boating life vest

The Best Life Jackets and PFDs

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Inflatable life jackets should always be worn when taking part in water sports or when out on the boat. You have the choice of various different styles with confident swimmers choosing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) over the standard life jacket.

The best life jackets are the ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 PFD with its automatic inflation upon immersion in the water and great value for money.

PFDs are a trimmed down version of a life jacket (not inflated) that can be inflated automatically, manually or orally. They look more stylish than an ordinary life jacket and provide the same level of safety when becoming immersed within the rough sea.

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Table of Contents

Best Life Jackets

Life JacketsPreviewDesign
Onyx A/M-24Universal Adult
Stearns Classic VestUniversal Adult
O’Neill Men’s SuperliteUniversal Adult
Onyx MoveVent DynamicUniversal
Stohlquist Flo For WomenWomen
Stearns Youth Classic SeriesKids

PFD’s are much more popular but they are not recommended for all activities. It is advised not to wear an inflatable PFD if you are skiing, tubing, wakeboarder or white water rafting.

If you are a non-swimmer, its recommended not to wear these and especially not the manual versions.

It is also worth noting that PFD’s are only available in adult sizes and must be maintained and checked on a regular basis. Standard life jackets are available in all sizes with the design varying from brand to brand.

The weight capacity, gender, and approval by the US coast guard are just a few factors to consider.

Below is a list of the best life jackets that contain both standard and PFD types that ensure you and your family safe when around the water.

Onyx A/M-24 Inflatable PFD

life jacket with type III performance

Absolute Outdoor produce a wide variety of life jackets and PFDs, which are all approved by the US Coast Guard. The Onyx PFD, in particular, is a Type V life jacket with Type III performance and has the ability to be inflated manually or automatically.

Other features of the Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 PFD include:

  • US Coast Guard Approved
  • Red handle for manual inflation
  • Automatic inflation whilst immersed within the water
  • Durable 200 denier nylon construction
  • Suitable for 16-year-olds or those over 80 LBS
  • Easy to replace CO2 cartridges

One of the great benefits of wearing a slim design PFD like this particular PFD is that it is great for use within hot weather. The standard life jackets can become very uncomfortable due to the heat.

For those individuals that are looking for an unobtrusive life jacket to keep them safe on the water, this PFD is perfect. Hopefully, you will never have to deploy the emergency inflation of the life jacket, however, you can rest assure that this PFD will bring you to the top of the water.

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Stearns Classic Vest

Fun on the water can turn disastrous in a hurry. Keep yourself safe and the fun going by donning a Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest. This safety vest is designed with three adjustable chest belts that make a day on the water a comfortable one. 

This vest for adults has an open-sided design for extra breathability and comes with three adjustable 1-inch buckle straps that provide a secure fit. 

The Sterns Classic swim vest features:

  • US Coast Guard Approved PFD
    Great for boating, tubing and swimming
  • Open sided design
  • Designed for adults over 90 pounds
  • Adustable straps to customize fit
  • Durable nylon shell
  • PE foam in side of polyester shell

The Sterns vest features a soft polyester shell and durable Crosstech flotation foam, this life jacket withstands steady use season after season.

Great for boating, tubing, and swimming, the Sterns blue life jacket is designed for adults weighing 90 pounds or more and fits 30 – 2 inch chests.

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O’Neill Men’s Superlite

When you are participating in water sports, safety is essential. Even if you are a strong swimmer, there are circumstances that require a floatation device, and the O’Neill Men’s life vest will be there to give you buoyancy when you need it. 

The design is lightweight and will fit a variety of body types, so you will find it comfortable to wear all day long while you are on the water. 

O’Neill’s Men’s Life Vest features:

  • USCG Approved personal flotation device
  • Perfect for wake sports, waterskiing, tubing, and swimming
  • Designed to fit snug for your safety
  • Anatomically cut lightweight polyethylene foam floatation
  • The durable coated polyester outer shell
  • Heavy-duty 1.5 inch wide webbing belts
  • Quick-release buckles for an adjustable fit
  • Choose a size up for a relaxed fit

The anatomically cut lightweight polyethylene foam flotation vest has a durable coated polyester outer shell which makes the O’Neill vest strong, yet soft and comfortable at the same time.

