So maybe you bought a boat or are planning some aquatic adventure. Most likely you are interested in some extra safety and security for you or your loved ones.
Now I'm sure you've seen a life vest or life jacket before, but to make the best purchase possible, you're going to need to educate yourself in the broader category of personal flotation devices.
Once you fully understand all the types and nuances of personal flotation devices, as well as how they work and when to use them, you will be fully prepared to purchase some life vests for you and your family.
Life jackets, also called life vests, are the real deal. When it comes to safety, the broad category of personal flotation devices offers you many options.
In the end, the one thing you need to learn is that life jackets are the safest. A serious life jacket will have two air chambers, usually covered in nylon.
Some less serious models include one air chamber, but having two allows for more versatility.
If a ship fragment falls off and punctures one of your air chambers, you will find your second air chamber to thank.
One of the most highlighted differences between a life jacket and a standard personal flotation device is the presence of a collar.
A good life vest will have a supportive collar to keep your head straight and above water at all times. These are designed keep you above water even if you are unconscious.
When it comes to buying a personal flotation device for a young child, you must purchase a life vest. These will provide your child with the maximum level of safety.
It's important to learn how to wear a life vest properly. Having this knowledge beforehand will prevent any complications ahead of time. If you purchased a life vest but didn't factor in how secure one needs to be, you may end up buying a jacket in the wrong size.
A life jacket, and really and personal flotation device, should fit comfortably snug. That’s the actual term that the coast guard uses. If it’s not snug, and you have too much room, it’s too big. If you have trouble getting the straps on or find that the vest is pressing into parts of your body, it’s too small.
Just make sure when you try it on, it is comfortable yet snug. Most life jackets will have to size on the back side. Make sure your dimensions and weight fit into the parameters set forth by the life vest.
There are two different sizing metrics. The first is the child, youth, adult metric. The child sized ones are for children under 50 pounds, while the youth size is for children roughly in between 50 and 90 pounds.
The adult size vest will cover anyone larger.
For more advanced vests, you will find measurements that are similar to clothing measurements. Here you will find your small, medium, large, and extra larges.
They do their best to try and fit these into standard sizes so that a person who wears a medium sized shirt will need a medium sized vest. However, this is not always the case.
As a rule of thumb, never go into the water unless you have tested and verified that your life jacket is comfortably snug.
For starters, never purchase a life jacket for your child unless it is coast guard approved. If it is coast guard approved, it will say so either on the inside or the back.
A child's life vest will have in between 2 or 3 buckles and extra straps for support. The length of the vest does not necessarily matter, so if the vest looks too short on your child, this may not necessarily mean anything.
Instead, focus on the sizing information. Babies will need specifically made life vests. From there, 30-50 pound children will need one size, and 50-90 pound children will need another. If your child is larger than 90 pounds, they will need an adult size life vest.
DO NOT, and I repeat DO NOT buy your 80-pound child an adult sized life vest thinking that they will grow into them. Your child's safety is not worth saving on an extra jacket for a few months.
This is a common occurrence that has led to complications. Don't be the parent who makes an unwise decision and jeopardizes the safety of his or her child.
Your child will need to fit comfortably snug just like an adult. A good test for children is to lift them by the top of the life vest. If the vest lifts and comes up or even over the child’s head, it is too large.
If it hurts them too much, it is too small.
Lastly, and most importantly, lead by example. Children whose parents did not wear a life vest were significantly less likely to wear one themselves. The only way to get your kids to wear a life vest is to wear one yourself.
Now that you know how they should fit let's talk about the different types of personal flotation devices.
Personal Flotation Devices are a broad category that includes anything from a simple foam block to an intricate, full body life suit.
Some life vests are better for watersports while some are better for complete safety. Some are better for children, and some are better for teenagers. Understanding the different types will better help you make an informed decision.
Let’s look at the different types:
This is the standard life jacket or life vest that we discussed previously. These fit snugly across your chest and back. They offer you the most buoyancy possible and are of the highest standard of safety. This category will also include the standard orange ‘two-legged' vests that you see on most boats. These wrap around your neck and keep your head above water.
