How To Choose A Life Jacket [Correctly]

This article is designed to help you choose the most suitable life jacket appropriate for your activities on the water. I break down the factors that must be considered and provide a list to help narrow down the selection.

With all the different categories and types, choosing an appropriate life jacket is akin to walking through a minefield. Several different life jacket classifications cover how the device works in the water, the weight limits, and the buoyancy each unit can provide.

This article provides you with the information to make an informed life-saving appliance choice for your boat.

I cover the following issues.

  • What does SOLAS approval mean?
  • What are the different specifications of life jackets?
  • How do you know if the life jacket fits properly?

Before we begin, life jackets and life vests are used interchangeably for the sake of variety.

📝 Choose The Right Life Jacket Checklist

The best life jacket is ultimately the one you wear. But you should choose the best value for money while guaranteeing its buoyancy and how well it performs when needed.

The following checklist sets out the most important characteristics of a life jacket.

1️⃣ If used In International Waters, it must be SOLAS-approved.

2️⃣ The correct specification lifejacket must be selected.

3️⃣ The correct weight category life jacket must be selected.

4️⃣ The correct type of life jacket must be selected.

5️⃣ It must fit correctly.

🌏 If Used In International Waters, It Must Be SOLAS Approved

SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) is a treaty prepared by the IMO (International Maritime Organization), an arm of the United Nations to which most countries are signatories.

The SOLAS treaty governs the safety requirements of all ocean-going vessels which fall within its mandate (it excludes military vessels).

What Is A SOLAS Lifejacket?

Part of the SOLAS mandate was to prepare a minimum specification for lifesaving devices, which include life jackets.

The specifications of life jackets under the SOLAS definition are as follows:

  • The lifejackets need to be comfortable to wear, which will ensure it is not taken off.
  • Maximum weight requirements are imposed on life jacket manufacturers, ensuring the product is light and easy to wear.
  • The person in distress must be able to jump at least 4.5 meters from the boat, and the lifejacket must not restrict this act.
  • The life jacket must remain intact and not be damaged when jumping off the side of a high hull and landing in water.
  • If the person in distress (survivor) is in the water for 24 hours, the lifejacket must lose no less than 5% buoyancy during the immersion.
  • All SOLAS life jackets must have a securely attached whistle that remains accessible to the wearer.

✅ The Correct Specification Lifejacket Must Be Selected

Not all life jackets and buoyancy aids are created equal. Several levels and types of life jackets are available, each designed for a distinct purpose.

Life jackets’ buoyancy specifications are split into two broad categories, which are read together.

  • Performance TYPE life jackets
  • Performance LEVEL life jackets

Performance TYPE Life Jackets

Performance Type life jackets are rated according to their ability to provide “face-up” support for the wearer while the wearer offers no assistance.

These life jackets are designed to be used in general water conditions where the user is an unknown quantity and may not be able to swim or in open water conditions where help may not be close at hand.

This category of life jacket is rated I, II, III, and IV. Lifejackets rates with lower values offer the greatest assistance.

Type I Life jackets

Type I Life jackets have the highest buoyancy and automatically turn an unconscious person’s face onto a vertical and slightly backward plain. It ensures the wearer’s mouth and nose are out of the water.

Type II Life Jackets

Type II Life Jackets will turn the wearer’s body over and ensure the mouth and nose are out of the water to the face-up position.

However, type II Life Jackets are not required to turn the wearer onto the vertical and slightly backward position achieved by level I life jackets.

Type III Life Jackets

Type III Life Jackets lift the person’s head above the water into a vertical position, but there is no requirement to turn the wearer over.

Type IV Life Jackets

Type IV life jackets are only approved for restricted use in defined activities such as boardsailing or commercial white-water rafting.

Before selecting type IV life jackets, it is vital to verify they are suitable for the intended use.

Performance LEVEL Life Jackets

Opposite to performance-TYPE life jackets, the numbering system of performance-LEVEL life jackets starts with the lowest level of protection and increases to level 275.

The number listed in the performance level name is related to the minimum buoyancy measured in Newtons.

