Safety Gear for Kids

Seven life vests take the plunge: Stearns rises to the top.


Safety Gear for Kids

]Mustang, Stearns, and Sospenders have top-quality youth size vests that provide buoyancy well beyond the regulations, but they are expensive.

Parents with young kids will do whatever it takes to shield them from the dangers inherent in the boating world. We think one of the easiest and most effective things a parent can do to protect their child from the No. 1 on-the-water hazard, drowning, is to make sure their youngster wears a personal flotation device.

Most states have laws that require children to wear life jackets. Depending on the state, the laws may apply to children of certain ages, boats of certain sizes, or other criteria. To learn about your states law, visit

A good quality PFD, properly fitted and rated for the boating area, will do much to guard against mishap. In this, the first in a series of PFD reviews, we take a look at seven vests for kids.

What We Tested
PS confined this test to youth size vest-style PFDs for kids weighing 50 to 90 pounds with 26- to 29-inch chests. We found seven vests that fit these criteria. Four vests are built by PFD giant Stearns. Two were re-branded model 29-88 vests, one carrying the Seafit brand name and the other carrying a West Marine label. The third was a Stearns-branded 3630; and the fourth was a Sospenders 12AYH, now a Stearns-owned company. The latter vest is the only hybrid tested; it has both foam flotation and a CO2 inflation chamber. From MTI Adventurewear, we received a pair of vests, the Reflex and Discovery models. (The Reflex is also sold as the West Marine Reflex for $50.) Mustang Survival supplied us with its MV3160 youth vest.

Our test group includes one Type I (the hybrid from Sospenders), one Type II, and five Type IIIs. Type IIIs have a minimum buoyancy of 11 pounds and are best suited for inshore waters. They are generally the most comfortable to wear. Type IIs also carry an 11-pound minimum buoyancy rating. But the Type II, unlike the Type III, can turn some unconscious wearers face-up in the water, according to the Coast Guard. The Type I hybrid has a minimum foam buoyancy rating of 11 pounds and a total buoyancy rating of 18 pounds. It can turn most unconscious wearers face-up.

How We Tested
Two PS editors rated and reviewed our group of youth PFDs with the help of three kids who fit the weight and chest profile of the vests tested. Each vest was donned by at least two kids. Testers checked to see whether the vest could be put on and adjusted by the child alone or if adult help was needed. Vests were then rated for ease of donning, comfort and fit (out of the water) based on the kids comments and editors observations.

In-water testing was done off a dock alongside a saltwater canal. Each child jumped in with a vest on and gave comments about the in-water fit and comfort. Editors also observed the fit and buoyancy of the vest in water. Some rode up on the children, while others held their position. Those that did not ride up provided better comfort in the water and were rated higher. Additionally, each child attempted to swim both on their stomach and on their back.

Vest ratings, buoyancy, and price determined the winners.

Stearns 3630
This Stearns vest has the appearance of a commercial PFD; it carries a Coast Guard Type II certification and is bright orange. Its uses four sections of foam flotation: a pair in the front on the chest, one on the back, and one providing support for the childs neck and head. Three adjustable straps secure the vest in place. Two go completely around the vest and upper body, while the upper strap is sewn to the front; all are adjustable. Another adjustment strap goes around the back of the neck and down the chest on each side. Our testers were able to don and adjust this vest on their own without any adult help, and none of the kids had any complaints about the fit on land. The 3630 has 16 square inches of reflective material. It is one of two vests tested with reflectors.

During in-water testing, the editors noted plenty of freeboard with the child riding high in the water. The vest, however, did ride up a little, rubbing against the armpits of one child and the face/chin of another.

Bottom Line: A top-quality vest with excess buoyancy. It also has bright colors and reflective material, making it the PS Best Choice for near-shore waters.

MTI Adventurewear Reflex and Discovery
MTIs Reflex and Discovery vests are built with three pieces of foam flotation, two on the chest, and one on the back. The front of each vest is secured with a zipper that even the adults had trouble fastening. Size adjustments are made with a pair of adjustable straps on each side of the vest over the rib area and an adjustable strap running over each shoulder. Again, the kids were unable to adjust these without adult help. At the bottom of the vest another adjustable strap goes around the childs waist; a plastic clip locks this strap in place. The Discovery vest uses heavier material on the outside and has a zipper pocket on each front panel.