These are still technically life jackets, but they are a little different. These are what you see on airplanes, and used in case of emergencies. For starters, you need to be at least 16 to use one of these. They are recommended to be used only for those who can swim.
Most of these will not be able to roll you from your back to your front or take care of you when you are unconscious. They are inflated in one of three ways.
You either pull a strap which auto inflates the bag, you blow into the vest yourself, or the vest inflates when the built in a pill (which dissolves on contact with water) touches the water.
The extra step of inflation adds some extra worry, but these are still generally very safe for adults, and even more comfortable. They are also much easier to store.
These are the types of PFD's that aren't there to completely save your life. These have a foam core and are used mostly in watersports like waterskiing or kayaking. They allow you to have more mobility, and they will help you stay extra buoyant. They are easy to take care of and much cheaper.
If you are already a trained swimmer but want some extra protection, this is the type of PFD for you. It will give you extra mobility to enjoy yourself while still adding some extra protection. This category also includes simple blocks or tubes that can be thrown into the water to help someone who has fallen overboard stay afloat.
A life belt is one step further away from a buoyancy aid. It wraps around you like a fanny pack and is designed to add some buoyancy while allowing for maximum levels of mobility. These are only for those experienced water sports enthusiasts who are looking for a little extra help staying afloat.
Anyone who is purchasing a personal flotation device for safety should look elsewhere.
These guys are extremely extra and heavy duty. These are the suits you will see marines wear who go on operations underwater. These are like wet suits except they provide an extra level of buoyancy.
They are designed for those who plan to be spending a long period in very cold water. They provide extra padding to resist the temperature and have optional buoyancy options.
Many have pockets that you can fill with sandbags to decrease or increase your level of buoyancy.
Most likely, you're not here to pick up a flotation suit, but it still helps to know even the most extreme level of personal flotation devices is still inferior to a standard life jacket when it comes to pure safety.
PFDs for pets are generally for dogs. There isn't a large market out there for other animals, but you can get them for cats as well. The coast guard will not certify any personal flotation device for your pet, but that doesn't mean they can't be helpful.
If you are taking your dog on the boat, or out by the lake, and you are worried about your puppy's ability to stay afloat, then it couldn't hurt to invest in a PFD for your animal. I think the most important feature is a handle on the jacket, so if your dog does fall in the water, you will easily be able to reach in and grab them out. These look like buoyancy aids for dogs.
To understand how a life vest works, you first need to understand the concept of buoyancy. Classic mathematician Archimedes is the one who discovered this principle.
Put simply, when you push down on water, water pushes back. But how do you know how much water will push back? Archimedes left us an extremely easy way to find out. The key word here is displacement. How much water is a particular object displacing when put in water?
So when you sit in the bathtub, the water level rises. That’s because you displaced the water. It moved to make room for you. This made the water go to other areas as it was pushed aside. This creates a pressure imbalance where the water pushes upwards.
So first, figure out how much water was displaced.
The weight of the displaced water is equivalent to the upthrust of the water.
So if an object displaced enough water that the displaced water is heavier than the object, the object would float.
Your body is mostly made of water, which means it has about the same density as water. This is why your body may naturally float. Most of your body weight is already being pressed up against. This means a life vest only needs to create a counterbalance of around 10 pounds.
So your life vest needs to be large enough to displace about 10 pounds of water. Life vests are usually made of some foam or air like material that is extremely light and not dense at all. A good way to understand this is to think about the last time you were in the pool.
If you take a deep breath and expand your chest and belly, you have increased your volume but barely affected your mass. This means you are more buoyant, and you will float easier. When you exhale, your body will contract, losing size but keeping its mass, so you will get denser and sink more.
Life vests operate in the same way. They barely add any weight to you, but add some extra lightweight volume. As long as these vests are displacing about 10 pounds of water, they will keep your body afloat. If you push a life vest down deeper into water, you can feel the resistance as it pushes back against you.
