Sourcing the best life jacket (or personal flotation device- PFD) for your aquatic adventures is essential if you're thinking of getting into almost any form of watersport, from kayaking and canoeing to SUPing and sailing. 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.
Best life jacket: what to look for
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.