Growing children are adventurous and most of them love water, so sailing, canoeing or even just scrambling on rocks by the shore are all great family activities. Water has its dangers though, so quality safety gear is essential. Any child on or near the water needs a good life jacket, and it has to be designed for the special needs of young people.
A child can’t help themselves in the water as much as an adult can so good head support is vital. At the same time you don’t want something so bulky that your child can’t enjoy themselves. Here are what we believe to be the 4 best life jackets for kids in the 30-50 lb weight range.
TOP PICK (Type 3 PFD):
The best-selling Stohlquist Nemo is available in a range of sizes, and thanks to clever design and great construction, it’s at or near the top of the class in all of them. For children weighing anywhere from “about” 30 to 50 pounds, it has all the features you need in a life vest, making it our top pick. Unlike the infant/toddler version, the child size is a type 3 PFD which is pretty standard for this age group.
Important: If you plan to take your little one boating or for another off shore activity, you’ll want to go with a good Type 2 vest such as the Stearns below.
The Nemo is a sleek, low profile vest that still packs in a lot of buoyancy. Its filling is well distributed to keep a child floating high in the water and the collar design is particularly impressive. The main collar is quite low and won’t get in the way, but still does a fantastic job of keeping the head safely up, while a separate neck rest gives some extra support.
It’s also designed for comfort. Many life jackets zip high on the chest, which can feel restrictive, but the Nemo has a deep V front for freedom of movement. It still fastens securely though, with a heavy duty zipper and a security strap as backup. There’s a crotch strap too, so even a slim child won’t be in any danger of slipping out. Side straps let you adjust it for a good fit.
Stohlquist has paid a lot of attention to detail. It can be difficult to grab someone floating in the water, so to make rescue easy, most vests include a grab handle. The Nemo’s is large and easy to catch hold of, and it’s also threaded with floating beads to keep it on the surface even when soaked.
The Nemo is covered in tough 200 denier nylon, making it robust and easy to clean. Three color schemes are available but it’s best to stick with the yellow or red models. The dark blue one looks nice, but it’s a lot less visible and could add long seconds to the time it takes to spot a child in the water.
TOP PICK (Type 2 PFD):
While slightly less comfortable than a Type 3 vest like the Stohlquist above, this US Coast Guard approved Type 2 life vest is a much better option for activities when not around the shoreline (such as boating or even kayaking). This is especially important for younger children. While there aren’t many options available for Type 2s in the 30-50 lb range, this Stearns “Child Size” vest will do its job of turning a non-swimmer or unconscious child on their back to a face-up position.
Two straps around the waist and a padded crotch strap will keep the vest securely on your child while a collar handle is standard. A bright lime green is the only color offered but is very noticeable in the water.
One negative of this model is true with any Type 2. It will feel a bit more restrictive than a Type 3 but you can’t compromise on safety and you as a parent will feel much more at ease. Another small annoyance is that the buckles are a little harder than normal to snap and unsnap but that’s almost nitpicking. Overall, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better Type 2 life vest for small children than the Stearns Flotation Heads-Up.
Note: If going with a different Type 2 PFD model, make sure it is truly a USCG approved Type 2 and not simply “styled” as a Type 2 which some lesser known brands may advertise.
Some children aren’t happy at wearing safety gear, either because they think it’s going to be uncomfortable or because they want to be “grown up”. Responsible adults are going to be wearing flotation vests on a boat, but maybe not for some onshore activities, and an adventurous child might not want to be the only one wearing a life vest.
Swimways have a great solution; instead of telling the child to wear their safety gear, why not ask them if they want to be a shark (or dolphin or killer whale)? This Sea Squirts type 3 vest is low profile and close fitting, so it won’t get in the way, and fastens securely with zip, crotch strap and two front buckles.
To add some fun, it’s a two-tone blue (or pink/blue for the girls) and has a cool fin on the back. The fin’s flexible, so won’t get in the way, and can also be used as a handhold if you’re teaching kids to swim. There’s a grab loop at the neck making the necessity of a rescue easy. The lack of a collar and colors that don’t stand out as well as others might not make it ideal for open water boating or sailing (you’ll want a Type 2). But for the beach or pool it’s excellent!
This O’Neill vest is another unobtrusive option for kids who want something even sleeker than a Nemo. It’s USCG approved (Type 3) and easily supports a 50lb child, and buckles securely with two sturdy straps that run right round the body. There’s also a full length zip and crotch strap.
Like the Swimways, it doesn’t have a collar and is a type 3 PFD, so it shouldn’t be used for off-shore activities like boating, but it’s a high quality vest that’s ideal for most situations. While the blue with yellow may be the most popular option, opt for the yellow model for the best visibility.