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All About Life Jackets (Personal Flotation Devices or, PFD’s)

Accidents on the water happen fast. U.S. Coast Guard statistics showed in 2022 that drownings were the main cause of deaths in recreational boating. Why? Boaters weren't wearing life jackets. In Oregon, 10 out of 16 deaths in 2022 were not wearing a life jacket. Life jackets improve the odds of surviving an incident.

Children 12 and under must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when the boat is underway. They do not need to wear one if they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin. Life jackets are mandatory to wear in Class III or higher whitewater rapids.

Life jacket styles are available for any boating activity:

​Inflatable life jackets use compressed air cartridges (CO2) when deployed. The gas fills the life jacket chamber. Inflatables provide 45% more buoyancy when inflated. This causes a person to float higher and be more visible when the life jacket inflates. Always read the life jacket label and owner's manual for approved use,​ maintenance care, instructions, and manufacturer contact information. 

Inflatable life jackets are NOT APPROVED by the U.S. Coast Guard for users under 16 years old. Currently, there are no child-sized inflatable or hybrid-style life jackets approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. For less mature youth who are 16 and over, non-swimmers, and less mobile adults, inflatable life jackets are not recommended. Inherently buoyant (foam-style life jackets) are the best choice.

Inflatable life jackets need routine maintenance and regular testing. Please read the label and follow the instructions for maintenance and testing. If you have an inflatable life jacket, test the inflation mechanism every year. Also, test the manual inflation to know if the bladder holds air. Test it. Deploy your inflatable life jacket in a pool to understand how it fits, feels, and inflates. Try swimming in it. Make sure the harness isn't too tight. Get comfortable blowing air into and releasing air, using the inflation tube. Know how to fine-tune adjustments for comfort. Inflatable jackets do fail to deploy or show tampering with the inflation mechanism. Remember Regular maintenance!

IMPORTANT: Not all inflatable life jackets come with a CO2 cartridge. Make sure you arm your inflatable with the correct manufacturer's CO2 cylinder. Check out the US Army Corps of Engineers video to learn more about inflatables.

There are two primary types:
  • Manual inflation - inflates with the quick jerk of a cord
  • Automatic - inflates when submerged in water.
Both types are also inflated by breathing into an inflation tube/mouthpiece. This is a backup method to inflate the life jacket in case the inflation mechanism fails. Use the inflation tube to adjust the comfort of the jacket after its inflated. The inflation tube is also how to DEFLATE the life jacket to repack it.

Buy re-arming kits through the life jacket manufacturer or at outdoor retail stores. Replace cylinders when expired and if you have inflated the life jacket. If you have an expired cartridge, you can use it to test your life jacket for fit and function!

Automatic Inflatables:

An automatic inflatable will go off when the life jacket is, at least, four inches under the water. It's triggered by a small tablet that dissolves or a pressure gauge that starts the inflation. There is also a manual "jerk to inflate" cord.

Hybrid Inflatables:

Intended for certain boating activities. Hybrids have 7.5 lbs. of inherent buoyancy when deflated and inflates up to 22 lbs. Wearing a traditional life jacket, you will also have extra buoyancy when inflated.​
Image of a harness manual inflatable life jacketBelt pack life jacket -wear in the front of the body, not the back

​Intended for offshore or on rough seas where quick rescue may not be likely. They have greater flotation and are able to turn an unconscious person face up. This type of life jacket is available in two sizes, adult (90 lbs. or more) and child (less than 90 lbs.)​

Wearable offshore life jacket

​Intended for general boating activities and is suitable for protected areas. These are for activities where quick rescue is available. They are not suitable for extended survival in rougher cold water. It also has less buoyancy and will turn a person that is unconscious into a vertical or face-up position. These life jackets are available in several sizes.​
Wearable inland life jacket

​Intended for general boating or specialized activities such as canoeing, waterskiing, or fishing. They are better for protected areas where rough water is unlikely and for a quick rescue. They have moderate buoyancy that keeps a conscious person in an upright position in the water. It is not intended to turn or maintain an unconscious wearer, face-up. They are available in many sizes, styles, and colors, and for varying activities.​​

Wearable general use and impact sports life jacket

​You do as the name intends -throw it! Also known as a float cushion, someone on board throws the cushion to a person who has fallen overboard. Intended for the person to grab and hold until rescued. The person should never have the straps around the arms and worn on the back. This will force the person's face underwater. Instead, the person should put their arms through the straps and hold the cushion to their chest. This will keep their head out of the water and help them swim. A throwable is not suitable for rough or cold-water survival. They are not recommended for non-swimmers or children.​

Throwable device (float cushion)

​Intended and approved for restricted uses or activities such as:
  • sailboarding
  • commercial whitewater rafting
  • advanced whitewater kayakers
Read the label for restrictions, limitations that apply, and its performance type.

Special use device designed for specific boating activities

Image of a youth with a life jacket not buckled correctly and rises too high above the ears The Right Fit 

Today's life jackets come in various shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. The life jacket you choose, be sure it's right for YOU, your planned activities, and the water conditions.

  • Life jackets that are too big will cause the flotation device to push up around your face and can be dangerous. The jacket can also slip off. (Pictured: a life jacket that's too big and the straps are not aligned or tight enough.)
  • Life jackets that are too small will not be able to keep your head above the water.

Try It On

  • Check the manufacturer's ratings for your size and weight to get started.
  • Make sure you zip and/or buckle your life jacket. Make sure the straps and buckles are aligned.
  • When you raise your arms straight up, the life jacket should not come more than one inch off your shoulder. Test by grabbing the shoulders and pulling up. If the life jacket rides up over your chin or face, it does NOT fit right. Life jackets should always be snug, but comfortable.
  • If the life jacket doesn't fit right, change sizes, or pull the straps to have more of a snug fit. 

 Life Jacket Variety

Be sure the life jacket you wear is US Coast Guard-approved for the activity you're doing.

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Life jacket loaner station hosted by Corvallis Parks and Recreation

BLOG: Think of Meg...every time you hit the water

Important Reminders & Oregon's Life Jacket Laws

  • Make sure your life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
  • Double-check that your life jacket is appropriate for your favorite boating activities.
  • Children should wear the right fitted life jacket for them. Do not buy a life jacket for your child to “grow into." Remember snug fit!
  • Children 12 and under must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when the boat is underway. They do not need to wear one if they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin. Life jackets are mandatory to wear in Class III or higher whitewater rapids.
  • Life Jacket laws: OAR 250-010-0154

Newer Life Jacket Labels

Newer life jackets on the market will have different U.S. Coast Guard labels. The label on the life jacket indicates the restrictions or limitations that apply and its performance type. Be sure to check the label and ensure that the life jacket is approved for the activity for which it is designed. Types I-V (legacy) life jackets are still approved and accepted for carriage requirements.