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Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Life Jackets

best life jacket for kayaking

By far the most popular life jackets available are the Onyx MoveVent, which are very popular with kayakers in particular. This is due to the intuitive design where the padding is located at the top half of the rear, which makes sitting on a kayak seat more comfortable and easier.

Other features of the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic life jackets include:

  • Made from SOLAS grade reflective material
  • No side obstruction for kayaking
  • Expandable pockets with drain holes
  • 7 different sizes and 4 colors
  • Ventilation at the front and rear to keep cool
  • 200 denier nylon ripstop and nylon oxford construction

Overall, the Onyx MoveVent Dynamic is the best life jacket for kayaking with an intuitive design that targets those requiring maximum comfort and mobility.

Onyx also provides a wide variety of sizes so that you can also purchase matching life jackets for the whole family.

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Stohlquist Flo Life Jacket For Women

best life jacket for women

Finding the best life jacket for women can be difficult but Stohlquist has the solution. The Flo Life model by Stohlquist doesn’t create extra bulk in the upper chest area and sit nicely on your back unlike other cheaper proclaimed women life jackets.

Other features of the Stohlquist Flo Women life jackets include:

  • Adjustable straps near the upper chest
  • 4 different sizes and 2 colors
  • 400 x 200 denier ripstop shell
  • Nylon construction
  • Easily washed with soap and water
  • Lightweight PE foam with inner mesh lining for coolness

Life jackets for large breasted women have always involved hours of researching with no luck. Thanks to the adjustable straps near the upper chest, you are able to tailor the life jacket to your exact preference for additional comfort.

If you are a woman looking for a life jacket, this is the best option. The days of buying oversized universal life jackets are over thanks to the Stohlquist Flo Life Jacket that is designed specifically for women.

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Stearns Youth Life Jackets for Kids

best life jacket for kids

The safety of your children is paramount when out at sea as they will not be strong or confident swimmers.

Using an adult life jacket for a child is a poor choice and not as safe as a specifically designed life jacket for kids.

Features of the Stearns Youth Life Jackets for Kids includes:

  • Three adjustable strap belts
  • Suitable for kids between 50 to 90 LBS
  • Available in 3 different colors
  • US Coast Guard approved
  • Open-sided design
  • Durable nylon construction with PE flotation foam

Most kids do not want to be left out from other family members and will become upset if they are. Luckily Stearns has the identical life vest but for adults, which means you can all look the same when out in the water.

Overall, the Stearn Youth design is the best life jacket for kids between 50 to 90 LBS, which will keep them safe if they become immersed in water.

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Life Jackets Buying Guide

What to Look For in a Life Jacket?

For both kids and adults, the life jacket is essential for maximum safety when enjoying the ocean, river or any water environment.

You cannot predict the marine environment and even the most experienced swimmers can get caught out.

Therefore it’s highly recommended to purchase the best life jackets that suit the activity you are taking part in.

There is a complete range of life jackets available that are in the form of a Personal Flotation Device (PFD for short) or standard styles.

You should choose the one that you feel confident wearing as they do differ in their performance to keep you afloat.

To help you make an informed buying decision, we have produced a detailed buying guide below that covers all factors of the life jacket.

Group of people wearing inflatable life jackets

Difference Between Life Jackets and PFDs

Both life jackets and PFDs do a great job in keeping you afloat on the water but they do this in different ways. Many people often refer to them as the same but they are really not.

As you can see from the image above, the two people on the right are wearing PFDs and the 5 people on the left of wearing standard life jackets.

Life jackets have more buoyancy than PFDs with the material used for keeping you afloat at the front of the jacket. This means that it is designed to turn an unconscious person from face down to face up in the water, thus allowing them to breathe.

