Home  > How To

Life Vest Buying Guide

Links to Life Vest Information
Life Vest UsageLife Vest Sizing and Fitting
Life Vest TypesAge and Gender Specifications


A life vest is a must have for all types and levels of users when participating in activities like, but not limited to, recreational boating, kayaking, canoeing or water tubing. Life vests, or PFDs, are worn like a jacket and typically offer a zipper or buckle closure device in the front.

Life Vest Usage:

Personal Floatation Devices are designed with end-use in mind. DICK’s Sporting Goods offers five types of PFDs, each tailoring to a specific activity or regulation from fishing to water tubing.

Types of Life Vests

Fishing Life Vest

  • Able to be comfortably worn in a kayak or canoe—the wider cuts around the arms make it easy to paddle your boat.
  • Allows for freedom of movement—easy to cast and reel.
  • Generally offers multiple tool hangers, loops for your fishing rod and pockets for other fishing accessories.
  • Typically a Type III PFD.

Kayaking / Canoeing

  • Allows for freedom of movement with wider cuts around the arms—easy to paddle.
  • Paddle sport vests typically have a thinner nylon backing in order to ensure comfort when seated in a kayak with larger seat backing.
  • Typically a Type III PFD.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding

  • Efficient for stand up paddle boarding—a rising, fast-growing area in paddle sports that provides a change from ordinary kayaking or canoeing, giving new and interesting perspective of the environment from a standing position.
  • Unique vests that use a pull cord to activate a CO2 cartridge, releasing a life jacket from inside the pouch.
  • Worn around the waist.
  • Typically a Type III PFD

Compliance Vest

  • Simple, durable vests compliant with Coast Guard regulations for all types of recreational boating.
  • Commonly a foam device with a single strap to ensure a secure fit.
  • Typically a Type II PFD.

Water Skiing and Water Tubing Life Vest

  • Snug fitting vest with wider-cut arms designed for easy movement while water skiing, water tubing, kneeboarding, wakeboarding, or snorkeling.
  • Most commonly foam vests with buckles to ensure a comfortable, tight fit.
  • Typically a Type III PFD.

Paddle Sport Life Vests vs. Water Skiing / Water Tubing Vests

There are a few main differences to note between a paddle sport vest and a water ski or water tubing vest. Paddle sport vests:

  • Have a deeper neck, larger armholes, and narrower shoulder straps to allow for freedom of movement.
  • Will not rub or chafe your skin while paddling.
  • Are designed with high backs to allow for a more comfortable seated position in a boat.

Both types of vests offer the same level of flotation, but they are tailored to specific activities.

Types Defined by U.S. Coast Guard:

In total, there are five types of life vests approved by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). DICK’s Sporting Goods offers type II and type III life vests, both of which provide the user with proper safety precautions while kayaking or canoeing, boating, stand up paddle boarding, and other water sports like water skiing, water tubing or kneeboarding.

Type II - Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest

  • Available in foam and inflatable types—easy to wear.
  • Less bulky than Type I vests—offers 15.5 lbs. of flotation with a foam device and 33.5 lbs. of flotation with an inflatable device.
  • Most effective in calm, inland bodies of water where quick rescue is possible.
  • Will turn most, but not all, unconscious wearers in a face-up position in water.

Type III - Flotation Aid

  • Lightweight and comfortable style—most commonly used in paddle sports.
  • Offers 15.5 lbs. of flotation with a foam device and 22.5 lbs. of flotation with an inflatable device.
  • Designed for calm and open waters where quick rescue is possible—not recommended for rough waters.
  • Designed so users can place themselves in a face-up position in water.

Life Vest Materials

Another aspect to consider when purchasing the right life vest is the material. The two most common types of materials are nylon and neoprene.


  • Most common material found in paddle sport life vests.
  • Less expensive type of fabric.
  • Light material—makes it easy and comfortable for the user to paddle their boat or cast their fishing reel.


  • Most common material found in water sport vests (skiing, tubing, kneeboarding, etc.)
  • More expensive type of fabric.
  • Provides a comfortable, snug fit with higher amounts of buoyancy to keep the user afloat.

Life Vest Sizing and Fitting:

A life vest should fit comfortably and be designed for a specific use (paddle sports, skiing or tubing, etc.) in mind. Life vests are available in a variety of sizes, ranging from adult to youth, child, and infant sizes. When trying on and fitting a life vest, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Choose a life vest based on chest size for adults and weight for children.
  • Loosen all straps, put it on, and secure closure.
  • Tighten all straps, starting with the waist belt, and work your way up to the shoulder straps.
  • Pull vest up from shoulder straps. If the life vest pulls up around the paddler’s head, the vest is too big.
  • Try some paddling moves to ensure full range of motion so that no binding or chafing occurs.

The last two guidelines are to be used when fitting a life vest for paddle sports. In general, a life vest should fit securely and comfortably for all types of users. If your vest is too loose, it will not provide proper flotation in water.

Age and Gender Specifications

There are many types of life vests available to fit men and women comfortably, along with sizes that accommodate youth, children and even infants.

When fitting younger children, the most important aspect is their weight. Adult Vests are generally made and fit according to chest size. Women's-specific vests are typically made to fit more appropriately for different bust sizes.

Women's Life Vests

  • Adult-sized vest.
  • Made smaller to accommodate women's frames—bust sizes are bigger to ensure a more appropriate fit.

Youth Life Vests

  • Typically, one-size fits all—specified for children between 50-90 lbs.
  • Able to be used for recreational boating and paddle sports.
  • Comfortable fit for both girls and boys.

Toddler Life Vests

  • Typically, one-size fits all—specified for children between 30-50 lbs.
  • Able to be used in most all water situations from learning how to be comfortable in the water to recreational boating.
  • Comfortable fit for both boys and girls.

Infant Life Vests

  • One-size fits all—accommodates infants up to 30 lbs.
  • Shorter cut design so new swimmers can maneuver with ease and comfort.
  • Generally comes with a simple zipper and two buckles to ensure maximum safety for your child.