The Ultimate Guide To The Best Life Vest

The Ultimate Guide To The Best Life Vest

Finding the best life vest for you and your family is a must. If you are planning a trip to the lake, or some other aquatic adventure, you will need to properly prepared.

Just any jacket won’t do. Depending on your situation, you may need a specific type of life vest. The first thing you need to decide is what you need the life vest for.

Is it for you or a child? Is it for white water rafting or fishing? Do you just need life vests to take up on the boat? Knowing what you need a life vest for will help you decide what type, style and material is best for your life jacket.

We have narrowed down what we think is the best life vest in 4 different categories: the best life vest for men, women, small children, and for fishing. Before we dig into the products, let’s talk about properly using a life vest.

*Notice: On mobile devices, scroll right to see entire table.

Life Vest Sizing Guide

Now it's important you purchase the right size life vest. Picking the right size can mean life or death. The motto for this section is to pick a life jacket that is comfortable yet snug.

That’s actually what the coast guard will tell you. If you’re wondering if your vest fits fine, remember, comfortable but snug.

There are three different levels of children life vest sizes. Below 30 pounds is an infant and will need the smallest infant size life jackets. 30 to 50-pound children will need the child-sized life vest and 50 to 90-pound children will need the youth-sized life vest.

Kids wearing orange life jackets standing on the shore

Anyone larger will need to use an adult-sized life jacket. This is extremely important. The weight is what's most important.

The corresponding life jacket will provide the right level of buoyancy as to prevent you from floating, but also to have enough give that your jacket won't shoot over your head.

Children need to stay in their size ranges. Don’t buy a larger jacket because you think your child will grow. This is a terrible decision. If they use a larger jacket, they can easily slip out as it is not designed to support a lighter body.

A good way to check if a life vest is properly suited for a child is by picking them up by the top of the life vest. The best life vest will stay put whereas a loose one will come up above the child’s head. A smaller one will hurt the child if you try and pull on it.

Adult sizes are often common. You can find them in your typical small, medium, or large sizes as well as based on weight.

Now maybe you don't fully understand buoyancy. If you do, feel free to skip the next section, but if you don't fully understand the concept, it's worth it to understand how these jackets work.

A Brief Word On Buoyancy

Life jackets keep you afloat the same way a boat stays afloat. The key word here is buoyancy. When you push against water, some of the water gets displaced.

That's shown when you drop a rock in a cup of water, and you see the water level rise. The amount the water raised is the amount of water displaced.

If the amount of water displaced is heavier than the object, the object will float. That’s why boats have these giant hollow bottoms.

They push tons of water away to add to the weight of the water that is pushing against the boat. This massive water displacement keeps even the heaviest of ships afloat.

Life vests work the same way. They are light material, but they are big enough to displace some extra water. Now you may be wondering how such a small thing can displace over a hundred pounds of water.

Short answer: it doesn't need to. Most of our body weight is water, so our body isn't that dense. We are displacing a lot of water already. Take your entire body's volume and fill that up with water.

Weigh that water, and that's how much upthrust force is pushing your body up against gravity.

Buoyancy scheme

In the end, most adults only need somewhere around 10 pounds of buoyancy force to keep their body's afloat.

So when you see how much buoyancy force a life vest has, and you see it's a number between 10 and 30, just know that is more than enough to keep you afloat. Now that you get how they work let's talk about the different type of life jackets.

Types Of Life Jackets

The Coast guard certifies five types of life jackets. They vary in comfort, mobility, as well as buoyancy. Let’s look at them individually:

Type I

This is the safest type of life jacket, making it, in my opinion, the best life vest type out there. It is the largest generally and has a collar. It's the best at keeping your head above water.

If you are knocked unconscious, this jacket offers you the best chance of flipping you around to keep your head up. If you are boating alone or in rough open water conditions, a type I is a must.

They aren't the most comfortable, but they will retain your body heat better than any other life jacket. It is made of soft material like foam to keep you extra buoyant in the water.

Type II

You probably recognize this type of life jacket. It's the next best for open water but offers less support than a type I.

For the water related stuff one notch below the serious stuff; you can feel comfortable using a Type II. It's the type most cruise ships keep on board since it is inexpensive yet effective.

It has some ability to flip people around and keep their head up, but less than the Type I. That being said, it is much more comfortable and manageable than the Type I. These come in foam form or inflatable airbags.

