How to Choose Life Jackets and PFDs for Kids, Youth, and Infants

Choosing a safe life jacket for your infant, child, or youth is an important decision. We’ll show you the process we’ve used to find a life jacket to introduce our kids to fun in the water and keep active ourselves.   Photo courtesy Seamus Daniels.

Choosing a safe life jacket for your infant, child, or youth is an important decision. We’ll show you the process we’ve used to find a life jacket to introduce our kids to fun in the water and keep active ourselves. Photo courtesy Seamus Daniels.

Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, swimming, packrafting, or more, there’s a life jacket or PFD for what your kids are doing. PFDs are much like t-shirts — anyone can hand you a “good” tshirt, but only you can find that favorite-everyday-tee. Knowing how to fit your PFD makes it more likely that you’ll find a new favorite.

At the end of the day, only you can pick the life jacket or Personal Floatation Device (PFD) that works for you and your kid. You know what kind of water you want to be on, your activity level, and your size range. These tips will guide you to make a more informed decision for you and your kids.


See our Guide to the 5 Best Kids’ Life Jackets and PFDs for the models of youth, infant, and child life jackets and PFDs we recommend and why.

Need an adult life jacket for yourself? See our Guide on Best Life Jackets and PFDs (for adults) for details on which PFDs we recommend and why.


 

Here are 3 things to consider when choosing your kids’ life jacket or child’s PFD.

  1. What size is your child?

  1. how should you size a life jacket for a child?

Kids PFDs are designed to fit within weight ranges, but a skinny and tall child may use a toddler-sized PFD longer than his top-heavy, younger friend. Take into account the weight ranges suggested by the manufacturer, but take chest measurements to confirm accurate sizing. And, once again, look for an adjustable PFD; kids grow fast, and they might be a different size pre-season than they are post-season.

Life jackets give kids the ability to get out out on the water.   Photo by    Dave Clubb    on    Unsplash

Life jackets give kids the ability to get out out on the water. Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash

2. What are you using a PFD for?

Are you a flatwater kayaker looking to get your kids into whitewater? Are you a canoer who’s about to embark on a friend’s rafting trip down the Grand Canyon? Are you looking for something to wear on an inner tube down the lazy river, or swimming in the local pond? Take into consideration the highest level of activity that you might participate in. 

For example, if you’re a flatwater kayaker who wants to get into running rivers with your children, look for a low-profile Type III PFD (depending on age). They’ll have plenty of buoyancy to paddle the river, while maintaining enough mobility (and lack of bulk) to continue kayaking on flatwater. If you’re looking to take your SUP out on the lake with your kids, then a budget-friendly Type I may be perfect for you all

3. How often will your kid be wearing a PFD?

If you’re going to be on the water more than a handful of times in a summer, it may be worth it to upgrade. For the avid weekend warrior, a $100 PFD may be the perfect intersection of price point and performance. For a vacation-only water-lover, a budget pick might just be the ticket.

Look at the design. Will your child be active in the water, or hang out fishing in the back of the boat? Are they a confident swimmer, or nervous on the water? Is a crotch strap necessary, or not?

Are often cold or headed to cool waters? You may want to invest in Neoprene, which is more expensive but a useful comfort upgrade for most folks. (And kids need more insulation than we do!)

 

See our Guide to the 5 Best Kids’ Life Jackets and PFDs for the models of youth, infant, and child life jackets and PFDs we recommend and why.


Choose a PFD that allows the best range of motion for your body.   Photo by    stephanie dawn    on    Unsplash

Choose a PFD that allows the best range of motion for your body. Photo by stephanie dawn on Unsplash

What To Look for in a Good Kids’ PFD

There is a large set of features to consider when it comes to a piece of gear designed to save kids’ lives — or, at the very least, to keep you afloat. We narrowed our selection criteria down to these 7 most important. 

For the 5 Infant, Kids’, and Youth Life Jackets that met all of our stringent criteria to win against the dozens of PFDs we considered, see our Best Kids’ Life Jacket story

 

Price

While we think that a life-saving device for your child is not an area to skimp, we weighed the expense versus the durability of each PFDs features to select the best options. Afterall, kids do grow out of PFDs, so knowing you may need to buy a few, we think it’s reasonable to be price sensitive. We also included our Best Budget Life Jacket, with kids’ sizing and price as considerations.

