A recent trip to Bass Pro Shop revealed rack upon rack of life jackets in an assorted variety of styles, colors and features–some zipped, others buckled and a few had both a zipper with buckles—but, otherwise, they looked indistinguishable from each other. A life jacket is a life jacket, right? Chris James, UL’s principal engineer for flotation devices, sat down with Inside UL to discuss the different types of life jackets and each one’s intended use.

What is a personal flotation device?

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD), more commonly known as a life jacket or life preserver, helps keep a wearer afloat in the water. A PFD enhances a person’s natural buoyancy to provide the extra lift needed to keep their lowest point of respiration (i.e. the chin) above the water’s surface, which is typically about seven to 15.5 pounds of additional buoyancy (based on the type of life jacket and the intended size range).

Life jackets are measured according to how much additional weight they can support. A higher buoyancy equals a higher lift. When submerged, a life jacket works either by using the entrapped air within the foam or by activating an inflatable CO2 gas cartridge or a combination of both to displace enough water to keep the user afloat.

Life jackets made of foam are classified as inherently buoyant. Commonly made of plastic foams, such as polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, these are the more traditional life jackets that can be seen in most stores and vessels.

Approved by the USCG during the 1990s, inflatable life jackets, available as vests or waist packs, are considered less bulky and more comfortable as they aren’t full size until inflated. Inflatables should only be worn by strong swimmers and greater care must be used to ensure the life jacket will work in an emergency. This includes ensuring a life jacket is properly armed with an unused CO2 cylinder. Inflatable life jackets are not approved for user’s less than 16 years of age.

Inherently buoyant or inflatable device?

As for selecting an inherently buoyant life jacket or an inflatable device, James poses a simple question, “Do you intend to get wet or not?” People who wear inherently buoyant type devices probably intend on getting wet, whether by jumping into the water or engaging in a sport such as waterskiing or jet skiing.

Conversely, people wearing inflatables don’t intend to get wet. These are typically your fishermen, hunters or leisurely boaters. Inflatable devices have the same life-saving characteristics as an inherently buoyant device, but they’re compactly designed to allow for increased freedom of movement during the water activity. “If you do get wet, then this device will turn into a vest when the CO2 is released into the device,” states James.

What types of PFDs are available?

In the U.S., the USCG is the Approval body which recognizes the different performance levels/types of life-saving devices:

orange offshore lifejacket

Offshore Life Jackets

Offshore Life Jackets offer the greatest buoyancy, making it suitable for all waters, open ocean, rough seas or remote areas, where rescue may be slow to arrive. This is the traditional “abandon ship” life jacket used by passenger carrying ships, such as cruise ships, ocean liners and ferries. These devices are designed to right an unconscious person from a face-down position to face up.

orange near-shore life jacket

Near-Shore Buoyant Vests

Best for general boating activities in calm, inland water. This device may turn some unconscious people face-up. Rescue may be slow.

Purple flotation aid with four buckles

Flotation Aids

More comfortable than an Offshore Life Jacket and Near-Shore Buoyant Vest, this device is used for general boating or a specialized activity such as waterskiing, hunting, fishing, or kayaking. Offering less buoyancy than other devices, these devices are designed for calm, inland water where rescue is thought to be quick.

royal blue throw-able life preserver

Buoyant Throwable Devices

Not suitable for a non-swimmer or child, these devices are designed to be thrown to a conscious person. Throwable devices include boat cushions, rings or horseshoe buoys.

orange, special use life jacket

Special Purpose Devices

Designed only for special uses or conditions, these devices are restricted use only according to the label’s limit of use such as work vests, white water devices and rescuer’s harness devices.

Putting it all together

To determine which life jacket is suitable for you, first look at your intended water activity. What are you going to do? A leisurely boat ride on an interior lake? Kayaking down a class III river? Waterskiing on the Intracoastal Waterway? The PFD hierarchy is weighted by intended use, expected water conditions and the estimated response time before rescue. Each one is important, but it is the sum of all three that helps you laser in on the type of life jacket best suited for your intended use.

Next, are you a swimmer or non-swimmer? How strong of a swimmer? Take an honest assessment of your swim skills as one’s ability can change according to the type of water. For example, you may be comfortable floating in the pool or swimming a few laps but could tire quickly in a strong current.

Finally, determine the correct size by determining the user’s weight and chest size, noting that the denser the body (lean and muscular), the less natural buoyancy obtained when in the water. This could necessitate the purchase of a more buoyant device for the intended user.

A fitting suggestion

A life jacket properly fits when it keeps your head above water–too big and it will ride up around the face, while one being too small will make it difficult to keep the body afloat.

The USCG offers the following suggestions when checking the fit of a life jacket:

  1. Check the manufacturer’s label to ensure that the life jacket is a proper fit for your size and weight.
  2. Make sure the life jacket is properly fastened.
  3. Hold your arms straight up over your head.
  4. Ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up.
  5. Make sure there is no excess room above the openings and that the jacket doesn’t ride up over your chin or face.

Remember, one life jacket does not fit every situation or activity. Buoyancy is dependent on many factors including weight, muscle mass and the clothing worn at the time of an incident. First, choose a life jacket based on the intended activity and the expected water conditions, then ensure the life jacket fits your body specifications by reading the manufacturer’s label.

To be effective, life jackets must be worn

Nine out of ten drownings occur on calm water and within reach of shore. Many victims had a life jacket stowed nearby, but, for whatever reason, were unable to don them at the time of the incident. Always wear a life jacket when on or near the water. The odds are against you in the event of a water emergency. Don’t take a chance on your life; it’s not worth the risk.