Types of life vests  scheme

Type III

If you ever went to the lake and got on your uncle's boat, he probably made you wear a Type III life jacket. They don't have a collar, so you're not going to be automatically flipped if you are knocked unconscious, but these will help you keep positively buoyant.

If you are with other people, or near the shore, you can easily settle for a type III. They are quite comfortable and can even look more stylish, but they do have less floatation help than the other types.

If you are worried about being stranded in the water for a long period, look elsewhere. These can also come in inflatable versions as well.

Type IV 

If you've ever seen a ring buoy or a long foam pad in your lifeguard's lap, that's a type IV life jacket. Though technically not a jacket, these will help you keep afloat.

They are squares, rings, or pads. They are made of foam or some other light material and are meant to be thrown to someone in need immediately.

It's good always to keep one of these around as they can be used to help someone who's not wearing a life vest, but at the same time, they shouldn't be needed as everyone really should be wearing a life vest.

Type V

Type V is filled with different special use life vests. These are generally for sailors, paddlers, or white water rafters. There are extra special designed life vests intended to maximize certain aspects of mobility.

These can be inflated or made of foam and can vary in their buoyancy levels. These generally won’t be able to flip you around if you are unconscious, but some claim to be able to help at least a little bit.

Now you get how they work and the different types. Let's take a look at our five best life vests.

The 5 Best Life Vests

We have separated these by category. The best life jacket for women, men, children, as well as fishing. The infant's life jacket race was a close one, so we felt the need to include a runner-up.

The Best Life Vest For Women

The Stohlquist Women’s Betsea Personal Flotation Device

The Stohlquist is the best women's life vest. It will cost you around the 100 dollar price range but will be slightly more depending on your size.

First of all, it looks awesome. It has a high waistline cut and fits snug around the torso. You can buy it in one of five color options: pink/black, powder blue/gray, sage/sand, sand, and powder blue.

It’s made of nylon and has a front zipper. It is 6” high and 17” wide. It is super comfortable and great for activities like water skiing.

It gives you great arm mobility, as there is almost no hindrance to your shoulders. It is a type 3 coast guard approved life vest.

It comes with a great rating on Amazon. Stohlquist is one of the more trusted brands in the business, and they are designed more so for a diverse range of water sports.

Blue stohlquist women life vest

Many women are happy that this life jacket is very accommodating to curves as well as plus sized women. It comes with a sizing chart, and most people have commented that it fits great.

It's extremely easy to paddle in and could be used for fishing if need be. There are two large zipper pockets up front that you can easily use to store things in like your phone. Just make sure to wrap it up in a Ziploc bag first!

Our Rating

The Best Life Vest For Fishing

The ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

The Onyx is one of the best life vests on the market. It is a Coast Guard approved Type V life vest. This means it is a special type of life jacket. It was specifically crafted for activities like fishing.

It offers you the widest range possible while still offering life support. There is not a better range of motion a life vest can offer you for fishing.

At the same time, the Onyx offers Type III level buoyancy support. It is an inflatable life vest, but that doesn’t mean you have to inflate it before it’s too late.

Not only is there a cord that you can pull to inflate the life vest, but there is a water pill that will dissolve upon contact with water which will then automatically inflate the life vest.

Don't worry; rain won't cause the life vest to inflate, the vest needs to be completely submerged in water for it to inflate automatically. It is made of Nylon and weighs only a pound and a half.

Blue onyx life vest

You shouldn't use these if you don't know how to swim. These will help you stay afloat, but you are still expected to get yourself moving towards the shore.

This is great for fishing or even kayaking in dangerous conditions. There is written testimony from kayakers who have been wearing this life vest, hit a rock, fallen under water, hurt themselves, but had this vest propel them to the surface in a manner of seconds.

The Onyx comes with a great rating on Amazon. It comes from a trusted brand that has been in the business for a while now. It will cost you the same price as the Stohlquist.

Our Rating

The Best Life Vest For Children

Mustang Survival Lil' Legends 100 Flotation Vest

The Mustang is the best life vest on the market for anyone under 90 pounds. I don’t think there’s a children’s life vest that offers better safety performance.

For starters, you need to look at the collar. It's enormous. It offers you the best chance of flipping your child's head up and out of the water. The collar is also attached to a strap, so it is easy to grab the child out of the water.

You can buy the Mustang in one of four colors: gray/yellow, white/apple green, gray/red, and white/apple green. It is made of nylon, not neoprene.