The different levels of performance life jackets are listed below.

Level 50 Life jackets

This level life jacket is intended to be used purely as an aid, providing assistance to competent swimmers close to safety (boat or river bank.)

These life jackets are only suitable for inland, calm waters and are more commonly called personal flotation devices (PFD).

Level 50 life jackets provide 50 newtons (11.24 pounds of buoyancy).

Level 70 Life Jackets

These devices are intended for use in calm water, have a low level of bulk, and are comfortable to wear; however, while they provide more buoyancy than a Level 50 life jacket, they are not expected to keep the wearer afloat and safe for any length of time.

Level 70 life jackets provide 70 newtons (15.74 pounds of buoyancy).

Level 100 Life Jackets

These life jackets provide a greater degree of buoyancy than the previous levels but are still only intended to assist the wearer in sheltered waters and are not suited to rough open water conditions.

Level 100 life jackets provide 100 newtons (22.48 pounds of buoyancy).

Level 150 Life Jackets

This level life jacket provides sufficient buoyancy to keep the wearer floating even if they have wet, heavy foul, weather clothing on; therefore, this is the primary level life jacket used by open-water sailors.

Level 150 life jackets provide 150 newtons (33.72 pounds of buoyancy).

Level 275 Life Jackets

The highest-level life jacket is intended for use in specialist conditions (such as oil rigs), where the wearer may be weighed down with tools and other equipment.

Level 275 life jackets provide 275 newtons (61,82 pounds of buoyancy).

The Correct Weight Category Life Jacket Must Be Selected

In addition to selecting the most appropriate life jacket based on its use, it will be subject to it must have sufficient buoyancy relative to the weight of the wearer.

There are four weight categories of life jackets.

Adult Life Jacket

Adult Life Jackets are designed to keep users who weigh more than 88 lbs. (40 Kg’s) afloat.

Youth Life Jacket

Youth Life Jackets are designed to keep users with a weight over 55 lbs. (25 Kg’s) and less than or equal to 88 lbs. (40 Kg’s) afloat.

Child Life Jacket

Child Life Jacket users are designed to keep users with a weight over 33 lbs. (15 kg) and less than or equal to 55 lbs. (25 Kg’s) afloat.

Infant Life Jacket

Child Life Jacket users are designed to keep users with a weight less than  33 lbs. (15 kg) afloat.

Types Of Life Jackets

Within these life jacket classifications, four different mechanisms are used in life jackets.

  • Inherent Life Jackets.
  • Inflatable Life Jackets.
  • Hybrid Life Jackets.
  • Special Purpose Life Jackets.

Inherent Life Jackets

Inherent life jackets are filled with foam and have intrinsic buoyancy. The features and uses of Inherent Life Jackets are as follows.

  • They are supplied in wearable form and also as throwable devices.
  • They are available for adults through to infants.
  • Some specifically designed inherent buoyancy life jackets are suitable for certain water sports.
  • Swimmers and non-swimmers can use them.
  • They are available in various shapes, including throwable cushions, ring buoys, and life jackets.

Inherent life jackets have the following minimum buoyancy requirements.

Size of life jacketType Of Life JacketRequired Buoyancy
AdultType I Life Jacket22 lbs.
AdultType II and III Life Jacket15.5 lbs.
AdultType IV Life Jacket15.5 to 22 lbs.
AdultLevel 70 Life Jackets15.75 lbs.
YouthType II and III Life Jacket11 lbs.
YouthType V Life Jacket11 to 15.5 lb.
ChildType II Life Jacket7 lbs.
InfantType II Life Jacket7 lbs.

Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable Life Jackets are supplied in two forms.

1️⃣ Automatic inflation.

2️⃣ Manual inflation.

Inflatable Life Jackets are comfortable to wear (when deflated); however, there are several restrictions.

  • They usually are only available in adult sizes.
  • They are generally not suitable for weak or non-swimmers.

Inflatable Life Vests have the following minimum buoyancy requirements.

