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Life Jackets

Information from the Code of Federal Regulations Title 33 Part 175

The United States Coast Guard sets minimum standards for recreational vessels and associated safety equipment. To meet these standards, required equipment must be U.S. Coast Guard “approved” or “certified.” This means that it meets U.S. Coast Guard specifications, standards, and regulations for performance, construction, or materials.

All recreational vessels must carry one wearable life jacket for each person on board. Any boat 16 feet or longer, with the exception of canoes and kayaks, must also carry one throwable (Type IV) device. Life jackets should be worn at all times when the vessel is underway.

Life jackets must be:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved (check the label).
  • In good and serviceable condition.
  • Appropriate size and type for the intended user.
  • Properly stowed.


  • Wearable life jackets must be readily accessible.
  • You should be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.)
  • They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments, or have other gear stowed on top of them.
  • Throwable devices must be immediately available for use. They should be on the main deck within arm’s reach, hanging on a lifeline, or other easily reached location.

Inflatable life jackets:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved inflatable life jackets are authorized for use by persons 16 years of age and older (check the label).
  • Inflatable life jackets require regular maintenance and attention to the condition of the inflator.
  • The must have a full cylinder and all status indicators on the inflator must be green or the device is NOT serviceable and does NOT satisfy the legal requirement for the wearable life jacket carriage requirement.
  • Inflatable life jackets are more comfortable, encouraging regular use. The best life jackets are ones the user will wear.

Child Life Jacket Requirements:

On a vessel that is underway, children under 13 years of age must wear an appropriate U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket unless they are:

  1. Below deck
  2. Within an enclosed cabin.

If a state has established a child life jacket wear requirement that differs from the Coast Guard requirement, the state requirement will be applicable on waters to that state’s jurisdiction.

Children’s life jackets are approved for specific weight categories. Check the “User Weight” on the label and for an approval statement that will read something like:

Approved for use on recreational boats and uninspected commercial vessels not carrying passengers for hire by persons weighing “less than 30 lbs.”, “30 to 50 lbs.”, “less than 50 lbs.”, or “50 to 90 lbs.”

Life Jacket Requirements for Specific Activities:

The U.S. Coast Guard recommends – and many states require – wearing life jackets when engaged in the following activities:

  • Water skiing and other towed activities (use a type designed for water skiing.)
  • Operating a Personal Watercraft, or PWC (use a type designed for water skiing or PWC use.)
  • Whitewater boating activities.
  • Sailboarding.

Check with your state boating agency for the laws that apply. Federal law does not require life jacket use on the following:

  • Racing shells
  • Rowing sculls
  • Racing canoes
  • Racing kayaks

State laws do vary so be sure to check with your state boating agency. NOTE: If you are boating in an area under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or a federal, state, or local park authority, other rules may also apply.

The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that you always wear a life jacket while underway on a boat and require passengers to do the same.

Life Jacket Flotation:

There are five types of life jackets and they are based on three kinds of flotation:

Inherently Buoyant (Primarily Foam)

  • The most reliable.
  • Come in Adult, Youth, Child, and infant sizes.
  • Designed for swimmers and non-swimmers.
  • Come in wearable and throwable styles.
  • Special designs available for water sports.


  • The most compact.
  • Lightweight and comfortable.
  • Sized only for adults.
  • Only recommended for swimmers.
  • Wearable styles only.
  • Some have the best in-water performance.

Hybrid (Foam and Inflation)

  • Reliable.
  • Provides Inherent and Inflatable Buoyancy.
  • Adult, Youth, and Child sizes.
  • For swimmers and non-swimmers.
  • Wearable styles only.
  • Some designed for water sports.

Types of Life Jackets

A Type I, Off-shore Life Jacket:

  • Provides the most buoyancy.
  • It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough, or remote waters where rescue may be delayed.
  • It is designed to turn an unconscious wearer to a face-up position in the water.

