Buoyancy Aid Vs Life Jacket | What’s The Difference?

A buoyancy aid is designed to assist someone who can swim, reducing the effort needed to keep the person afloat.

Life jackets are designed to get a submerged person back to the water surface without any effort from that person. Higher-level lifejackets are also designed to roll the victim over and enable them to breathe even when unconscious.

Everyone involved in watersports should understand the purposes of different life safety devices to prevent accidents. Knowing which should be used for their personal circumstances is very important. This article explains the differences between buoyancy aids and life jackets.

whats the difference between a buoyancy aid and a life jacket

βš–οΈ What’s The Difference Between Buoyancy Aids And Life Jackets?

The main difference between a buoyancy aid and a life jacket is the device’s level of buoyancy. This is because life jackets are designed with the ability to prevent drowning.

Buoyancy aids are designed to assist someone in the water but won’t keep the person floating without them treading water.

The US Coast Guard and other lifeboat services define the differences between lifejackets and buoyancy aids.

The ratings for aids used for water safety areas follow.

  1. Level 50 Buoyancy Aids 
  2. Level 70 Life jackets
  3. Level 100 Life jackets
  4. Level 100 Life jackets
  5. Level 275 Lifejackets

Each level will be touched on a little later, but if you’d like a deep dive into each of them, this guide on life jacket types will cover everything you need to know.

πŸ›Ÿ What Are Buoyancy Aids?

As the name implies, buoyancy aids are wearable devices that assist the wearer in floating. They do not provide full flotation. These offer the lowest legal level of buoyancy and are on the lowest part of the official scale.

Buoyancy Aids are categorized as Level 50 buoyancy devices and provide approximately ​11.25 pounds (lbs) of buoyancy.

This means that a Buoyancy Aid will assist the wearer in the water and reduce the effort needed to stay afloat. However, it won’t provide the necessary flotation to keep the person’s head above water.

Several kinds of buoyancy aids are geared to provide various levels of protection. The list of available buoyancy aids includes the following.

pull over impact vest for watersports

Impact Vests

These are one-piece vests worn by pulling them over the head, which is why they are also called “over-the-head” vests.

They are designed for water sports like kite surfing and windsurfing, where collision with the water surface can be forceful.

front zip bouyancy aid in blue

Front Zip Jackets

A front zip jacket is worn like a conventional jacket and generally has zip and straps to keep it a snug fit.

Paddleboarders find these suitable because they allow freedom of movement.

side zip buoyancy aid

Side Zip Jackets

A side zip jacket is pulled over the head like an impact vest. It has a side-mounted zip to partially open the jacket to create more space, making it easier to put on.

Competent swimmers should only wear these devices in calm and sheltered water. They are suited for whitewater kayaking/canoeing and dinghy sailing.

🦺 What Are Lifejackets?

Lifejackets have higher buoyancy than buoyancy aids. Therefore, they are used where life-saving measures are required.

The US Coast Guard stipulates that all buoyancy devices from level 70 and up are categorized as life jackets.

The levels of lifejackets are as follows.

  1. Level 70 lifejackets.
  2. Level 100 lifejackets.
  3. Level 150 lifejackets.
  4. Level 275 lifejackets.

Level 70 Lifejackets

A Level 70 lifejacket (also known as a Personal Flotation Device) is the lowest-level life-saving appliance that can be officially called a lifejacket.

It must have the following features to be categorized as a level 70 device.

  1. They have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy.
  2. They must be close-fitting
  3. They are generally available in a variety of designs and colors.
  4. Unique models of Level 70 devices are tailored to different types of boating.

This level of lifejacket only keeps the wearer at the surface, and there is no ability to turn the wearer’s body, so they lie face up on the water. There is also no ability to keep the body vertical in the water.

These devices are not required to keep someone afloat for long periods. They are designed for use in sheltered waters that involve other people, and rescue should be close at hand.

These devices cannot keep the wearer, who is wearing wet clothing, afloat.

Kayakers and paddle boarders should use level 70 devices. Also, towing watersports like wakeboarding and water skiing.

Level 100 Lifejackets

In the old categorization, this level of life jacket was called a Type II life jacket.

Level 100 has a distinctive horseshoe shape and must be able to provide a minimum of 22.50 lbs of buoyancy.

They are intended to be used in sheltered and calm waters. This is because they do not have enough buoyancy to protect the wearer in rough seas and high wind conditions. They do, however, provide greater buoyancy than the lower-level versions. 

Unlike Level 70 lifejackets, they are intended to be worn by commercial sailors who may not expect a quick rescue.

Level 150 Lifejackets

Level 150 lifejackets provide a buoyancy of 33.75 lbs.

These are designed to be used in offshore conditions and have the following capability. Sailors would wear this type of life jacket.

  1. They must be able to turn an unconscious body/wearer over so the mouth and nose are above the water.
  2. They must allow the wearer to maintain the body position without constantly rebalancing themselves.
  3. They must keep the person afloat for long periods.

Level 275 Lifejackets

Level 275 lifejackets ​provide the highest level of buoyancy at 61.86 lbs.

They are designed to be used in the roughest of seas. They may be required to provide extra buoyancy for people carrying tools or who are supporting another survivor.

These devices are used on North Sea oil rigs and in other extreme conditions.

πŸ₯‡ Which Is Better: Buoyancy Aid Or Life Jacket?

All life jackets aim to lift a submerged person to the water’s surface. They must keep the person on the surface without the need to tread water. The higher buoyancy lifejackets are designed to turn the wearer over so their mouths and noses are out of the water.

They must be able to keep the person afloat indefinitely until rescue arrives on the scene. This makes them the superior life-saving appliance.

The Best Device For People In Sheltered Water

Strong swimmers who are operating in sheltered and calm waters, where help is immediately available, will find a buoyancy aid the most comfortable and suitable device. You should remember that buoyancy aids have no life-saving capability and are incapable of keeping the wearer afloat.

The Best Devices For People Requiring A Life-saving Capability

If the device is required to resurface a drowning person and keep them afloat, the only option is one of the certified life jackets. The level of lifejacket chosen will depend on the type of waterborne activities, such as these best life jackets for sailing.

πŸ’­ Final Thoughts

When searching for buoyancy aids or life jackets, it is essential that you first define the conditions under which they will be used.

Once that is known, the correct category of the device must be selected to ensure it provides the level of protection needed.

❓ Frequently Asked

Are there any age or weight restrictions for using buoyancy aids and life jackets?

Both buoyancy aids and life jackets come in various sizes suitable for different age groups and weights. Choosing the right size based on the user’s weight and chest size is essential to ensure maximum safety. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines when selecting a device.

How do you select buoyancy aids or life jackets for kids?

Choose based on the child’s weight, ensure a snug fit with adjustable straps, and opt for bright or reflective colors for visibility. Check out these kids’ life jackets that prioritize safety and familiarize your child with them before water activities.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.