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Life Jackets Explained

Buyer's Guide > Wakeboards Explained | Wakeboard Bindings Explained | Wakeskates Explained | Wakesurfers Explained | Wakeboard Ropes & Handles Explained | Life Jackets Explained

Wakeboards and wakesurfers are the most fun to shop for. Wakeboard bindings are an appreciated piece of the performance puzzle. And, life jackets, ugh, they are so boring. Sure, life jackets may not be the most glamorous product to shop for. But, they are easily the most important piece of equipment you will own. A proper fitting vest that moves with your body can not only help you master the next trick, but it can save your life. At BuyWake.com, we want you riding for a long time. So, educate yourself and make sure you get the right vest for you.

U.S. Coast Guard Approved (USCGA) Life Jackets

Just because it is a wakeboard vest, does not mean it is a life jacket. To be considered a life jacket, the vest must be United States Coast Guard Approved. This means that the vest has underwent and passed rigorous series of tests. USCGA vests are constructed with extra floatation and are designed to keep your head above water. USCGA vests are also equipped with additional padding to protect your torso from impact. Depending on your local government, a USCGA vest may be required by law for use while participating in wakeboarding, wakeskating, and wakesurfing.

Competition Vests

In areas where a USCGA vest is not required by law, many wakeboarders opt to wear a competition vest (or comp vest). Comp vests are thinner, more form fitting, and allow for greater range of motion than USCGA vests. Advanced level riders favor comp vests as their low-profile construction allows for extra flex and maneuverability. Comp vests float a little, but are not built with enough buoyancy to keep your head above water. Competition vests are incredibly comfortable. However, they are not considered life jackets.


Adult wakeboard vests are not made to a standard size. Sizes will not fit exactly the same across all brands. To ensure a proper fit, measure the circumference of the largest part of your chest and refer to the specific size chart found on the vest’s product detail page. Wakeboard vests are designed to be form fitting and snug. So, in the event that your measurement straddles the range of two sizes, always size down.

Infant, Child, and Youth Sizes

All infant, child, and youth vests are U.S. Coast Guard Approved and fit three standard sizes. Infant and Child vests are also required to have additional safety features specifically designed for infants and toddlers.  Refer to the chart below for Infant, Child, and Youth vests:

Size Weight Range Special Features
Infant Up to 30 lbs Supportive collar, leg harness, grab handle
Child/Toddler 30 - 50 lbs Leg harness, grab handle
Youth 50 - 90 lbs None


The materials that your life jacket or comp vest are made of can effect the comfort, maneuverability, and longevity of your vest. Wakeboard vests are primarily constructed from either neoprene or nylon and, as with most products, you generally get what you pay for.


Neoprene is a synthetic rubber material that has become the standard in wake vest construction. Neoprene vests are form fitting, flexible, soft, durable, and can feel slightly warmer than vests made out of other materials. Neoprene vests are usually more expensive, but are much more comfortable, high-performance, and longer lasting than traditional nylon vests.


Nylon is a silky, water repellent, plastic fabric that is predominantly used for less expensive waterski vests. Nylon does not stretch and can feel rigid against the skin. So, it is not as comfortable or functional as neoprene vests. Nonetheless, nylon vests are more cost effective and tend to be lighter weight than neoprene vests.

Front Zip, Side Zip, and Pullover

Ease of entry should always be considered when purchasing a wakeboard vest. Just like all products, there are trade offs. Front zip vests are the easiest to put on. The vest opens up completely and goes on like a regular coat. However, zippers do not flex with the neoprene in your vest. This can create a very small dead zone down the middle of the chest where the flexibility of the vest is constrained. Pullover vests are the toughest to put on. However, once they are on, flexibility is maintained throughout the entire vest. Some wakeboard vest makers have developed a side zip option. On a side zip vest, the zipper is affixed to the smallest panel of the vest. This results in a minimal dead zone while still making the vest fairly effortless to put on.


Buckles are added to both USCGA life jackets and competition vests to give wakeboarders the option to cinch down their vests and enjoy a more customized fit. Buckles also add increased firmness to the lumbar region of your back while keeping the vest from riding up.

Armhole Size

Armhole size varies greatly from USCGA life jackets to competition vests. Generally, armholes are larger in USCGA life jackets and smaller in competition style vests. Since USCGA vests are made with more floatation materials, they tend to be bulkier and slightly constrain movement. Manufacturers attempt to reduce this restriction by giving more space in the armholes to increase range of motion. Conversely, the profile of a comp vest is not restrictive at all. Competition vests utilize less foam and are made of soft and highly elastic materials. Since comp vests are already much easier to maneuver in, there is no need to create a larger armhole. In competition style vests, smaller armholes to tend to it fit more precisely and offer a better feel.

Shop Life Jackets & Comp Vests

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