Accidents on the water happen too fast to put one on in an emergency. U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that drowning was the reported cause of death in 76% of recreational boating fatalities in 2017, and that 84.5% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets. That’s why boating safety advocates continue to push for increased and consistent life jacket wear on the water.
Life jacket designs are much more comfortable, lightweight and stylish than the old, bulky orange style most boaters envision. Life jackets that use inflatable technologies keep the wearer cool and comfortable and resemble a pair of suspenders or a belt pack. Many inflate automatically when immersed in water.
Other life jacket styles are available for almost any boating activity:
For fishing: Vest-style life jackets come with features such as pockets and clips to replace the fishing vest and keep the angler safe.
For personal watercraft and water sports: Inherently buoyant, lighter-weight life jackets are rugged, with multiple buckles and clasps to keep them secure after impact with the water.
For hunting and cold weather: Full coats and suits are available in camouflage colors for waterfowl hunting and for those who boat when air and water temperatures are cool.
For paddling: Special life jackets are designed with large openings for arms to allow ease of movement.
For children: Virtually all styles are available sized especially for children – some with cartoon characters, straps for pulling children from the water, and high-visibility schemes. All children 12 and younger are required to wear a life jacket while on an open deck or cockpit when a boat is underway or when being towed. See the video below for fitting information.
For pets: Life jackets are even available for our four-legged friends. It’s helpful to purchase one with a handle on top to easily pull your pet out of the water if needed.
No matter what the activity or style chosen, the most important thing is this: remember to grab a life jacket and “Wear It!”
How to Choose the Right Life Jacket
Looking for a life jacket? Today’s life jackets come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. No matter which life jacket you choose, be sure it’s right for YOU, your planned activities, and the water conditions you expect to encounter.
Try It On
- Check the manufacturer’s ratings for your size and weight to get started.
- Make sure the life jacket is properly zipped or buckled.
- Raise your arms straight up over your head while wearing your life jacket and grab the shoulder material, gently pulling up.
- If there is excess room above the openings and the life jacket rides up over your chin or face, it does NOT fit properly. A snug fit in these areas signals a properly fitting life jacket.
- It is extremely important that you choose a properly fitting life jacket.
- Life jackets that are too big will cause the flotation device to push up around your face, which could be dangerous.
- Life jackets that are too small will not be able to keep your body afloat.
- Make sure your life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
- Double-check that your life jacket is appropriate for your favorite boating activities.
- Life jackets meant for adults do not work for children. If you are boating with children, make sure they are wearing properly fitted, child-sized life jackets. Do not buy a life jacket for your child to “grow into.”
- On recreational vessels underway, children under 13 years old must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket unless they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin.
- Life jackets are required to be worn in Class III or higher whitewater rapids.
Life Jacket Types
Inflatable Life Jackets
Inflatables are becoming increasingly popular because they are comfortable, lightweight, and non-restrictive. Inflatables are not approved for high impact sports such as riding a personal watercraft.
Type I –Wearable Offshore Use
Intended for use offshore or potentially rough seas where quick rescue may not be likely. It has a greater flotation value than other types and is designed to turn an unconscious person face up. It is reversible and is available in two sizes, adult (90 lbs. or more) and child (less than 90 lbs.).
Type II – Wearable Inland Use
Designed for general boating activities and is suitable for protected areas, where rough water is not likely to be found or for activities were quick rescue is available. Not suitable for extended survival in rougher cold water. This type of jacket is less buoyant than Type I, and is designed to turn an unconscious person to a vertical or slightly face-up position. These life jackets are available in several sizes.
Type III – Wearable General Use
Intended for general boating activities or specialized activities such as canoeing, skiing or fishing due to the freedom of movement it allows. Type III PFDs are suitable for protected areas where rough water is not likely or where quick rescue is available. This type of life jacket is less buoyant than a Type II PFD. It is designed to provide a stable face-up position in calm water for a conscious person floating with their head tilted back. It is not intended to turn or maintain an unconscious wearer, face-up. These life jackets are available in many sizes, styles, and colors that appeal to all ages and work well with varying boating activities.
Type IV -Throwable Device (float cushion)
Intended to be thrown to a person who has fallen overboard. This device is designed to be grasped and held by the user until they can be rescued. Not suitable for rough or cold water survival. This type of a float cushion is useless to an unconscious or exhausted person and is not recommended for non-swimmers or children. Float Cushions should never be worn on the back. This will force the person’s face underwater. A person overboard should put their arms through the straps and hold the cushion to their chest, which will keep their head out of the water.
Type V –Wearable Special Use Devices
This type of life jacket is designed and approved for restricted uses or activities such as sailboarding or commercial whitewater rafting. If it is approved and identified for commercial use only, it does not satisfy requirements for recreational watercraft. The label on the life jacket indicates the restrictions or limitations that apply and its performance type. This type of life jacket is only acceptable when used for the activity for which it is designed and labelled.
A hybrid inflatable life jacket is also a Type V. This type of inflatable has 7.5 pounds of inherent buoyancy when deflated and inflates up to 22 pounds. To count for life jacket carriage requirements, the hybrid inflatable must be worn except when the boat is not underway or when the boater is in an enclosed space, such as the cabin.