Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs are essential for water activities like boating, jet skiing, tubing, kayaking, and canoeing. Before your family gets on the water, make sure everyone has their own life vest. Not just because the US Coast Guard requires a wearable PFD for every person on board your boat, but also because they save lives. Of the 439 who people drowned in 2019, 77% were not wearing a life vest. PFDs are no longer approved if they are in poor condition, so be sure to check for rips, tears, holes, loose threads, or other signs of obvious wear every time you don one. Straps should be firmly attached and all the buckles should function properly.
When choosing a life jacket, some important things to consider are the purpose, the size, and of course, that it’s US Coast Guard approved. Before we get into the best vests for your fam, let’s go over the types of life vests, children’s life jacket requirements, tips for selecting a child’s PFD, size and fit, and how to tell if a life vest is Coast Guard approved.
Types of Life Vests
Activity-specific life vests provide the highest levels of safety. There are five types of life jackets. Type I is for offshore use in open, remote waters. Type II is for near-shore and Type III is a flotation aid for calm, inland waters. Type IV is a “device”–the cushion or ring-type buoys that are meant to be thrown in the water in a man overboard situation rather than worn. Type V is “special use,” designed to protect from hypothermia in cooler climates. Our selections focus on lightweight and comfortable Type III flotation aids.
Children’s Life Jacket Rules
Life jacket laws vary from state to state, but federally, everyone under 13 has to wear a lifejacket on a moving vessel. Exceptions to this rule are when the kid is below deck, in an enclosed cabin, or when the boat is stopped, but generally, kids should be wearing their PFDs whenever they’re around the water. Get them used to wearing a life vest and teach them how to how to relax and float in the water before you go boating.
As BoaterExam.com explains, “Understandably, children often panic when they suddenly fall into the water. Panicking can make it difficult for the child to float face up, even when wearing a PFD. So, children should get used to wearing a PFD in the water before heading out on the vessel.” After buying a PFD, test the fit in safe, shallow water.
Child Life Jacket Size Guide
Choose the size you need based on your child’s weight.
- Infant: Newborn to two years old, less than 30 lbs, chest size: 16 – 20″
- Child Small: Two to five years old, 30-50 lbs, chest size: 20-23″ to 23-25″
- Child Medium: Four to eight years, 30-50 lbs, chest size: 21-25″
- Youth: Six to 12 years, 50-90 lbs, chest size: 26-29″
Life jackets for infants and children who weigh less than 50 pounds should have a crotch strap to ensure a snug fit, as well as a large float collar for head support. In order to work correctly, the PFD must fit snugly. Check whether it fits by picking up the child by the shoulders of the PFD. If it fits, their chin and ears won’t slip through. If it rides up higher than their mouth or ears, it’s too large.
Adult Life Jacket Size Guide
Everyone who weighs over 90 pounds should choose an adult vest based on their chest measurement.
- Extra Small: 28-32″
- Small: 23-36″
- Medium: 36-40″
- Large: 40-44″
- X Large: 44-48″
- 2X Large: 48-52″
- 3X Large: 52-56″
A properly fitted PFD should be comfortable and won’t ride higher than the ears or mouth of the wearer. Adjust the straps to get a snug fit.
Pet Life Jacket Size Guide
- XX-Small: less than 8 lbs, neck: less than 10″, chest: less than 18″, waist: less than 14″
- X-Small: 8-15lbs, neck: 10-13″, chest: 18-24″, waist: 14-20″
- Small: 15-30lbs, neck:12-16″, chest: 22-28″, waist: 18-24″
- Medium: 30-60lbs, neck: 15-19″, chest: 26-32″, waist: 22-28″
- Large: 60-80lbs, neck: 18-22″, chest: 30-38″, waist: 26-32″
- X-Large: over 80 lbs, neck: 18-24″, chest: 30-42″, waist: 26-36″
How to Check If a Life Vest Is Coast Guard Approved
Check the life vest’s label to find out if it is Coast Guard approved. The label also shows info about the intended use of the device, its size, any special care instructions, and it will say how to wear it properly. If there’s no label, it’s not approved and you shouldn’t buy or use it.
