Water skiing is fun, adventurous and the perfect way to spend a day at the beach.

But staying safe is always the priority and that’s why you need the right life vest. Since there are so many options out there, it can be confusing to find the best life vest for water skiing, isn’t it?

So, I am going to lay it all out for you. Making a decision will be easy and now you can enjoy your favourite water sports without fear!

I’ll talk about how to choose life vests based on your requirement, the pros and cons of each type and whether you should buy a USCG (U.S. Coast Guard) approved or a competition approved vest?

To make it even simpler, I’ll also discuss the 5 best life vests available now.

Things to Consider When Buying a Life Vest for Water Skiing

Given there are so many elements to a life vest, what are the things you look for when making a purchase? Here’s a brief overview:

Safety

There are few different ways in which life vests offer buoyancy. It can be inherently buoyant, inflatable or a hybrid. Inherently buoyant vest use foam cores which help them keep afloat.

However, some designs a bulky and can limit movement. Inflatable vests need to be triggered on impact, which otherwise remains deflated. However, the user might not be in a state to trigger it upon impact. Lastly, the hybrid comes with both options but is very expensive.

Ease of movement

While I do want to prioritize safety, it does not mean compromising movement. Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing or water skiing, there needs to be enough room to move around. Similarly, once you’re in the water, if you can’t move your hands around, then you’re stranded for help in the middle of the water.

Price

Obviously, we all have a budget to work with. While we’d love to get our hands on the best goodies, that might not be feasible. Typically, a competition grade vest should cost around $60-70.

Coast Guard Approved vs Competition Approved

The USCG requires that every recreational boat has one wearable life jacket for each person on the boat. Though it’s not bound by federal law, it isn’t something that should be ignored.

Now:

Most states have some sort of law regarding water sports such as water skiing. It’s best to be aware of the regulations in your state. If there is child below 13 years of age, it’s federal law to have them fitted with a USCG approved life jacket.

Apart from that, USCG approved jackets are much safer due to the expertise and knowledge the organisation has. Competition approved jackets might not be USCG approved and though it’s fine to wear a non-USCG approved jacket in controlled conditions, it’s better to be on the safe side.

Different Types of Life Jackets

A life jacket is a vest which makes you more buoyant. Basically, it helps you remain afloat so that you have time till help arrives. There are five different types of life vests and each are built in a way to serve a specific purpose.

Type I PFD

A type I life jacket is one of the most reliable floatation devices and offers the best buoyancy. It’s usually characterised by rectangular brace around the neck and is designed to help you float even when you are unconscious.

It’s designed for use on rough waters, remote locations and the high seas. It’s mostly used for boating, fishing or travelling in deep waters. It is almost always available in bright colors with reflective strips to help in case of rescue.

Type II PFD

Type II jackets look less bulky than type I jackets but have a similar form factor. They too have a guard around the neck to support your head and help in keeping the survivor afloat.

However, these offer less buoyancy than type I and are better suited for children, since their body weight requires less buoyant force. The type II is great for fishing, boating and travelling in the high seas.

Type III PFD

The type III life jacket is one that’s most used nowadays, especially in boating, canoeing, kayaking and water sports. It’s a light-weight jacket, unlike the previous types and is more ergonomically designed.

Despite being light-weight, it still offers the same minimum buoyancy as the type II, but will not turn an unconscious wearer face up. The wearer will have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in the water. As a result, it’s not suitable for children.

Type IV PFD

The type IV device is a throwable element rather than a vest. It’s generally shaped like a tire and is used to help someone who has gone overboard to be brought back to the ship. These are not required on kayaks or canoes as per USCG rules.

Type V PFD

The type V life vest is a speciality use device. These do not have neck guards. The device includes a deck suit, float coat and paddling vest. It’s mostly used for windsurfing, kayaking, and water skiing. Remember to check the label to understand the limits for its use.

For the purpose of this article, this is the perfect fit for water skiers. It will offer mobility as well as safety to the skier. Personal floatation devices and hybrid vest form a part of this category.

What are the benefits of type III and type V life jackets?

Type III life jackets are snug, well-designed and easy to wear. They look stylish and most of the competition jackets will fit in this category. These are often labelled as type III USCG-approved PFD.

Pros:

Low-maintenance jackets – The only maintenance these jackets need is to keep them dry and out of the sun, when not in use.

Buoyant by nature – These are inherently buoyant. You do not need to trigger any mechanism to keep yourself afloat.

Multiple uses – These types of jackets are used by kayakers, water skiers, paddle boaters and other water sports enthusiasts.

Pockets – The jackets offer compartments and pockets, which can help you store tools, sunscreen, medicines and the likes.

