How to Choose a Life Jacket – Advice & Guidelines

How to Choose a Life Jacket – Advice & Guidelines

There are many different types of life jackets and numerous manufacturers. It can be difficult making a decision and choosing a life jacket for your situation.

You need to make the best selection possible, as ultimately your choice could save your life. Read on for important information concerning features to look for and guidelines on how to choose a life jacket to suit your requirements.


Type of Jackets


Buoyancy aids

Buoyancy aids are NOT life jackets. A buoyancy aid is designed to help a swimmer float long enough to swim a short distance to safety; the wearer must be conscious and able to swim.


Life Jackets

A life jacket is engineered to turn the wearer on their back; keeping their mouth and nose clear of the water, even if they are unconscious.


There are two styles of life jacket: foam or inflatable (manual or automatic)

Choosing foam or inflatable for a life jacket will depend on age, weight and planned activity of the wearer. Inflatable jackets are more comfortable than foam jackets which are more rigid.

Foam jackets often restrict movement and are not as comfortable for everyday use as the more slimline inflatable designs. Inflatable jackets are not recommended for young children or non-swimmers.




Life Jacket Safety Standards

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides International Standard ratings for life jackets. The standards cover minimum buoyancy (measured in Newtons).

Ten Newtons (N) is equivalent to 1.01kg of buoyancy force. Standards also state that the life jacket must be capable of turning a person over onto their back to keep airways clear and keep them upright, even if they are unconscious.

The asymmetry (more foam or air on one side than the other) is what turns the wearer face up.

Standards to look for:

  • ISO 12402-4 (100N),
  • ISO 12402-3 (150N) 
  • ISO 12402-2 (275N)





How to Make the Right Choice

Life jackets with 100N of buoyancy are recommended for sheltered water activities whilst wearing light clothing.

The 150N buoyancy jackets are best for offshore activities and whilst wearing rough weather clothing.

Jackets rated 275N buoyant are for special use in extreme offshore weather conditions, whilst wearing specialist protective clothing.

A life jacket should also fit the wearer correctly; too small and movement will be restricted, too large and the wearer may have trouble staying afloat.

Children’s jackets are fitted by weight, whilst adults are fitted by chest size.

The straps usually allow for a degree of adjustment within size categories. Young children and non-swimmers should always wear foam life jackets for increased safety.

Inflatable life jackets are recommended for regular use as they are more comfortable and allow for a greater range of movement than foam life jackets.

Manual life jackets (pull a string to inflate like the ones supplied on aircraft for emergencies) are not usually recommended for active use (e.g. sailing or kayaking) as they do not self-inflate if you end up unconscious following an accident.




Important Safety Equipment for Life Jackets

The no.1 safety aspect is if you aren’t wearing it, it can’t save your life!

To meet safety standards, all life jackets must have a manual inflate (blow up pipe) option as back up if inflation fails, but also to top up with additional air and use for deflation.

A whistle for attracting attention (permanently attached and within easy reach) and reflective tape for visibility are also essential requirements.

Optional but desirable extras for safety include an electrical or chemical light source that can be permanently attached and provide 12 hours of light.

A harness and safety strap are ideal for high-risk situations such as night or solo sailing, or for young children.




Automatic Life Jackets

Life jackets fitted with a carbon dioxide (CO2) canister inflate automatically, on contact with water, when the bobbin between the spring and the canister dissolves; or 10cm of depth reached to trigger a hydrostatic valve under water pressure.

Due to being in a marine environment there is care and maintenance required. All automatic life jackets have a manual cord in addition to the oral tube for backup if required. They are designed to inflate within 10 seconds.

They may require manual air top ups via the blow tube; if the canister contains air at minimum requirement, but not enough to fill jacket to capacity.

In some sailing circumstances, an automatic life jacket may trigger e.g. submersion whilst sailing a racing cat or impact from a large wave whilst in rough weather.


Choose the Manual or the Automatic?

Automatic inflatable life jackets require impact with ‘green’ water (not spray) to activate. This facility could save your life if you were knocked unconscious.

Generally manual inflating life jackets are not recommended for wearers aged less than 16 years old or anyone lighter than 80lbs (36kg).

An automatic inflatable life jacket is the preferred choice of many inshore sailors and power boaters.

Whereas offshore sailors are more inclined to opt for a manual inflation life jacket. Automatic life jackets regular maintenance and check-ups.

All automatic inflation life jackets can be manually inflated as a back-up and have a blow tube for top ups.




Do You Need a Harness?

A harness allows the wearer to clip into the cockpit or onto a jack line to go forward. A harness can be particularly beneficial for single handed sailing, working on deck whilst offshore sailing or in rough weather. A harness is a good idea for young children. Some designs allow for the harness to be removed.




