayak, or SUP and has also spent a lot of time IN the water, sometimes on purpose and many times accidentally. From wild river rapids to serene alpine lakes, if there is water, Sara loves it, and she always carries an appropriate PFD. Sara also tests kayaks, kayak paddles, and dry bags for GearLab.
Analysis and Test Results
To get an overall picture of how each life jacket measures up, we evaluated every vest's performance across five comprehensive metrics. No matter your body type, activity preference, or budget, we've found a great life jacket to suit your needs and keep you safe out on the water.
These water jackets can be found with a wide range of possible price tags. We tested the full gamut to see which ones are worth the extra cost and which budget-friendly models are actually worth wearing.
The Stohlquist Fit is one of the best universally useful, low-cost models we tested that's still enjoyable to wear. It fits the full range of its advertised chest size capacity and feels pretty good against the skin. The Stearns Adult Classic is another solid value pick, though it's not quite as nice to wear or move in as the Fit. The NRS Vapor costs more but is an exceptional choice if you plan to wear it frequently and need plenty of mobility for your arms — like if you're searching for a life jacket to go with your brand new kayak.
The primary purpose of all of these products is to keep you afloat, so flotation is, no surprise, a crucial metric in this review. That said, with USCG certification standards, all approved PFDs will at least meet the same minimum standard. Still, we researched the design flotation advertised for each model of life vest and compared it against the results from our in-house flotation testing. Finally, we donned the PFDs and hopped into the water ourselves, comparing how floating felt in a real-world scenario. All the life jackets met the required minimum flotation (as you would expect); what did surprise us what how some models significantly outperformed their advertised flotation.
Overall, the Stohlquist Fisherman shone in this metric as it was approximately five percent more buoyant than the average jacket. This is ideal considering the penchant anglers have for carrying literal weights in their pockets. If you are looking for a simpler and cheaper option, the Stohlquist Fit also provides outstanding flotation, although it's not the most comfortable when submerged in the water. For children, the Astral Otter 2.0 delivers significant flotation, exceeding the requirement for Type III certification. The MTI Adventurewear Child Livery is another solid choice. Neither of these life vests will turn an unconscious swimmer, so some basic swimming skills are recommended.
Aside from sheer flotation, it's important to consider how well your life vest feels as it floats you and helps you get to safety. This is an aspect we took into account when scoring, along with isolated float tests. For example, the Astral E-Ronny doesn't provide the most direct flotation, but it does enable you to move efficiently when in the water. Easy to move and swim in, this jacket will truly help you in a rescue scenario.
For our pup friends, the Astral Bird Dog floated the heaviest of our hounds. It didn't provide quite as good overall fit or mobility as the Ruffwear Float Coat, but in regards to sheer flotation it takes the cake.
We all come in different shapes and sizes, and it is important to find a life jacket that fits you well. An adjustable model will be your best bet if you plan on sharing your PFD with others. The Astral E-Ronny provided one of the most secure fits, with two side straps to control adjustability. The flexibility of the articulated side panels helps to provide a fit that feels personalized.
While the Stohlquist Fit and Stearns Adult Classic don't score the highest in this metric, they are worth mentioning due to their adjustability. The Fit is available to fit the widest range of sizes in our lineup, including Youth/Adult XS, Universal, and Adult XL. We purchased the Universal and at first expected it to fit on the bulky side, but were impressed with how the adjustability of the paneling allows this jacket to be tightened down to suit a much smaller framed paddler. The Stearns only offers two sizes, Universal (30-52") and Oversized (52-62"), but these cover almost the widest range of sizes of any manufacturer we tested. These are worth considering for those looking to have a spare jacket covering all bases for things like visiting friends and family.
The simplicity of the NSR Zephyr belt makes it suitable for the widest range of body sizes. The waist strap can be cinched tight for narrow waists and expanded full length for those in double XL sizes. That said, although it may fit youth under the age of 17, it is not considered appropriate. PFD belts should only be used by those that are already very strong swimmers.
For dogs, the Ruffwear Float Coat provided the best fit. It is the quickest to secure, and it stayed in place when our dogs swam, jumped, and rolled. This doggie PFD is also available in six different sizes so that you can be sure to find the size that suitably fits your wagging friend.
