Kayaking as a family can be a very rewarding experience because it creates memories, instills confidence on the water, and encourages family bonding. The most important aspect of water adventure you should plan out is safety which makes picking what life jacket (aka PFD-Personal Flotation Device) your kiddos wear, a big decision. We have gone through the hundreds of options and picked out and discussed the 10 best kid life jackets for you!
Finding the right size life jacket for a child is different than how you would for an adult. Where you want to measure chest size to determine the size for an adult PFD (Personal Floatation Device), you use weight for the child. You can find the sizing information on the inside of the back, here is typically what you will see:
- Infant PFDs: up to 30 pounds
- Child PFDs: 30 to 50 pounds
- Youth PFDs: 50 to 90 pounds
Remember, in order for the life jacket to do its job, it needs to be worn. Kids are not used to wearing what can be a bulky, uncomfortable vest. So make sure you do your research and get the right life jackets for your family, so there is less push back on being safe!
The design and comfort of life jackets have also come a long way over the years, so they are being made with the user in mind and are more comfortable than ever before which makes it easier to wear them for longer amounts of time.
1. NRS Vista Youth PFD
The denier nylon material helps prevent any snags or tears which is good because this life jacket is meant to be worn by a child who may play rough at times.
Due to adjustment points on the front, shoulders, and sides, this life jacket will securely fit any child ranging from 50 to 90 pounds. Don’t neglect the benefit of having pockets on your kiddos PFD so they can carry some snacks or toys or whatever else they feel they need to have with them.
2. NRS Crew Youth PFD
Material: Outer 200-denier nylon
This is a basic personal flotation device, but it fulfills its duty of keeping your child safe! Because there are no added features, it provides a sleeker and more comfortable design.
This particular child and youth flotation device meets and exceeds all the U.S. Coast Guard requirements and is the ideal choice if you plan on boating on flatwater or staying close to the shore.
The one waist and four side adjustments also go a long way in providing a snug and secure fit for your child.
It is a great option if you are trying to keep the price down. (See child size for 30-50 lbs.)
3. Stohlquist Escape Youth Life Jacket
Material: Outer 200-denier Nylon, 200-denier oxford liner
Is your child starting to grow out of their kid’s PFD, but you don’t want to splurge on an adult size yet? This life jacket comes in 2 sizes, Youth (50-90 lbs.) and Youth LG/Adult XS (75-125 lbs.).
This sleek fitting jacket also has a front zippered, pleated pocket where your child can store a few of their favorite snacks and a waist belt buckle that provides a more secure fit, so it doesn’t ride up. It has a very low-profile design that offers a more contoured and comfortable fit.
4. Astral Otter 2.0 Youth PFD
Material: Outer 200 x 400-denier ripstop nylon, lining 200-denier nylon
Compared to some of the other personal flotation device options, this can be a little bulkier because it has a shorter torso, which does make it an ideal option for whitewater or if you are often sitting.
With the shorter torso, the life jackets won’t ride up and be in the child’s face. Combining 6 adjustment points and 3 buckle closures make for a secure and snug fit.
A bonus feature is the sewn in grab handle on the back for easy rescue.
5. NRS Big Water V Youth Life Vest
Material: Outer 420-denier nylon
Here’s a Type V PFD for those class V adventurers! This means that there is high flotation and a flotation collar to help keep their head up out of the water.
It is labeled as a high profile PFD, so it is sure to keep your child visible and afloat. The webbing loops for the leg straps provide a more secure fit while in the open water, and the four buckles on this life jacket make it easy to put on and take off, as well as make any needed adjustments easy to do.
The NRS Big Water V Youth PFD is recommended for children that weigh between 50 and 90 pounds.
6. Stohlquist Drifter Youth Life Jacket
Material: Outer 500-denier Cordura® Nylon, 200-denier oxford liner
For being a youth PFD, this is stacked with features which are beneficial if they are getting into whitewater paddling. In addition to zippered and buckled front there are cross-chest cinch straps to eliminate any ride-up so that the life jacket stays snug and in place.
Wide armholes and stretchy adjustable neoprene shoulders enable maximum mobility, and the hand beveled free foam allows for a very comfortable fit for the child.
The Stohlquist Drifter Youth life jacket also features a fully draining front pocket, low-profile design, and cool mesh side panels.
7. Extrasport Youth PFD with Collar
Material: 200-denier nylon
This Type II PFD comes in infant (under 50 lbs.) and youth (50-90 lbs.) sizes. The head support gives more confidence if the child ends up in the water.
There is an adjustable crotch strap to help secure the jacket in place to prevent ride up. This life jacket also features reflective tape to enhance visibility while in the water.
The Extrasport Children’s Type II PFD is Coast Guard approved due to its chest up flotation capabilities.
8. Stearns Heads-Up Youth Life Vest
Material: Nylon shell, polyester liner
Even being one of the most affordable life jackets available for children, the Stearns Heads-Up Vest still contains some of the highly sought-after features.
The head float has a handle on the back for easy rescue. The crotch strap—to help hold the PFD in place—is lined with Hydroprene™-material to reduce chafing and is a very breathable material to enhance the child’s comfort while it is being worn.