Personal Flotation Devices, on the other hand, are designed to keep a conscious person afloat. The flotation material is located at the rear, which makes it much more comfortable and less bulky for additional mobility.

They are mostly designed for confident swimmers that wear them on a daily basis for many hours whilst boating.

Choosing between the two should really be dependent upon how confident a swimmer you are.

Automatic PFD or Manual PFD?

This is a topic that is split both ways. The main argument for an Automatic PFD is that if you were knocked unconscious, who would pull the cord to blow up the PFD?

Also, if you were to be flung into the water, the automatic inflation will roll you over to provide a clear airway whilst being unconscious.

The main argument for a Manual PFD is that you don’t always want the life jacket to inflate when you get into the water.

For example, you may want to swim in the sea and if anything were to go wrong, you could pull the cord, which is not possible with an automatic PFD.

On rare occasions, you may be splashed heavily by a wave, which could set the automatic PFD to inflate.

Quite a dilemma but this is your choice to make upon the activities that you have planned in the water environment.

Different Types of Life Jackets

There are five different types of life jacket and PFD that comes in a range of different sizes, styles and safety designs. The types include:

  • Type I – Used for off-shore use and can be worn for long periods of time
  • Type II – Nearshore use and designed for calm water unlike Type I
  • Type III – Designed to be used within physical activities such as kayaking
  • Type IV – Used as a flotation object such as a ring or cushion
  • Type V – Special PFD that includes all of the other 4 types.

For further details on the different types of life jackets, check out the BoatUS guide.

Life Jacket For Kayaking

Comfort and Movement

A big factor to consider is how comfortable an inflatable life jacket is because, at the end of the day, you may be wearing it for a long time.

It can be hard finding a life jacket for all activities and you may find it easier to purchase a specific life jacket for each activity.

For example, you may have one for recreational boating and another for kayaking.

On the topic of kayaking and other water sports, you will want to be able to move around freely. As you can see from the image above, the side-less design provides plenty of room for the person to use the oars with the majority of the padding located at the top half of the life jacket.

The material will also play a big part because unless you are wearing clothes (i.e. you are in your swim gear), then it will be rubbing against your skin.


In terms of life jackets, the two most common materials used in the construction of them are nylon and neoprene.

Nylon life jackets are the cheaper of the two and are much lighter but lack the buoyancy compared against the neoprene alternative.

Neoprene is often a more snug and comfortable fit that stretches slightly and even provides additional heat in cold weather.

However, with all these benefits comes additional cost but if you are frequently wearing life jackets, it would be a worthwhile investment.


As brands compete with each other to produce the best life jackets, they often include intuitive features that make a big difference. Small things such as additional zipped pockets, hydration bladders for your own water source, D rings, and other features.

All these features really do improve your experience with the life jacket but many people also worry about putting it on in the first place.

The entry method of many life jackets differs with the zip being placed on the front or side.

Be sure to purchase a life jacket that is easy to put on and off because you will be removing it and putting it back on a lot when not on the waters.

Storing Life Jackets

Unless you work in a marine environment, life jackets are stored for long periods of time and its important that you do this correctly. When they are not in use, ensure that you clean all of the salt and other dirt off the life jackets.

If you store them whilst they are dirty, they do tend to smell bad and even cause defects to appear over time.

If they have been in storage for a long time, be sure to check for the following defects before using them again:

  • Leaks in the buoyancy material
  • Heavy mildew
  • Tears
  • Jammed zippers
  • General wear and tear

Overtime life jackets will age and become beyond use, which then means they are unsafe to be used in the water. They are fairly cheap to buy and ultimately save lives, so be sure to replace when necessary and not when it’s too late.

best inflatable life vest personal flotation device


Investing in a quality life jacket that fits correctly, comfortable to wear and provides excellent buoyancy is a worthwhile investment.

As long as you take care of them whilst they are not in use, they can last many years too.

There is a wide range of life jackets available from the standard to the more desirable PFDs. However, we highly recommend going for the standard style for those that are not confident within the water.

All of our recommendations cover a wide range of different styles and budgets to suit a variety of people.

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