The best buoyancy aids

Not all buoyancy aids are made equal. Here’s our selection of the best to help you prep for some serious fun on the water.

four of the best buoyancy aids

by Chris Duffill |
Updated on

It’s finally time to release those paddle boards, dinghies and inflatable kayaks from their winter hibernation. As your collection tumbles out of the shed onto the lawn you may be tempted to grab one and go for a splash. But wait - has your old buoyancy aid survived intact? If you’ve never even thought about buying one, now’s the time.

A buoyancy aid (BA) is also known as a PFD - or Personal Flotation Device. Don't confuse them with life jackets, which are designed to save your life if you can't swim or are unconscious. As the name suggests, a buoyancy aid is only there to aid you in staying afloat whilst you remain conscious and active in the water.

You might also hear them called swimming aids, although this is a very broad term that can include things like floats or armbands. But buoyancy aids are in a class of their own safety-wise. They’re generally made of foam, and covered in a hard-wearing nylon sleeve.

The best buoyancy aids at a glance:

Best overall buoyancy aid: Helly Hansen Rider Vest - View at Amazon
Best buoyancy aid for children: Konfidence Jacket - View at Amazon
Best buoyancy aid for SUP: CSR Matai 50n Buoyancy Jacket - View at Amazon
Best buoyancy aid for kayaking: Typhoon Yalu Wave - View at Amazon

Though choosing the right paddleboard might be the more exciting purchase when you're getting into watersports, the buoyancy aid is of huge importance. Don't neglect it.

Choosing the right buoyancy aid

We base our recommendations on recreational activities taking place close to shore, with help at hand if you get into trouble or just run out of steam. We’ve also grouped them into useful categories, so you can choose the right fit for your favourite leisure activities.

And by ‘fit’ we really mean the fit. Choose by your weight in kilograms first (as this relates to the amount of buoyancy provided by the aid), and other factors like chest size second. There are differences of course, not all purely cosmetic.

The shape of a BA may be subtly different to allow for varying degrees of movement. For instance, a kayaker may find it helpful to sit in their kayak wearing their gear to test the fit. Paddling a SOT (Sit-On-Top) kayak will involve a different range of movement than a stand-up paddleboard. Some also have provisions for attaching crotch straps to help keep them in place.

Lastly, there’s the all-important official CE safety standard - it’s been illegal to sell a buoyancy aid without it since the nineties. All of our BAs below - excluding the snorkel and dog jackets - carry a certification rating or CE mark. This ensures that the amount of buoyancy it’ll provide is present and correct. It'll also mean that the product has been properly tested and is suitable for recreational water sports like paddle boarding or flatwater boating.

The best buoyancy aids

Best overall buoyancy aid

If you’re an all-rounder when it comes to getting out on the water, you might prefer a highly adaptable and flexible buoyancy aid. Enter the Helly Hansen Rider Vest. Designed for all adults, it’s the most conventionally styled BA we have here with lots of adjustments.

The zipped front and large front buckle will let you wear or remove this quickly and easily. Plus there’s an adjustable bottom hem to help keep it in place. This also means that you can tweak the fit a little to suit your range of movement. Considering the traditional vest shape and wide-ranging suitability, as bulk goes this is surprisingly lean. All in all, this is a comfortable and flexible choice.


  • Suitable for most leisure activities
  • Available in a wide range of sizes
  • Front pocket
  • Comfort with adjustability


  • No crotch strap
  • May ride up on a sit-inside kayak

Best buoyancy aid for children

Konfidence Jacket buoyancy aid
Price: $39.99

Kids of all ages like to look cool when they’re splashing around, so it’s great that Konfidence has really pushed the boat out with its designs. There are over a dozen to choose from, with bright colours and exciting motifs for boys and girls.

This comes in several sizes designed for all ages up to 14 years. But what about very young children? The best buoyancy aids for toddlers, like this one, should fit well and provide some UV protection from the sun. This buoyancy aid is made from 3mm thick neoprene which gives 100% UV protection to all covered areas, as well as extra warmth in colder water. Depending on skill level in the water, a toddler may be more suited to the smallest of the Konfidence range - but always under adult supervision. 

