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We all know that driving your vehicle without wearing a seatbelt or failing to secure your child in the proper car seat puts you and your passengers at risk on the road, the same type of safety measures ought to be utilized when spending time out on the water. Life jackets save lives, and sadly 90% of those who died in a boating related incident were not wearing a life jacket at the time. Many of these accidents occurred close to shore in calm waters and were completely unexpected.

While simply wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) is important, choosing the CORRECT life jacket for an individual and the water environment is possibly even more crucial. Life jackets can be used while swimming (especially for small children), as well as when riding as a passenger on a recreational water vehicle. All life jackets were NOT created equal! St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center would like to offer the following tips to keep you and your family safe:

Follow the US Coast Guard Requirements for Recreational and Boating vessels:

  • Life jackets must be US Coast Guard (USCG) approved (others may not be approved as safe). This information can be found printed inside the life jacket. (See image below)
  • Must be the proper size for the individual and the correct type for the intended use
  • In good condition (not too weathered, mildewed, torn or old – all which can affect buoyancy).
  • Readily accessible in the event of emergency – although people are encouraged to go ahead and wear PFDs at all times. You may not be able to get to the life vest if thrown from a boat.
  • Follow state laws regarding requirements. In Texas, all children under the age of 13 MUST be wearing a life vest at all times on any type of recreational water vehicle (unless below deck in an enclosed cabin).
  • There must be enough life jackets on board for each passenger.

Choose the Right Size:

Wearing a life jacket that is too large may result in the vest slipping up over your head, causing your face to go into the water. One that is too small may not be able to support your body weight or keep your head above water. NEVER use an adult life jacket on a child! The properly sized life jacket will assist in keeping your head above the water, which is important in the event that you may be knocked unconscious.

Adult life vests are chosen based on chest size, not weight. The PFD should be snug, while also allowing freedom of movement without chafing. There are unisex styles, as well as styles specific to women that can accommodate a fuller bust and narrower torso. When trying on life vests, wear thin clothing that would mimic a swimsuit or wet suit. Loosen all of the straps, slip on the PFD, and then tighten the straps in all the appropriate places to get the right fit.

Children’s life vests are chosen by weight. The proper fit of a PFD for a child is crucial so that it keeps a child’s head above water. Never buy a bigger life vest thinking they will “grow into it!” Sizing for children includes:

  • Infant PFDs: 8-30 pounds
  • Child PFDs: 30-50 pounds
  • Youth PFDs: 50-90 pounds

In addition to choosing the correct weight-based size for a child, PFDs for infants and small children should have a padded head support to keep the head above water, a grab handle behind the head/neck to allow someone to pull a child out of the water, and a crotch strap to help prevent the life vest from riding up.

Choose the Right Type:

There are 5 types of PFDs which are all rated for different types of water environments. However, for most recreational water activities Type II, III, or V will be appropriate. This information can be found printed inside the life jacket.

  • Type I – Offshore life jackets intended for rough waters. They are the bulkiest, have the most buoyancy and can turn most unconscious people face up in the water.
  • Type II – Near-shore vests which are intended for relatively calm waters and can turn some (not all) unconscious people face up. Most infant PFDs are Type II and will turn an infant face up in water.
  • Type III – Floatation Aids that are suitable for most adult and youth wearers who are able to turn themselves into a face-up position in calm waters. This type of PFD will be sufficient for the majority of recreational water use by adults and youth.
  • Type IV – This category includes devices such as ring buoys or cushions that may be required on certain larger boats.
  • Type V – These special-use devices includes a variety of PFDs for specific activities. The USCG will indicate the approved activity on the label and includes some of the inflatable life vests used in sailing, fishing, paddlesports and kayaking. This category also includes the “Puddle Jumpers” that wrap around the chests and arms of children. These are great for swimming in a pool and assisting a young child who is learning to swim, however they are not guaranteed to turn a child face-up and are not intended for boating.

life jacket types

We will continue to see life vests labeled with these USCG approved “types,” however, new standards are being adopted by the USCG which will do away with the Type I-V coding. New guidelines will be coming in the future that are intended to simplify the requirements and the choices for consumers.

Don’t forget man’s best friend. Dogs frequently accompany their owners on boats and need protection, too. There are great choices of PFDs for dogs out there. Wearing a life jacket doesn’t have to interfere with your fun – choose the proper life jacket for everyone and enjoy your activity knowing that you are staying safe!


Kristen Hullum, MSN, RN
Trauma Injury Prevention Coordinator
St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center

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