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 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.
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:
- Watersports e.g.
- White-water rafting,
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!
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!
Daniella has been passionate about travel, the sea, and nature for many years. As a child, she frequently traveled throughout the Mediterranean and continued with her journeys throughout her adult life.
Her experiences have created the desire within her to share her love for traveling with other passionate and adventurers who want to discover beautiful horizons and new cultures.