 

Inflatable floatation devices aren’t as reliable or safe as a Coast Guard Approved Youth life jacket or PFD.  Photo by    Siska Vrijburg    on    Unsplash

Inflatable floatation devices aren’t as reliable or safe as a Coast Guard Approved Youth life jacket or PFD. Photo by Siska Vrijburg on Unsplash

Coast Guard Rating & Flotation Weight

While every PFD we reviewed had to be Coast Guard approved, we also took the flotation weight (or the amount of buoyancy added) into account. In general, the more flotation weight, the better. But flotation devices with higher flotation weights tend to be bulkier, losing the mobility benefits of a slimmer PFD for certain activities, or for older, more active kids.

Adjustability

This was a no-brainer, but arguably the most important point. Adjustability in a PFD allows for one piece of equipment to fit a wide array of body shapes and sizes, which is crucial for kids. Adjustability allows for life-saving, close-fitting PFDs, which are the only useful and functional kinds of PFDs. We looked for PFDs with multiple adjustable straps and other features to allow for a greater range of consumer fits

Comfort

Little Johnny won’t go out on the water if his life jacket is uncomfortable. We made sure to find PFDs that were comfortable both on and off the water for even the pickiest of kids.

Design (“Life Preserver” vs “PFD”)

Obviously, we want our kids to be safe as possible. But the question of comfort and mobility comes into play when you’re choosing a safety device for you child. While life jackets are designed to keep heads above water and bodies afloat, a Type II life preserver may hinder an older child’s abilities in the water. To read more about what Type I and Type II mean, see our stories on Life Jacket vs. PFDs and What are the 5 types of Coast Guard approved life jackets and PFDs?  

 
As kids grow, a more durable life jacket can potentially be used by multiple children.   Photo by    Jude Beck    on    Unsplash

As kids grow, a more durable life jacket can potentially be used by multiple children. Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

Choosing whether you should get a life preserver or a PFD comes down to knowing your child, knowing your activity, and knowing your involvement with your child in the water. You may want the full precaution of a Type I or II, or may want the mobility of a Type III. Know your desired design before you purchase.

Durability

A PFD that wears out quickly isn’t worth much. We researched PFDs with hardy materials — read: kid-proof — to make sure that what we chose could stand the test of time (and tumbles!).

Sizes

We all have different body types and body weights, but with how fast kids grow, a range of sizes is key. We researched PFDs that provide a wide array of available sizes to accommodate all of our little water enthusiasts, no matter what age or size. Read below for more on how to size a child’s life jacket.

Read our Guide to Best Kids’ Life Jackets and PFDs for details on which PFDs we recommend and why.

 

A kids’ life jacket is only as safe as how well you size it to your child and the adult supervision you provide.   Photo courtesy Seamus Daniels.

A kids’ life jacket is only as safe as how well you size it to your child and the adult supervision you provide. Photo courtesy Seamus Daniels.

Youth life jacket sizes: How to fit kids’ Life jackets and PFDs (Personal Floatation Device)?


It’s all well and good to own a PFD, but it’s pointless to wear one if it’s not fitted properly.

In our Guide to Best Kids’ Life Jackets and PFDs, we recommend PFDs of different sizes to accomodate infants, toddlers, children, and youth. Our recommendations cover kids from 8 to 30 pounds, 30 to 50 pounds, 50 to 90 pounds, and 90 to 110 pounds.

NRS, a popular PFD brand, released a blog post explaining how to properly fit a child’s PFD.


 

Once you buy your PFD, test it at home using this process before taking it in the water:

  1. Check the manufacturer’s sizing charts and/or recommendations. PFDs are sized by chest circumference, with most difference in sizes lying only with the lengths of straps.

  2. Loosen all of the straps on the PFD before putting it on. Buckle, zip, or pull on your PFD. Then, work from the bottom up — tighten your lowest strap first, and work your way up to your shoulders. This way, you avoid strapping the PFD too high on your chest (which happens when you start from the neck, and work your way down). When purchasing a PFD, you want to make sure you have some extra length left on the straps for layering on colder days. If you don’t have room, you may need to size up. If the straps are too long, you may need a smaller size.

  3. To test the fit, use the buddy system. With your child’s arms raised, tug the shoulder straps up, as if you were pulling them up and out of the water. (You might have to, one day!) If it slides up, tighten the torso straps again. If it continues to slide up, you may need to choose a different size. If a smaller size doesn’t cut it, you may need to look for a different PFD altogether.

4. The final test - pretend you’re on the water! Take your kids to a pool (or the bathtub, if they’re small enough!) to practice. Move their arms, grab a paddle and pretend they’re taking on their next rapid. Reach around and make sure they can adjust, twist their torso, and sit down comfortably. If your child is an infant or a toddler, see how they do on their back with their head floating on a pillow. Better to take a few minutes and practice than be uncomfortable for hours on the water!

Read our Full Guide on Best Life Jackets and PFDs for details on which PFDs we recommend and why.