Best life jacket 2022: keep afloat and stay safe on the water

Arm yourself with one of the best life jackets, to keep you safe whether you're SUP-ing along a sunny river or sailing off the south coast

best life jacket: Musto Championship Buoyancy Aid
(Image credit: Musto)

One of the best life jackets is an essential investment if you're thinking of getting into any watersport. While there’s a vast amount of fun to be had messing around in rivers or on the coast, it is vital to have the right protective equipment. One common denominator in water-based sports is the need for a flotation device of some kind – a lifejacket in short. Choosing the best life jacket is a decision that rests on where you plan to use it most of the time; paddling along a canal in the sunshine is a very different scenario to the North Sea in a gathering storm, and fortunately there are life jackets to suit both situations. This guide picks out the key areas to look out for when choosing the best life jackets for you and your chosen sport, as well as five top lifejacket picks on the market today.

While you're figuring out your kit, you might also want to check out our guides to the best paddle boards for beginners, the best water shoes, and the best dry bags, for your aquatic adventures.

Baltic Ifloat SUP

(Image credit: Baltic)

 Best life jacket: what to look for 

The first thing to check with a life jacket is that it meets the proper standard, which for new jackets is ISO12402. The next big question is how and where you plan to use it, as different types of life jacket have different ratings, broadly based on the type of water you’ll be using it in. swimmers and paddlers in rivers and lakes, sheltered inshore waters where help is close by might be looking at the basic level, level 50, which aids a conscious swimmer. Level 100 lifejackets are also for use in sheltered and calm waters, while level 150 is the minimum for coastal and offshore waters. Level 150 will turn an unconscious person onto their back and keep their head clear of the water once inflated, as will the top performing level 275 lifejacket, the latter designed to cope with bulky clothing as well.  

The cheapest lifejackets are packed with foam, making them bulky, but very low-tech with very little to go wrong. More premium options tend to be inflatable, usually via a co2 cylinder that inflates them in seconds, allowing them to be much less bulky and ideal for active use. There are also a range of inflation methods for gas life jackets, ranging from the entirely manual through to fully automatic, the latter including the Hydrostatic (Hammar) lifejackets style, which only operate when fully submerged - ideal for situations where spray might trigger a simpler system.   

  The best life jackets you can buy right now 

Tribord Adult's Inflatable Life Jacket LJ 150N AIRT3 Best Buy badge

(Image credit: decathlon)

1. Tribord Adult Inflatable Life Jacket LJ 150N AIR

The best life jacket for most people

Specifications

Lifejacket rating: 150N
Inflation method: UML salt bobbin automatic inflation
Weight: lightweight
Extras: 300 cm² reflective strip

Reasons to buy

+
Low-profile and light 
+
Excellent protection 

Reasons to avoid

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Requires rearming after each use 
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Automatic trigger not suitable for wetter sports 

The Tribord LJ 150N life jacket provides serious protection in a very compact package. Rated to a solid 150N, this is the perfect jacket for sailing and general boat use, where you (broadly) expect to stay dry-ish. Automatically triggered within 5 seconds of immersion by a salt bobbin system and co2 canister, it’s a very low-profile fit and forget jacket that won’t impede movement, but is there when needed. The downside of this immediate protection is the need to check expiry dates on the bobbin and co2 cylinder, and to rearm it if used. However, when you need proper protection in active offshore situations such as sailing, boating or fishing, this is the tool for the job, and at a reasonable price point too.   

Musto Championship Buoyancy AidT3 Best Buy badge

(Image credit: Musto)

2. Musto Championship Buoyancy Aid

Best premium life jacket for sailing

Specifications

Lifejacket rating: 50N
Inflation method: Foam
Weight: 860g
Extras: Reflective detailing, pocket

Reasons to buy

+
Robust, idiot-proof lifejacket 
+
Handy pocket

Reasons to avoid

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Bulkier than inflatable versions 
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Premium pricing

As one might expect from a high-end sailing brand such as Musto, the Championship Buoyancy Aid is very much targeted at the practicalities of dinghy racing, and comes at a premium to boot. Although it’s made of foam, it’s still anatomically designed to reduce bulk, and that foam construction has plenty of pros too. Most notably there will be no faffing with Co2, and there’s no inflation difficulties here, making it ideal for the spray-filled fun of dinghy racing - and indeed most other inshore sailing. The downside is a relatively low 50N rating, but there are lots of handy details here too, such as the front pocket, and reflective details will prove handy in low-light levels. A hassle-free, specialist safety tool that won’t let you down when the involuntary gybe strikes. 

