The best life jacket

Jennifer Blair

Placing heavy items in a life jacket’s pockets can affect its buoyancy in the water.

For anyone who enjoys boating, water skiing, and other water activities, having a reliable life jacket is key for staying safe on the open water. A life jacket can keep you afloat if you fall in the water, so you don't tire yourself out -- and your friends and family or rescue workers have time to get to you.

If you're not entirely sure what to look for in a life jacket, though, check out our convenient buying guide to learn how to choose the perfect life jacket for your next voyage. Our top pick, the Onyx MoveVent Torsion Paddle Sports Life Vest, boasts a lightweight, comfortable fit and generously sized armholes to prevent irritation or chafing.

Considerations when choosing life jackets


Life jackets are classified by type, which indicates what situations they work best for and what type of buoyancy they offer.

Type I is suitable for use in rough open waters for an extended period. These life jackets also help turn someone who's unconscious face-up in the water to prevent drowning. They provide 22 pounds of buoyancy for adults and 11 pounds of buoyancy for children. Type I jackets can be extremely bulky, though.
Type II is suitable for calm waters near the shore where you can expect to be rescued promptly. These life jackets don't always turn an unconscious person face-up in the water, though. They provide 15 and a half pounds of buoyancy for adults and 11 pounds of buoyancy for children.
Type III is also suitable for calm inland waters where you'll be engaging in activities like water skiing, kayaking, canoeing, and other watersports. However, these life jackets won't turn an unconscious person face-up in the water. They provide 15 and a half pounds of buoyancy for adults and 11 pounds of buoyancy for children.
Type IV features non-wearable flotation devices and are suitable for use in any water where help is nearby. They're usually thrown to people in the water who need something to hold onto to stay afloat.
Type V is designed for special use, so they're mainly worn by rescue teams, deckhands, and whitewater-rafting guides.


Most life jackets for personal use are made from neoprene or nylon:

Nylon is a more affordable choice, though it still manages to be lightweight, durable, and comfortable. Nylon life jackets usually offer a better range of motion for your arms, too, so they work well for fishing and paddle boating.

Neoprene life jackets are usually more expensive, though they typically fit better than nylon options. They're extremely buoyant in the water, too, and work well for use in colder water because they provide insulation that can help keep you warm.


A life jacket must fit properly to keep you safe in the water. It should fit snugly without being too constricting. Sizing is usually broken into four main categories: adult, youth, child, and infant.

Adult and youth life jacket sizing is usually based on measurements for the widest part of the chest. A child's life jacket is usually sized according to weight.


Pockets and loops

If you plan to use your life jacket for activities such as fishing or canoeing, it helps to choose a model that features pockets and/or loops. They allow you to carry tools and supplies right on your life jacket, so your gear is always within reach when you're out on the water.

Reflective patches

If you fall overboard at night, it may be difficult to locate your position. Life jackets with reflective patches are much easier to spot because a flashlight or other beacon will shine off them so you can be found more easily.

Life jacket prices

Adult-size life jacket prices usually range from $12 to $150. For Type II life jackets, you can expect to pay between $12 and $122. Type I life jackets usually cost between $24 and $122. For Type III life jackets, you'll typically spend between $38 and $150.


Q. Can two adults share a life jacket if they don't weigh the same amount?

A. The average adult only needs 11 extra pounds of buoyancy to keep their head above water because people are able to float naturally. If you choose a life jacket that provides 15 and a half pounds of extra buoyancy, nearly any adult in your household can use it safely in relatively calm waters. For rough waters, opt for a jacket that offers 22 to 34 pounds of extra buoyancy.

Q. Should my child always wear a life jacket out on the water?

A. If you're taking your children out on a boat, it's a good idea to have a life jacket on them at all times. In fact, in some states, kids under a certain age are required by law to wear a life jacket at all times when on a boat.

Life jackets we recommend

Best of the best: Onyx MoveVent Torsion Paddle Sports Life Vest

Our take: A comfortable, flexible Type III life jacket that works extremely well for watersports that require only minimum buoyancy.

What we like: Isn't as bulky as other life jackets so it has a comfortable fit. Arm openings are large enough to prevent chafing. Allows for a good range of motion for water activities.

What we dislike: Isn't effective for use in rough, choppy waters. Pockets are all on the same side. More expensive than other options.

Best bang for your buck: Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest

Our take: A durable, high-quality life jacket that works well for a variety of water activities, but finding the right size can be a challenge.

What we like: Type III Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Features adjustable straps for a better fit, including a leg strap so the vest doesn't move around. Made of a sturdy nylon material.

What we dislike: Fit can be somewhat tight. Isn't suited for use in rough waters.

Choice 3: Absolute Outdoor Full Throttle Adult Dual-Sized Nylon Watersports Vest

Our take: An effective, well-made life jacket for a variety of watersports and activities that won't break the bank.

What we like: Features a comfortable, lightweight design. Made with highly durable 200 denier (or ballistic) nylon and 150 denier poly-twill. Adjustable straps make it easy to get a good fit. Runs true to size. Type III Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Comes in at an attractive price point.

What we dislike: Not suited for use in choppy waters. Can be difficult for tall and heavy users to find a good fit because of the shorter, tighter design.

Jennifer Blair is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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