Best Life Vests for Infants
Kiddos who can’t swim need a Type II vest, which is more buoyant than a Type III. The Coast Guard does not recommend taking infants onboard a recreational boat, but if you’re looking for a pint-sized PFD for the pool, infant vests accommodate babies up to 30 pounds. It’s important for infant vests to have a pillow for head support. As a lake rat, I’m a huge fan of Jet Pilot’s line of life vests, and they make one of the more comfortable vests for infants. Both the Cause Infant Neoprene CGA Vest and the Pistol Infant Nylon CGA Vest are Coast Guard approved, plus they have a padded leg strap for security and a neckline safety strap as additional safety features.
Best Life Vests for Children
Children’s sizes small and medium are both for kids who weigh between 30 to 50 pounds. Here are four of our faves:
Stearns Puddle Jumper: I personally love the mermaid, but there are 15 other designs of this affordable, swimmie-style USCG approved vest. Soft, woven polyester means less chafing and safety buckles in the back ensure your toddler won’t take it off by themselves.
Stohlquist Kids Life Jacket: Could be cuter, but we like the extra foam band in the head support that’s designed to keep your toddler’s head above water. Also features a grab handle.
Speedo Supersaurus Personal Life Jacket: Speedo’s super cute Jurassic jacket is perfect for pint-sized paleontologists. Features a crotch strap and an extra-cute extra flotation collar behind the neck.
O’Neill Wetsuits Child Reactor USCG Life Vest: More mature styles for older kids who can be trusted no to take off their vests. Features a grab strap on the top and a strap that runs under the legs.
Best Life Vests for Big Kids
Youth sizes are constructed for kids who weigh 50-90 pounds. Jet Pilot wins this category, too. Choose between neoprene or nylon:
Jet Pilot Neoprene Youth Cause Vest: Available in stylish pink or blue-hued high quality, durable neoprene with segmented panels for mobility.
Jet Pilot Pistol Youth Nylon CGA Vest: Available in pink or yellow high-quality UV safe nylon.
Best Life Vests for Adults
Adult life vests are for everyone who weighs over 90 pounds. Again, I have to go with Jet Pilot’s line of Coast Guard-approved life vests. In particular, the men’s Shaun Murray Neoprene CGA Vest has way more bells and whistles than you’ll find anywhere else. The zipper won’t break or lock up because it’s coated in high-strength, UV treated plastic to increase durability. The vest itself is made of flexible, soft, and lightweight premium Pure-lite neoprene that’s less absorbant than nylon. Instead of being one piece of foam, it’s segmented for increased maneuverability and comfort. Plus, there’s D-rings to attach your lanyard to when riding a personal watercraft. The best part about this vest? The straps are on the inside so they don’t get twisted and tangled! Sure, it’s a little pricey, but it will last through many seasons.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, L.L.Bean’s Adult Allsport Universal PFD is a versatile value version that comes in a few color combos.
Best Life Vests for Dogs
While all of our picks above have been Coast Guard-approved, the USCG does not certify personal flotation devices for animals. However, if you’re bringing Fido boating, he should have one on. Here are a couple of reliably buoyant, brightly colored options for your furbaby:
Outward Hound Granby Splash Dog Life Jacket: Comes in XS-XL sizes, but reviews say it runs small, so you may want to size up. Dual rescue handles on the top ensure a safe recovery if your K9 goes overboard unexpectedly.
deenkk Dog Life Jacket: Not only does this vest have great reviews, but it’s the cutest little mermaid getup ever! Now your four-legged friend can have fins! For pups who don’t like pink, there’s also a shark version!
Nylon vs. Neoprene
Both will keep you afloat, but what’s the difference? Nylon is a more lightweight material than neoprene and is less expensive. Neoprene is the same stuff that they use to make wetsuits and is better for watersports.
Keep your life vest in good condition with proper care and maintenance:
- Don’t use it as a boat bumper.
- Hand wash in mild soap and running water.
- Don’t place near a direct heat source to dry. Air dry in a well-ventilated space out of direct sunlight.