Choosing the right life jacket

A life jacket is a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) that allows a person to float in the event that they fall in the water. Wearing a life jacket is therefore strongly recommended and often compulsory for practicing water sports and activities. There are two main types of life jackets: foam (permanently buoyant) and inflatable.

Life jackets can be equipped with various additional equipment that offers different advantages to the user:  buoyancy help, protection from the elements, improved visibility and help with location and rescue.  There are international standards and national regulations regarding the technical characteristics of a life jacket. You should check the regulations for your intended use.

In this buying guide, we will not talk about buoyancy aid vests. They are equipment with a buoyancy of less than 50 Newtons and are used for activities considered to be less risky and practiced near the shore such as canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, water skiing and dinghy sailing. This type of equipment can help ensure the buoyancy of a user only if they are conscious.

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  • How to choose a life jacket?

    To choose the best life jacket for your needs, there are a number of key criteria to consider.

    Key criteria:

    • The type of vest (foam or inflatable)
    • Compliance with regulations
    • The measurements of the wearer of the life jacket
    • Additional equipment
  • How to choose between a foam vest and an inflatable vest?

    There are, of course, positive and negative aspects to consider for both foam and inflatable vests. Foam life jackets use simple traditional technology to ensure buoyancy, and are made with foam elements that are incorporated into a textile envelope. Their main drawback is their bulk, which always remains the same whether the vest is used or not, unlike inflatable lifejackets. They are therefore less comfortable to wear and require more space for storage. In addition to their lower cost, their main advantage is that they require very little maintenance. They are therefore particularly suitable for large ships carrying many passengers, such as passenger ferries. Inflatable life jackets represent a major development. They consist of an inflatable plastic part incorporated in a textile envelope. The life jacket is only inflated when necessary, i.e. in the event of a shipwreck. When it is not serving for this use, the vest is deflated and can therefore easily be worn permanently over clothing. This more sophisticated technology involves a higher cost and requires regular maintenance.

    Foam life jackets:
    + Low price and low maintenance
    – Uncomfortable to wear all the time and more space is required for storage

    Inflatable life jackets:
    + Very comfortable to wear and have a small footprint
    – Higher price and maintenance

    Veleria San Giorgio self-inflating life jacket

    Crewsaver foam life jacket

  • What are the different types of inflatable life jackets?

    The basic technology is always the same: it includes a gas cartridge (CO2) that blows air into the inflatable part of the vest. What differentiates the types of inflatable life jackets is the technique used to initiate inflation.

    Manual inflatable life jacket:
    In this case, the wearer of the life jacket initiates inflation. By pulling on a cord, a punch strikes the lid of the gas cartridge, allowing inflation. The wearer of the life jacket must be conscious in order to perform this action.

    Lalizas inflatable lifejacket re-arming kit

    Water soluble capsule automatic life jacket:
    In this case the life jacket is equipped with a capsule (or pellet) that dissolves in water, automatically causing the gas canister to be struck and the life jacket to be inflated. The main disadvantage of this system is that the life jacket is susceptible to inflating if exposed to unwanted splashing water, for example in the rain or when rinsing the jacket.

    Automatic life jacket with hydrostatic release:
    The mechanism that triggers inflation is made up of a very thin membrane. This becomes permeable to water beyond a pressure equivalent to an immersion of 10 cm. The gas cartridge is then impacted and the life jacket inflates automatically. There is therefore no risk that the life jacket will inflate inadvertently. These life jackets are the most elaborate on the market. They are also the most expensive.

  • What are the different regulations regarding life jackets?

    There is an international standard for the safety and security of merchant ships called SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea). This is the standard adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It must therefore be respected at the global level, for all ships transporting passengers, but also for all cargo ships that have to navigate in international waters.

    For domestic use, there are also local regulations.

    In Europe, life jackets must comply with the CE (or ISO) standard. There are 3 levels of certification, determined by the minimum buoyancy provided by the life jacket and expressed in Newtons: 100 N, 150 N and 275 N.

    Each of these levels corresponds to a specific use:
    100 N, for navigation in protected waters or coastal navigation
    150 N, for offshore navigation
    275 N, for deep sea navigation and navigation in extreme conditions.

    In the United States, the standard is issued by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). It mainly distinguishes 2 levels of certification, based on minimum buoyancy, much like the European standard.

    Each of these levels corresponds to a specific use:
    Type I: 150 N for inflatable vests (100 N for foam vests). Suitable for all types of navigation, including in the most difficult conditions.
    Type II: 100 N for inflatable vests (70 N for foam vests). Suitable for inland and calm water navigation.

    In all cases, your life jacket must meet the standards in force in the country you are in and for the activity practiced.

  • How to choose a life jacket according to the user's measurements?

    Plastimo child’s life jacket

    To be effective and comfortable to wear, a life jacket must be tailored to the person wearing it. This is why there are different sizes available depending on the build of each person, with the same coding as that used for clothing: M, L, XL, etc. This classification takes into account the wearer’s chest size.

    Manufacturers also distinguish between life jackets intended for adults and those suitable for children. In the latter case, it is the child’s weight that must be taken into account. All vests intended for children and babies must ensure a buoyancy of at least 100 N whatever the practice, in order to ensure in order to ensure the wearer is right side up even if they cannot swim (or are unconscious).

    In any case, it is recommended to try on a life jacket before using it to ensure that it is suitable. Once the different straps or belts have been adjusted, the life jacket should not be too tight or too loose. The goal is for the life jacket to stay in place under the pressure exerted by the water and under no circumstances to rise and become detached from the user.

    Note: There are also models suitable for pets, but they are classified as “pet buoyancy aids” (buoyancy less than 50 N).

  • What additional equipment and accessories are available for life jackets?

    Life jackets are becoming increasingly equipped. Ideally, a life jacket should meet several needs:
    ensure buoyancy as efficiently and comfortably as possible; protect the wearer from external elements; help locate the man overboard; assist in the recovery of the man overboard aboard a boat.

    To best help the user, the life jacket can be fitted with a crotch strap (which goes between the legs), which prevents the life jacket from rising under the pressure of the water. The upper part can be fitted with a kind of collar (also inflatable), which keeps the wearer’s head out of the water. This part can also include a hood protecting the face from the spray, again to prevent the wearer from swallowing water.

    Life jackets have reflective areas and a whistle, making it easier to locate the user in poor visibility or at night. You can also add a flashlight, to further

    Ocean Signal personal locator beacon

    Secumar life jacket sprayhood

    increase the distance at which the wearer will be visible. The best solution is to equip the life jacket with a personal distress beacon. There are different models available that allow an automatic alert to be triggered either to the ship from which the wearer has just fallen, to all the ships in the area or directly to the official rescue services.

    Finally, life jackets are increasingly designed to help rescuers get the man overboard back on board the boat. To this end, they are equipped with a harness and/or attachment point to which a hoist system can be attached. These devices must therefore be able to withstand a heavy load: the weight of the person and their clothing, which are made heavier by water.

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