How to Choose a Life Jacket

Life jackets save lives, but not all life jackets are appropriate for all situations. Here’s a rundown.

A life jacket, also known as a Personal Flotation Device or PFD, is hands-down the most important piece of safety equipment you can have on your boat, raft, or kayak. But not all life jackets are the same. Life jackets are actually designed for use during specific activities. Whether you get a foam life jacket meant for whitewater expeditions or an inflatable life jacket for relaxed boating trips, it shouldn’t reduce your mobility. You should be comfortable in a life jacket, so you’ll never hesitate to wear it.

Lightweight

This minimalist PFD is built with the flexibility needed to row long and hard during hot summer days. Onyx

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Are you a strong swimmer? Do you not expect to fall out of your boat? Neither of these reasons should mean you should skip wearing a life vest, especially when you are boating alone. In many states, wearing a life vest is required by law under certain scenarios—and carrying them on board is always required. Always be aware of local regulations, but practice caution regardless. A recent study conducted at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard, noted that the number of deaths from boating accidents would be reduced by 80 percent if all boaters wore PFDs.

Classic Jacket

This no-frills PFD provides a snug fit and superb performance for anglers and watersports athletes. O’Neill

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Fit is without a doubt the most important aspect of picking a new life jacket. If a PFD doesn’t fit correctly, it won’t do its job correctly. So, how should a life jacket fit? The U.S. Coast Guard says a PFD should be “comfortably snug.” This means that you can put it on comfortably and that it doesn’t constrict your breathing, while also hugging your body firmly. Every PFD maker has a different sizing system. Do your best to check for the correct sizing before ordering a life jacket, and don’t forget to try it on at home before you hit the water.

Peace of Mind

This lightweight PFD is ready when you need it. Eyson

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An inflatable life jacket is a newer version of PFD. These life vests keep a slim profile when uninflated. They typically inflate via a CO2 cartridge automatically when submerged in water or when you activate a pull cord. Most inflatable PFDs come with tubes to allow manual inflation if the cartridge fails. Inflatable life vests are great options for anglers and boaters who rarely fall in the water, but want to be prepared if they do.