Choosing the right life jacket is the most important decision you should make before heading out on the water. Life vest selection depends on your size, age, gender, and the water activity, whether it’s water tubing, jet skiing, paddleboarding, fishing, kayaking, swimming...really, anything near or around water.
As most boaters know, it’s required to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable life jacket on board for every person on their boat. Boating safety advocates recommend that all boaters and passengers not only have a life jacket but wear it at all times while boating.
Accidents on the water can happen quickly leaving little to no time to access and put on a stowed life jacket. Drowning is the reported cause of death in 76 percent of all boating fatalities – and 84.5 percent of drowning victims in recreational boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket in 2017.
If you’re trying to figure out how to choose the right life vest, we’ve broken down some essential information to help you make an informed decision.
The good news is that today’s life jackets are much more comfortable, lightweight and stylish than the bulky orange style most of us remember. Life jackets utilizing inflatable technologies are cool and comfortable and some may even surprise you as they resemble a pair of suspenders or a belt pack.
What Life Jacket to Wear for Different Types of Activities
Personal Watercraft and Watersports
Inherently buoyant, Type III life jackets are recommended for personal watercraft and watersports like tubing, wakeboarding, wake surfing, jet skiing, and waterskiing. They are rugged and designed with multiple buckles and clasps to keep them secure after impact with the water.
Great options from our assortment include:
Comfort is key – choose a life jacket you’ll want to wear the entire time you’re on the water. The watersports life jackets listed above are also perfect for cruising in an open motorboat. If you’d like something lower-profile, here are a few great inflatable options for ages 16 and older:
If you are piloting the boat and have chosen one of these lower-profile options, we highly recommend you use the SL Automatic (Either Advanced or Basic) PFD along with an engine cut off device. With this setup, your life vest will inflate automatically AND your boat will shut off automatically if you are unexpectedly ejected, which can happen to anyone at any time.
If you’re at all in doubt about this critical safety step, we invite you to watch this PSA from the Safe Boating Council:
Life jackets for kayaking have been specifically designed with larger arm openings allowing for easier paddling movement.
Great options from our assortment include:
Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP)
Like kayaking, paddleboarding requires quite a wide range of movement, so low profile and comfort are key features.
For beginning paddlers, the styles previously mentioned in the motorboat and kayaking sections are great options.
For more experienced paddlers, belt packs sit comfortably around the waist offering one of the lowest profile options available. This is especially great for distance and race training where stroke technique requires maximum flexibility of movement. If you’re not sure whether the belt pack is appropriate for you, be sure to read this great run down by Paddle Examiner.
Great SUP belt pack options from our assortment include:
Fishing vests should feel comfortable on any vessel and allow for the full range of motion and mobility required for casting and reeling. Some vest options are outfitted with pockets and clasps to place your fishing tools and accessories.
Great fishing life jacket options from our assortment include:
Cold Weather Hunting
If you hunt from a boat when air and water temperatures are cool, our Sportsman life vest is a great choice:
Life jackets for our four-legged friends are widely available. Purchase one with a handle on top so you are able to easily pull your pet out of the water. We happen to have a dog life jacket option for you in our assortment:
Although state laws vary from state to state, federal law requires that all children under the age of 13 wear a U.S. Coast Guard life jacket on a moving boat unless they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin.
Virtually all life jacket manufacturers make styles that are sized especially for children. Designed with cartoon characters or other high-visibility themes, these life vests have added safety features such as straps for pulling children from the water.
If participating in watersports like tubing, wakeboarding, wake surfing, and waterskiing, it’s important that kids wear a more traditional Type III life jacket for maximum floatation.
Here are just a few of the great options we have in our assortment:
For kids who are 33-55 lbs and spending time at the pool, waterpark, lake, beach, or on the boat, there are also fun styles that wrap around the chest and arms, offering more comfort and range of mobility.
How Your Life Jacket Should Fit
Your life vest should feel comfortable and suit your specific water activity.
The recommended steps for testing the fit of a new life jacket are as follows:
- Check the manufacturer’s ratings for your size and weight.
- Make sure the life jacket is properly zipped and/or buckled.
- Check for fit by raising your arms above your head while wearing the life jacket and ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up. If it slides up, the jacket is too large.
- Ensure your life jacket fits properly with no excess room above the openings and the life jacket does not ride up over your chin or face. A snug fit in these areas shows the life jacket fits properly.
You should also practice moving around with the vest on. If you’re buying a life jacket for paddle boarding, practice making the paddling motion to ensure you have the right range of motion necessary. If your vest is too loose, then you are potentially placing yourself in danger when out on the water.
It’s also important to wear the right life jacket for your age and size:
- Adult Life Jackets: Typically sized for anyone over 90 lbs, with sizes that vary by weight range.
- Youth Life Jackets: These are usually made as a “one size fits all” design, made for children weighing 50-90 pounds.
- Child Life Jackets: These jackets, like youth life jackets, are usually made as a one size fits all. They are made for children between 30-50 pounds.
- Infant Life Jackets: These are life vests designed for infants weighing up to 30 pounds. They are usually made with a shorter cut and simple design to ensure your child’s safety.
For more details on how to fit and secure your life jacket, be sure to check out this article too.
Other Important Reminders
Via the National Boating Council's Safe Boating Campaign
- Make sure your life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard approved.
- Double check that your life jacket is appropriate for your favorite water activities. Read the label!
- Take the time to ensure a proper fit. A life jacket that is too large or too small can cause different situational problems.
- Check your life jacket is in good serviceable condition, with no tears or holes. Test to make sure it works properly.
- Life jackets meant for adult-sized people do not work for children. If you are boating with children, make sure they are wearing properly fitted, child-sized life jackets based on their weight. Do not buy a life jacket for your child to “grow into.”
For more information, please check with local Marine Law Enforcement Authorities.
While there are many options out there made to fit your life jacket needs, we want you to be safe and enjoy yourself. There’s something fun to do in the water for everyone...now let’s get out there and have some fun!