Life Jacket Buying Guide
A life jacket or personal floating device (PFD) is a safety gear essential for a number of water activities. It can be the difference between life and death, which means this type of gear warrants careful consideration. Any customer looking for a life jacket would not want to compromise on quality.
Whether it’s kayaking, rafting, canoeing, or simply being on the water on a ship, a life jacket is a necessity. In fact, many countries require it by law that there should be life jackets onboard ships, boats, and other such equipment. Other safety gear on ships may include jackets, lifebuoys, floating cushions, etc.
There are many types, sizes, materials, and other factors to consider. This post will help you understand what life jackets are and what to look for when buying these.
Life Jacket Application
Life jackets play a vital role in decreasing the risk of drowning. The open sea is hugely unpredictable; even an expert can get unconscious due to any unexpected hit. This is why life jackets are a part of almost every industry and operation that takes place on the water.
Here are some of the popular uses/industries that need life jackets:
Although fishing is usually done in calm waters, however, the risk of accidental falls persists. No one plans on falling in the water. Either a sudden jerk or a surprise pull from a strong fish can lead to tasting the water.
In such situations, life jackets can keep fishermen safe, even if they accidentally fall in the water. The fishing industry is perhaps the biggest consumer of this protective gear.
· Canoeing or Kayaking
After fishing, people who canoe or kayak are perhaps the biggest market for life jackets. These recreational activities are really popular in places with lakes, rivers, and seas. A lot of national parks around the world mandate visitors to wear life jackets.
· Water Parks
Water parks are all about water-related sports and activities. They, too, need safety equipment and gear for their visitors. According to Statista, 2.25 million people visited Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando, Florida, in 2019.
This industry holds a major market share as far as life jackets and other water safety gear is concerned.
The shipping industry is massive, as there are tens of thousands of ships transporting goods at any given time. From oil tankers to cargo vessels to cruise ships, there can be anywhere from a handful to hundreds of people onboard. All those people require life jackets in case of an emergency.
Most ships carry enough life jackets to have one for each crew member or passenger. Life jackets serve as an essential safety measure on these ships, and without them, they may not get authorization to be on the waters.
Life jackets are also present onboard aircraft, in case the plane lands or crashes into the water. These life jackets are mandatory for each passenger and crew member on board. The aviation industry largely uses smaller, inflatable life jackets.
Note: Understanding the uses of life jackets helps understand which industry requires what kind of life jacket. Different operations may require different features in the life jacket.
Type of Life Jackets
There are three types of life jackets based on their mechanism and make.
The most common type of life jackets is the standard life jacket, commonly known as buoyant life jackets. These are simple and straightforward jackets with promising results. The material used to fill in for buoyancy is plastic foam, like polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.
Upon submersion in the water, this foam traps air in the closed cells and keeps the wearer above water.
The standard life jackets, although bulky in size, are quite simple to use. There’s no work on the part of the wearer. Even if the water is rough, standard life jackets keep one afloat.
Another advantage of standard life jacket is that they keep the person’s head up, so even when they are unconscious, their face is above water.
The second common type is the inflatable life jacket. This type includes a built-in CO2 cylinder in it. There are two subtypes of inflatable jackets:
Manual: This jacket requires pulling the lever to activate the CO2 cylinder and inflate the jacket manually.
Automatic: In this jacket, the CO2 gas cartridge engages on its own as soon as they touch water. The wearer does not have to do anything.
The person can also pump these inflatable life jackets orally. However, that’s not a possibility in certain situations. Moreover, although the inflatable life jackets are relatively easy to wear due to their comfortable size before inflation, these are not approved for everyday use by the coast guard.
There are particular limitations to use these jackets:
- Children under 16 cannot use these jackets.
- Anyone weighing less than 80 pounds
Inflatable jackets don’t take as much space as standard jackets, so these are ideal for boats, ships, and airplanes where the storage space is limited.
Hybrid life jackets lie between standard and inflatable types. In this type, the air traps in the foam cells just like other types. As a result, the jacket inflates and takes the person towards the surface. The weight that needs to displace water is always less than water weight.
You can get CO2 cylinders to fit in it. The cartridge that fires is water-soluble and dissolves in about five seconds when it is submerged in water.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has classified the life jackets in five categories, which are essentially based on the types described above. Most companies in the US ordering life jackets use this classification. Let’s discuss each of them in detail.
· Type I
Type I life jackets are the most robust and sturdy jackets. These are ideal to use in conditions such as:
- Fishing offshore
- Racing activities
- Speed boating
- Rough weather conditions
Type I life jackets are bulky and relatively challenging to wear. However, these are the most reliable options when it comes to the wild and open sea. The type I can turn a conscious or unconscious person facing upwards to ensure they can breathe more comfortably by keeping the head high.
Type I life jackets offer floatation of 36 pounds and sustain quite a lot of jerks and pushes. Moreover, they can retain body heat effectively.