Cons:

Not all are comfortable to wear – some of the PFDs can be bulky and affect your posture and performance. It can be hard to stand and navigate when you are paddling or skiing.

Can get hot –The materials used on these jackets are either nylon or neoprene. Due to the synthetic nature, they can get hot fast.

Type V Hybrid PFDs

The type V jackets are for special use only and offer greater care and support. These hybrid PFDs offer comfort, style and use inflation mechanisms to help you stay afloat.

Pros:

Keeps you cool – Unlike the type III, the material used in this type of vests keeps you cool throughout the day and isn’t likely to warm up.

Very safe – The hybrids use buoyant foam as well as inflation mechanisms, which offer greater safety. These contain internal buoyancy due to the foam and offer extra safety due to its inflation capabilities.

Comfort and fit – The low profile design on these vests, make it easy to navigate, take a position and perform which water sport you choose. Unlike other vests, these do not tend to be bulky

Cons:

Cost – Unfortunately, since these offer a wide range of benefits, they are known to be quite costly. As a result, only the serious enthusiasts are likely to afford them.

What’s the Best Way to Use a Life Jacket?

Always test your life jacket’s fit once you have bought them. They do not come in ‘one size fits all’ and it’s best not to leave it for the day when you go to the beach.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

You would need a friend or a family to help you when wearing the jacket. I’ll explain the why later.

Loosen all the straps and put on the life jacket.

Start tightening the straps and begin from the waist. The shoulder straps should be tightened at the last.

Now, have your friend or a family member pull up on the shoulder to check if it slips off. If it does, tighten it further.

Try moving as if you were on a ski and see if it inhibits any movement.

Lastly, check for buoyancy in a pool. Relax your body and tilt your head backwards. Your chin should remain above water at all times.

The 5 Best Life Vests for Water Skiing

  • Onyx General Purpose


Onyx offers a basic nylon life jacket option. It might suit the occasional skier. The vest is not USCG approved and can be a bit uncomfortable to wear due to the blocky design.

If you're looking at a one-time thing, it might be a good option.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Not USCG approved
  • Uncomfortable to wear
  • Stearns Adult Classic


This is a unisex vest and is USCG approved. The vest comes in two color choices - red and blue. The straps are brightly marked so that they can be easily seen from a distance.

It does not come in different sizes and you would have to adjust the vest using the straps. For average sized-users, it can be a comfortable fit.

Pros:

  • USCG approved
  • Easy to wear

Cons:

  • Comes in only one size. Might not be the perfect fit
  • Bodyglove Life Vest


The Bodyglove life vest features a low profile design. It helps with ease of movement, comfort and offers functionality. The vest comes in sizes small to 4XL and is made of cotton. It is one of the more commonly used vests by jet skiers.

Pros:

  • Ease of movement and navigation
  • Relatively inexpensive

Cons:

  • It is not USCG approved
  • The cotton fabric can chafe the skin if you're not wearing a wetsuit underneath
  • O’Neil Men’s Reactor Life Vest


The O'Neil Reactor is a USCG approved life vest. The vest is inherently buoyant using segmented foam. It's anatomically designed flex points allows freedom of movement.

The vest is supported by straps as well as quick release zipper which ensures right fit without compromising safety. The materials used are neoprene and polyester, making for a lightweight vest. Perfect for water skiing and wake sports.

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Ease of movement
  • USCG approved

Cons:

  • Size chart might be a little off
  • On the more expensive end of the spectrum
  • O’Neil Superlite Life Vest


The Superlite comes in a variety of sizes starting from small to 6XL. This is a standard choice for competitions and has a low profile design which prioritizes functionality and safety over bulk. There is a front zipper as well as straps to aid in a relaxed fit.

The material used is nylon and helps retains heat within the body.

Pros:

  • USCG approved
  • Ease of movement
  • Retain heat

Cons:

  • Might be uncomfortable to wear without a wetsuit
  • Towards the expensive end of the spectrum

What’s the Bottom Line? Which Vest is Best?

An ideal life vest will offer buoyancy, functionality and easy to wear. Of the five different vests reviewed here, the O’Neil Superlite offers the best option.

Here’s why:

It offers safety and buoyancy due to its inherent buoyancy courtesy of the foams used. The low profile and ergonomic design offer maneuverability, while the nylon fabric aids in retaining heat while you’re in the water.

In addition to all these factors, it is USCG approved. As a result, you can’t go wrong with the O’Neil Superlite.

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Luke Anderson
Luke Anderson

Luke grew up in Orlando and has been wakeboarding since he could walk. His father was a pro surfer and his new passion is wakesurfing. He's been reviewing and testing water sport equipment for many years now.