It is a Type II PFD, designed specifically for children. You can buy it in any of the child sizes whether that be infant, child, or youth.

The straps are heavy duty, so you don't have to worry about it falling off as long as you purchased the right size for your child's weight.

Mustang lil' green life vest.

Depending on size, the Mustang will cost you anywhere from around 40 to 115 dollars. Some people complained that there is no crotch strap which is inherently false. There is most certainly a crotch strap which is even comfortable for children.

The back is a ventilated mesh that is comfortable for children. It works great for boating and fits all the safety requirements.

Our Rating

The Runner Up Life Vest For Children

Stohlquist Unisex Infant/Toddler Nemo Infant Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device

The Stohlquist Infant Life Jacket is awesome and adorable. It's only for infants 30 pounds and below, and there are no size options. But, for infants, it is fantastic, so I felt the need to include it on this list.

It comes in 3 different color options: blue/black, red/yellow, and yellow/blue. It is a nylon life vest that is 5" high and 16" wide.

It is a type II infant personal flotation device and also comes with a large collar that will do its best to flip your child's head up towards the surface. There are two collars in this vest, so the safety level is fantastic.

It comes with an adjustable crotch harness as well as a quick release buckle over the front zipper. There is a 86% positive sizing report for this life vest.

Stohlquist Unisex Infant/Toddler Nemo Infant Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device

It's a great and cute life vest for any child under 30 pounds. Children find it very comfortable. It's well worth the money since it's a PFD that your child will wear!

I think if your child is above 25 pounds, you may want to stick with the mustang, but for smaller children, you may as well go with the runner up.

This life jacket could easily last your baby the first two years of his or her life. It comes from the same brand as the best women’s life vest. Stohlquist is the only brand to make it on this list twice, and they have earned that right.

Our Rating

The Best Men's Life Vest

O'Neill Wake Waterski Men's Superlite USCG Vest

The O'Neill is the best performance life vest on the market for men. Especially for the price, as the life vest will cost you somewhere around 50 dollars. It is a Coast Guard Approved type III personal flotation device.

It is made of a closed cell PVC marine foam. It is very lightweight and provides excellent levels of buoyancy force. It won't get in the way of your water sports but will provide you excellent support.

It comes in several different styles, but the straps will always be black.

Most color options use black as the dominant color, but there are several variations of blue, red, gray, and lime.

They look fun and are the kind of life vest you want to wear if you are taking out the Jetski for a spin. It comes with an excellent rating on Amazon.

Men superlite USCG vest.

It is very soft, and more importantly, it is very comfortable. It has a tough nylon shell that will help this life vest last you several years.

O’Neill is one of the best companies in the business. It started back in the 50’s as just a simple surf shop that sold basic vests, waxes, and boards. Since then they have grown into one of the most prestigious life vest companies in the world. You know you are getting a quality product with O’Neill.

It sizes well, just makes sure to take your chest measurements and base your sizing off the table. Don't just pick small, medium, or large. Measure your chest, because you want your vest to be as comfortable as possible.

Our Rating


Pick the right life vest. Picking the wrong life vest may be the last wrong decision you ever make. But it’s not necessarily that serious.

You may just want something that gives you great mobility. If you’re activity is fishing, go with the Onyx. If you are into more basic watersports or you just want to party on the Jetski, then take the Stohlquist or the O’Neill.

We offered you two different life jackets for infants, but in the end, it does not matter. Just make sure you get a comfortable jacket that has great collar support. The most important thing when picking out a child's life jacket is the jacket's ability to turn the person around and upwards.

Two girls wearing life jackets

Picking the right size is really what’s important. Get one that fits comfortable yet snug.

And don’t forget that if you pull on a child’s life jacket and it doesn’t gently lift the child up with it, it’s the wrong size.

If it doesn’t fit snugly around your body, it won’t properly affect your body’s buoyancy.

If your child is growing, make sure to buy the right sized vest. Don’t plan ahead because you might regret it. Buying two vests is much better than seriously injuring your child. Well, that's it for our guide. The five products we listed aren't your only options.

There are plenty of good life jackets out there, but if you want something great, you don't need to go far. Make sure you check to see what type of jacket it is and that it is US Coast Guard certified.

So what are you waiting for? Head to Amazon today and pick up a life vest for you or your loved ones.

P.S. If you're looking for a life jacket for your dog, check out our buyers guide to the best dog life vests for guidance, reviews and tips.

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