Buyer’s Guide: Children’s PFDs

The Safegard Type I offers the best-if bulky-offshore protection, while the Kent Casad, Extrasport, and Mustang Lil' Legends perform well and are more comfortable to wear.


When it comes to safety precautions, kids usually think less is better. Fortunately for them, parents (and the US Coast Guard) disagree. Since you have to have them on the boat, and parents often want them on their kids, we decided to find out what has changed in childrens Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) since we last reported in 1990. The answer is, not much. As in 1990, we again found USCG standards to be a rather low bar, one that a few test models failed to reach just the same. Only one of the models we tested offered safety should a child be accidentally knocked unconscious.

Few of the PFDs were kid-friendly. Manufacturers made attempts with bright colors and designs, but as it turns out, our kids wanted exactly what adults want in a PFD-comfort and good range of motion when out of the water, and good flotation once in.

In selecting jackets and vests for this test, we made no attempt to be all-inclusive, but instead shopped the local marine outfitters and ordered a sampling from the discount catalogs. We chose only two Type Is, with the thinking that most will work but are not likely to be the daily choice of kids, who are much more likely to be persuaded to don a Type II or III.

Unfortunately, there is no ideal PFD and most buyers, we suspect, will end up sacrificing added safety for comfort. Theres also what the mother of one of our testers called the whine factor. Any PFD theyll wear is better than one they wont.

PFDs are separated into types according to Coast Guard regulations. Type I jackets provide maximum buoyancy (minimum 11 lbs.) and perform well in rough water. Of the types we tested, Type I PFDs are the only flotation devices acceptable for offshore use.

Type II PFDs are collared jackets with flotation behind the neck and on the chest. They are required to provide a minimum buoyancy of 11 lbs. for children weighing 50-90 lbs., 7 lbs. for children under 50 lbs. These devices are acceptable for calm waters near shore, where rescue is not far off. The design offers head support and good buoyancy distribution; the collars are also designed to enhance freeboard (height of the head out of the water) and provide a grab-hold for parents-but they tend to be awkward and, well, dorky-looking.

Vest-shaped Type III Flotation Aids were the top choice of most of our testers. They have the same buoyancy requirements as Type IIs. Recommended for active boaters who can swim, Type IIIs are a good choice for active pastimes like water-skiing or kayaking. Kids like them because they look pretty cool, permit movement, fit well and usually have no leg straps. Type IIIs rely on fit to prevent riding up.

Type V PFDs are a special class of life jackets that must be worn at all times on the boat in order to meet Coast Guard requirements. Frankly, the one model we tested looked so silly that we can’t imagine kids wearing it as a Halloween costume. The company told us it meets the same buoyancy standards as a Type III PFD.

How We Tested
Because it was wintertime, we conducted our tests in the local YMCA swimming pool, whose fresh waters provide less buoyancy than saltwater. We patterned our tests on suggestions offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Life Saving (and Fire Protection) Division, based on Underwriters Laboratory procedures. (UL also tests for fabric and construction strength.) Most jackets were tried on more than one kid.

Test 1: Although Type I PFDs are the only class required to roll over most people when face down in the water, we ran this test on every model. Testers floated face down for about 20 seconds, giving the suit the opportunity to roll them onto their backs. Only one worked consistently.

Test 2: In choppy seas, its important that a PFD keep a persons head out of the water. We had the testers float in survival position, feet pointed down, arms at their sides, legs and arms still, to see how high the vest would float them.

Test 3: Our final test was designed to simulate a man-overboard situation. Our testers jumped from a platform about 2′ above the waters surface and timed how long it took for the PFD to pop them back up. Under one second earned a rating of excellent; close to a second rated good; more than a second rated fair, and more than two seconds we consider poor.

Note: We tested both child (about 30 to 50 lbs.) and youth (40 to 90 lbs.) PFDs. Children in the 40-50 lb. range felt safer and were more comfortable in the larger sizes, provided they could get a snug fit.

Type I

This is the only one of the PFDs tested that actually rolled the kids from face-down position to face-up. It keeps the chin a good 4 out of the water and should keep kids safe even in choppy waters. It is also one of only two PFDs tested that had reflective tape. For safety, this is the best vest we tested. Unfortunately, for comfort, it leaves something to be desired. The fabric is a bit rough and the arms can cut into the skin. The waist tie leaves straps dangling and isn’t particularly comfortable. Elastic would have been a better choice. Still, its the most effective PFD for keeping your kid afloat.

