Best Kids' Life Jackets
The Hardcore Life Vest is a type III vest intended for use while water skiing, wakeboarding (according to the vest), and paddle sports (we assume). This vest is highly adjustable with open sides and three buckles that allow you to create a custom fit for different body shapes. We like that the buckles are easy to use, and testers seemed to like the graphics on the vest, making it a popular choice during testing. This vest is comfortable to wear, and once on, all testers kept it on without complaint for an entire day's activities.
There isn't much to dislike about this vest, but perhaps a brighter color is in order. Dark colors can be harder to spot for any water activity in a lake or similar waterway, especially at a distance. We think it would be easier to keep an eye on little ones if their vests were brightly colored instead of blending into the darker water. That aside, this economical vest is a great choice for most families and a must-have for those with users of different sizes who may need to share.
The Airhead WICKED Kwik-Dry is a neoprene-style vest that lists waterskiing as its suitable sport. This product is an economical neoprene option in a sea of vests that typically cost more for the neoprene material. This vest has a center zipper and two front buckles. It is brightly colored in pink (though there are other colors), and we liked that it was easy to see from a distance. Testers liked the bright pink colors and the warmth provided by the neoprene material.
This vest is cheaper, and it shows somewhat in the construction with buckles that do not wrap all the way around and a zipper that is harder to use. It also has visible lines under the neoprene showing the floating material edges. This option is also not really adjustable as the zipper closure, and front buckle design means you can't really tighten it or loosen it for different body shapes. Despite these minor flaws, it could be a strong contender for those with standard body shapes who want neoprene without the higher price tag.
The Stohlquist Youth Fit is suitable for personal watercraft, paddle sports, towables, and general boating. It has a soft nylon shell and open sides, creating a highly adjustable option that can fit children of various shapes within the manufacturer's guidelines. This device has floatation padding in the front and back with wide-open armholes that make it more comfortable to paddle and move little arms for fun without chaffing.
This economical option feels a little cheaper than the competition with buckles that aren't as easy to operate. It relies on 3 buckles for closure, so it doesn't have the snug feel of a zipper but is more adjustable. While it is a basic vest and doesn't have any bells and whistles, we love how it adjusts to fit almost any shape child we tried it on. The open armholes were a big hit with paddlers for preventing arm chaff, making it a vest we think is great to have for all-around fun or multiple children and guests.
The Stearns Child Classic Series Vest is a nylon vest listed as a ski vest. This option has 3 buckles, 2 of which circle the entire vest, and a basic design for smaller children that includes a crotch strap to prevent the vest from floating up and over the wearer's head when in the water. This vest has slightly thicker flotation material in the front than the back, which should encourage or help a wearer bob face up in the water while wearing it.
This vest feels somewhat lower quality than the competition. It has a rough crotch strap that could chaff thin skin on the inner thigh. The buckles are also somewhat stiff and harder to operate than the competition when tested side-by-side. However, overall, we like this straightforward design and how it is highly adjustable for all body types within the manufacturer's recommended range, making it a good option to have on hand for smaller water sprites.
The O'Neill Infant Superlite is a "near shore" vest suitable for "general boating." It is not intended for use during water skiing, towable, or personal watercraft. Think of it as an "in boat" vest for little ones under 30 lbs. This vest has a zipper, two buckles, and a crotch strap. It has a two-part headrest flotation component with a handle for grasping. We like the bright, easy-to-spot coloring, and little ones liked the open armholes and comfortable fit.
This vest has a challenging zipper that is so close to the thick flotation material it is hard to grasp. It also isn't as adjustable as it could be as the nylon material wraps all the way around instead of only encasing the flotation pads. Overall, we like this vest and the design that makes for a comfortable option for babies and toddlers, and we think parents will too.
The O'Neill Wetsuits Child Reactor is a neoprene lifevest with a crotch strap buckle for littler users. It is listed for use during waterskiing, wakeboarding, and personal watercraft. This vest is soft to the touch and includes flotation material the way around for a snug and comforting fit. It also provides some warmth thanks to the neoprene design, making it a good choice for kids who run a little cold or dislike cold water. This vest has an easy-to-use zipper and buckles that work smoothly. It also features a handle on the back to help smaller children out of the water or hold them in place.
This vest is the most expensive in the group, and while the quality is there, it may be more than you want to spend on a one-season item. This unit is a full wrap-around style vest, so there is no adjustability, and if it doesn't fit your child, there isn't anything to be done but return it. Also, while you could use it for paddle sports, the neoprene and underarm design might cause chaffing with repeated paddling motions. This product is a high-quality, stylish option testers were drawn to, but few testers wore it for long as it didn't seem to fit anyone just right.
The Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest is a "near shore buoyancy vest." This type of vest is design with younger children in mind and has floatation material in the headrest flap and the front of the vest to discourage face down floating in the water. This vest is best for recreational boating but not for at-speed activities like tubing or skiing. We love that this vet is brightly colored, increasing the visibility of the child even at a distance. And the wrap-around fabric and softer crotch strap ensure comfort, so little ones won't complain about wearing it.
While this vest is comfortable, it is harder to get on than some of the competition. The zipper is hard to start and doesn't run as smoothly as possible because the fabric around it gets stuck in the track. The buckles are also stiff and take some finger strength to pop open, but this could be seen as a plus if your little one is prone to defying instructions. Overall, we love the quality and the thoughtful details on this vest for younger kids and toddlers, and we think parents will appreciate the bright color and headrest handle.
The O'Neill Youth SuperLite is a nylon vest with listed uses of wakeboarding, skiing, and personal watercraft devices. The vest features two wrap-around straps and buckles and a third chest buckle that starts and ends in the front. The jacket has easier-to-use buckles and fits most testers well.
The yon fabric wraps all the way around the wearer as opposed to just the floatation material like much of the competition. This design makes the vest somewhat less adjustable for size. It also means arms could still potentially chaff on the material under the armpits. This vest is also darker in color, making it harder to see little ones from a distance. Overall, it isn't a bad vest, and it looks like nice quality, but we think a more adjustable vest will last longer and be easier to use by multiple people over time.
The Stearns Kids Life Vest is a neoprene lifevest listed as a "ski vest." This vest is thicker than the neoprene competition and has a long front zipper with 2 buckles. The neoprene is soft to the touch, and testers liked the way it felt on bare skin. The buckles and zipper are easy to use.
This vest has thinner neoprene that bunched and because water stained after one use. It also is not adjustable in any real way as the buckles start at the front of the vest and do not wrap around, so if your child isn't the exact right size, there is nothing you can do to customize the vest. While we like the comfort and warmth provided by neoprene, there are better neoprene options in this group. The functionality seemed fine, but the looks just didn't measure up to the competition.
The Stohlquist Kids Life Jacket is a canoeing, kayaking, and sailing vest for children from 30-50 lbs. It has a soft nylon cover, float front, and triangle nylon back with a floating headrest to help encourage face-up floatation. This vest has a double headrest design with a zipper and a buckle front closure. The crotch strap is nylon, and the buckles work well.
This vest is not suitable for all activities and could inhibit potential opportunities for fun. It has a relatively smooth zipper, but the ends are hard to grasp as the floatation material makes it hard to keep a firm hold on the zipper. We like this vest, and it could be a good option for little ones on self-paddled boats, but if you think you'll be moving at speed or enjoying an inner tube pulled by a boat, it is sort of expensive to have limited use.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our kids' PFD (lifevest) review is led by Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz. Wendy is a mother of 2 boys who are active lake goers participating in activities from kayaking and standup paddleboarding to innertubes and kneeboarding. Wendy researched and assessed each lifevest in this review in addition to feedback from her boys and other child testers on comfort, fit, range of motion, and more to determine ranks and winners.
We tested each vest hands-on for quality, ease of use, fit, and more during several water-related outings with multiple children. The vests were compared to one another to determine which options were best suited for different situations, goals, budget considerations.
Analysis and Test Results
We purchased and tested the top kids' personal floatation devices (aka Life vests) on the market to find the best products for every need and budget.
Staying safe around water is no small thing. Safety should be a top priority whenever you plan to bring people and water together, especially children. This review covers the fit, comfort, and quality of life vests. It is NOT intended to take the place of safety guidelines or other water safety precautions you should take for your family. Using a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) approved life jacket for each member of your family is only part of the water safety equation. Each state has its own laws governing the use of personal floatation devices. You should always do due diligence before embarking on water activities to ensure you comply with the laws in your area and do your part to keep your child safe. We recommend children partake in structured swimming lessons early and often to help create comfort in and around water, but nothing can take the place of a properly fitted and approved life jacket. We are not water safety experts and, as such, can not remark on the safety of any product outside of its USCG Approval.
Because the lifevests need to pass certain criteria to earn their USCG certification, there is already an inherently high-quality level. These products all have nice stitching, adequate and even flotation material, and working zippers and buckles. However, some of easier to use than others, and some vest provide extra attention to detail that makes them stand out for quality.
