How many life jackets do you need?
The United States Coast Guard requires USCG-approved life jackets on all recreational boats. The number and type depend on these 3 things:
1. Number of passengers aboard
2. The size and type of your boat
3. Your boating activities
Life jackets are split into five categories. Depending on your needs, you will have at least one of these jacket types for each person aboard your vessel.
• Off-Shore life jacket a.k.a. Type I PFD
• Near-Shore Buoyant Vest a.k.a. Type II PFD
• Flotation Aid a.k.a. Type III PFD
• Launch Aid a.k.a. Type IV PFD
• Wearable Special Use Device a.k.a. Type V PFD
Federal regulations require children under age 13 to wear an appropriate Coast guard approved life jacket at all times, unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. State laws vary in terms of age; be sure to check with your state’s boating safety office for specifications.
Boats 16 feet or longer (excluding canoes and kayaks) must also have at least one throwable flotation device (Type IV) like cushions, buoys, or life rings.
Life Jacket Designs
An inherently buoyant jacket is a foam vest that floats on its own and offers buoyancy without the need for inflation.
An inflatable features a chamber that is inflated by a CO2 mechanism when buoyancy is needed; manual and automatic options are available.
A hybrid features both an inflatable chamber and buoyant foam material.
Choosing a Life Jacket
Today’s life jackets offer comfort, style and flexibility, with a wide range of models, sizes and colors. You can find life jackets tailor-made for specific activities like paddle sports, water sports, angling/hunting, recreational boating and sailing.
There are four basic life jacket types, but not all life jackets are suitable for all activities. Choose your life jacket based on your planned activities and anticipated water conditions. Always look for the United States Coast Guard approval number before you purchase any life jacket.
Most adults need only an extra 7-12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. A life jacket can give you that “extra lift” until help comes. Keep in mind that fact that life jackets are not “one-size-fits-all” garments. How much “extra lift” you need in the water is determined by body weight and fat, lung size, clothing and water conditions (rough or calm). In general , the more physically fit your are , the more “life” you need. Check your life jacket label to be sure it’s made for your weight and size.
Life Jacket Basics
TYPE I PFD – Off-Shore Life Jacket
Best for open, rough or remote waters, where rescue may not be immediate.
• Provides the greatest amount of reliable flotation
• Turns most unconscious wearers face-up
• Comes in highly visible colors
• May have reflective material for search and rescue
Inherently buoyant Type I – May be bulky in and out of the water
Hybrid Type I– Needs regular inspection and rearming
Inflatable Type I – SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) devices have two separate chambers that must inflate automatically when submerged and indicate when CO2 chamber is empty.
• Requires regular inspection and rearming
• Not suitable for non-swimmers
• Not suitable for activities with frequent water entry
TYPE II PFD – Near-Shore Buoyant Vest
Good for calm or inland water, where fast recue is likely. Be sure to water-test before boating activity.
• Turns some unconscious wearers face up in the water
• Less bulky and more comfortable than foam life jackets (Type I)
• Approved for multiple sizes from infant through adult
• Good choice for children
• Inflatable deploy automatically when submerged and may be suitable for some rough-water conditions
• Their bright colors are more visible in the water
Inherently buoyant Type II – Not recommended for long hours on rough waters and bulky for adults
Hybrid type II – Needs regular inspection and rearming to be reliable
Inflatable Type II – Requires regular inspection and rearming to be reliable, not suitable for non-swimmers or activities with frequent water entry, and approved for adults only.
TYPE III PFD – Flotation Aid
Good for conscious users in calm inland water or where fast rescue is likely.
• Generally the most comfortable for continuous wear
• Designed for general boating and designated activities marked on the device
• Available in many styles, including vests and flotation coats
• Inherently buoyant Type III– Wearer may have to tilt head back to avoid being submerges face-down. Not recommended for extended survival in rough water; wearer’s face may often be covered by waves. Note to test non-swimmers with vests in water before boating
• Hybrid Type III – Needs regular inspection and rearming to be reliable
• Inflatable Type III – Requires regular inspection and rearming to be reliable, not suitable for non-swimmers, activities with frequent water entry, or long hours in rough water. Approved for adult wearers only.
