Best Life Jackets Guide & Reviews
Life jackets are the single most important safety factor when taking part in activities on water. We are not just talking about being safe out at sea. It’s about being safe wherever, and whenever, you are participating in an activity on water.
You may be surprised to know that 90% of drownings occur in inland waters. Most of them were within just a few feet of safety. We are still amazed at the number of times we see in the news that people have got themselves into danger and they have chosen not to wear a life jacket. It doesn't matter whether you buy, borrow or rent, please wear a life jacket and keep safe.
The purpose of a life jacket is to keep you afloat in the water and give you extra time. This extra time is for the rescue services to reach you. Time that can mean the difference between life and death. It doesn’t take long to drown and you will be surprised about how quickly things can take a turn for the worse. In fact, it only takes 60 seconds for an adult to drown and 20 seconds for a child to drown.
TYPE I PFD
Off Shore Life Jacket
These are best suited to open waters, rough seas or remote locations where rescue may not be immediate. Recommended when boating or fishing alone and you may be far from the shore.
The main benefits of these are: -
• The provide the most reliable flotation and highest amount of buoyancy
• They are designed to turn most unconscious wearers face up in the water and they help to retain the most body heat.
• Available in a variety of highly visible colors and can have reflective material to help with search and rescue
TYPE II PFD
Near Shore Buoyant Life Vest
These are best suited to calm or inland water, when you are close to shore and where a fast rescue is likely to happen. Ideally suited to fishing, sailing and boating.
The main benefits of these are: -
• They turn some unconscious wearers face up in the water
• Less bulky and more comfortable than the foam off shore life jacket (Type I PFD)
• Approved for multiple sizes from infant through to all adults
• They are a good choice for children
TYPE III PFD
These are a good for conscious users in calm inland water or where fast rescue is likely to happen.
The main benefits of these are: -
• They are usually the most comfortable for continuous wear
• Designed for general boating & designated activities marked on the device such as water skiing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, wind surfing and many others.
• Available in many styles, including vests and flotation coats
TYPE IV PFD
Type IV Life Jackets include buoys and boat cushions. They function as throwable devices and are not designed to be worn.
The main benefits of these are: -
• They can be thrown from a craft or from land
• Provide back-up to wearable life jackets
• Some styles may be used as seat cushions so they don’t take up any additional space
TYPE V PFD
Special Use Devices
Type V life jackets are intended for very specific activities. These include board sailing vests, deck suits, pullover vests, work vests, some hybrid life jackets, inflatable life jackets with OCR harness and many others.
They are only appropriate for specific uses or conditions so you should check the label instructions.. Some Type V life jackets meet the U.S. Coast Guard’s Carriage Regulations only if worn in accordance with the label.
The main benefits of these are: -
• Designed for specific activities—check label for limits of use
• Continuous wear prevents users from being caught without protection
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Types of Life Jacket Inflatable Mechanisms
Automatic PFD vs. Manual PFD
Automatic inflation devices are supposed to inflate on contact with water and usually it does take being submerged in water to activate. A spray of water will not normally be enough to make it inflate. The real benefit of this is that it could save your life if you are knocked unconscious while going into the water. The downside is that automatic inflatable life jackets could also inflate inconveniently if you, for example, plunge through a wave and you get water dumped on you. This can be combatted by choosing an automatic inflatable life vest which is activated with water pressure.
A manual inflatable life vest requires you to be conscious and aware of what you are doing so you are able to pull the release for the cylinder. This is the more reliable of the two inflatables and requires less servicing but doesn’t have the added safety measure of inflating if you are knocked unconscious.
Whether it’s automatic life jacket or a manual life jacket, some life jackets will also have an oral tube incorporated into the design. This allows you to top up the air bladder when needed. Many manufacturers have a CO2 cylinder which will not fully inflate the vest and therefore you may need to top up the bladder, depending on how long you are in the water before you are rescued.
How do Automatic Inflation Life Jackets Work?
An Automatic inflation life vest uses a water-soluble capsule attached to the inflation unit. Its mechanism pierces the CO2 cylinder and releases the gas when submerged or when it senses other water-related triggers (e.g. water pressure). Units with automatic inflation mechanisms may also be manually inflated by using the ripcord.
How do Manual Inflation Life Jackets Work?
A manual inflation life vest releases the CO2 gas from the cylinder via ripcord Cylinder Seal Indication: Makes it easier to determine if the CO2 cylinder is properly armed. Life jackets with cylinder seal indication are considered more reliable.
The CO2 cylinders in life jackets without cylinder seal indication must be inspected regularly to determine if they are charged.
Should All Life Preservers be Tested?
Trying your life preserver on before your start your planned activity will make sure it is the right fit and that it will perform exactly how it should do in the event of an accident.
You should test it in shallow waters to ensure you are completely happy with its performance. You can check the buoyancy of life preservers by relaxing your body and tilting your head back. Ensuring your life preserver keeps your chin above water and that you can breathe easily. If your mouth is not well above the water then you will need a life preserver with more buoyancy.
Your life preserver should not ride up your body when in the water. However, If your stomach is larger than your chest then some ride up may occur but this should not impairs its performance. It should still keep you safe by keeping your head above the water.
How to Choose a Life Jacket Suitable for Your Activity
To meet United States Coast Guard requirements, a boat must have a USCG Approved life jacket for each person aboard. Boats 16 feet and over must have at least one Type IV throwable device as well. You have plenty of choice as all you need are standard life jackets, which tend to be the best value, as you don't need any additional features like you do for other activities. There are even a lot of different colors to choose from.
You should also consider having life jackets on board that will fit various sizes as this will ensure you cater for anyone, and everyone, you have on board. You don't have to push the boat out to achieve this (see what I did there?) as you can get universal fitting life jackets which will cater for a wider range of size. As usual you should still check and test it fits each person properly before setting off.
