How to Select the Right Life Jacket for You and Your Family

Having a lifejacket on when you go out boating – no matter what kind of boating you’re intending to do – isn’t just a safety measure, it’s also law, depending on where you are. No matter how cumbersome or uncomfortable at times, lifejackets, also known as Personal Floatation Devices or PFDs, are absolutely essential if you’re setting off into the water, especially with children on board. Although legislation stipulating what age bracket lifejackets are compulsory for, what types of boating activities require lifejackets and whether or not everyone on board needs a jacket varies from state to state, the US Coast Guard (USCG) has passed a requirement that in any state without a relevant law in place, children of age 13 and under are legally obligated to wear a PFD for any boating-related activity.


And this is for good reason. The USCG’s statistics for recreational boating in 2014 indicate that of all drowned victims of boating incidents, over 80% did not have a life jacket on – a risk no one should take, especially with our loved ones on board. Even if you are planning on rowing out into calmer, inland waters, statistics indicate that 9 out of 10 drownings occur close to the coast – and a PFD can make all the difference. It can bulletproof you against any unexpected accident, as long as you make sure it nails all the right features.

Picking the right type

Depending on the types of waters you’re venturing out into, as well as the types of aquatic activities you’re going to take part in, the type of PFD you’re going to need varies. The USCG has classified the types into categories for recreational boating, with a requirement that all PFDs must be USCG approved as ideal for the type of activity you’re going to engage in.

Life Jacket - Water Skiing

Type I lifejackets are the most heavy-duty options out there, and definitely what you want to have on if you’re going to be out in the open ocean or rough waters, or anywhere rescue may take longer. These lifejackets have a buoyancy of 22 pounds, making them particularly effective for counteracting the pull of your weight and keeping you afloat even in troubled and turbulent currents. The best aspect of these jackets is that they are reversible – should it happen that you’re unable to move or have lost consciousness, the buoyancy and design of these vests will turn you on to your back if you remain motionless, allowing you to keep breathing rather than risk drowning.

Type II lifejackets are not reversible, but do offer a good deal of buoyancy, at 15 pounds, better suited when you aren’t going too far from the coast and rescue can be undertaken fairly quickly. The USCG recommends these jackets for general boating in calmer, inland waters.

For specialized water-sport activities, such as kayaking, fishing, canoeing, water-skiing and other specified activities, the USCG recommends Type III PFDs or floatation aids. More comfortable to wear and less restrictive to movement, these are suited for calmer waters as well, with just enough buoyancy to keep you afloat should your canoe or raft tip over and let you climb back aboard, or in the case of an emergency, await rescue.

Type V, finally, refers to specialized PFDs intended for very specific activities explicitly listed out by the USCG. Rather than floatation aids, like the Type IIIs, these act as vests for canoeing or kayaking, boardsailing, white-water rafting and more.

Size and fit

Generally, about 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy is enough to keep an adult’s head above water, but factors such as the weight, chest-size, body fat, lung capacity and more all play into the type of lifejacket you should choose. Make sure to pick the right size to correlate to your weight to give you the extra lift you need to keep floating even if you end up in the water, keeping the minimum buoyancy of the different types of PFDs in mind as reference.

Weight isn’t the only consideration though – the fit is, too. Too small and it’s constricting, uncomfortable and all too tempting to throw off – too big, and you may slip out of it and leave it redundant. Pick your fit depending on chest size, from under the arm pit all the way around. For women, specialized vests are available that allow for varying torso and bust sizes to give you the best fit, too.

Picking the right fit for children is imperative – kids may panic if they are unexpectedly pelted into the water, and any scuffling might exacerbate their chances of staying afloat unless they have a PFD with the right fit and buoyancy. Your child’s weight bears more on the appropriate PFD here, rather than their age or size. The vest must fit snugly – a larger pick chosen because your child would eventually grow into it would actually increase the risk of them accidentally slipping out of it instead.

child in lifejacket

Despite the different materials, padding and foaming of PFDs by different brands, a general rule of thumb of finding a snug fit is to look for an option with multiple adjustable straps that let you cinch the jacket around you in a way that molds to the natural contours of your body.

Features and material

Lifejackets can be inflatable (needing to be blown up before use), inherently buoyant, or both, but floatability isn’t the only useful feature to look for in a good PFD. Look out for options in bright or neon colors, with at least some reflective material – while not the most fashionable choices, they increase visibility and make it easier for rescuers to spot you should you need their assistance, even in low light. Also look out for options with tabs you can hook a few handy tools to, such as a whistle to gain attention or a small pocket-knife, along with cargo pockets big enough to strap in your phone, radio or other communication devices as well as any bait or gear you’ll be needing for your chosen activity.

For children, look out for options that come with head support, to help keep their chins above water. A handle sewn into the jacket is a useful feature to let you pull your child out of the water easily if they’ve been capsized, as well.

In terms of material, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is the most popular and most protective – lightweight but strong, highly durable and resistant to water, weather, temperature changes and even fire, the material is resilient and cost-effective. The flexible, air-trapping foam is also relatively comfortable to have on, a major factor since it makes having a PFD on more tolerable.