This pair of vests provided adequate buoyancy but did ride up quite a bit on one of the smaller kids, causing her to complain about rubbing in the armpits. Neither vest has neck or head flotation.

Bottom Line: The kids like the pockets on the Discovery, but the MTIs were hard to don without parental help and neither has a neck/head flotation collar.

Mustang MV3160
The bright yellow Mustang uses four sections of foam flotation: two thick pieces in the front on the chest, one thinner piece on the upper back, and a three-piece neck/head support. The Mustang is the only vest tested with a collar grab strap that can be used to pluck a kid out of the water. The vest zips up the front and has an adjustable full-body strap and a crotch strap. With the exception of the crotch strap, our kid testers had no trouble donning or adjusting this vest. Mustang makes a similar model without a crotch strap.

Safety Gear for Kids

The Mustang provided plenty of support for every kid tested and was one of three vests to get an Excellent buoyancy rating.

Bottom Line: Another quality vest; it has plenty of excess flotation and a grab strap to boot. We recommend this vest for near-shore waters.

Sospenders 12AYH
A hybrid vest with both foam flotation and an automatic inflatable chamber, the 12AYH had 23 pounds of buoyancy, by far the most of any vest tested. It is built with three sections of foam, two in the front, one on the chest, and one in the back. The horseshoe-shaped, bright orange inflatable chamber extends from the chest on one side, around the back of the neck and head to the chest in the other side; it has 60 square inches of reflective tape. The accompanying CO2 cylinder and automatic-inflation valve are mounted on the right front, while the left front holds the oral inflation tube and a whistle. A front zipper locks the vest in place; an adjustable strap that runs around the vest at waist level provides additional security. Our junior testers had no trouble donning and adjusting this vest.

The vest auto-inflated when the first tester jumped in the water. Editors noted it provided superior buoyancy and ample freeboard. The kids found it a bit difficult to swim with this vest due to its bulk.

Bottom Line: No other vest even comes close in total buoyancy. We would recommend the Sospenders for inshore, but for $65 less wed stick with the Stearns or Mustang for day-to-day use. If youre traveling offshore, its a good buy as long as the automatic inflation unit is properly maintained.

Seafit 3007 and West Marine 3050
This pair of re-branded vests is made by Stearns Inc. and marketed under various labels, including the Seafit and West Marine names. The design is a Type III, carrying the minimum buoyancy required by USCG regulations: 11 pounds. Each is constructed with three thin sections of foam flotation, two in the front on the chest and one on the back. The vests are secured with three adjustable straps. The two lower straps go entirely around the childs body, while the upper strap is sewn only to the front. Plastic locking clips secure the straps. This vest has no neck or head flotation. Our kid testers had no trouble donning and adjusting this vest, but did have some trouble loosening the strap-locking clips when it was time to take it off.

Our adult testers noted the minimal buoyancy in the water. These vests did not provide the same amount of freeboard as some of the more buoyant vests. And, they did ride up a bit on some smaller test subjects.

Bottom Line: These are inexpensive vests with minimal buoyancy.

It seems clear to us that you get what you pay for in a childs vest-style PFD. You have to spend some money to get a vest that goes beyond the minimum standards. The more expensive Stearns 3630 and the Mustang MV3160 both did very well in our testing, providing extra buoyancy without undue challenges in comfort and fit. The pair were priced the same ($50) when we tested them. For any type of near-shore or bay-water situation, either of these vests should perform well. We especially liked the grab strap on the Mustang. It makes quickly snatching a kid out of the water much easier.

With its 23 pounds of buoyancy, wed have to opt for the Sospenders 12AYH Hybrid if we were offshore. Our previous testing has shown us that buoyancy becomes a very big issue in rough-sea conditions.

A few things to keep in mind when selecting a vest for your youngster: Get one that fits comfortably, is rated for a person his or her size and weight, and for the waters you intend to cruise, as well as the job at hand.

Stearns, 800/333-1179,
MTI, 800/783-4684,
Mustang, 360/676-1782,
West Marine, 800/685-4838,

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at