All states have regulations regarding life jacket to be worn by children. You can check out your state here
In states where no children's life jacket law is in place, a US Coast Guard interim rule requires children under 13 on moving boats to wear a USCG approved life jacket that fits.
In a canoe or kayak you need to paddle which means you need freedom of movement. Therefore you need to choose a life vest which will not interfere with what you’re doing. A life vest with large arm holes and one which doesn't have too much of the floatation foam on the shoulders & upper chest. This will allow your arms and upper body to have enough freedom of movement to paddle as well as ensuring you don't suffer from any rubbing or chafing.
Another good feature is one which has the floatation foam sitting high on the back so you can wear it comfortably with high back seats. Having mesh on the lower back is also good for ventilation on those hot days.
We always find a good kayak or canoe pfd is one with zipped pockets to store some of the necessities like glasses, sunscreen and snacks as having these close at hand will make your time on the water a lot easier.
When it comes to choosing the right life vest for water skiing and wake boarding, the golden rule is tight is right. You should think of it as a second skin and it should therefore be a really snug fit. You want to make sure there are no air gaps between your body and the life jacket. Air gaps can cause bruising to your ribs when you fall. Life jackets for water sports are typically made of neoprene which means they will stretch slightly when wet.
Watersport life jackets usually have a lower profile (makes them look slimmer compared to other types) as the foam is more evenly distributed across the the front and back of the vest.
Activities like wake boarding, water skiing, being towed on an inflatable tube and riding a personal watercraft include a risk of hitting the water at high speed. The best watersport life jackets must withstand these impacts, stay intact and stay attached to your body.
Fasteners will come in the form of belts or zips. Belted vests will have three or four strong belts encircling your torso which ensures they won’t get torn off easily, even when you crash and burn at high speed. Zips will mainly be at the front but you can get some with the zips at the side or at the back. Zips at the back of a vest obviously make it more difficult to put on and take off on your own.
Look for vests that have water sports marked on the label and you can be sure of getting a life jacket that will give you the protections and freedom of movement you will need.
First thing to mention is that the United States Coast Guard has classified stand up paddle boards as a vessel when they are used outside of swimming, surfing and bathing areas. This means that you are required to have a USCG approved life jacket as well as a whistle, a distress light and flashlight (if you are on the water after sunset). The World Paddle Association have a good article on it.
Freedom of movement is important when paddle boarding so you need to choose a life jacket that gives you the protection and safety you need without hindering you as you move. You are really looking at 3 options - a life jacket with large arm holes and no floatation foam on the shoulders, an inflatable life jacket or an inflatable life belt.
All of these will give you the freedom of movement you need so it may come down to come down to your preference. Price isn't an issue as you will find they are quite similar in price.
You may need a vest that allows you to have the freedom of movement depending on where you are fishing and what type of boat you are in. You should be looking for a fishing life vest which has no floatation foam on the shoulders, has large arm holes and has the foam high up at the back as this will allow you to comfortable sit on seats.
The key difference with life vests that are suitable for fishing is that you, as do most anglers, will want to have integrated features such as large pockets, D rings and clips. This allows you store your collection of lures, leaders and tools.
You also have the option to have a auto inflating life vest which gives you the benefits of an anglers vest with the added safety feature included.
Automatic inflatable life jackets are very popular as they can be worn without the bulk of an traditional life jacket. When you fall in the water the inflatable will inflate automatically. They can also be blown up manually in case of malfunction.
These are highly visible when inflated and turn most wearers and unconscious users face-up faster than traditional PFD’s. Many inflatables have more buoyancy than foam types and many of them come with additional features.
There are quite a few automatic life jackets which are very good but do not have USCG approval. We have only listed those with United States Coast Guard Approval. We believe this is by far the better option as it gives you peace of mind and keeps you compliant in situations where you must have a USCG approved jacket.
As with other water sports, you will need a life jacket that will allow you the freedom of movement while still giving you the safety you need in the event you find yourself off your board and in the water. You will need a life vest that offers a degree of stretch and flexibility. This will allow a tight fit while still giving you the freedom to move around.
As highlighted earlier, life jackets for kids fall into three size categories and these are based on the child's weight: -
Infant for 8 lbs - 30 lbs Child for 30 lbs - 50 lbs Youth for 50 lbs - 90 lbs
The same rules apply as they do for adult life jackets, it must be the right fit and it must be appropriate for the activity they are taking part in. What is suitable for the swimming pool or beach may not be suitable for when they are on a boat.
For infant and child life vests we recommend you get one with an adjustable safety belt which goes in between their legs and stops the jacket from riding up when they are in the water, therefore ensuring their head is kept above the water. For infant vests look for one which has collars to support their head.
There is plenty of choice when it comes to youth life jackets as they are essentially a smaller version of the adult jackets with materials, fasteners and entry systems being exactly the same. We recommend buying the youth version of any adult life jackets where possible as you will be familiar with it and you obviously like it. If it's not possible then reading customer reviews is a good way to go..
One of the most popular children's life jackets is the Stearns Puddle Jumper. Although the Puddle Jumper is United States Coast Approved we wouldn't recommend this to be used as a full on life jacket when you are out on boats etc. It's great for learning how to swim and is fine for when you are anchored and you want to swim/play in the water but we would recommend you buy a standard life jacket when you get moving.
As with adult life vests, you should carry out a test in shallow waters to ensure it fits correctly, stays on and keeps their head above the the water.
The Last Word
The last piece of advice I will give you is do not cut corners when it comes to choosing the right life jacket. That doesn’t mean buying the most expensive. It means buying the one that is right for the activity you will be using it for. There are ways to get good value for money without compromising on safety. And remember: -
A life jacket will only work if you actually wear it!
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