Which Life Vest is Best
PAMELA DOTY and RJ GARREN
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Water Safety
Life jackets are more comfortable than ever, and there are many different styles specifically designed for every type of water activity. With that being said, there’s no excuse not to wear one. Types of jackets
Adult boaters have asked me what the best life vest is for them because they trust my water safety knowledge and expertise. My first question to those people is, “Are you a confident, strong swimmer?” The reason I ask is because inflatable life jackets are by far the most comfortable. They come in suspender and belt styles that you hardly realize you are wearing until you need them. However, they can take about 5-7 seconds to inflate — even longer when pulling the cord on a manually operated life vest. If the mechanical device doesn’t work, then you will need to inflate the life jacket using the oral inflator. If you’re not good at treading water, you could possibly panic and drown because you are trying to survive and forget to inflate the life jacket.
Inflatable life jackets require regular maintenance to ensure they stay in operable condition. When not being worn, they need to be kept in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area, so it’s a bad idea to store them in your hot boat, garage or car. In addition, these life jackets are only authorized for use by people 16 years of age and older. Make sure you check the life jacket’s manufacturer’s label to identify which activities the U.S. Coast Guard has approved for its use.
Inherently buoyant life jackets are very durable and come in a variety of styles, materials and sizes. Some are designed to float unconscious wearers in a face-up position, which is best for open, rough or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. I can swim well, but I’ve still worn one of these in rough water conditions. They’re not the most comfortable life jacket to wear, unless you’re napping. It feels somewhat like wearing one of those neck pillows I see people using on airplanes.
A less cumbersome inherently buoyant life vest is the style with narrow straps over the shoulders and large armholes designed for ease of movement. I highly recommend these for sailing, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding. These also work well for fishing, but many anglers prefer the typical fishing life vest made mostly of foam. These life jackets sometimes have neoprene or mesh shoulders and sides, making them very comfortable. The mesh helps make them cooler to wear too. Plus, fishing life vests have lots of pockets that provide easy access to extra tackle.
For towing sports such as tubing, skiing or wakeboarding, neoprene life jackets are the most popular of the inherently buoyant life jackets. They are also the best for personal watercraft use because they are designed to withstand high-impact activities. Fit and function
When buying an inherently buoyant life vest, it’s important to try it on for the perfect fit, especially for children. If it isn’t comfortably snug, it can fly off when you enter the water. Raise your arms over your head or pull up on the shoulders of the life jacket to make sure it stays in place and doesn’t ride up on your chin. Keep in mind that it may float up higher on you when you’re in the water. Inflatable life jackets actually need to fit you loosely because they require room to inflate. Before you buckle them, adjust the strap allowing extra length. However, I know some big guys that have problems finding one of these that will fit them after it’s inflated.
It’s critical to test how your life jacket fits in the water. There’s a learning curve, especially when using inflatable life jackets, so testing it first in calm water that you can stand up in is a good idea. This allows you to get comfortable with how long it takes to inflate and practice using the inflation tube in case you need it. Some belt-type inflatable life jackets have to be put over your head after they inflate, which is actually easy to do in the water. However, you may have to let a little air out with the oral inflate/deflate tube to get this type of life jacket over your head.
Some people complain about the costs of some styles of life jackets. The fact is people still buy orange, horse-collar-style life jackets because they’re cheap. (Yes, I mean the people and the life jackets are cheap.) I’ve also been known to be cheap — or frugal, as I like to call it — but I buy life jackets I know people will wear because I value my life and the lives of those who ride on my boat. Ultimately, though, the best life jacket is the one that you wear!