These type I jackets are the ideal choice for situations where help may not reach immediately. These are most commonly used on commercial vessels.
· Type II
Type II life jackets are the ones commonly used in calm waters. The type II personal flotation devices are not very useful in relatively rough water.
Moreover, they may turn an unconscious person to face upward, but that is not always the case. The type II life jackets are relatively more comfortable than the type I life jackets due to custom sizes.
The designs are mostly made to add comfort, but it results in lesser buoyancy. The type II life jackets offer floatation of 15.5 pounds to 33 pounds. However, their floatation time is far less than the type I life jackets.
Type II PFDs are ideal to use in areas where help can reach much faster and quicker. It may be used for recreational purposes like kayaking and canoeing.
· Type III
Type III life jackets are the ideal choice for sailors, cargo workers, and other such crew members who may have rescue readily available. The design is a lot more comfortable and liberating than type I and type II, thus allowing freedom to move around and work.
These life jackets help conscious people as they can position themselves by tilting their heads a bit to face upward. However, they are not effective in pitching an unconscious person to face upwards.
With a floatation capacity of around 15.5 to 22 pounds, one can quickly wear them throughout the day on a ship or vessel. Their floatation time is relatively less than type I and II.
· Type IV
Type IV personal floatation devices are throwable devices. These are the tools used to help a conscious person whether or not they are wearing any other floatation device.
The type IV personal floatation devices are not useful for unconscious people or too rough waters.
Type IV PFDs are available in numerous designs. However, the most popular is the ring buoy and floatable cushions. Ring buoys offer floatation of 16.5 pounds while the later offers around 18 pounds.
These PFDs are only useful in an area where help and rescue are readily available.
· Type V
The type V devices are devices with specific purposes. These usually come with labels that specify the activity they are intended for. For instance, the companies ordering might determine if type V is made for kayaking, canoeing, water surfing, etc.
The labels on these also specify if the type V jacket offers type II or type III performance. So these are more flexible.
Life Jacket Materials
Life jackets are commonly available in these two types of material:
One of the materials commonly used for life jackets is nylon. The jackets made of nylon have several pros and cons:
- The nylon jackets are relatively less expensive
- These are very sturdy and robust
- The design includes buckles that allow you to adjust to different sizes
- The material is relatively hard, which may result in chafing and rubbing in case of extended wear
- The nylon jackets are bulky
Neoprene is another popular material when it comes to life jackets. Let us have a look at the pros and cons of life jackets made of this material:
- Neoprene is a very soft material which results in a much comfortable jacket
- The designs mostly include zippers which results in a more snug fit
- The life jackets with neoprene material are relatively lighter
- They are relatively warmer than the nylon ones
- Their material and design allow more mobility
- Jackets made of neoprene are costlier as compared to the nylon ones
Life Jacket Sizes/Fitting
Life jackets are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are not a “one size fits all kind” of gear. Since it is a product that determines the safety of your life, getting one with proper size is essential.
· Fitting for Adults
The sizing of life jackets for adults depends on the chest size, rather than their weight or height. The measurement of the chest will determine the size for most types of life jackets described above.
For instance, a person with a chest size of 37 inches would need a medium size life jacket (35 to 40 inches).
The jacket should zip up easily (if it has a zipper), and the fit should be snug.
· Fitting for Kids
The fitting for a kid’s life jacket is quite different from the fitting standard for adults. The sizing for kids’ life jackets depends on their weight instead of the chest size as in an adult’s case.
Kids weighing between 30 to 50 pounds qualify for the kids sizing. The most crucial thing to consider is the fact that life jackets shouldn’t come off their heads when in water.
Another essential factor playing a significant role in selecting a kid’s life jackets is the addition of padded head support, so the kid doesn’t stay facing downwards in the water. The padded head support allows them to face upwards and breathe comfortably.
· Fitting for Infants
Just like for kids, the infant’s size also depends upon the weight of the infant. The sizes cover infants weighing 8 to 30 pounds. While buying their life jackets, along with the weight, keep the following factors in mind.
The life jacket should include padded head support. As mentioned above, it would help them tilting upwards, so their head is above water and facing upwards, thus ensuring comfortable breathing.
The life jacket should include crotch straps. It would help the jacket to stay put instead of moving upwards towards the baby’s face.
Lastly, infant life jackets should have grab handles. The handles allow an adult to grab the baby comfortably and pull them out of water when needed.
· Fitting for Dogs
Life jackets also come for dogs, since they are often present on boats and vessels. There’s also demand for dog life jackets, especially in the water sports market. People take their dogs with them when going kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating, and even rafting.
Dog life jacket sizes vary and typically depend on the length of their backs and their body’s girth. Different breeds have different sizes, so that also serves as a size distinction.
Life jackets for dogs should fit snugly and not be bulky. They should also have handles for the adults to carry the dog out of the water. Dog life jackets are not USCG certified.
