As part of our continuing drive to keep boaters and water sports enthusiasts safe, it’s time to talk about how to choose the right life vest or personal flotation device and how to properly fit one.
That includes covering various PFD styles, discussing who they’re best suited for, and discussing how to make sure your PFD fits properly so that it can function as intended.
Why Wear a Life Vest
There are few things as important to boaters and water sports enthusiasts than a quality life vest. Understanding why it’s important to wear a life jacket is key to your safety and your ability to legally enjoy your favorite watersports.
On a basic level, boating laws and regulations in some areas require you to wear a PFD at all times while riding on a watercraft. In other places, you must at least have enough PFDs for all persons onboard, regardless of whether or not you are required to wear one at all times.
Aside from that, the statistics overwhelmingly support the importance of life vests if you find yourself in a boating accident. According to the US Coast Guard’s report on 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics, “Where cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86% were not wearing a life jacket.”
Even the best swimmers on the planet can be adversely affected by environmental factors like ocean currents and cold water. That’s not to mention that a life jacket will keep you afloat if you are somehow knocked unconscious during a boating accident or while practicing your favorite watersport.
This is not to scare you away from enjoying those watersports or boating in general. It is simply to point out the obvious: water-based activities are safer when the right life vest is involved.
Understanding PFD Ratings
All PFDs are not created equal. There are five United States Coast Guard ratings that apply to PFDs:
- Type I PFDs: Made for activities in remote areas where rescue could be a long time coming. You’ll often find them on cruise ships and commercial vessels.
- Type II PFDs: Made for locations where rescue can get to you relatively quickly, such as lakes, ponds, and urban rivers. They’re very basic and less expensive than a Type I PFD.
- Type III PFDs: Made for continuous wear by active users such as kayakers, paddle boarders, and water skiers. They are more expensive than a Type II PFD but far more comfortable.
- Type IV PFDs: These are throwable PFDs, such as buoyant cushions and rescue throwables (think those iconic life preserver rings).
- Type V PFDs: Made for specific activities such as boating, fishing, kayaking, wakeboarding, etc. They must be worn at all times during the specified activity to be considered properly worn and approved by the Coast Guard.
The majority of watersports enthusiasts should look for a Type III PFD. Type I or II PFDs may suffice for emergency purposes only while boating. And if you’re into a very specific activity, you may require a Type IV PFD that will provide the kind of buoyancy you need.
Types of Personal Flotation Devices
There are three main types of life vests you should know about. Each has pros and cons that will help you choose the right life vest for you.
Standard life vests are the kind you’re probably familiar with. They are typically classified as Type III PFDs and can be used for multiple purposes. They are commonly worn by everyone from fishermen and kayakers to skiers and wakeboarders.
Standard PFDs utilize a buoyant material, almost always foam, that creates positive buoyancy to keep you afloat. This is great because there’s no real maintenance required, other than checking it for damage regularly. And you don’t have to activate anything upon going into the water.
On the downside, they can be quite bulky and hot, especially if you’re doing something like standup paddleboarding where you’re exercising in direct sunlight. These are best for active watersports and they are the most affordable type of life vest to add to your boat.
Inflatable life vests… inflate. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The thing to consider here is what you’ll be using them for. There are two types, manual and automatic. Manual ones require you to pull a cord, not unlike a parachute ripcord or the cord on an emergency raft.
Automatic inflatables inflate automatically when submerged in water. For this reason, you shouldn’t use them for watersports where getting wet is highly likely, such as water skiing, wakeboarding, or whitewater rafting.
Conversely, manual inflatables should not be worn for any activity with a high chance of taking a bump to the head and being knocked unconscious. Choose something else for extreme watersports like rafting, wakeboarding, and whitewater kayaking.
Inflatable PFDs are great for fishing and other sports where the goal is to stay in the boat and stay dry. Just be careful in the rain with an automatic one.
Hybrid flotation devices are neutrally buoyant on their own for quick rescues and can be inflated for extra buoyancy in situations where you’re in the water waiting for rescue for an extended time. As you might imagine, they are a bit more expensive and typically not necessary for the majority of watersports.
Sizing and Fitting Your Life Vest
A personal flotation device (PFD) can, and will, save your life in an emergency. But so many people neglect to wear them. Of course, wearing a cheap or ill-fitting life jacket is only slightly better than wearing no life jacket at all.
For an adult, you should size your life vest based on your chest size. Measure your chest at its broadest point and use your measurement to narrow down your selection.
You should also make sure your PFD provides enough flotation for your body weight. The good news is that most of your body composition is water and fat, which means your PFD only needs to support the weight of your bone and muscle mass.
All bodies are different, but a flotation rating of 15.5 pounds will be sufficient for most adults. You can also use some basic averages to compute how much buoyancy you need in a life jacket.
The average human body contains 80% water and 15% fat. Water in the body has the same buoyancy as the water outside your body which means it won’t cause you to sink. Fat is actually lighter than water, so there’s no issue there. That means you really only need flotation for the remaining 5% of your body weight (i.e. bone and muscle).
Here’s a quick example based on a 200-pound person:
200 pounds x 80% water = 160 pounds water weight
200 pounds x 15% fat = 30 pounds fat weight
200 pounds – 190 pounds water and fat weight = 10 pounds of bone and muscle weight.
So this person requires a PFD with a minimum buoyancy of 10 pounds. But it’s always good to add 3-5 pounds to your bone and muscle weight to choose the right life vest to keep you safe in the water.
A note about children’s life vests: Children’s life vests are sized by weight and come in three different sizes.
- Infant PFDs: 8–30 pounds
- Child PFDs: 30–50 pounds
- Youth PFDs: 50–90 pounds
How To Put Your Life Vest on Properly
Once you’ve found the right life vest for you, loosen all the straps and unzip the zipper if it has one. Some life vests go on like a jacket and others go on over your head like a rashguard. Either way, your first step is to get yours on.
If your PFD has a zipper, zip it up first. Then start at the waist and tighten all the torso straps before moving up to the shoulder straps and tightening these last. The torso straps are what keep a life vest snug. The shoulder straps are meant for comfort and give you the ability to adjust how high or low the life vest sits on your torso.
When all the straps are tightened, your life jacket should be snug, but not uncomfortable or overly restricting. Last, but certainly not least, have someone pull up on the shoulder straps to simulate what will happen when you’re in the water and the vest rises up. You can do this yourself by sliding your thumbs under the shoulder straps and lifting.
Your life vest should raise slightly, but you shouldn’t be able to lift the shoulder straps above your ears. If you can, your PFD is too loose and should be tightened.
If you’ve got that, you’re done and ready to get back to enjoying your favorite watersports!
Having a PFD is required in most states and it’s downright vital to water safety. Follow the steps above to make sure you’re doing everything you can to enjoy your time on the water safely.