A [Comprehesive] Guide To Life Jacket Types

It is great fun being on the water and an excellent way to increase your fitness and enjoy hours of quality time with the family.

But if you don’t exercise safety precautions and do not use the correct life jackets, boating activities such as kayaking, rafting, and other water sports can be dangerous. 

Nine out of ten drowning accidents happen on inland waters and involve small leisure boats within a short distance from safety because the correct life vests were not used.

There is a lot of misinformation about life jackets, meaning inappropriate types are often purchased and used, which do not provide the degree of protection needed. 

It results in resistance to wearing them because they are uncomfortable, badly fitting, bulky, or don’t look great.

In this article, I’ll present an ultimate guide where we discuss the functions and provide an in-depth analysis of all the different types of life jackets.

🦺 The Different Categories Of Lifejackets

The term “life jacket” is often used as the generic term for various pieces of safety equipment, including flotation devices, PFDs, and life vests. The difference between life jackets and buoyancy aids is an important distinction to be aware of.

The United States Coastguard (USCG) has reworked the lifejacket classifications three times this century to ensure which ones are deemed as coast guard approved.

In 2019, they changed the classification again and adopted the British (RNLI) numbered level system.

The classifications are as follows.

Level 275 Lifejackets

Level 275 lifejackets protect specialized users in the roughest conditions.

This type of life jacket provides greater buoyancy which can cope with waterlogged clothes, the user carrying heavy tools, or supporting a victim who isn’t wearing one.

Level 150 – Offshore Life Jacket

This category of lifejacket was previously called Type I lifejackets

They provide a buoyancy of 33.7 lbf (not lbs which I’ll explain later) and are useful on rough waters where rescue may not be immediate.

These are effective and are used for deep-sea activities.

The Requirements Of Offshore Life Jackets

Offshore lifejackets must conform to the following.

1️⃣ They must conform to SOLAS requirements.
2️⃣ They are generally made of foam.
3️⃣ Lifejackets provide at least 33.7 lbf (around 150 Newtons) buoyancy.
4️⃣ This jacket will rotate a person’s body to keep the head above water.
5️⃣ It will also stabilize the body’s flotation allowing the person to assume the HELP position.

Level 100 – Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest

These were previously called Type II life jackets.

Level 100 vests must have a minimum of 15.5 pounds buoyancy and can be identified by the classic “horseshoe” shape.

Caution is given,  as there are two types of life vests in this category, and there is a large variation between the capabilities of each.

Those That Are Designed To Only Meet The Letter Of The Law

The cheaper examples of these vests are designed to meet the letter of the law and nothing more. At 15.5 pounds, they only provide the basic minimum amount of flotation.

Even if the price is a consideration, you should never choose them.

More Capable Near-Shore Buoyancy Vests

These vests are better designed and have water-activated inflation and a buoyancy rating of up to 22.5 pounds.

Level 70 Life Jackets (PFDs)

This category of lifejacket was previously called Type III lifejackets. 

Life Jackets that are classed as flotation aids (PFDs) are buoyant, close-fitting, available in various designs and colors, and are tailored to different types of boating.

They have a minimum of 15.5 lbf (69N), the same as some of the lesser-quality near-shore buoyancy vests.

A broad range of flotation aids includes different versions designed for the following activities.

  • Paddling
  • Sailing
  • Sports involving towing (like wakeboarding and water skiing)

The boating versions are comfortable to wear and have a degree of hypothermia protection and moderate buoyancy.

While not a general capability, some higher-end models can turn anyone over to keep the mouth and nose above the water.

It is not appropriate to wear these devices for offshore use.

Level 50 Buoyancy Aids

Level 50 lifejackets offer minimum buoyancy and can be used in calm, sheltered water where immediate help is available.

Level 50 devices will not keep you afloat without treading water, yet they will assist you by reducing the effort needed to keep your head above water.

When the category is introduced, Level 50 lifejackets will provide around 11.2 lbf.

Throwable Devices

This category of lifejacket was previously called Type IV devices.