A Type II, Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest:

  • Intended for calm, inland waters or where there is a good chance of quick rescue.
  • Will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, but the turning is not as pronounced as with a Type I.
  • This type of inflatable turns as well as a Type I foam jacket.

A Type III, Flotation Aid:

  • Good for users in calm, inland waters, or anywhere there is a good chance of quick rescue.
  • The wearer may have to tilt their head back to remain in a face-up position in the water.
  • The Type III foam vest has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II.
  • Comes in many styles, colors, and sizes.
  • Generally is the most comfortable type for continuous wear.
  • This type of inflatable turns as well as a Type II foam vest.

Some examples of this type are float coats, fishing vests and vests designed with features suitable for various sports activities.

A Type IV, Throwable Device:

  • Is intended for use anywhere.
  • Designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued.
  • It is not designed or intended to be worn.
  • There are no Coast Guard approved inflatable Type IV devices.

Some examples of this type are buoyant cushions, ring buoys and horseshoe buoys.

A Type V, Special-Use Device:

  • This type is intended for specific activities and may be carried instead of another life jacket only if used according to the condition(s) for which it is approved, as shown on its label.
  • Provides the performance of a Type I, II, or III (as marked on its label).
  • If the label says the life jacket is “approved only when worn”, the life jacket must be worn (except by persons in enclosed spaces) and used in accordance with the approval label to meet carriage requirements.

Varieties include deck suits, work vests, sailboarding vests, and sailing vests with a safety harness. Some Type V devices provide significant hypothermia protection.

An Inflatable with Safety Harness is approved only as a Type V, Special-Use Device because its use to prevent falls overboard presents several risks. The U.S. Coast Guard has not assessed its potential for injury from suddenly stopping a fall and, in case of capsizing or sinking, the boat may take the wearer down, resulting in death. Do Not attach the harness to the boat unless it is being worn with a tether of less than 6.5 feet in length with quick-release-under-load hardware.

Read the safety harness section of the owner’s manual for intended use. Under no circumstances should the safety harness be used for any climbing activity. U.S. Coast Guard approval does not apply to this harness used under those circumstances.

Finding the right life jacket for you

Life jackets come in many designs, colors, styles, and materials. Some are made to stand up to rugged water sports, others to protect the wearer from cold-water temperatures. It is important to choose one that is appropriate for your body size, planned activities, and the water conditions you expect to encounter.

Test the Fit

Start with a life jacket that is U.S. Coast Guard approved. When you try it on, it should fit comfortably snug. Then do this test: with all straps, zippers, and ties securely fastened, raise your arms over your head. The jacket should stay in place and not ride up. Next, have someone lift your life jacket straight up at the shoulders. Again, the jacket should stay in place. If the zipper touches your nose or the jacket almost comes off, it is too loose.

Test the Buoyancy of Your Life Jacket

In a shallow water or a swimming pool, under supervision and with all straps, zippers, and ties fastened, see how the life jacket floats you. Relax your body and let your head tilt back. Your chin should remain above water so that you can breathe easily. If not, you may need a different size or model, one that provides more buoyancy.

Choosing a Child’s Life Jacket

Be sure to choose a child’s life jacket that is U.S. Coast Guard approved. Check to make sure your child’s weight falls within the range shown on the label. While some children in the 30-50 pound weight range who can swim may ask for the extra freedom of movement that a Type III provides, note that most children in this weight range should wear a Type II, especially those who cannot swim. Pick the child up by the shoulders of the life jacket, if it fits correctly, the child’s chin and ears will not slip through.

A child’s life jacket should be tested in the water immediately after purchase. Children may panic when they fall into the water suddenly. Float testing not only checks the fit and buoyancy but also provides an important opportunity to teach them to relax in the water.

Be Safe. Wear Your Life Jacket

Most deaths from drowning occur near shore in calm weather, not out at sea during a storm; 9 out of 10 drowning fatalities occur in inland waters, most within a few feet of safety. Worse still, many of these victims owned life jackets and may have survived had they been worn.

Reference: A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats and Safety tips


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