It is recommended for children that weigh between fifty and ninety pounds and is a Type II personal flotation device that has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is also available in the infant sizes that accommodate a child that weighs under thirty pounds.
9. Stearns Youth Life Vest
Material: Polyester Shell, durable nylon construction, PE foam
This PFD is highly rated because of its value. This is a generic and not highly durable, but if you are just starting to get your family into boating and looking to keep costs down this is a great, safe option for you.
The Stearns Youth Life Vest features three adjustable straps to find the best and most secure fit, while still being easy to put on and take off.It is a U.S. Coast Guard approved youth life jacket that is recommended for a child weighing between fifty and ninety pounds with a chest size of between 26 and 29 inches.
This closed sided vest with an open-sided design also allows for better movement while it is being worn.
10. Full Throttle Youth Hinged PFD
Material: Full Throttle’s Rapid-Dry (similar to neoprene)
Without lacking the proper UCGA Type III requirements, this is a life jacket that allows mobility because of the five segmented hinge points.
The soft and stretchable material used for the flex-back insert will not hinder your child in whatever water activity they find themselves in, and they will find that they can retain maximum flexibility while wearing this personal flotation device.
It is recommended for children between 50 and 90 pounds and provided enhanced comfort and durability for any child.
How do I know the Life Jacket fits correctly?
First, make sure they have the PFD on correctly. All the straps should be fully loosened when you first put it on. After putting the life jacket on the child, fasten any buckles or zippers.
You then instruct your child to find their belly button, and this is the point at which the bottom strap should be, so tighten that first.
Then, if there are shoulder straps, tighten those, then any other straps that need tightening. It should be pretty easy to realize if the PFD is too small if it looks very uncomfortable where they are having a hard time breathing properly. If you just tightened the straps too tight, they will loosen a little when they get wet.
If it is too small of a size it will not be buoyant enough and therefore unsafe because it will not offer your child the flotation they will need. To test if the life jacket is too big, raise their arms above their head, and if the life jacket touches their ears or chin, it might be too big. To really tell, try lifting them by the shoulders of the jacket, and if they slip through it, it is too big.
Life Jacket Features
Your child’s safety should be your number one priority, and by fitting them for a life jacket, you are securing their safety. No matter what the water activity is, it is important to always wear the life jacket. The following are a few tips to find the best U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets for your children.
Always match the life jacket you choose to the activities you will be participating in. There are several different types and classifications of life jackets that differ according to activity and water conditions. The U.S. Coast Guard wants you to make sure that if you are going to be on rougher water, then you should choose a life jacket that is made for such.
An offshore life jacket is an ideal choice for extended survival, such as in the open sea. They are designed to turn a person face up and out of the water, and they provide maximum buoyancy for the user. However, this type of life jacket can be very uncomfortable and bulky when worn for extended periods of time. An offshore jacket is also known as a Type I personal flotation device.
A near-shore buoyant vest is best for calm water and can be used for more general boating activities that keep you closer to the shore. They are a lot less bulky than a type one personal flotation device, but it cannot turn an unconscious person’s face up, so it stays out of the water which makes it less than ideal for rough water or extended trips.
A Type III flotation device is also best for calm waters and is a more comfortable and lightweight life jacket option that can be worn for extended periods of time. However, keep in mind that this type of flotation device cannot turn an unconscious person face up, so you will not want to utilize this type of personal flotation device in rough waters.
Life Jacket Styles
Finally, you should also consider the style of the life jacket you are going to purchase for your child because the overall design underneath the life jacket is just as important as the outside appearance and features.
An inherently buoyant life jacket, for example, is typically made from a neoprene material or a floatable foam material. This type of life jacket is durable and works well for the user.
Inflatable life jackets will automatically deploy when they are submerged so that they can float on the water. However, keep in mind that inflatable life jackets are not suitable or recommended for a child under sixteen years of age or for those people that do not know how to swim. Using inflatable life jackets may also mean spending a bit more time on maintenance and they may require a little more work for them to function as they should. If you will be in and out of the water regularly, then inflatable life jackets are also not a good choice.
Finally, hybrid life jackets are made from very buoyant materials as well and do come available in child/youth sizes. However, you should note that choosing this life jacket for your child may mean a bit extra maintenance to maintain its proper working order. It is also important to keep in mind that this type of personal flotation device is also not suitable for all water activities but are comfortable enough for extended wear.
Practice Wearing the Life Jacket
Finally, to get your child more comfortable with wearing personal flotation devices, you can have them practice wearing it in calm water, so they get used to how it feels. It is also a good opportunity to teach your child what to do if they are in the water and you can show them how the life jacket will work.
It is recommended that you teach your child the right way to relax their arms and legs, so they do not have water splashing in their face from flailing around. It is best for them to remain calm, so they can float until someone can pull them to safety. It is also important that they remain balanced to keep their face out of the water.
Once they get more comfortable and understand what should be done if they are in the water and learn the proper way to swim while wearing a life jacket, they will be better equipped to handle an emergency situation and will not be afraid to wear their life jackets while on the water.
The bottom line when choosing the best kid life jackets is to take your time, familiarize yourself with the important features and information to watch for and educate your child on water safety. Then you can prepare to have a great time with the entire family out on the water.
Get out your camera because the whole family in their life jackets can make for a fun, unique Christmas card!