Cal-Junes Jim Buoy
Overall, this collar-type jacket is a disappointment. Although Type I PFDs are supposed to roll most people from face down into a face-up position, it did not do so consistently in our tests. In survival position, it only held the testers out of the water to the bottoms of their chins. The design is about the most uncomfortable we can imagine. One full slab of PE foam fits like a stockade around the childs neck and the one chest strap leaves a long and potentially hazardous end. The reflective tape and reversible design are nice safety features, but if youre not getting better flotation, why be uncomfortable on top of it?

Type II

Corals Kiddie-Safe
In spite of the snappy illustrations on the fabric (ours featured Disneys 101 Dalmatians), this was not the testers favorite vest. A major objection was comfort; the vest features a crotch strap that was found confining. Its likely a child wouldnt keep it attached, so its only function would be to thwack him in the eye or get him entangled.

The large-collared design does seem to take some stress off the neck when floating in survival position, but it doesn’t keep kids especially far out of the water. We can imagine them swallowing some water in choppy seas. At $25.99, its inexpensive, but not our choice.

Stearns Splash Zone Heads Up
This is very similar to the Coral Kiddie-Safe vest, but without the pretty graphics. That has its advantages (the Stearns bright orange will be easier to see) and disadvantages (the whine factor-what kid wants to wear an ugly orange life jacket?). When kids fall in feet first, it pops them back up just a little faster than the Coral and lifts them out of the water a little bit more (about half an inch), but essentially the problems are the same.

There is a crotch strap and grab loop on the back. The $33.95 price is reasonable but there are better vests in this category.

Mustangs Lil Legends
This is a better quality jacket than the previous two, but its price is higher ($43.99). This vest performed about as well as Coral and Stearns, except that it floated kids about 2″ higher out of the water when they were in survival position. The fabric seems sturdier, and there are a few nice features, such as elastic at the waist and drainage netting at the bottom of the suit.

In one instance, the groove in the collar collected water and pushed a small childs head down. With our larger test kids, however, who ranged in weight from about 50 to 70 lbs., it was not a problem.

The Mustangs warm yellow color is highly visible and the seams are well-reinforced. If your kids a fashion-plate, and a slow-growing one at that, this is the suit for you. Otherwise, these are not the extras that are going to save a life.

The most noticeable difference in this model was its two leg straps. To our mind this offers greater security and comfort. Flotation comes on the front in two 1″ slabs of foam on either side, and at the collar in two slabs of 2″ foam. The foam is tapered at the rear of the collar and cradles the head comfortably.

The chest strap fits snugly and an extra tie at the neck of the vest allows for both easy donning and snug fit. Chest, leg and grab straps were all very well-reinforced, though a loop to secure the chest strap on the right front would be a welcome addition. This isn’t the fastest or the most buoyant of the models we tested, but for a lighter child in calm waters it should be fine.

Kents Buoyant Vest
Inexpensive at $12.19, this Type II resembles the Cal-June Type I, but with a fabric covering and less buoyancy. In other words, its a simple orange U-shaped yoke with two ties and no leg straps. Wed consider this a basic PFD that meets Coast Guard standards, but is not likely to be voluntarily worn by children.

Kents Classic
Fancier than its plain-vanilla cousin, this jacket ($39.95) has a zipper, leg straps and snap-buckle front tie. The flotation at the back of the jacket didnt seem to increase buoyancy-the water level was still at our testers chin. The collar is smaller on this version than most others in this category, but the amount of flotation is about the same, just distributed differently. Unlike the Mustang and Extrasport, for example, which concentrate flotation in the front and collars, the Classic adds flotation to the back panel, which is not where wed choose to have it.

Type III
These mostly uncollared, ski-vest-like jackets were much favored by our young testers for their less restrictive design.

Kents Casad
Made by Kent Sporting Goods, this watersport vest was a favorite with our testers for its comfortable fit and good range of motion. There are better performing vests in this category, but this one looks the coolest. And if it looks cool, your kids are more likely to wear it. This vest is stress-tested for 50 mph. That means it will still work as a flotation device after hitting the water at that speed. It is not, however, a motorcycle helmet. If one survives the crash though, hell float afterward. Its a good choice for water-skiing, sailing and kayaking where a good range of motion is required. At $29.95, its the lowest priced of all the Type IIIs tested.

Mustangs Lil Legends
One leg strap and the big collar make this look like a Type II jacket, but the flotation rating for this youth-size jacket is up from 7 lbs. to 11. It has decent range of motion and keeps kids heads well out of the water when they are upright, but just like all the other type IIIs, it fails the roll over test. Also, the straps give way with a little force. There are signs of less-than-perfect workmanship as well: a crooked belt loop, threads sticking out here and there. It has the same drainage net as the other Mustang jacket, which is a nice feature, and the dorky collar will ease fatigue if a child is in the water for too long. There are better buys in this category.