Price did not seem to be a large indicator of quality, and we believe that even the cheaper models provide high-quality features that should last as long as the vest is designed for use. For example, the Hardcore vest is one of the least expensive options in the group. Still, it is easy to use, fits comfortably, is highly adjustable, and we found no flaws in design or execution as this vest saw more action than the competition during testing. The O'Neill Wetsuits Child Reactor vest is the most expensive option in the group, and it shows when compared side by side. While the Hardcore is great, the O'Neil Reactor looks and feels even better. This pillow-like vest features thicker neoprene that hugs the body, extra stitching to prevent shifting of the floating material inside the vest, and a heavy-duty zipper that stays in place even during activity. This vest has two chest buckles and a crotch strap and is designed for younger users. It is clear when viewing it compared to the competition that this vest costs more to make.
In the end, while quality is certainly important, we think the vest in this review has a quality level that matches or exceeds its price tags. It is more important that you look for a good fit and suitability for your activity than worrying about quality (assuming the vest is in new or good working order).
Vests should be inspected before each use for wear and tear or other indicators that it is time for retirement. Most of the manufacturers included instructions that once the vest starts to fade, it is time for a new vest.
Ease of Use
Most of the life vests were similar in their ease of use. Thanks to stringent guidelines, the products have similar standards they must meet to pass inspection. All of the vests have buckle closures and strap adjustments. Some of the neoprene options also have a zipper, but the buckles are still required to ensure overall safety even with the zipper closed. The jackets for younger kids also have a strap that goes between the legs and buckles from the back to the front. This strap is designed to prevent the vest from rising above the wearer's head. These buckles seemed somewhat harder to disconnect, perhaps to prevent little ones from release the buckle on their own.
The O'Neill Wetsuits Child Reactor is a comfy and well-built jacket with a smooth zipper and simple buckles. It has a handle on the back and is brightly colored. The Hardcore is also easy to use with increased adjustability and straightforward buckles and straps.
Fit and Comfort
Two important aspects of a great lifevest are fit and comfort. Fit is non-negotiable and the key to ensuring safety in the water (see the box below for fit testing). Comfort impacts whether your little one will wear the jacket without complaining.
Our testers found the neoprene jackets to be more comfortable. However, the neoprene is more form-fitting, and there is little to no wiggle room in these vests to make adjustments for circumference changes over time. While each vest has a weight range and chest dimension guide, a child's day-to-day measurements can shift as they grow, which is typically a fast development like weeds. Neoprene is more comfortable the longer you wear it and highly suitable for activities that involve speed, like tubing behind a motorboat or water skiing. Our testers' favorites were the Airhead WICKED Kwik-Dry, O'Neill Wetsuits Child Reactor, and the Stearns Kids Life Vest.
Other styles of vests have side adjustments that allow for significant alterations to circumference and allow for a more customized fit. The floatation material is in the front and back of the child with open sides. This design allows for a potentially longer life as long as your child is within the size guidelines of the jacket and it fits well. Our favorites of this style are the Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest, Stohlquist Youth Fit, and the Hardcore Life Vest.
No matter what, the fit should take precedence over comfort. While both are important, fit is potentially lifesaving.
The USCG makes the following recommendations for properly fitting a life vest before making your final selection.
Try It On For Size
- Check the manufacturer's label to ensure that the life jacket is a proper fit for your size and weight.
- Make sure the jacket is properly fastened.
- Hold your arms straight up over your head.
- Ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up.
Personal Flotation Devices come in various types intended for different activities and/or abilities of the wearer. Be sure to select the type of PFD most suitable for your child's ability and the intended activity.
The following Type definitions were taken from the US Coast Guard website.
Type II - intended to turn some unconscious persons from a face-down position in the water to a position where the wearer's respiration is not impeded.
Type III - intended to support a conscious person in the water in an upright position. This type of device is not required to turn an unconscious person in the water from a face-down position to a position where the wearer's respiration is not impeded.
Type V - is approved for restricted uses or activities such as boardsailing or commercial white water rafting. These devices may not be suitable for other boating activities. The label indicates whether a particular design of Type V can be used in a specific application, what restrictions or limitations apply, and its performance type.
Finding a comfortable and safe floatation device for your child can provide peace of mind when enjoying any activity near water. This review is designed to help you select a quality product that is comfortable and easy to use for most children in the appropriate age group. We used each vest hands-on with multiple kids to get the details you need to make an informed decision for your child and budget. We think there is something for everyone in the lineup of great options.
— Wendy Schmitz