Gear, Sailing

The 9 Best Kid’s Life Jackets (& How to Choose the Right One)

Last updated on August 23, 2022 by Ben Snatler

EDITOR'S PICKS

Recommended
Best Overall    
Mustang Survival Rev Kid's Personal Flotation Device thumbnail

4.4/5

  • Provides great head support
  • Sturdy and high quality
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Also available for infants under 30 pounds
Recommended
Most Comfortable
NRS Crew Kid's Life Vest thumbnail

4.5/5

  • Fits comfortably
  • Extremely adjustable
  • Also available for youth
Recommended
Best for Water Sports

4.8/5

  • Vibrant color and stand-out design
  • Let the kids learn to swim with full-arm mobility
  • Comfortable to wear
  • It has an adjustable crotch strap for additional safety

MORE PICKS TO CHOOSE FROM

Personal flotation devices, PFDs for short, are essential for adventurers of all ages. With a properly fitting life jacket, infants, toddlers, and big kids alike can enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, swimming, wakeboarding, and countless other water activities.

In this guide to kid's life jackets, we'll answer commonly asked questions about sizing, fit, and product features. Plus, we'll highlight the best life jackets for every age group and activity.

How should you size a life jacket for a child?

There's no understating the importance of purchasing the correct size life jacket for your child. While it may be tempting to buy a vest they can "grow into," it's essential to their safety that you purchase one intended for their current age and weight.

Unlike adult life jackets (which are sized according to chest circumference), youth sizes are determined by weight. Most styles have adjustable straps to ensure a snug fit on growing bodies.

  • Infant/Toddler— 8- 30 lbs

  • Child— 30- 50 lbs

  • Youth— 50- 90 lbs

Every brand differs slightly, so double-check the size chart before making a purchase. To determine if a life jacket fits correctly, lift its wearer by the shoulder or grab straps. A properly fitting jacket won't slip past their chin or ears.

Best Kids Life Jackets

Mustang Survival Rev Kid's Personal Flotation Device

Best Overall

overall 

4.4/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

Mustang Survival Rev Kid's Personal Flotation Device

Features:

  • USCG Approved
  • For users between 33 to 55 pounds
  • Flotation / Buoyancy: 6.8 pounds

Searching for a life jacket that can do it all? Look no further than the Rev Kid's Personal Flotation Device from Mustang Survival. The multi-purpose vest is crafted by an American manufacturer that supplies the Coast Guard and commercial mariners with PFDs. It's got all the safety and comfort features you could ask for segmented foam for improved mobility, a grab loop for easy lifting, a ventilated mesh back for added comfort, and a built-in crotch strap for added security.

Check out Mustang Survivals's Lil Legends Foam Vest for younger wearers and weaker swimmers. It features a similar fit through the body with a pillow neck for added head support. Both styles are US Coast Guard-approved.

Material

Foam

User Weight

33 - 55 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

6.8 pounds

Best For

flatwater paddling, ocean paddling, river paddling

Pros:

  • Also available for infants under 30 pounds
  • Provides great head support
  • Sturdy and high quality
  • Comfortable to wear

Cons:

  • Limited color options

NRS Crew Kid's Life Vest

Most Comfortable

overall 

4.5/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

NRS Crew Kid's Life Vest

Features:

  • Durable 200D nylon fabric
  • Custom youth fit for 24-29in chest
  • 1 front and 4 side adjustments
  • USCG-approved and Transport Canada approved

If your child complains that their current life jacket is too bulky, upgrade it to the NRS Crew Kid's Life Jacket. Its streamlined design features improved shoulder and armhole shape for ease of movement. One front and four side adjustments ensure a safe, comfortable fit.

Consider it the perfect vest for paddleboarding, swimming near shore, fishing, or spending a leisurely day on the boat. Crafted from durable 200D nylon fabric and high-quality foam, it'll last until they're ready for an adult-size vest.

Material

Foam

User Weight

55-88 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

11.4 pounds

Best For

paddling

Pros:

  • Fits comfortably
  • Also available for youth
  • Extremely adjustable

Cons:

  • Adjustment straps can be very long, and no strap retainer

AIRHEAD WICKED Kwik-Dry Neolite Flex Life Vest

Best for Water Sports

overall 

4.8/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

AIRHEAD WICKED Kwik-Dry Neolite Flex Life Vest

Features:

  • US Coast Guard Approved
  • Quick-drying and super soft material
  • Designed to fit children that weigh 30-50 pounds and have a 22-25-inch chest size

Water sports like wakeboarding, water skiing, paddle boarding, and kayaking require a life jacket with minimal bulk. Stick with a US Coast Guard-approved Type III jacket, like the AIRHEAD Wicked Flex Life Vest. It's made with a quick-drying NeoLite outer shell for improved comfort and a better range of motion during high-intensity water activities. Closed sides offer a tighter and more secure fit, while a crotch strap and grab handle allow for a safe and speedy exit from the water.