Teaching your baby to tread water? Well, as mentioned earlier, buoyancy aids are only meant for those who can swim unaided. Babies will need an adult with them at all times; so the choice of swim and safety wear is very much down to you. 

That said, this is one of the very best swimming aids for three-year-olds, as not only will the extra buoyancy build their confidence, the eight internal floats can be added or removed to suit their swimming progression. Plus adults can easily spot them, as they bring a splash of colour to the water.


  • Lots of great colourful designs
  • Huge range of sizes
  • UV protection
  • Removable floats


  • May need a size up for the right fit

Best buoyancy aid for SUP (Stand-Up Paddle Boarding)

Some of the best buoyancy aids for stand-up paddle boarding are low-profile and this one is a great example. It has a higher cut around the lower body than most. This means that you’ll find it easier to climb back onto your board if you fall in, as well as increase your freedom to rotate your torso when you need to.

Another mobility bonus is the elasticated sides. This well-thought-out addition helps massively with your range of movement, making this an ideal choice for paddlers who have already chosen their new paddle board, or those who prefer more energetic leisure activities.


  • Internal key pocket
  • Adjustable buckled waist belt
  • Adjustable shoulder straps
  • Elasticated sides


  • Lack of colour may not suit all tastes
  • No crotch strap for more active users

Best buoyancy aid for kayaking

One of the most important aspects of any buoyancy aid for kayaking is having a snug but comfortable fit that still gives you plenty of freedom to move your upper body. This BA from Typhoon excels here, as it has a high trapeze cut (a tapered rectangle shape) that gives your arms, shoulders and chest plenty of range. 

The waist webbing straps at the front, back and even the shoulders are fully adjustable for the perfect fit. The front zipper and quick-release buckle mean you’ll spend less time struggling to get this on and off. 

We all know that kayaking is good for exercise, but all that plunging and paddling can quickly take its toll on a buoyancy aid. This one has Rip-Stop nylon outer over the foam inner. This type of material, if snagged, will resist those long tears that are so common with ordinary nylon. This BA is a hardy, adjustable and lightweight joy to use for any kayaker.


  • Very adjustable
  • Great range of movement
  • Tear-resistant outer material


  • No pockets
  • Striking design but lacks colour options

Best buoyancy aid for sailing

Our second offering from Helly Hanson, the Sport II buoyancy aid has many excellent features that make it a great match for leisure sailing or flatwater boating. 

You may be looking for the best buoyancy aid for dinghy sailing, or just a small one-man boat. Either way, this buoyancy aid is flexible enough to suit a wide array of sailing and similar water sports. Again, here there’s a front buckle, an adjustable hem, plus a top tie to keep things in place. There’s no front zip on this BA though, which will only concern those who prefer paddling over sailing. The lack of a front zipper will help with breathability in warmer weather - great for anyone sailing for fun in the summer. 

Only a couple of colour options here - red or navy - but they're good choices to have. Opt for bright visibility or the muted navy blue as a low-key addition to a brighter wetsuit.

All in all, this is a solid, if basic, buoyancy aid with a very clear purpose in mind. What it does, it does simply - and brilliantly.


  • Lightweight
  • Quick to put on
  • Good breathability


  • No adjustable shoulder straps
  • No front zip may be an issue for paddlers

Best buoyancy aid for snorkelling

These rather eye-catching vests come in several really vibrant colours. They'll definitely look the part when you’re snorkelling around on holiday. 

One key difference from the other buoyancy aids we’ve featured is that this one is inflatable. Now, although it can be used for other water activities, we're recommending this for snorkelling instead. Being inflatable brings some benefits - at only 10oz it’s lightweight, easy to store and less fuss to put on; but don’t forget that any inflatable is prone to punctures - the last thing you need if you capsize while kayaking. But for snorkel enthusiasts, it’s ideal. You’re not likely to be adventuring in choppy waters or negotiating rough waterways at speed. 

There’s only one size (adult), but excellent additions are the adjustable waist and leg straps to keep the jacket from riding up in the water. There is no ISO certification mentioned, due to being an inflatable with a varying level of buoyancy. Aimed at more leisurely activities, especially for the casual holiday snorkeller, this is much less of an issue.

