Warm weather is finally here! With boating season upon us, now is a great time to brush up on essential boating safety tips.
As you start to get your boat ready for fun and relaxing days out on the water, make sure that one life-saving item is at the top of your priority list: life jackets.
Whether you’re captaining a kayak or a fishing boat, you are required to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person riding in your recreational vessel. And for good reason. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2019, 86 percent of individuals who drowned during a fatal recreational boating accident were not wearing a life jacket.
While each state may have different regulations for when and where to wear a life jacket, your safest choice is to don one at all times when you’re on the water.
While all life jackets are part of the family of personal flotation devices (or PFDs, if you’re into acronyms), they are not all created equal. Here, we break down what you need to know to keep you and your passengers properly outfitted and safe this season.
What Are the Different Types of Life Jackets?
There’s a wide variety of life jackets on the market with options to fit every age, size and water-bound recreational activity. You can find designs specifically tailored for recreational boating and water sports like skiing and riding on personal watercrafts, as well as styles for hunting, fishing, paddle sports (such as canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding) and offshore boating and racing.
They come in a variety of configurations and are available in five types (ranging from Type I to Type V), with each being further categorized by design:
- Inherent or standard: These life jackets are buoyant on their own. They usually contain foam or other material that keeps you afloat. These are a good fit for all passengers, especially those who aren’t strong swimmers or can’t swim at all.
- Inflatable: These devices inflate with air (either automatically or manually by pulling a cord) when you hit the water, thanks to a CO2 cylinder incorporated into the design. While they’re not as bulky as standard life jackets, they need to be used for the right activity (particularly ones where you’re not immersed in water) and shouldn’t be worn by anyone younger than 16 years old.
- Hybrid: These life jackets are a combination of standard and inflatable models.
- Special purpose: This is a class of life jackets (Type V) that are manufactured for a specific activity. These can include float coats for waterfowl hunting, vests for white water rafting or life jackets for windsurfing. The intended activity will be specifically called out on the label of the jacket.
Life Jacket Sizes for Adults, Kids and Pets
When selecting a life jacket, make sure it has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, is the right size and suits the activity you’re doing. For help choosing the right type of jacket, the U.S. Coast Guard put together a helpful manual.
Life jacket laws vary from state to state. In states where no children’s life jacket law is in place, a U.S. Coast Guard interim rule requires that children under 13 wear a properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket while on a boat.
Below are some other tips to keep in mind, depending on who will be using the life jacket:
- For adults: While it’s important to pick a life jacket that is suited to your activity, it’s also crucial that you find one that’s the right size. For adults, this is mainly determined by your weight and the size of your chest. To get an idea of your chest size, measure the circumference of your chest at its widest point.
- For kids: Putting an adult life jacket on a child won’t do. Children’s life jackets come with their own set of safety features like head supports, handles and straps that are secured between the legs to ensure the jacket doesn’t slip off. Kids’ life jackets are placed in three categories based on weight:
- Youth (55 to 88 pounds)
- Child (33 to 55 pounds)
- Infant (33 pounds or less)
- For pets: PFDs for dogs come in a variety of sizes and designs. Look for one that fits snugly, features easy-release buckles and a handle for lifting and has a low profile so they won’t get caught on anything. Keep in mind that these types of life jackets are not certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Before you take your pup on your next trip, read our top 10 water safety tips for boating with dogs.
How Do I Fit a Life Jacket?
When it’s time to choose a life jacket for yourself or a loved one, the U.S. Coast Guard recommends the following tips:
- Choose one that fits your size and weight. This should be clearly labeled somewhere on the jacket.
- Make sure it’s fastened correctly. Buckles, ties, straps and other safety features can be confusing. Make sure everything is where it should be.
- Check the fit. Lift your arms straight up above your head. Then have someone grab the tops of the arm openings and pull up. There should be no extra room above those openings, and the jacket should not come up over your chin or face.
- Test it out in the shallows. Take that life jacket for a test drive before you set off. Make sure you float, and check that the jacket keeps your head above water and doesn’t come up over your face.
How Often Should a Life Jacket Be Tested for Buoyancy?
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, standard foam-filled life jackets should be tested each year for buoyancy and wear and tear. If you have an inflatable life jacket, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure you follow their recommended maintenance procedures.
How Many Years Does a Life Jacket Last?
Strictly speaking, there aren’t precise expiration dates for life jackets. However, your jacket will need to be maintained and in proper working order for it to be considered usable. Also keep in mind that if you have an inflatable life jacket, components like the CO2 cylinder will expire, so make sure you stay up to date on the manufacturer’s maintenance requirements.
Can You Drown While Wearing a Life Jacket?
First and foremost, it’s always better to wear a life jacket than to not wear one. Drowning while wearing a life jacket is rare, but there are some situations where the risk could be higher:
- Your life jacket is too small. Not only are life jackets classified for activity and performance; they’re also classified by weight. If your life jacket is too small, it won’t keep you afloat.
- You’re not wearing your life jacket correctly. If belts, ties or zippers aren’t fastened properly, there’s a risk that the device could come off. This is why it’s especially important for kids to wear child-specific life jackets that are equipped with a strap that goes between the legs.
- You’re in cold water. When water temperatures are at 70 degrees or lower, there’s a chance that hypothermia could take effect.
- You’re trapped. Even while wearing a PFD, canoers, kayakers and other paddlers could get stuck in capsized vessels or caught on something like a rock or branch.
- You’re injured. What if you’re hit on the head or knocked unconscious? If you’re not wearing a life jacket that will turn you to face upright above the water, you could be in serious danger, especially if nobody is nearby to help.
- You can’t keep your face out of the water. Any time you’re in waves, you’re bound to ingest some water. But if you’re battered by too many waves and breathe in too much water over an extended period of time, you could be in danger of drowning.
Make Sure Your Next Trip Is Smooth Sailing
With boat insurance from Erie Insurance, you gain added protection for your next voyage, just in case. Since coverage types can vary greatly based on a number of factors, talk to your local ERIE agent. They can help you figure out exactly what you need and what type of policy is best for you before you set sail.