Material

Nylon

User Weight

30-50 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

N/A

Pros:

  • Vibrant color and stand-out design
  • Let the kids learn to swim with full-arm mobility
  • Comfortable to wear
  • It has an adjustable crotch strap for additional safety

Cons:

  • It can run a little small

Speedo Splash Jammer Aqua Splash Life Jacket Vest

Best for Toddlers

overall 

4.5/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

Speedo Splash Jammer Aqua Splash Life Jacket Vest

Features:

  • US Coast Guard-approved
  • Easy on-and-off design
  • Shoulder straps for a secure fit

Speedo's Splash Jammer Aqua Splash Life Jacket Vest is a US Coast Guard-approved Type V personal flotation device designed specifically for younger swimmers (weighing 30-50 lbs). Its easy on-off design features sturdy shoulder straps for a secure fit and armbands for added buoyancy. Offered in an assortment of adorable designs, your toddler's new swim vest is sure to put a smile on their face!

Material

Nylon

User Weight

30-50 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

Swimming

Pros:

  • Fun designs
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Easy to put on and take off without slip off

Cons:

  • Runs a little small

O'Neill Wake Waterski Infant Life Jacket

Best Infant Life Jacket

overall 

4.7/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

O'Neill Wake Waterski Infant Life Jacket

Features:

  • US Coast Guard Approved
  • For babies up to 30 lbs body weight
  • Adjustable safety belts with durable Delrin quick-release buckles
  • Nylon panels with PVC backing

Infants and toddlers weighing less than 30 lbs should wear a life vest with added head support. O'Neill's US Coast Guard-approved Wake Waterski Infant Life Jacket features a pillowy head cushion specifically designed to keep its wearer floating face-up. Adjustable side and crotch straps ensure a secure fit on growing bodies, while a grab loop guarantees a quick exit from the water.

Material

Nylon, Foam

User Weight

30 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

N/A

Pros:

  • Many color options
  • Durable material
  • Functional and comfortable to wear

Cons:

  • It can ride up and get close to the face

Body Glove Vision Youth Life Jacket

Best for Boating

overall 

4.6/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

Body Glove Vision Youth Life Jacket

Features:

  • Three heavy-duty 1" belts with quick-release buckles
  • Two leg straps for maximum safety and comfort
  • Child life jackets for 30-50 pounds
  • Guard Approved

Body Glove's Vision Youth Life Jacket is designed to improve your child's safety on the water. Offered in infant, child, and youth sizes, it's a practical (and affordable) option for any pint-sized water enthusiast.

The US Coast Guard-approved vest is constructed with a lightweight, form-fitting PE foam interior and a woven polymer shell. Four heavy-duty chest, waist, and leg straps with quick-release buckles prevent slipping for a secure fit. A sturdy grab handle at the back neck makes it easy to lift your little one out of the water.

Material

Nylon, Foam

User Weight

30-50 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

N/A

Pros:

  • Comfortable to wear
  • Made from durable material

Cons:

  • Lack of color options

Astral Otter 2.0 Personal Flotation Device for Kids

Worth the splurge

overall 

4.9/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

Astral Otter 2.0 Personal Flotation Device for Kids

Features:

  • USCG Type III Approval
  • Conform to kids of all body types
  • Heavy duty materials
  • Includes a whistle
  • Free of toxic PVC

For those in search of superior safety, durability, and comfort, there's the Otter 2.0 Personal Flotation Device from Astral. The versatile life vest is crafted with ripstop nylon fabric, PolyPro webbing, heavy-duty hardware, a corrosion-resistant zipper, and Kapok and PE foam inserts for better buoyancy. Its USCG-approved Flotation technology offers enhanced rib and organ protection.

The splurge-worthy life jacket comes complete with a whistle lanyard for extra safety. Stash it in one of the two zippered chest pockets to keep it handy in case of emergency.