Stearns Illusion
Cut up an old-fashioned Styrofoam cooler into slabs and then strap them all around your upper torso and youll get an idea of what the Stearns Illusion feels like. Theres very little give in this jacket it is made of two detached front panels and one back panel of flotation all connected with three straps around the chest. Although the vest provides good flotation (4″ from chin to water), it had a tendency to ride up over the testers heads, in spite of careful adjusting. The lack of give and plastic piping at the neck will cause discomfort.

Extrasports Youth Jacket
Long sections of foam on the back and adjustable side straps make this jacket easy to adjust to a snug fit. Children may need help with the side straps, but should have no problems with jacket creep when in the water. The full elastic waistband adds to the comfort and snug fit. While finishing details leave something to be desired (rough edges on the belt loops, zipper ends sticking out), this vest combines good flotation, fair range of motion and strong fitting features for the decent price of $39.99.

Type V

Future Products Aqua Force
After one look at this combination swimsuit and PFD, we couldnt believe we would be able to find many kids who would actually put it on. It was difficult. In the words of our 12-year-old male tester, No way, Im not putting that thing on. Once we finally got him to try it, he complained that it was uncomfortable and didnt like the way the swim trunks clung to his body.

Our younger female tester was less reluctant and actually liked the safe feeling it gave her. Its something of a false sense of security in our opinion. Though it did keep our older testers chin 4 out of the water, and our smaller girl a good 8 out, it failed our roll-over test. At 3 seconds, it was the slowest of all our PFDs to push kids up out of the water after they fell in. Suits for boys and girls are identical, except for the color-pink for the girls, neon green (lime green to our eyes) for the boys.

The Aqua Force is made of nylon and Lycra, which is stretchable (there are no zippers, buckles or other fasteners). Since its a Type V, it must be worn at all times in order to be considered a flotation device, which has its positive and negative points. On the plus side, youll know that your kids have their PFD on. On the down side, well, they have to wear it.

A nice feature is an inside label thats a bleached-out version of the suit color; when the suit fades to the color of the label (about two seasons, the company says), its due for replacement.

Because kids come in different sizes and shapes, we strongly recommend that you check the fit on one or more jackets. We also suggest that you weigh your kids before going shopping.

PFD nomenclature can be confusing. Some labels specify appropriate weights, others use chest sizes (which can vary in range), and yet others refer to their models as child or youth devices. Read the UL label printed on the inside of the jacket (make sure there is one), which will specify the amount of buoyancy provided.

The Coast Guard says that snug fit is critical to the effectiveness of a PFD and suggests you test for ride-up in the store by pulling the device up by the shoulders; the wearers chin and ears should not pull through. Children are especially subject to ride-up because their chests are often smaller than their lower bodies. The Coast Guard further suggests that you test the jackets in shallow water to see how well they keep the head above water, and also for ride-up.

Bottom Line
We offered our hard-working test subjects their choice of life jackets for helping us out. Our 12-year-old tester told us he would choose the Safegard to save his life, but preferred the Casad for looks and comfort. Thats the issue in a nutshell.

If safety is your primary concern, go for the Type I Safegard-its a serious lifesaving device. If you know your kids will only be in calm waters near to shore, and if youre always going to be with them, wed try the Casad or the Extrasport Type IIIs for older, more active kids.

For a younger kid who might need to be yanked out of the water, the Type II Mustang Lil Legend is a good, if expensive, choice.

Contacts- Aqua Force, Future Products, Box 2993, Gainesville, GA 30503; 706/776-6072. Cal-June, 5238 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91601; 818/761-3516. Coral, Ero Industries, Mt. Prospect, IL 60056; 847/803-9200. Extrasport (L.L.Bean, Extrasport), 5305 NW 35th Ct., Miami, FL 33142; 305/633-2945. Kent Sporting Goods (Casad), 433 Park Ave., New London, OH 44851; 419/929-7021. Mustang Survival, 3870 Mustang Way, Bellingham, WA 98226; 360/676-1782. Safegard, Box 2004, Covington, KY 41012; 606/431-7650. Stearns Outdoors, Box 1498 St. Cloud, MN 56302; 320/252-1642.

Nick Nicholson
Nick Nicholson is a boatbuilder, racing sailor, and circumnavigator. He began his career at Practical Sailor as an Associate Editor in 1979, and has been Editor-at-Large since he left full-time work in the early 1990s to finish building a 40’ cutter in his backyard, and subsequently sail it more than 40,000 bluewater miles. The voyages of Calypso were chronicled in the Offshore Log section of Practical Sailor during that circumnavigation. He has also raced from the US east coast to Bermuda more than 20 times, winning numerous navigator’s trophies in the process. In recent years, he has primarily worked as a race official and technical rules advisor in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. He also chairs the Technical Committee for the Newport Bermuda Race.