Life Jacket Features
Regardless of the type of life jacket, you should consider certain features individually, as they may be essential for the industry you’re catering to.
· Safety Features
Some of the most crucial safety features you must look for in life jackets are as follows:
If you’re buying a type II or a type III life jacket, buying one with a large collar or head support would be better. The head support allows you to face upwards upon falling in the water. It is especially useful if the person is unconscious as they can’t possibly try and move their body for a better breathing position. This feature is also crucial for children’s life jackets.
- You must also look for a label stating US Coast Guard Approval, so you know the material is top quality, and it meets the right standards.
- Reflective tape is another critical safety feature for better visibility.
- Grab straps is another essential feature to look for as it allows the rescuer to grab the person and bring him back to safety quickly.
- You may want to look for a crotch strap if you are looking for a life jacket for kids.
- Another essential safety feature is the availability of a strong buckle strap, so the person can tightly fit the life jacket around a child’s waist.
- The zipper should be sturdy and heavy-duty, so it can withstand all the hardships without breaking and putting your life at risk.
Many life jackets come with pockets. These pockets allow the wearer to keep several handy items on their person. These pockets can come in handy during fishing and other water activities.
The selection of colors is an essential feature to consider while buying a life jacket for you. For that purpose, first, you need to determine the area and conditions the life jacket will be used in.
- If the conditions are relatively safer and help may be nearby, the color doesn’t make much difference. (Shipping, kayaking, canoeing, jet-skiing, water parks)
- If the conditions are rough and the vessel may be in remote water, bright-colored life jackets can increase visibility. Rescue teams can locate people from afar. (Cargo ships, exploratory ships, cruise ships, aircrafts, navy)
The inflatable life jackets include tabs to fill the jacket with carbon dioxide. The CO2 cylinders included in the inflatable life jackets come in two types:
The manual tab requires the person to pull the tab, resulting in filling the jacket with gas almost instantly. This works better in settings where the person may have time to inflate the jacket in emergency situations.
The automatic type includes tabs that are soluble in water. As soon as the jackets submerge in the water, the tab dissolves, and carbon dioxide immediately fills in the jacket, making the person float on the water’s surface.
Automatic cylinders/cartridges work better for people who may not be able to manually inflate the life jackets, such as kids, disabled individuals, and older people.
The jackets must be made up of material that allows proper ventilation. Although in cold weather, the life jacket should provide some warmth. The jackets made of neoprene are warmer, but there should be some ducts to provide ventilation
Some brands offer breathable material at the backside of the jacket to provide ventilation as well.
· Fishing Aids
Many brands offer life jackets designed specifically for fishing enthusiasts. Such designs include numerous pockets for the safekeeping of fishing tackle and in-built hooks to directly attach the tools. If buying for the fishing industry, make sure that the life jacket has these extra amenities and features.
Rules and Regulations
There are several rules and regulations in place when it comes to wearing life jackets. There are some conditions when you must wear a life jacket at all times:
- The boat is less than six meters long
- You are boating alone
- You are boating between sunset and sunrise
Some of the other rules and regulation are as follows:
- Children under 13 years onboard any boat must wear a life jacket
- Every person on board should have a life jacket
- The life jackets must be coast guard approved to meet all the requirements
- The life jacket should fit snugly for added safety for every person on board
- The inflatable jackets must be operational and serviceable with unused CO2 cylinders
- Personal flotation devices types IV must be available on every boat bigger than 16′ (These are the throwable devices, such as ring buoy or throwable cushions)
- Participants in water sports such as water skiing, surfing, etc. must wear a life jacket
Choose life jackets that adhere to the general as well as application-specific rules and regulations.
Life Jacket Maintenance
A life jacket is an extremely crucial gadget. Companies and individuals buying life jackets may want to invest in those that may require little maintenance and last long.
There are some critical factors to consider while maintaining for maintenance of life jackets:
- In inflatable jackets, the CO2 cartridges require timely maintenance. The tabs should work properly and there should be ample CO2 gas to inflate the jacket completed. The cartridge should be serviceable before every journey.
- PFDs may also require washing occasionally. There should be instructions on the jackets as how to wash and dry them.
- The zipper or buckles of the life jacket must be sturdy and fully operational, so it doesn’t break unexpectedly.
- Maintenance also involves checking for any rupture or holes that may compromise its integrity and purpose. For this reason, buying quality life jackets with proper certifications and attention to detail is necessary.
Life jackets play a vital role in saving people from drowning. If worn correctly and according to the right size, there are minimal chances of drowning incidents.
As mentioned above, there are five types of USCG classified personal flotation devices, every type serving a different purpose. You basically need to figure out your market and find a compatible type of PFD for it, with the right materials, safety features, and size range.
Check for rules and regulations for the specific industry you’re buying or importing the life jackets for. The life jackets must comply with the standards and certifications.