Comfort and Mobility
Although safety is a priority, the hope is that you can do so while also being comfortable. Being able to move in your life jacket is essential, and you also want to feel at ease when you are just sitting in your kayak enjoying your float on the water.
The Astral E-Ronny and NRS Vapor are stand-out leaders for their comfort and mobility while still being full life jackets. Both sport very wide armholes, which allow for great freedom of movement. In addition, the contoured paneling on these PFDs allows for a good wrap around the lower torso which keeps bulky sides out of the way from your paddling arms. This is particularly noted in the E-Ronny, which has two side adjustment straps to get the ideal snug fit.
No surprise, the NSR Zephyr waist belt also shines in this metric. The soft finish is comfortable against the skin, and the compact design makes it easy to forget you are even wearing a flotation device. Strong swimmers paddling in sheltered waters or calm, predictable conditions will appreciate this belt's minimalism. Once inflated, the jacket portion isn't the most comfortable to put on over your head, but this didn't stop us from being able to use it safely.
Despite a lot of pockets and features, the Stohlquist Fisherman also impressed us. Narrow shoulder straps allow for excellent range of motion, and mesh paneling and open sides keep things breathable. Our child testers had the best experience in the Astral Otter 2.0, and the Float Coat took top marks for dogs. The NRS Canine CFD also fared well; its low profile meant it was a comfortable option with minimal mobility interferences.
Quality of Construction
Although they all have the same goal in mind, not all jackets are constructed equally. Depending on construction, materials, and use, the life span of these pieces of gear can vary. Taking good care of your gear and storing it clean, dry, and away from sunlight will go a long way to preserving its integrity. However, the fact is that most life jackets will be thrown around and abused. Those designed with robust outer shells and reinforced stitching stand a better chance of avoiding the frays of time.
Astral stands out as a top-quality manufacturer for their PFD construction. The Astral E-Ronny, Bird Dog, and Otter 2.0 were all top scorers, standing heads above the rest for their robust stitching, high denier outer shells, and overall attention to design and construction detail. We have seen these jackets on the water for many years, and we don't see broken buckles or frayed seams. These Astral jackets dried quicker than some of our other tested jackets, which also helps to keep them fresh and ready to perform year after year.
The Stohlquist Fisherman is notable for its durable outer shell design and overall well-constructed finish. The plastic-lined pockets are particularly appreciated for managing the demands of hooks and tools.
Features and Versatility
Specific features make each model unique and can help you decide if a jacket is suitable for your chosen activities. For some jackets, simple versatility is their winning ticket. Each model in our review has a stated purpose for which it has been designed and approved. We evaluated the functionality of each feature and kept track of things like adjustable straps, pockets, padding, lash points, and any other unique attributes like breathable mesh panels or self-inflation.
The award-winning E-Ronny has been well thought out with close attention to minor details. The mesh-lined patches increase comfort, and the pockets are appreciated so we can store essentials close at hand. A buckle-free design also makes this jacket stand out. The Stohlquist Fisherman boasts even more practical pockets as these are larger and fold down into workstations if needed. The additional attachment points on both these PFDs make them leaders in this metric.
For youth, the top scorer for features and versatility is the Astral Otter. With pockets, an integrated grab handle, reflective detailing, a softer inner lining material, and a padded waist strap band, the Astral team has thought of all your child's needs.
All the doggie PFDs we tested have a useful grab handle for wrangling your dog out of the water if needed. However, some of these were better designed than others. The cut and profile of the Astral Bird Dog handle makes this task the easiest, particularly important with a heavy or more boisterous dog. The Ruffwear Float Coat also sports a robust handle, but it is slightly less padded than the one designed by Astral. That said, the Float Coat boasts superior strap management, with covered buckles and velcro straps to help manage dangling excess material.
Inflatable PFD belts are a unique product for those that are strong swimmers. The ability to inflate on command makes them particularly helpful for those that don't want to wear a bulky vest while recreating. The NRS Zephyr also includes a useful pocket large enough to fit a phone and D-clip to secure a fin or car key.
From river trips to evening lake floats, a life jacket is a critical piece of equipment designed to help save your life. Whether you are a college athlete, a nervous swimmer, or even a dog, a life jacket is one piece of gear that should not be overlooked. We have spent months learning everything there is to know about these products so that you know exactly what you can get to keep you happily afloat.
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.