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Which life jacket is best?

Water recreation is a favorite pastime of millions of Americans. No matter how you enjoy the water, safety is a top priority. Life jackets are legally required to protect you from drowning in the event of an accident. Even strong swimmers need life jackets against powerful undercurrents. The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Jacket is the best life jacket for recreational water sports and approved by the United States Coast Guard.

What to know before you buy a life jacket

Find a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket

Life jackets are considered personal flotation devices and are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. They must be tested in a U.S. Coast Guard-recognized laboratory. This is the gold standard for certifying the jacket will hold up under adverse conditions and perform as promised.

Find the right size of life jacket

Life jackets should fit snugly. A life jacket that is too big will push up against your face, making it difficult to breathe. If the jacket is too small, it won’t be able to keep you afloat. The fit should be tight but allow room for movement. There should be no excess room under your arms which will keep the jacket from riding up over your face.

Find the right type of life jacket

There are five types of life jackets based on their ability to provide buoyancy.

  • Type I is an offshore life jacket. They are designed for the roughest waters and can keep an unconscious person upright. They are used by cruise and freight ships and ocean fishing boats.
  • Type II are near-shore vests. They are meant for quick rescue situations in calm waters.
  • Type III are commonly used for recreational sports like water skiing, canoeing and kayaking. They are lightweight with a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds but likely wouldn’t keep an unconscious person face up.
  • Type IV are not worn but kept near the water in the case of an emergency. They are thrown into the water to someone needing to keep their head above water. Ring buoys and floating cushions fall into this category.
  • Type V are not used by the public. They are used by Coast Guard rescue teams.

What to look for in a quality life jacket


Life jackets are made from nylon or neoprene. Nylon is lightweight and durable. It is comfortable and less expensive. It is used for paddle or reel sports.

Neoprene is more expensive but fits better than nylon and has greater buoyancy. It is used for water sports because it makes it easy to move. Neoprene also traps body heat which keeps you warm in cold water.

Reflective colors

Bright colored life jackets aid rescue workers, especially at night. Some lightly colored life jackets have reflective patches to improve being spotted.


Most life jackets have pockets that can hold small personal items like fishing gear or a compass. Look for pockets that have zippered closures that will keep items contained in the event you fall into the water. Heavy objects should be kept out of pockets to maintain maximum buoyancy.


Emergency whistles are available to clip on to life jackets as an additional safety precaution. The whistle can immediately alert others of an emergency and your location. 

How much you can expect to spend on a life jacket

Life jackets have a wide range of prices based on the size, type of jacket and material.

  • Type I jackets cost $12-$150.
  • Type II jackets cost $25-$125.
  • Type III are typically the most expensive because they are used recreationally and have the most comfort. Their price ranges from $40-$150.

Life jacket FAQ

Do you have to wear a life jacket while on the water?

A. Federal law requires that there is an approved life jacket stowed on the boat for each rider. Anyone 13 years old or younger must wear a life jacket while on the water.

How do you clean a life jacket?

A. Spray down a life jacket with clean water to wash off dirt, mud and salt water. It should be air dried and never put in a dryer.

What is the best life jacket to buy?

Top life jacket

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Jacket

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Jacket

What you need to know: This Type III life jacket fits snugly and has expandable zippered pockets. It is perfect for kayakers and rafters.

What you’ll love: Made from reflective nylon, this life jacket is easy to see and has mesh backing that fits high back seats. The shoulders are adjustable with neoprene pads for comfort. It includes an attached whistle.

What you should consider: It traps heat and may be too hot for some users.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

Top life jacket for the money

Stearns Adult Classes Series Vest

Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest

What you need to know: This U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket is designed for all water activities.

What you’ll love: This jacket has a universal fit for adults over 90 pounds. Two adjustable straps and open sides improve the fit. Made from nylon with a three-buckle design, it is durable and easy to put on.

What you should consider: Some felt the sizing ran small and fit too tightly.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Airhead Type II Keyhole Life Jacket

Airhead Type II Keyhole Life Jacket

What you need to know: This basic life jacket is designed for people needing to float face up in calm waters.

What you’ll love: The jacket is U.S. Coast Guard approved. It is bright orange for easy spotting. Made from heavy-duty nylon, the jacket is lightweight and easily stored. The keyhole entry fits adults over 90 pounds.

What you should consider: It is only rated for minimal buoyancy and not active waters.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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

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