DECATHLON TRIBORD ADULT FOAM LIFE JACKET LJ 100NT3 Best Buy badge

(Image credit: decathlon)

3. Decathlon Tribord Foam Life Jacket LJ 100N

The best budget lifejacket

Specifications

Lifejacket rating: 100
Inflation Method: foam
Weight: midweight
Extras: whistle, reflective band

Reasons to buy

+
Standards-compliant 100N rating 
+
Very wallet-friendly
+
Low maintenance

Reasons to avoid

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Not suitable for offshore activities 

This Decathlon life jacket immediately looks like a pretty traditional ‘lifejacket’, and indeed it is. However, it packs in the specs and is extremely easy on the wallet to boot. Vitally, it’s ISO 12402-4 compliant, and offers 100N protection to boot, thanks to low-tech but robust foam flotation. The t-shirt shape and single buckle doesn’t restrict movement too much, and a crotch strap keeps you in it in the event of an emergency. A whistle and reflective band boost visibility and communication options, on top of the overall fluro-orange theme, which might not win design awards, but will do the job. Indeed, for such a low price this is an excellent choice, and while the rating isn’t suitable for activities beyond sheltered and calm waters, it’s much, much better than nothing.     

Baltic Ifloat SUP buoyancy aidT3 Best Buy badge

(Image credit: Baltic)

4. Baltic Ifloat SUP Lifejacket

Best life jacket for paddle boarding

Specifications

Lifejacket rating: 50
Inflation Method: Manual
Weight: lightweight
Extras: Strap, carrycase

Reasons to buy

+
Tiny, low bulk waist pack 
+
Quality, reliable brand  

Reasons to avoid

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Won’t protect in anything but ideal conditions 

The Baltic Ifloat SUP lifejacket is specifically designed for keen SUP-ers, so keeps a very low profile indeed in a simple waist belt bag. It’s rated as 50N buoyancy, which is at the bottom of the scale, and is suitable for assisting a capable swimmer in calm inshore conditions – which to be fair covers the majority of SUP territory. With this in mind, it’s a manual inflation (which also means it won’t automatically fire if you tip in accidentally), and also needs to be unpacked and placed over the head, so won’t protect you if unconscious. However, as a ‘just in case’ safety item for SUP adventures that importantly won’t get in your way, it’s a winner.  

RTM KORO life vestT3 Best Buy badge

(Image credit: RTM)

5. RTM KORO life vest

The best life jacket for kayaking

Specifications

Lifejacket rating: 51/55/60N
Inflation method: foam
Weight: N/A
Extras: snack pocket

Reasons to buy

+
Paddling-friendly cut 
+
Solid build quality 

Reasons to avoid

-
Won’t protect in anything but ideal conditions 

The RTM KORO life vest’s big claim to fame is the distinctive cut, ergonomically suited to situations where there’s a lot of arm movement. That's why this is our top pick as the best life jacket for kayaking... or indeed any watery activity that requires paddling. It’s a foam-based device, so suitably robust in situations where the odd knock or bump might occur, and requires very little maintenance bar a rinse after use. Rated as a 50N device, it’s ideal for general watersports use in calm conditions where you might need a little help to swim to safety. A simple zip-up front keeps donning and doffing as simple as possible, and a handy zipped pocket is ideal for snacks or selfie-ready smartphones alike. For a very reasonable price tag, this is a robust, no-nonsense lifejacket option for paddlers of all stripes.  

Mark Mayne
Mark Mayne

Mark Mayne has been covering tech, gadgets and outdoor innovation for longer than he can remember. A keen climber, mountaineer and scuba diver, he is also a dedicated weather enthusiast and flapjack consumption expert.