TYPE IV PFD – Throwable Device
Function as throwable devices and are not designed to be worn (Includes buoys, life rings, and boat cushions).
• May be thrown from craft or land
• Provide back-up to wearable life jackets
• Some styles may be used as seat cushions
• Place both arms throught he loops and hold tightly to your chest
• Practice throwing your Type IV device
• Cushions throw best underhand
TYPE V PFD – Special use devices
Type V varieties include boardsailing vests, deck suits, pullover vests, work vests, some gybrid life jackets, inflatable life jackets with ISAF/ORC harness and others. They are only appropriate for specific uses or conditions. Some Type V life jackets meet the U.S. Coast Guard’s Carriage Regulations only if worn in accordance with the label.
• Designed for specific activities – check label for limits of use
• Continuous wear prevents users from being caught without protection since most accidents occur suddenly
• Must be used in accordance with label directions for maximum effectiveness
Note: Inherently buoyant jackets and some Hybrid devices may be better suited for cool climates and seasons. Inflatable devices may require more than one operating step to function effectively and are only approved for persons 16 years or older.
Try on your life jacket to see if it fits snugly. Then test it in shallow water to see how it performs.
To check your life jacket’s buoyancy, relax your body and tilt your head back. Make sure your life jacket keeps your chin above water and you can breathe easily.
Be aware that your life jacket may not act the same in swift or rough water as in calm water. Clothing and items in your pockets may also affect how your life jacket works.
If your mouth is not well above the water, you need a life jacket with more buoyancy. Older life jackets may lose buoyancy over time and may have to be replaced.
Life jackets should not ride up on the body in the water. If a wearer’s stomach is larger than the chest, ride-up may be necessary. Before use, test your life jacket to be sure that excessive ride-up does not impair its performance.
Caring For Your Life Jacket
1. Don’t alter your life jacket. If your jacket does not fit, get one that does. An altered life jacket is no longer U.S. Coast Guard-approved and may not save your life.
2. Don’t put heavy objects on your life jacket or use it for a kneeling pad or boat fender. Life jackets lose buoyancy when crushed.
3. Let your life jacket drip dry thoroughly before putting it away. Always stow it in a well-ventilated place.
4. Don’t leave your life jacket on board for long periods when the boat is not in use.
5. Never dry your life jacket on a radiator, heater or any other direct heat source.
Maintaining Inflatable Life Jackets
Check your inflatable life jacket, including the buoyancy cell and inflation system, at least every 2 months, in addition to the following:
1. If the life jacket does not have a cylinder seal indication, remove the cylinder, and check for puncture and rust.
2. Check all components for dirt or corrosion.
3. Check the mouth inflation valve for blockages and tears.
4. Store in a cool dry place.
5. Replace the bobbin on an automatic model every 12 months, unless specified otherwise.
• 70% of all boating fatality accidents result from drowning. Almost 90% of those who drown are not wearing a life jacket.
• 9 out of 10 drownings occur in inland waters, most within a few feet of safety and involve boats under 20 ft. long.
• It can take 60 seconds for and adult to drown, and only 20 seconds for a child to drown.
• Most drowning victims had a life jacket available and chose not to wear it.
Life Jacket Checklist
When preparing an outing, ask the following:
• Do I have USCG approved life jackets?
• Have I selected the proper life jacket for my boating activity?
• Is my life jacket the right size according to the label, and does it fit correctly?
• Have I trial-tested my life jacket?
• Does my life jacket keep my chin above the water and allow me to breathe easily?
• If my life jacket is an inflatable, have I checked the status of the inflator and make sure that the CO2 cylinder is not punctured?
• If my life jacket is an inflatable, have I checked it for leaks in the last two months?
• Are my passengers’ life jackets suitable and do they fit the same requirements listed above?