These include life rings and any other flotation device with a handle that is designed to be thrown to a person in the water from a ship, or another rescue platform, to someone without a lifejacket.

📝 The Complete Guide To Life Jackets

Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) should not be confused with traditional life jackets. 

They are generally more comfortable than lifejackets because they are designed to be worn constantly. 

There are many types of personal flotation devices that are suitable for anyone taking part in watersports, such as skiing and waterboarding, and when a boat pulls a person along.

It means that if there is a problem and the person needs assistance, the PFD does not have to function indefinitely because help is on hand.

Because PFDs only need to provide flotation for a short time, they do not provide the same protection as rated lifejackets for staying afloat. They cannot turn an unconscious person onto their back to enable breathing.

What Is The Purpose Of A Life Jacket?

While their purpose may seem obvious, each category has its unique and special use and provides different protection levels, including all or parts of the following.

  • To return someone back to the water’s surface.
  • To maintain the person’s body in an upright position.
  • To keep an unconscious person’s head above water.
  • To reduce the possibility of hypothermia.
  • To ensure the shortest possible “heave period.”
  • To Return Them Back To The Water Surface

All life jackets and Personal Flotation devices have, as their main purpose, the ability to return the person to the surface after they have been submerged.

The correct category, size, and buoyancy of life jackets must be worn to achieve this function.  

To Maintain The Wearer’s Body In An Upright Position

A lifejacket that keeps the wearer’s body upright, as opposed to lying prone, is very useful in preserving the person’s energy and body heat.

It is very tiring to constantly move hands, arms, and legs (in addition to working the core abdominal muscles) to try and stay upright. A lifejacket designed to provide this assistance will help preserve the person’s life for a longer period until help arrives.

This category of lifejacket also helps by allowing them to keep arms and legs hunched up against the body, thereby preserving body heat.

To Keep An Unconscious Persons Head Above Water

A lifejacket can rotate the person’s body so that their face is out of the water, even if unconscious.

A life jacket with this capability is very buoyant and will be marked accordingly, showing that it will flip most unconscious persons face up.

To Reduce The Possibility Of Hypothermia

If someone falls overboard or suffers a disaster that results in their boat being lost, they face four dangers.

😵 Drowning
❄️ Hypothermia
🥵 Thirst
🦈 Attack by predators

Life jackets designed for such conditions prevent the victim from drowning and assist in staving off hypothermia.

If the lifejacket can maintain body position, they can assume the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP.)

The HELP position is achieved by protecting the parts of the body which are vulnerable to heat loss and involves the following positions.

  • Clamping the victim’s arms to the sides of the chest.
  • Clutching the life jacket tightly reduces the water flowing between it and the body.
  • Pulling the legs in toward the chest.

Assuming this position helps protect against high heat loss in vulnerable areas (head, neck, armpits, and groin).

To Ensure The Shortest Possible “Heave Period”

The heave period is the time it takes for the lifejacket to return someone to the water’s surface after being submerged.

The higher the buoyancy, the faster it will allow the person to return to the surface.

It is also why the lifejackets worn must be suitably specified for each person on the boat. It is no use for a person weighing 120 lbs. to wear a jacket designed for a child weighing 40 lbs.

The two specifications in the jacket which affect the heave period are.

1️⃣ The jacket’s buoyancy is expressed in pound force (lbf and not lbs) or Newtons.
2️⃣ The size of the jacket

🤔 Which Is Better, Manually Or Automatically Inflatable, Lifejackets?

There are benefits to both types.

Manually Inflatable Life Jackets

Manually inflated lifejackets are those devices that require the user to activate the CO2 cartridge.

The advantages of this style of inflatable lifejacket are.

✔️ The user has full control and only inflates the device if needed.
✔️ This type of device results in less wastage.

The disadvantages of this style of inflatable lifejacket are.

❌ The user has to be conscious to activate the vest. 
❌ Children under 16 should not wear these life jackets.

Automatic Inflating Life Jacket

Life jackets that inflate automatically do so when they are exposed to water.

The device uses a sequence of actions to aerate the life jacket. The process is started by immersion and ends with the release of a small spring-loaded pin that pierces the CO2 cylinder. 

