Spending time by the water this summer? Here’s when to wear a life jacket and how to find the right fit.

Spending time by the water this summer? Here’s when to wear a life jacket and how to find the right fit.
Spending time by the water this summer? Here’s when to wear a life jacket and how to find the right fit.

No matter how well you swim, there will be situations where you need to wear a life jacket. In fact, you probably need one more often than you think. These life-saving devices aren’t just for emergencies—they’re considered standard practice in many water activities.

So when should you wear a life jacket? What are the signs that a life jacket isn’t safe? And are things like life jackets or even water wings just as good for kids? Here’s what the experts think.

There is some confusion about what a life jacket is as opposed to a general personal flotation device, so here’s a quick breakdown.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a life jacket is a personal flotation device that provides buoyancy when you’re in the water. Life jackets (sometimes called life preservers) help you stay afloat even when you’re unable to do so yourself, whether because you’re a weak or non-swimmer or because you’re too cold, tired, or injured. As recreational goods retailer REI describes them, they literally keep your head above water to save your life. These life jackets are classified as Type I personal flotation devices (the other classes are Type II, Type III, and Type V).

The Coast Guard divides personal flotation devices (PFDs) into two categories: life jackets (whose job is to keep your face above water) and flotation devices (which require users to swim or at least move in a specific way to keep their own face above water). Additionally, PFDs are divided into four categories: inherent, inflatable, hybrid, and special purpose. Each of these categories is designed with specific safety features in mind and is intended for activities (like kayaking) that involve some risk but are not likely to be life-threatening. Unlike life jackets, none of these PFDs will keep your head completely above water while you are unconscious.

While items like life jackets offer some level of protection, they are not life jackets. Puddle jumpers are certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, but are not considered life jackets. Inflatable water wings, also called floaties, are not Coast Guard approved. Still, experts say these items should never be confused with life jackets and should only be considered as protection against drowning, not as a substitute for proper supervision and swimming lessons.

“Life jackets are really intended to be worn any time someone isn’t expecting to go into the water but could still get into the water, such as if they fall off a boat,” says Adam Katchmarchi, CEO of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. He says that even applies to simply hanging out on a dock or pier, especially if you’re a parent or guardian concerned about the potential for your child to jump off or fall.

“If you are going to a non-designated beach resort or are relaxing with your family on a rented lakefront property, it is always a good idea to put life jackets on the children,” he adds.

The Coast Guard also recommends wearing a life jacket when water skiing or other towing activities, operating a personal watercraft, or whitewater rafting, windsurfing, or windsurfing. Even if you are an excellent swimmer, these activities can sometimes result in injury or other emergencies, so it is best to be prepared.

Life jacket laws vary from state to state. In states without such laws, Coast Guard regulations apply, which require children under 13 to wear approved, well-fitting life jackets while on a moving boat. In some states, adults on a moving boat may also be required to have their own approved life jacket on board.

Choosing the right life jacket is important to staying safe on the water, whether you rent one from a facility or buy one online. Fortunately, there are a few quick and easy rules you can follow.

“It’s important to select a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket and make sure the life jacket is in good condition,” says Michelle Sterling, senior program manager at Safe Kids Worldwide. Just look for the U.S. Coast Guard approval label on the life jacket and make sure it’s still legible.

Sterling recommends checking to make sure all hardware and straps are in good condition and still working. She also recommends looking for tears or breaks, as well as leaks, mold and even oil saturation in the fabric.

Katchmarchi and Sterling both caution against wearing life jackets if they are damaged in any way. This includes life jackets that are torn or ripped, have faded material or holes in them, etc.

“If it looks like it’s 20 years old, the material is barely holding together and the buckle is almost broken, I wouldn’t wear it. I would ask for a new life jacket,” says Katchmarchi.

Experts agree that size and fit are of utmost importance when it comes to life jackets. The U.S. Coast Guard divides life jackets into four weight classes: adults (anyone over 40 kg), youth (between 25 and 40 kg), children (between 15 and 25 kg) and infants (under 15 kg).

“Life jackets are weight and height dependent,” says Katchmarchi. He especially warns parents not to put a life jacket of the wrong size on their child.

“If a child falls into the water and the device is too big for them, they will fall out of the device,” he says. “If they weigh 65 pounds and the device (they are wearing) is loaded with 50 pounds, the device will not provide enough buoyancy for the child.”

Sterling advises all life jacket users to first check the label to make sure they have the right size. “When wearing the life jacket, make sure the straps are fastened so the life jacket fits properly,” she adds.

The life jacket should be a little tight, but still comfortable and easy to move around in. Experts often recommend having someone pull the shoulder straps up a little to make sure the jacket doesn’t ride up over the face or head (or touch ears or chin in the case of children). Once you’ve checked all of these points, you can get out on the water knowing that your life jacket will protect you in an emergency.

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