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Expert Shopper Outdoors

Best life vest

Which life vest is best?

If you enjoy spending time on the water, then you already know the importance of a high-quality life vest. These devices keep you afloat when you unexpectedly find yourself in deep water, but not all life jackets are built the same. Some personal flotation devices, or PFDs, are better suited for activities like boating on the high seas, while others may be designed for watersports. 

The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest is the top pick because it’s versatile, lightweight and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

What to know before you buy a life vest


When shopping for a noninflatable life jacket, you may be surprised to see how many types of PFDs are available. The various types of life vests are designated from Type I to Type V. The right vest type will depend on your proximity to the shore and preferred water-based activity. Keep in mind that the following details might look different if you decide to buy an inflatable life jacket

  • Type I: These bulky life vests are also known as offshore life jackets. Type I PFDs are designed to keep you afloat in choppy, open water, and are often found on cruise ships and at-sea fishing boats. With a minimum buoyancy rating of 22 pounds, a Type I life vest is capable of keeping even an unconscious person above water. 
  • Type II: Also known as near-shore life jackets, Type II PFDs are designed for calm waters where rescue is likely to occur quickly. They are a bit more comfortable than Type I jackets and boast a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds. 
  • Type III: These comfortable, lightweight vests are designed to be worn for long periods of time, usually when participating in watersports close to shore, like kayaking or riding a personal watercraft. These PFDs have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds but will underperform in rough waters or if the wearer is unconscious. 
  • Type IV: Type IV flotation devices aren’t vests at all, but rather throwable PFDs meant to be used in emergency situations where rescue will be immediate. A ring-shaped life preserver is a recognizable example of a Type IV PFD. 
  • Type V: This category indicates a device that is designed for a specific application, such as kayaking or windsurfing.

Minimum buoyancy

The minimum buoyancy is the lift force required to keep an adult’s head above water. This rating is usually measured in pounds. Because the human body is mostly water, you weigh much less in water than you would on dry land. For instance, a person who weighs 200 pounds only weighs about 10 pounds in the water, making a Type II jacket with a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds more than enough to keep them afloat. That being said, additional factors like water choppiness, extra clothing and your physique can all affect a vest’s effectiveness. 

What to look for in a quality life vest


Most life vests are constructed from nylon, neoprene or a blend of both. Both of these materials are durable and lightweight, although neoprene will provide more warmth if you find yourself in cold water. 

Inflatable PFDs

Some people choose to wear inflatable life vests because they typically have higher minimum buoyancy than noninflatable PFDs. While very effective and comfortable when worn properly, these vests require manual inflation, which may be difficult in an emergency situation. They’re also not recommended for high-intensity activities like whitewater rafting or riding a personal watercraft. 

How much you can expect to spend on a life vest

The cost of a life vest will usually depend on its type and any features like pockets or reflective patches. Expect to spend $10-$75 for a USCG-approved vest that you can count on. 

Life vest FAQ

How do you keep a life vest clean? 

A. After each use, rinse your life vest with clean water and hang it to dry. You can also wipe it down with a solution of vinegar and water to prevent mildew buildup. 

Do life vests expire? 

A. Life vests don’t have expiration dates, but they should be replaced immediately if you find rips or tears, or if you notice that the vest is losing its buoyancy. 

What’s the best life vest to buy?

Top life vest

Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest

What you need to know: This popular life vest is versatile and adjustable, with large arm holes for better movement. 

What you’ll love: This USCG-approved flotation device is available in vibrant red and blue varieties, and its nylon construction is durable yet lightweight. There are four adjustable chest belts so the jacket fits snug and comfortably. 

What you should consider: There have been some reports of the vest being too tight. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top life vest for the money

Airhead Type II Keyhole Life Jacket

What you need to know: What this affordable Type II vest lacks in comfort, it makes up for in overall safety. 

What you’ll love: Constructed from heavy-duty nylon, this budget-friendly life vest is USCG-approved and capable of keeping unconscious wearers afloat in most emergency situations. The PFD is available in bright orange or an American flag design. 

What you should consider: This bulky life vest is very simple, lacking helpful features such as pockets or adjustable straps. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

O’Neill Men’s Reactor USCG Life Vest

What you need to know: These stylish life vests run a bit large but are perfect for staying safe and comfortable when rafting or waterskiing. 

What you’ll love: This USCG-approved life vest won’t restrict movement, and the zippered closure stays in place during the most high-intensity activities. It’s constructed from durable nylon and available in a variety of color combinations. 

What you should consider: This type of vest isn’t recommended for rough waters, and some users reported that it took a long time to dry after use. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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Patrick Farmer writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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