Life Jackets: The Complete Guide

Wearing a life jacket when on the water is one of the most important things you can do to stay safe.  Even if you are an excellent swimmer, accidents can happen.  Currents and cold water can cause shock.  Be prepared with a life jacket that fits!

90% of drowning accidents occur in inland waters, involve boats under 20’ long, and occur within a few feet of safety.  Boats on the water are required to have a properly fitting functional life jacket for each person on board the boat. 

The good news is that there is a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) for everyone and every activity and it’s pretty easy to choose a life jacket that fits you and your activity.  Whether you are a man, woman, child, pet, swimmer, or non-swimmer, there is a life jacket built for you.

Life Jacket vs PFD

Some use the terms life jacket and PFD interchangeably, but there are some distinct differences between the two:

Life Jackets

Life Jackets are thick and offer greater protection if you get thrown into the water.  These are the life jackets you wear when you do not intend on going into the water.  They are designed to hold a person above the water and in many cases, flip them over on their back if they are unconscious and unable to right themselves.  Especially stick to life jackets if you are a weak swimmer, but they are great for anyone.

Life jackets must come in yellow, orange, or red colors and in a keyhole or vest design.  They come in all sizes for adults and children.  They should fit slightly loose and have buckles and straps for adjustment.

There are three basic types of life jackets: 

SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) – will turn the wearer face up in the water quickly as it is very buoyant.  There are two sizes:  one for individuals over 32kg (70 lbs) and one for individuals weighing less than 32kg (70 lbs).


Standard – looks like a keyhole, is less buoyant than SOLAS, and will turn the wearer face-up a slower rate.  There are two sizes:  one for individuals over 40kg (88 lbs) and one for individuals weighing less than 40kg (88 lbs).


Small Vessel – less buoyant and will turn the wearer face-up, but at a slower rate than the other two styles.  It is meant to be worn in calm waters.  These come in three sizes:  For wearers over 41kg (90 lbs), for wearers 18kg (40 lbs) to 41 kg (90 lbs), and for wearers less than 18 kg (40 lbs).


PFD (Personal Flotation Device)


Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are less bulky and less buoyant.  They will allow you to float on the surface but may not flip you over automatically.  They are designed for different water-based activities, so they allow more movement.  They come in a wide variety of colors.

Life Jackets/PFDs come in 5 Types

Type I

Offshore life jackets designed for rough or remote waters, where rescue might not be immediate.  Very buoyant and will flip most unconscious persons face up

Type II

Near Shore Vests are designed for calm waters where a quick rescue is likely.  They are less buoyant and will not flip most unconscious persons face up

Type III

Flotation Aids for calm waters where a quick rescue is likely.  They do not turn an unconscious person right side up.  Used for supervised activities such as water skiing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and PWC operation.

Type IV

Throwable devices such as cushions and ring buoys designed to be thrown to someone who is in trouble.  They are not designed to be worn, are not meant for rough waters and only useful when a person can hang onto it

Type V

Special use devices such as vests, deck suits, hybrid PFDs and others which are designed for activities such as windsurfing kayaking or water-skiing. 

New Life Jacket Labels

The best way to choose a life jacket for your activity is based on the label on the life jacket.  The US Coast Guard and Transport Canada have standardized life jacket labels.  These are on the newest life jackets.  Your older life jacket is still perfectly fine to use as long as it is serviceable, accessible and of a proper size.

New life jackets use icons to indicate type and buoyancy.  Here is a comparison put out by the US Coast Guard that compares the old terms to the new icons:


The numbers 50, 70, 100, 150, and 275 Newtons indicate the level of buoyancy.  The number and construction type will indicate how likely the life jacket will be to turn you face up in the water.

Here is a sample life jacket label:


This jacket shows a buoyancy of 70 and that it will likely not turn you on your back automatically.  This particular life jacket is also not recommended for certain watersports. The care instructions for the life jacket are on the bottom.  


Types of Life Jackets

As mentioned, life jackets should be chosen based on the activity you choose and your age.  Certain life jackets and PFDs are not recommended for youth under 16 years of age.

Here are common styles of life jacket or PFD:


Inflatable life jackets come in a couple of varieties and styles.  Each has an inflatable mechanism that activates CO2 in the vest to cause inflation.


Manually Inflatable Life Jackets

Like the name implies, these life jackets require you to pull a handle at your waist to activate the CO2 cylinder.  You have full control over whether the vest inflates.  The downside is that the user must be conscious to activate the vest. 

It comes in a vest or waist style and requires regular maintenance to ensure that it will perform when needed.  It is not recommended for children under 16, or people who don’t know how to swim.  Some styles also have weight restrictions.  This type of jacket is not to be used with personal watercrafts or whitewater rafting/kayaking.


Automatic Inflate Life Jacket

Automatic inflatable life jackets inflate when you hit the water.  A chain reaction releases a small spring-loaded pin that pierces the CO2 cylinder.  They are comfortable and cool and may or may not turn the user face up in the water.  They are not meant for sports that go underwater.

Same rules apply as for manually jackets, including regular maintenance and restrictions on use by children under 16 or non-swimmers.

Hydrostatic PFD

These are automatically inflated, but only when immersed in a certain depth of water.  If you are playing in big waves, or in the water during rain storms, these will work better as they will not activate as quickly.

