Top Life Jackets For Active Kids (30-50 lbs) – Have Fun Safely

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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.

Since a child can’t help themselves in the water as much as an adult can, the best life jacket for kids will have good head support. At the same time you don’t want something so bulky that your child can’t enjoy themselves.

Most life jackets in the 30-50 lb child range are rated USCG Type 3 which are fine for almost all water activities. But for offshore boating purposes or extra peace of mind, we’d recommend a Type 2 such as the #2 pick below. It’s a bit more bulky but has additional buoyancy to better automatically flip an unconscious child face up in the water.

Our 5 Favorite Life Jackets for Kids (30-50 lbs)

ProductUSCG TypeMaterialCollarColors
Stohlquist KidsType 3NylonYes3
Stearns Heads-UpType 2NylonYes1
O'Neill Child ReactorType 3NeopreneNo4
SwimWays Sea SquirtsType 3NylonNo1
Stearns Child ClassicType 3NylonNo2

Child Life Jacket Reviews

#1 – Stohlquist Kids Life Vest

The best-selling Stohlquist 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, many recommend going with a good Type 2 vest such as the Stearns below which will do a better job flipping them over into the face-up position if they can’t do it themselves.

The Stohlquist child PFD 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 Stohlquist 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 Nemo reviewStohlquist 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. This vest 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 Stohlquist is covered in tough 200 denier nylon, making it durable, easy to clean, and quick to dry. 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.

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#2 – Stearns Heads-Up Vest

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 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.

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#3 – O’Neill Child Reactor Vest

This O’Neill vest is another unobtrusive option for kids who want something even sleeker than a Stohlquist. It’s USCG approved (Type 3) and easily supports up to a 50 lb child, and buckles securely with two sturdy straps that run right round the body. There’s also a full length zip and crotch strap.

Made out of neoprene, most people prefer the comfort it provides over the various nylon materials other vests use. The downside is that neoprene makes the vest heavier when wet and it takes longer to dry.

Currently, four different stylish color combinations are available and the general consensus is that kids love them (and sometimes don’t want to take them off).

Like the Swimways below, 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.

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#4 – Swimways Sea Squirts Fin Friends PFD

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. It’s a great solution for that child who never want to wear a life jacket.

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 that above ground pool in your backyard, it’s excellent!

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#5 – Stearns Child Classic Series Vest

The Child Classic Series was designed specifically for children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds and is a USCG Type 3 PFD. Featuring open sides, three adjustable chest belts, and leg strap, the vest fits tight and comfortable.

It’s made of PE floating foam with a durable nylon casing and one-inch nylon for the straps to ensure the vest will last for a long time.

The Child Classic Series is great for use in a variety of activities, including boating, swimming, tubing, and water skiing or other tow sports. Coast Guard approved, the vest comes in blue or red although the red is recommended since it stands out better in the water.

One omission that drags this vest down is the lack of a safety strap on the back of the neck. This makes it more difficult to grab hold of your child if they are panicking.

Proper sizing of this vest can also be a problem, so be sure to get accurate measurements before purchasing online to avoid having to wait for a replacement.

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17 Responses to “Top Life Jackets For Active Kids (30-50 lbs) – Have Fun Safely”

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  1. Trish says:

    Is there a reason you did not include any U.S. Coast Guard approved (USCG) personal flotation device Type II’s instead of only infant and then the less buoyant Type III’s?


    Airhead 100-10-02-A-BL Blue Nylon Child Life Vest, also USGS PFD Type II

    Sterns Flotation Heads Up Vest

    • Alex says:

      Trish – You’re absolutely right and I apologize for the oversight. Thank you for bringing this up. A Type 2 PFD should be almost mandatory in this age range for certain activities such as boating. We’ve updated the section above to include the Stearns model.

  2. Luke Yancey says:

    I’ve always found that O’Neill makes amazing life jackets. They usually fit comfortably and absorb the water. Along with that, they feel secure. I would recommend these jackets for those that go tubing or water skiing.

  3. Jeannette Gute says:

    Is there a reason the type 2 is recommended for infants but not for the 30+ range when boating? We got the stohlquist for our infant based on this site and love it. We primarily use it for boating. We need to upgrade now that’s she’s 30 lbs and saw that the stohlquist was again recommended, unless you’re boating. I want to make sure it’s comfortable as we often boat for most of the day but am concerned that the type 2 isn’t actually recommended?

    • Alex says:

      Hi Jeannette. Sorry I missed this comment. Stohlquist actually doesn’t make a Type 2 in the 30-50 pound weight range. If you look above, we actually have two Top Picks. The second (Stearns) is a Type 2 which we recommend for boating. Hope that helps. Thanks!