Activities not recommended for inflatable life jackets

Inflatable life jackets are not recommended for:

  • Non-swimmers
  • Watersports e.g.
  • White-water rafting,
  • Water-skiing,
  • Tubing,
  • Wakeboarding
  • Jet-skis



Whichever jacket you choose remember that they have a limited lifespan. They are exposed to sea salt, ultraviolet radiation (UV) and compression so check them regularly for signs of wear and tear.

Rinse in freshwater and dry quickly to reduce the effects of salt wear and store out of direct sunlight to reduce UV exposure.

Choose the best life jacket for your size, weight, age and planned use that meets international standards. Remember: if you don’t wear your life jacket, it can’t save your life!


Click here to read more about why to wear a life jacket


If you have some tips and would like to share them, please feel free to leave a comment just below, I’ll love to hear your feedback!


17 thoughts on “How to Choose a Life Jacket – Advice & Guidelines”

  1. As an avid fisherman, I really appreciate your article. It’s amazing how quickly conditions can change on the water. So many unsuspecting people, even those who swim well, have been caught unaware by quickly changing conditions – and sometimes the outcome is not good. Almost all of these mishaps could have been prevented by wearing a life jacket.

    • Hi Mike,

      I am a very positive person in life and I usually try to look only on the bright side, but wearing a life jacket is an important detail not to overlook, I would even say, IT IS A MUST to put it on!

      Thank you very

  2. Wow I had know idea of all the things I should be thinking about before buying a life jacket. I saw a movie where everyone feel off the sailboat. Is it true that if you fall off there is no ladder to get back on? I am just curious lol. Do they make life jackets for infants? Is there a weight limit for life jackets? Great article and thanks in advance.

    • Hi Tammy,

      I think the weight limit for life jackets is 7xl, but not every manufacturers sells them.

      Nowadays all boats possesses a ladder:) When did you see the movie??

      Yes, of course there are many kinds of life jackets designed for children and for toddlers on the market. No need to worry:)

      I hope it helped and please don’t hesitate to contact me for more information, I’ll be glad to assist!

      Thank you for the comment and wish you a great day!

  3. Hi Daniella,

    I’m a novice to waterskiing and we are heading off to South Africa shortly for some waterskiing I wasn’t aware that there were different types of life jackets and now looking at the video and reading the article I feel like such an idiot…of course there are different types, why wouldn’t there be. Thank you for the article I think you have just saved me from some major embarrassment!

    • Hi there,

      This article has been written especially for novices, so feel good about it:)

      Thank you for the comment and have a nice trip!

  4. Hello, you mention the lifespan of life jackets in your conclusion.
    I was wondering what the average lifespan of a life jacket is?
    I’m curious if the material they are made by can extend their lifespan or if the salt water degrades all of them at a very similar rate?

    • Hi Tom,

      The lifespan will depend on the kind of life jacket you use. For example, inflatable life jackets usually have shorter life spans than foam vests. If it’s a good veste quality and you preserve it well, then it can last for years and even decades!

      Thank you for the comment and wish you a lovely day!

  5. Water safety is important. You provided a lot of great information about buoyancy aids and different types of life jackets that I didn’t know. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi Laurie,

      You are very welcome, I am glad you found the article informative:)
      Thank you for the comment and wish you a nice day!

  6. Omg i had no idea there are so many different types of safety jackets. This article with a short video is so helpful! i am a very active person and i love all the sports and activities in the water so i think wearable flotation aid will be a perfect choice for me.

    • Hi Alisa,

      I think you should see what fits you the most, flotable aid could be a good choice for you depending on your chosen water sports activity.

      Thank you for the comment and wish you a great day!

  7. This article is especially for novices, so, you can feel good about it:)
    Have a wonderful trip!

    Thank you for the comment:)

  8. In the article it states that if a life jacket is too small, movement will be restricted, and if it is too large the wearer may have trouble staying afloat. My family and I have been looking for life jackets, as we are planning on going out on my uncle’s boat. I’ll have to look around online to see if there is a site that has life jackets in multiple sizes, to fit my entire family.

    • Yes, this is right, it is important that the life jacket feet perfectly to the wearer, otherwise it won’t work properly!
      Oh, that’s great you are going out at sea with your uncle:) I wish you a wonderful trip!
      If you are looking for a reliable store online to buy a life jacket, I would suggest you search at “Choice marine shop.”
      You’ll find all you need there.
      I hope it helped.
      Thank you for the comment and wish you a wonderful trip!

  9. A friend of mine is thinking about getting a boat, and he wanted to make sure that he bought the right life jackets for the event. I love that you say that inflatable jackets are actually very comfortable, and less rigid. Since he doesn’t want his kids to be uncomfortable, this might be a good option for him.

    • Hi Frank,

      Yes, it’s very important to choose the right life jacket and that’s why it is recommended to try it on first.

      Thank you for the comment and wish you a lovely day!


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