Everything you should know about life jackets and when to wear them

The U.S. Coast Guard motto for life jackets is, “The best life jacket is the one you will wear.”
Life Jacket
Posted at 6:40 PM, Jun 18, 2024

Not all life jackets are created equal and with the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighting a concerning rise in the annual number of drowning deaths, it’s more important than ever to make sure you and your family are staying safe while enjoying activities on the water.

Here's everything you need to know about choosing the right life jacket for you or your children.

When do I need to have a life jacket?

Laws surrounding life jackets, also referred to as personal flotation devices — PFDs —or buoyancy aids, vary by state. But the general rule is you need to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on board for each person occupying a water vessel and they should be easily accessible if they are not being worn. Vessel refers to any type of mechanism on the water, including boats, kayaks and jet skis. Federal law, however, requires children under the age of 13 to properly wear their life jackets whenever the vessel is moving.

The American Red Cross recommends children and weak swimmers wear life jackets any time they are near water, not just on a vessel.

How do I know if my life jacket is Coast Guard-approved?

The label or tag will say “U.S. Coast Guard approved” or “USCG approved.” It may also use the term “certified” in place of “approved.” Life jackets that are given this certification have been tested and evaluated by a Coast Guard-recognized laboratory.

How do I know which type of life jacket I need?

The Coast Guard motto for life jackets is, “The best life jacket is the one you will wear.” And while that may be true in a dire situation, there are important things to keep in mind when choosing a life jacket that could save you or your children in an emergency.

Size, performance level and performance type are all variables for a life jacket’s design — but arguably the most important thing is size. The Coast Guard said a life jacket should fit snug but not tight.

Life jackets are categorized into four size groups:

  • Adult - users with a weight greater than 88 pounds
  • Youth - users with a weight over 55 pounds and less than or equal to 88 pounds
  • Child - users with a weight over 33 pounds and less than or equal to 55 pounds
  • Infant - users with a weight less than or equal to 33 pounds

The life jacket’s label should identify which group and/or weight it is intended for. Nowadays, you can even find life jackets made for your canine friends.
The Coast Guard said different body types float differently, so even if the life jacket is intended for your weight you should try it on in water to make sure it works properly.

What does performance type mean?

In addition to four size groups, life jackets are classified into four categories for performance type, and four for performance level.

The safest performance type of life jacket is Type I. This classification means the life jacket has the most buoyancy and is designed to make sure someone who is completely unconscious will be turned to a vertical and slightly backward position when they reach water, preventing them from being face down and unable to breathe. This ensures the best chance of survival.

Type II is similar to Type I, but it doesn’t have as much buoyancy and isn’t as effective for keeping most unconscious people upright in the water.

Type III is designed to support a person who is coherent and able to keep themselves in an upright position in the water.

Type V (there is no Type IV) is only intended for certain water activities that are specified on the life jacket’s label and is likely not suitable for boating.

What does performance level mean?

The performance level refers to how buoyant the life jacket is — or how well it will keep you floating above the water.

In these categorizations, Level 150 is going to provide the most safety in an emergency situation. Level 150 life jackets are designed to keep a person upright if unconscious.

Level 100 life jackets are made for those who might have to wait for long periods of time for a rescue, but should not be relied on in rough waters.

Level 70 life jackets have minimal bulk and should only be used if you’re close to shore or rescue services because they’re not designed to keep you afloat for long periods of time.

Level 50 life jackets should only be used by competent swimmers who are near a bank or shore or rescue services.

There is a Level 275 life jacket, but those are intended for extreme, offshore conditions.

The number for each level refers to the minimum buoyancy measured in newtons, a unit of force. For example, Level 50 = 50 newtons. The Coast Guard said most adults need 31 to 53 newtons to keep their heads above water.

Is a foam or inflatable life jacket better?

Your best option is going to be a foam-filled life jacket. They come in all sizes and are suitable for swimmers of any skill level. There are also hybrid (foam and inflatable) life jacket options that are available in most sizes and performance levels.

Inflatable life jackets are only a good option if you are an adult who can swim well. They do not come in sizes for children and are not recommended for weak swimmers or those who can’t swim at all.

Both life jacket styles should be checked for wear at least once a year. Inflatable life jackets should be maintained per the manufacturer's instructions and foam life jackets should be regularly tested for buoyancy, according to the Coast Guard.

Where can I buy a life jacket?

Coast Guard-certified life jackets can be found at most big box retail stores, specialty stores like West Marine or online.

In summary, the safest life jackets are going to be USCG-certified, Type I, Level 150 in the proper size for the user.

Here are some other safety tips to keep in mind when you and your family are swimming, boating or enjoying other water activities:

  • Choosing to wear a brightly colored swimsuit can help you get spotted quickly if you need help. This is especially recommended for kids.
  • Know your physical limitations as a swimmer and never swim alone or under any type of influence like alcohol.
  • Understand the risks of the water environment you are in, such as rip currents and water temperature.
  • Keep a GPS device on board your boat or vessel so rescue agencies can find you. Yes, your smartphone has a GPS but it will not help you if it’s not in service range or if it's water damaged.
  • Leave behind a "float plan" with a responsible friend or family member before you venture out. It should be a physical plan that includes where you’re going, when you will be back and a picture of the vessel you will be in. The sooner someone notices you’re missing, the sooner the Coast Guard or other rescue services can be notified and deployed to help you.
  • If you are planning to boat offshore or in an area where rescue is not close at hand, you may want to consider carrying a Coast Guard-approved life raft. You should also keep additional flotation devices on board besides life jackets, including a ring buoy or throwable cushion.

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