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Life Vests

Choosing the Right Life Vest

The PFD, or life vest is your single most important piece of safety equipment. You need to choose one that fits well and you should wear it whenever you're on the water. This means wearing it securely and not just throwing it over shoulders, because it can actually impede your ability to swim if it's not worn correctly.

It should fit like a good pair of shoes, snug but comfortable. A good fit test that you can do before hitting the water is to tighten up the life vest as you would wear it, then hook your thumbs under the shoulder straps and haul upward. The vest should stay in place around your body and not ride up around your ears.

Any life jacket that's Coast Guard approved, fits well, and is comfortable enough so you don't feel the need to take it off when you're on the water, is a perfectly good life vest. But the best life vests for kayaking are those that are made specifically for paddling.

Kayaking specific PFDs have large armholes and keep the bulk of the flotation away from the shoulders and upper chest to give you the fullest range of arm and upper body motion while paddling. Many of them will also have convenient features like zipper pockets for carrying such things as sunscreen, glasses and snacks. And some models even have pouches for hydration bladders that can be mounted on the back of the PFD.

Contributed by Laurie L. Huselton, ADSO-PE (Paddlesports) 053-07-11

Additionally, note that life vests are sized by weight range.  Child, youth, adult, etc. Avoid using the wrong size, e.g.,  putting an adult vest on a child.  Note also, that an Infant vest is designed differently than a Child vest and Infants must use the proper life jacket.  

Life Vest Type

Weight of Child

Infant Life Vest

8 to 30 pounds

Child Life Vest

30 to 50 pounds

Youth Life Vest

50 to 90 pounds

There are some additional features that can be found on children’s life vests that parents may find useful, including:

  • A padded head support designed to keep the child’s head above the water.
  • A handle on the vest for using to lift the child out of the water.
  • ·A strap that goes under the crotch to keep the life vest from riding up.

Any child 12 years of age or younger MUST WEAR a properly fitted U.S.C.G. approved PFD whenever the vessel is underway. If the child is inside a fully enclosed cabin that is a permanent, non-removable part of the vessel that is designed to carry passengers, then the child is not required to wear the PFD.

Remember that in addition to having the right life vest for the individual, you must also have at least one "Type IV" throwable device on your vessel.  These are designed to be thrown to a person in the water. Throwable devices include boat cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. They are not designed to be worn and must be supplemented by wearable PFD. It is important to keep these devices immediately available for emergencies, and they should not be used for small children, non-swimmers, or unconscious people.

For additional information regarding life vests, please see the following webpage:   

Life Vest Information