Roughly ten seconds is all you’ll need to blow this up with the included mouth valve. It’ll provide up to 220 lbs of support in the water. The outer skin is polyester and PVC so should be hard-wearing enough for plenty of leisurely snorkelling.


  • Adjustable leg straps
  • Light and easy to store
  • Great colour/visibility
  • Breathable mesh lining


  • Not the most adjustable BA
  • Not ideal for more active water sports

Best buoyancy aid for dogs

VIVAGLORY Ripstop Dogs Buoyancy Jacket
Price: $23.99

And finally… There are plenty of adventure-seekers who like to take their pets with them. More often than not, dogs are up for the challenge. Even the strongest of canine paddlers will run out of steam at times, so this is billed as a life jacket for dogs.

There’s a range of colours and sizes to choose from. Sizes are based on your pooch’s ribcage measurement and weight, so make sure you take your time before you buy one. The right size will help it to stay in place in the water and provide enough flotation. 

Visibility is excellent thanks to those bright hues, so you can always see where your pet is on your day out. A top-mounted handle makes for easy to move your pet in and out of the water or to and from your deck. 

The adjustable strapping is tough with added reflective strips. Your dog will find they have plenty of room to manoeuvre, and you’ll enjoy watching them enjoy the water just as much as you do.


  • High visibility
  • Handle for easy moving
  • Plenty of sizes to choose from
  • ‘D’ ring for leash attachment


  • As a budget buy the build quality is adequate

Buyer’s guide to buoyancy aids

When to use a buoyancy aid

If you’re paddle boarding, sailing a dinghy, kayaking, kite surfing and more - always use a buoyancy aid. They're also only safe to use in sheltered or flat waters, and when you’re in sight of the shoreline. If you’re thinking of buying a BA and taking your kayak out for a spin, don’t forget to consider what else to wear when kayaking - especially if you’re new to the hobby.

BAs should only be worn by competent swimmers, with others close by to help if needed. Children and anyone who can’t competently swim should always wear a life jacket and be accompanied by an adult at all times.

What to look for when buying

Primarily, you’ll need a good comfortable fit. Even if the aid fits like a glove it might not offer you the range of movement you’d prefer. As with all safety equipment for active sports and hobbies, it’s best to try it on before first use and exchange it for a different one if it’s not comfy.

Some aids are pulled over your head like a vest, others fit like a jacket using zippers or clips. Your vest or jacket should fasten comfortably and securely around you. Zip and buckle fastening jackets are usually a bit easier to put on than simple pull-over vests. All of our picks are jacket-style with front-facing openings.

How to pick the right size

Ask a friend to grab the top straps of the buoyancy aid - they shouldn't be able to lift it more than 5cm before it stops moving. This ensures that you can’t slip out of it in the water. If you can’t adjust it for a tighter fit, try a smaller size.

How to fit a buoyancy aid

Securely close any zippers and clips, starting from the bottom and working up. Don’t forget those shoulder straps at the end. Then make sure that your buoyancy aid hugs you under your ribs without restricting your breathing. You shouldn’t be able to pull the aid up and over your head.

Finally, finely adjust the tightness of any straps, especially around the lower torso, for comfort and make sure that it will still let you move and breathe freely.


Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between a life jacket and a buoyancy aid?

A buoyancy aid is only designed to keep someone who can already swim afloat. A life jacket is specifically designed to save your life if you can’t swim or are unconscious. It does this by forcing your head to stay above water - a BA will not do this for you.

Do buoyancy aids keep you afloat?

Yes. Providing you’re wearing the right size for your body, one of these aids can keep you afloat. But, as mentioned above - it will not keep your head out of the water if you’re unconscious.

Is a buoyancy aid the same as a swimming aid?

Yes. They more or less do the same thing. However, some jackets or vests described as being the best swimming aids may not have some of the additional features that you’d expect from a serious buoyancy aid.

How long do buoyancy aids last?

The amount of wear and damage your aid picks up is really down to how you use it. Any piece of sporting or leisure equipment will reach the end of its safe lifespan eventually.  As a rule of thumb, you should expect three years of use. For safety, the key thing here is to regularly check your BA and always replace it when necessary.

Chris Duffill is a Tech Product Writer for What's The Best. He specialises in audiovisual, computing, and gaming. He also writes for Yours.

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