Children’s Hybrid Inflatable

There are inflatable options sized for children.  They offer buoyancy and may turn an unconscious user face up.  Read the labels carefully and consider the proficiency of the swimmer and activity when considering these life jackets.


Vest Type PFD

Continuing our tour of life jacket options, we come to the very common vest type PFDs.  These are vests with a keyhole opening that slips over your head.  There is a strap that goes around your waist and buckles and straps to fit the vest snugly on your body.  Sometimes there is a strap that goes between the legs. 

These are less bulky than the life jackets mentioned early.  They have good flotation and may turn an unconscious wearer face up in the water.  They are good for non-swimmers and require little maintenance


Children’s Life Jacket/PFD

If you are fitting a life jacket for youth or children, choose a life jacket or PFD labeled for them.  These may have special safety features designed for children such as a head rest, handle for pulling children out of the water, reflective material, a safety whistle, and straps between the legs.  They are designed for possible immersion, but they will float the child to the surface and may turn them face up.


Flotation Aid

These vests have mesh on the top around the shoulders with flotation materials around the chest area.  This makes them comfortable and stylish.  They may not turn the unconscious wearer face up.  They require very little maintenance.


Vest Type Flotation Aid

This vest is made of rugged construction which is designed for high impact, high speed activities such as waterskiing, or wakeboarding.  They are designed for possible immersion and may not turn the unconscious wearer face up in the water.


Mesh Camo Life Jacket          

If you are a hunter and hunting waterfowl from a boat, you may consider a specialty life jacket that allows freedom of movement.  One shoulder has a quilted patch for ease in shooting and there is often a mesh pocket for storage.  It may not turn an unconscious wearer face up in the water.


Float Coat

If you are hunting waterfowl in cold weather, choose a float coat.  It looks like a big jacket and is designed to prevent hypothermia in case you fall into the water.  It will keep you buoyant but may not flip you face up in the water if you lose consciousness.



Inflatable fishing vest

Fishermen may consider a special inflatable vest with pockets and straps for all of your supplies.  It inflates upon immersion or manually by pulling a strap.  It is not meant for children under 16 or non-swimmers.  It may turn the wearer right side up.  It does require regular maintenance just like other inflatables life saving devices.


Touring and Whitewater Paddling Jacket

Paddling jackets are designed for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, or whitewater activities.  They are designed to allow movement and protection but may not turn you right side up in the water if you capsize.  They require little maintenance.


Offshore Vest

If you are cruising on open waters or up and down the coast, strongly consider an offshore vest.  Think SOLAS jackets mentioned above.  They offer maximum flotation, will flip you right side up in the water, and may help prevent hypothermia while you await rescue.  They are bulky, but well worth the safety on more open seas.


Pet Life Jackets

Don’t forget your four-legged friends.  Protect them with a vest when they are on the boat. 


How to Choose a Life Jacket or PFD

Here are some things to remember when choosing a life jacket or PFD:

  1. Choose a life jacket based on the activity you are doing.
  2. Choose a life jacket rated for your size and weight.
  3. Choose a life jacket rated for your age – adults, youth, and children have different options and requirements.
  4. Make sure the life jacket is approved by the US Coast Guard or Transport Canada
  5. Try on the jacket.  It should be snug but comfortable and allow you to move around.
  6. Choose a life jacket color based on how visible you are in the water.  A blue one might be great looking in the boat, but if you fall overboard, a brighter color will enable others to see you better in the water.

Does your Life Jacket Fit?

There are several things to check to ensure you life jacket fits properly.

  1. Check the label to make sure you are choosing the right one for your size and weight.
  2. Put the life jacket on and fasten it up.  Pull the straps to make sure it’s snug.
  3. Raise your arms over your head to see if you can move properly.
  4. Move around like you were in the water and check your mobility.
  5. Ask a friend to grab the life jacket at the top of the arm and pull up.  It should be snug and not ride up over your chin or face


Test Your Life Jacket in the Water

Before you use a life jacket on open or deep waters, check to see how it works:

  1. Put the life jacket on and secure the straps and buckles.
  2. Wade into chest-deep water.
  3. Bend your knees and float onto your back.
  4. Your chin should stay above water and allow you to breathe comfortable.
  5. Stand up and reach above your head.  (If it raises up and hits your nose, it’s too big)


Care of your Life Jacket

We’ve mentioned that some life jackets require more maintenance than others.  The inflatable jackets and vests should be checked regularly to ensure the CO2 cartridge will perform as expected. 

Remember to only use life jackets or PFDs for their intended purpose.  Using them as cushions or bumpers can damage them.  Inspect it regularly for tears or damage.  Do not use a life jacket that is not in good condition

After use, air dry them out of direct sunlight and store them in a dry, well-ventilated area away from chemicals or gasoline. 

If you need to clean your life jacket or PFD, use mild soap and water, rinse it well, and air dry it away from direct sunlight and away from direct heat sources.

If you care for your life jacket or PFD, it should last quite a while.


Ready to Boat?

Remember, no matter how careful you are and how great a swimmer you think you are, accidents can happen.  While you think you will have time to grab the life jacket and put it on in the water, this is often not the case.  A properly fitted life jacket or PFD can save lives, but only if you wear them!