For this reason, you will find either air sacks or complete foam construction on you life vests. They will be very light yet secure. This adds volume to your body but barely affects your weight which essentially lowers your density, allowing you to float. If your body’s density is lower than waters, you will float.
Not everyone needs the same level of buoyancy. Your body fat, size of lungs, as well as clothing, can all affect your buoyancy. As a rule of thumb though, since muscle is much denser, the more fit you are, the more upthrust you will need from your life vest.
A solid test is to lay back in the water and tilt your head back. Proper buoyancy will leave your mouth and chin above the water comfortably.
If your mouth or chin is dipping in the water, you need more buoyancy.
Different types of life vests will offer you different levels of buoyancy. Check the label to make sure it offers you what you need. Generally speaking, the vests will offer more buoyancy control than needed.
That being said, there are some things that you can do to hurt your PFDs buoyancy. If you are sitting on it or kneeling against it, you will press the material together making it slightly denser. This will lower its buoyancy abilities slightly. The same problem occurs with leaving a soaked PFD in storage.
Some of the water will get stuck in the device, and it is possible some mold will grow as well. That's why you will want to dry off your PFD before storing it reasonably. Now that you understand how they work let's talk about the three different materials flotation devices can be made out of.
Let's take a look at some of the materials that are used to make life vests.
This is the most common type of flotation material. It's the common everyday foam you see in foam balls, foam pits, and in your attic. It is inexpensive and durable, so if you are on a large boat, the chances are that their large surplus of life vests is made of PVC material. It does contain oil and chlorine, however, so it's not completely environmentally friendly.
This is a very eco-friendly material that comes straight from the kapok tree. It is a durable and lightweight fibrous material that is more buoyant than traditional foam. It works well at keeping water out of the PFD, so if you think you will often forget to dry your PFD, kapok is the best material for you.
The best type of flotation material is the Gaia foam. It is heat as well as cold resistant and much lighter than foam. It will lower the density of the PFD, so you will find that the entire PFD is lighter with Gaia foam. It is also very environmentally friendly.
Now that you understand the different materials for PFDs let's talk about some existing brands that you can trust.
Now it’s not terribly hard to make a life vest, but when it comes to making the best possible life vest, every millimeter of construction is a factor. For that reason, it could help to rely on a brand that has proven themselves in the industry.
Let’s look at a few of them now:
This is one of the best brands for water sports. They have been around for about 30 years, and about a decade ago, they merged with well-known company Aqua Lung. Much of their products are for paddle boarders and sailors. It's a good company that started out as a family company and has grown into a reputable life vest company.
O'Neill is the ultimate life vest company for surfers. The company even started as a small surf shop, before it grew into one of the largest life vest companies out there. They specialize in wet suits but also make great thin yet effective life vests for anyone to feel comfortable using for any aquatic activity.
They have been around since the 50's so you can be sure that you are buying a vest that has had some thought put into it.
This isn't a specific brand. Instead, it's an online reseller that carries mostly Onyx, Kent Life, and other brands. Most resellers will sell either cheap junk or overpriced brand names life vests. I was impressed with this particular reseller as they give affordable prices on quality vests.
If you are just looking to pick up some basic life vests at minimum cost, you should head to Amazon and check out Absolute Outdoor's store.
In conclusion, if you are heading towards the water, you likely need a life vest. These things can and will save your life if something unfortunate happens.
Make sure you size them appropriately. Remember, comfortable, but snug is the motto you need to remember. This applies to children as well as adults.
And speaking of your children, don't think it's okay for them to wear an adult sized life vest. The vest needs to become one with your body.
Understanding life vests are as easy as understanding buoyancy. If you get buoyancy, you get how things float. This applies to life vests as much as it does boats.
When you understand buoyancy, you know it’s all about the material and design of the life vest. Different materials will have different densities, and different designs will allow your vest to displace a different amount of water.
Make sure you understand the different types of PFD's. I wouldn't let my child wear anything less than a standard type I life jacket. These will always have some collar the keeps the head above water.
But if you are a watersports athlete or enthusiast, you can get away with getting something less intrusive. Check our buying guide where are the best rated life vests.