Size of life jacketType Of Life JacketRequired Buoyancy
AdultType I and II Life Jacket34 lbs.
AdultType III Life Jacket22.5 lbs.
AdultType IV Life Jacket22.5 to 34 lb.

Hybrid Life Jackets

As the name suggests, a hybrid life vest combines foam-filled inherent and inflatable life jackets.

They are reliable and have a wide range of uses.

  • They are produced in sizes that fit adults, youth, and children.
  • They are suitable for swimmers & non-swimmers.
  • Some are specifically designed to be used for water sports.

Hybrid life jackets have the following minimum buoyancy requirements.

Size of life jacketType Of Life JacketRequired Inherent BuoyancyRequired Buoyancy when inflated
AdultType I Land III life jacket10 lbs.22 lbs.
AdultType IV Life Jacket7.5 lbs.22 lbs.
AdultLevel 70 Life Jackets9 lbs.15.74 lbs.
YouthType II and III Life Jacket9 lbs.15 lbs.
YouthType IV  Life Jacket7.5 lbs.15 lbs.
ChildType II Life Jacket7.5 lbs.12 lbs.
InfantNot available for infantsN/AN/A

Special Purpose Life Jackets

Special-purpose life jackets require construction methods and buoyancy levels suitable for the special purpose they have been designed for.

The capabilities will vary on a case-by-case basis.

🦺 How To Fit A Life Jacket

While an ill-fitting life jacket is better than no life jacket, choosing a proper fit for the regular passengers in the boat is better.

In addition to these “tailored” life jackets, it is also a good idea to carry a few general-sized jackets (child, youth, and adult) to cater to visitors.

No matter how strong of a swimmer the wearer is, one bad fall or accident can change everything instantly. Wearing a life jacket t should be comfortable and EASY!

This will enable you to set strict rules regarding when they are worn.

It is essential that when choosing life jackets for you and the family, you ensure they fit everyone well and then insist that they be worn anytime that you’re out on the water.

Here’s how you properly fit a life jacket:

1️⃣ Select a life vest that is United States Coast Guard (USCG) or SOLAS-approved.

2️⃣ Choose a life jacket designated for that person (adult, youth, child, or infant).

3️⃣ Choose a life jacket designated as an appropriate level and type.

4️⃣ Measure the widest part of the wearer’s torso (circumference).

5️⃣ Select the size that fits the wearer’s measurement.

6️⃣ Put it on, zip and buckle it up, and have someone help check to ensure it a snug fit.

7️⃣ A reliable test with children (and small youth and adults) is to pick it up using the handle at the back. The life jacket is not too large if it does not slip over the wearer’s head.

🙋‍♂️ FAQs

What Is The Safest Type Of Life Jacket?

The safest type of life jacket will be one with the lowest “Type” number and highest “Level” number.

A life jacket specified as a Type 1, Level 150, provides the ability to keep the wearer’s head above the water in an upright, vertical orientation while providing 150 newtons of buoyancy (33.72 pounds).

At this level, the life jacket is required to allow the user to keep breathing and floating, even for unconscious wearers.

What Buoyancy Rating Do I Need?

A person who weighs 200 lbs. on land weighs approximately 10 lbs. in the water (this may vary according to the water conditions and the salt content).

A life jacket should provide a margin of safety; therefore, someone who weighs 10 lbs. in the water should use a life jacket with a buoyancy rating of at least 15 lbs.

What Color Life Jacket Is Best?

Most life jackets are available in red, orange, or yellow. The purpose of bright colors is to be easily visible in the water.

Because of this, life jackets with colors that blend into the water, like green, purple, and blue, should be left on the shore and used to entertain the children at home.

🗣️ Final Words On Choosing Life Vests

The US Coast guard says that the law requires all occupants of cars to wear seatbelts, and people who jump out of planes always wear parachutes, so it should be just as important for people involved in water sports to wear life jackets.

The life jackets should have an appropriate rating for the wearer’s watersport activities and be correctly sized to ensure it fits and has sufficient buoyancy.

Now that you know how to choose the right life vest. It’s time to consider these market-leading life jackets for yourself and the best for your kids to ensure proper water safety.

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.