  4. W. Hickey says:

    I am interested in a low profile vest for a 40 lb 4 year old. To wear around the swimming pool should an incident occur Any suggestions of yours or other models ?

  5. Ben Watson says:

    Thank you for this. My comment is a little off-topic, but I am trying anything i can for the safety of my children. 🙂

    Can you provide any assistance on finding something for my children who weigh too much (just over 50 pounds) for the Child items (30-50 pounds) yet are too slender for the youth ones (50-90)? From all my searching, this appears to be a hole in the industry. Based on their size, age, and growth patterns, I think they won’t be able to safely wear the youth ones for this year and probably next year.

    I recognize that they are most likely safe in something rated to 50 pounds, when they are 51-52 pounds. However, there are weight ratings for a reason. At what point is it too much for safety? 55 pounds? 60 pounds? The Youth jackets are WAY too big right now so I am quite confident they will still be too big at 55 pounds.

    Thank you for any help you can offer.

    • Alex says:

      Hi Ben. Great question. The weight ranges on kids’ life jackets are simply for convenience to get a starting point. It’s all about how the life jacket fits so don’t pay too much attention to weight minimums and maximums. A vest rated for 30-50 lbs might be too small for a 40 pound child or a vest rated for 50-90 lbs might be too big for a 55 lb child. With adult vests, fit is typically dependent on chest measurement. It would probably be more accurate measuring the same way for kids but there must be a reason why kids vests are sized the way they are.

      Even if you’ve already tried a life jacket in the 50-90 lb range and it was too big/loose on your child, try another brand. Just like clothes, fit varies depending on brand or even model. It might be best going to a brick and mortar store like REI to have your children physically try on a few vests.

  6. Brittany says:

    My son is just under 30 pounds. Will one of these life jackets work?

    • Alex says:

      They should. While 30-50 pounds is the typical weight range for this size, they “usually” fit just fine if less than 5 pounds under the minimum. That said, children are shaped differently so if one brand is too big, try a different brand. I would recommend staying away from neoprene (such as the O’Neill vest) if at the lower end of the range. It tends to get a lot heavier when wet.

  7. Thao Nguyen says:

    We have the infant hyperlite and it flips our toddler face first when we tested it in deep water. Has any of the above been tested to see if it flips a child? Especially one that is younger and has no swimming experience and will not know/remember to keep their head back? Looking for recommendations on brand, if we can go with a 30lb (little @28lbs now) and any resources you can provide. This is mainly used for boating, canoeing and kayaking. TIA!

    • Becky says:

      This just happened to my son this weekend! He was in a Speedo brand life jacket. It was a very scary moment.
      I am also interested in what works best for a toddler @ 28lbs that cannot swim and doesn’t know to turn on their back.
      Thank you.

  8. Lisa W says:

    I need some help. I’ve got a really small 9 year old who is starting Opti sailing this summer. I am really struggling to find him a real sailing jacket because, believe it or not, he’s still under 50 lbs at 9 years old. He is hovering around 45-46 lbs and he’s a fairly slim build. I tried getting him a Gill child size one but they are back ordered everywhere. Unfortunately almost everything else I am seeing has a very ‘toddler’ look with the head support etc. There is no way I put my son going into 4th grade in something like that. He needs to have a USCG Type III life jacket and basically every other serious sailor’s life jacket I can find is for 50-90 lbs. Do you have any other suggestions for a legit sailing life jacket that doesn’t look like it’s for toddlers, or can you speak to what it would be like to put a 45 lb slim kid in a youth 50-90 lb rated life jacket? I would appreciate your advice.

    • Lisa W says:

      Specifically I was considering the stohlquist youth drifter or escape.

      • Alex says:

        Both great options. Stohlquist PFDs seem to run more true to size (vs running smaller) but I’d still recommend having him try it on to make sure it’s not too loose.

    • Alex says:

      You’re right, there aren’t too many options for sailing PFDs in the 30-50 lbs range that don’t look toddler-ish.
      Here are two that might work out well:
      Mustang Rev
      Stearns Child Hydroprene

      That said, I would definitely have him try a couple in the 50-90 lbs range. You can often get away being a few pounds under the weight range and you won’t have to worry about buying a new PFD in a few months. Many models on Amazon will allow free returns or visit a local REI or sporting goods store to have him try it on.

      Other than Gill, Stohlquist, Astral, MTI, and Onyx would be good brands for sailing. If the Gill is still out of stock, the Astral Kids Otter is just as good if not better (but spendy).

      • Lisa W says:

        Thanks so much for your advice. There was limited availability on the stohlquist youth drifter so I went ahead and grabbed that. Hoping we can pull that one off. If not I’ll look at the otter, because, though spends, I shouldn’t have to buy a new one for probably 5 years at least 🤷🏻‍♀️

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