The advantages of this style:

✔️ They are generally comfortable and cool.
✔️ It’s automatic, irrespective of the condition of the person.

The disadvantages of this style:

❌ This lifejacket is unsuitable for personal watercraft or whitewater rafting/kayaking.
❌ They cannot be used for waterborne sports (because they will activate!)
❌ Once activated, they can only be restored by a licensed agency.
❌ Some models do not turn the user face up in the water. 

🛒 How To Buy A Life Jacket

Once you understand the right life jacket that is appropriate for your circumstances, choosing a life jacket that works for you is important.

The factors to consider in this buying guide are as follows:

1️⃣ Category Of Lifejacket
2️⃣ Choose one that fits comfortably
3️⃣ Choose one that the person is happy with

Category Of Lifejacket

Ensure that the lifejackets you look at are rated for the conditions you will use them in.

Check the label and ensure that the label identifies the rating for one of the following levels.

  • Level 50
  • Level 70
  • Level 100
  • Level 150
  • Level 275

Life jackets that are used for offshore use must conform to the SOLAS requirements (detailed in the next section). 

Choose One That Fits Comfortably

Firstly, choose one that’s the right fit. If a lifejacket does not fit snugly, it is of no use.

A correctly sized lifejacket that’s in good condition must be big enough to zip up (clip up) without too much strain. It should be small enough that someone else cannot pull the lifejacket over the wearer’s ear lobes while your arms are down. 

For the ladies, this means it should fit over the chest (without squashing it down) while remaining tight around the waist.

Choose One That The Wearer Is Happy With

Aircraft pilots say the most useless bit of runway is behind them, and the most useless gallon of gas is the amount left on the ground.

With boaters, the same applies to the most useless piece of safety equipment, which is a life jacket that has been left behind.

Passengers won’t wear it if they hate what it looks like, interferes with their underarms, or causes painful welts.

There are hundreds of life jacket styles; some are bulky and warm, some are cheap and efficient for commercial vessels, some only inflate when they hit the water, and some are sleek and fitted. 

The wearer should be allowed to pick their own and then be required to wear it.

🌊 SOLAS – Safety of Life at Sea

Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is a treaty prepared by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is an arm of the United Nations. The treaty governs the safety of life at sea and includes all ocean-going vessels within its mandate.

What Is A SOLAS Lifejacket?

SOLAS life jackets are lifesaving devices that have to conform to the following minimum specifications:

1️⃣ It has to be comfortable to ensure someone doesn’t remove it.
2️⃣ It must conform to minimum weight requirements (that means it must be light).
3️⃣ They must be able to jump at least 4.5 meters from the vessel without the lifejacket restricting movement.
4️⃣ It must not sustain any damage if someone jumps off a tall hull and lands in the water.
5️⃣ After being underwater for 24 hours, it must still retain 95% of the original buoyancy.
6️⃣ A whistle must be attached with a secure cord.

What Are The Regulations About The Use Of SOLAS Lifejackets?

The regulations regarding what SOLAS lifejackets should be available and how they should be stored are as follows. 

1️⃣ There must be sufficient (and correctly sized) lifejackets for each adult and child on the boat.
2️⃣ The lifejackets must be undamaged and in working condition.
3️⃣ The lifejackets must be easily accessed in an emergency.
4️⃣ Each life jacket must be correctly marked with the weight and height of the users they are designed to be worn by.
5️⃣ There must also be sufficient lifejackets for all professional staff on board.
6️⃣ If there is no appropriately sized lifejacket for specific passengers, an alternative flotation device must be available.

🗣 Final Words

It’s difficult to say which is the best life jacket, but it’s essential that during all boating and watersport activities, wearing a life jacket is exercised.

Five categories of lifejackets define under what conditions they are suitable, and the appropriate level of life jacket must be chosen to provide the necessary safety.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I’m a lover of being out on the water and sampling Caribbean rum! Currently, I run an SEO consultancy in addition to this little corner of the interwebs. Welcome, and I hope that we can provide the portal you need to dive into your next aquatic adventure.