Material

Nylon, Foam

User Weight

50-90 pounds

Flotation/Buoyancy

11.5 pounds

Best For

N/A

Pros:

  • Comfortable to wear
  • It doesn't ride up with the leg straps
  • Plenty of buoyancy

Cons:

  • Expensive price point

O'Neill Teen Reactor USCG-Approved Life Vest

Best for Big Kids & Teens

overall 

4.6/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

O'Neill Teen Reactor USCG-Approved Life Vest

Features:

  • USCG Approved
  • Segmented foam core and anatomical flex points allow unrestricted movement
  • Quick-release safety buckles
  • Minimal bulk design

Big kids still require protection on the water— no matter their swimming abilities. This Reactor Teen Life Vest from O'Neill will keep them safe during wakeboarding, tubing, boating, and other adrenaline-pumping water activities. The USCG-approved life jacket is constructed with a segmented foam core and anatomical flex points for unrestricted movement. Quick-release safety buckles and a durable front zipper provide a sense of security, while strategic mesh panels improve water drainage.

Material

Nylon, Foam

User Weight

N/A

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

Wake Sports, Waterskiing, Tubing, and Swimming

Pros:

  • High visibility color
  • Very comfortable
  • Has a secure fit

Cons:

  • Expensive price point
  • It can be hard for kids to put on independently

Hurley Swim Surfer Swim Trainer Vest

Best for Swimming

overall 

4.5/5

Quality

Durability

Ease of Use

Cost

Hurley Swim Surfer Swim Trainer Vest

Features:

  • Made of a high-quality neoprene material

The Hurley Swim Surfer Swim Trainer Vest promotes proper swimming technique by providing flotation support without limiting its wearer's range of motion. The added buoyancy will help boost your little one's confidence as they master their kicks and strokes. Its lightweight, zip-front design is made from high-quality neoprene material for maximum comfort and durability.

Material

Polyvinyl Chloride, Neoprene, Expanded Polyethylene

User Weight

N/A

Flotation/Buoyancy

N/A

Best For

Swimming

Pros:

  • Super easy to store away
  • Provides a full range of motion
  • The vest packs extremely flat and is great for travel

Cons:

  • Lack of color and size options
  • Not USCG Approved

What age do kids need life jackets?

Kids of all ages should have a well-fitting life jacket for use on and in the water. They're often required for children to participate in water activities at camps, equipment rental stands, and boating excursions. Having one on hand ensures they're ready for any adventure the water brings their way. Here's a quick breakdown of the different types designed for each age group.

Infants

Infant life jackets focus on keeping your baby's head above water as they splash around under adult supervision. Look for styles with wide neck cushions for added head support, a grab strap for improved safety, and a buckled crotch strap for easy swim diaper changes.

Toddlers

Life jackets for toddlers are designed to support your child as they learn to swim. While new swimmers often prefer something with arm floaties, more confident swimmers will likely want something less bulky. The best kids' life jackets come with a grab strap for a quick and easy exit from the water. Those labeled toddler or child are downsized to accommodate smaller bodies weighing 30-50 lbs.

Big Kids

Even capable swimmers need to wear a life vest during high-intensity water activities like speed boating, rafting, wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing. Big kids and teens can switch to a lightweight, flexible vest that won't inhibit their range of motion during fun water sports and adventures.

What type of life jacket is safest for children?

The safest kids life vest and jacket options on the market are those approved by the US Coast Guard. While there are five categories of personal flotation devices, most youth should use a Type III flotation aid. We've broken down each one in detail below help you understand the difference between the different types of jackets.

Type I— Offshore Life Jackets

Type I life jackets are designed to turn an unconscious wearer face up in the water. They offer the most buoyancy, as they're intended for use in open, rough, or remote water where rescue may take an extended period of time.

Type II— Near-Shore Life Jackets

Intended for use in calm waters, type II life vests are best-suited for situations where a quick rescue can be expected. Though highly buoyant, they can't always turn an unconscious wearer face up in rougher waters.

Type III— Flotation Aids

Type III life flotation aids are the most popular type of life vest. Most child and youth life jackets are type III, adding buoyancy to help keep the wearer afloat in calm waters with quick rescues. These versatile vests are commonly used for wakeboarding, water skiing, paddle boarding, and other water activities.

Type IV— Throwable Devices

Type IV personal flotation devices are not designed to be worn. Instead, they're thrown into the water to provide swimming support while waiting for rescue. They're required by law on most boats.

Type V— Special-Use PFDs

Type V personal flotation devices are designed for specific water sports and activities, and they improve safety on the water without inhibiting your movement during kayaking, wakeboarding, or windsurfing. Note that Type V life vests should only be used in accordance with their safety label.

About the Author

Ben Snatler

Ben is a veteran boat captain, scuba instructor and sailing instructor. He grew up on boats and spent nearly the past 20 years working on all types of boats, yachts and even cruises doing all sorts of jobs, from maintenance to safety. He is fully certified with the american sailing association.