How To Choose The Right Life Jacket

How To Choose The Right Life Jacket - Viking Marine

Helly Hansen have teamed up with the RNLI to produce an easy guide to explain some terminology associated with life jackets as well as how to choose and use the right gear for your activity.

Life jackets are a form of personal flotation device (PFD) that will keep you afloat in the water. There are many different versions of PFDs to choose from and different activities often require different PFDs. For example, offshore sailing requires a different life jacket than dinghy sailing.

Ultimately, picking the right life jacket can mean the difference between a fun day on the water or not, not to mention … life and death! So take the time to choose wisely. We’re here to help.


Even if you’re an excellent swimmer, you should wear a life jacket or buoyancy aid when you’re out on the water. Nature’s water, from oceans to rivers and lakes, can be unpredictable and overwhelming. According to the WHO, an estimated 320,000 people die of drowning each year. Yet, research has proven that wearing a life jacket can increase your chances of survival by up to four times if you’re immersed in cold water.* Plus, just like wearing a seat belt, a life jacket is often a legal requirement. The full legal regulations on PFD's in Ireland can be found here Whether you’re sailing across the globe or hanging out on the deck, wearing the right life jacket could save your life.

Source* Professor Mike Tipton 2012.


A personal flotation device (PFD) is something you wear that will keep you afloat should you enter the water. There are different types, but the most common are buoyancy aids and life jackets. The words “life jacket” are often used to describe both buoyancy aids and life jackets, but there is a difference in the level of categorization, (more on that later). 


PFDs are categorized based on their level of buoyancy —  measured in Newtons. The levels include 50N, 100N, 150N, and 275N. See the descriptions below for information on the capabilities of each level.

All new life jackets sold in Europe are required to meet the International Standards Organisation standard ISO 12402. Older life jackets may carry the CE mark. This is numbered from EN393 to EN399, depending on the amount of buoyancy provided.


Level 50 buoyancy/floating aids are designed to keep the wearer afloat, but not to turn a person from a face/down position in the water. This level is ideal for swimmers in sheltered waters or where help is close at hand. However, they do not have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves.

Level 100 life jackets are designed for those who may have to wait for rescue but would do so in sheltered and calm waters. It may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person on to their back.

Level 150 life jackets are designed for use on coastal and offshore waters where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person on to their back and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Yet, its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and/or waterproof clothing.

Level 275N

Designed for offshore use in extreme conditions, often for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of lesser lifejackets. Like level 150, this life jacket is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water.


Did you know that all adults, regardless of their size, weigh approximately 5kg/11lbs when immersed in water? Therefore, you don’t need a higher Newton level PFD just because you’re big. However, level 100 buoyancy aids and life jackets usually come in a broad range of sizes (from baby to XXXL). Even if the buoyancy level doesn’t change, it’s important to find one that fits correctly.


Ensure that your buoyancy aid is the right size by doing this quick check: put on the jacket and try to lift from the shoulders. If you can move the jacket, it’s too big (or not tight enough). Try a smaller size or a snugger fit.

Watch this video from the RNLI for a detailed example of how to fit your buoyancy aid to your body.


Crotch straps should be secure and all other straps adjusted correctly. If the life jacket belt is not securely fastened, the life jacket will rise above the shoulders and reduce its effectiveness.

Familiarize yourself with the buckles on your life jacket and make sure that the belt does not slack. Try fitting the belts properly before you buy your life jacket.

Watch this video from the RNLI for a detailed example of how to fit your life jacket correctly.


There are three inflation methods for gas-only life jackets. Most inflatable life jackets are inflated by piercing a bottle filled with carbon dioxide (CO2) attached to a firing head. Orally-inflated-only lifejackets (ones without a gas cylinder) are not recommended for everyday use.


Manually inflated life jackets are operated by pulling a cord that pushes a firing pin into the CO2 bottle, inflating the life jacket. With manually inflated activation, there is no risk of false activation which could happen when a wearer is hit by a large wave. The downside of manual activation is that it will not work when the wearer is unconscious or suffering from cold water shock. 


Automatic water-activated life jacket

Most people choose a life jacket that will inflate automatically if they enter the water.

This life jacket works by water-activated automatic firing heads with a small pellet or bobbin that holds back a strong spring. When the pellet/bobbin touches water, it dissolves quickly, releasing the spring which pushes the firing pin into the gas bottle, inflating the life jacket.

Automatic pressure-activated life jacket also called Hydrostatic or Hammar

Choose this type of lifejacket if you take part in an activity where you are regularly soaked by waves or sea spray because it won’t fire unless fully submerged in water. Hydrostatic (Hammar) life jackets work the same way an automatic life jacket (with a dissolving pellet) but the pellet is protected by a case. Water can only get in once it is a few centimeters underwater. 

Another bonus: CO2 bottles in pressure-activated life jackets are less likely to suffer from corrosion.

Manually inflating automatic life jackets

You can always manually activate automatic life jackets. The primary way to manually inflate a life jacket should be the pull cord. Always try to inflate your life jacket before entering the water. Newer life jackets may have indicators to show if gas bottles are empty or if automatic firing systems have been triggered.



Look for a slimmer cut that allows freedom of movement around the boat. It should be high cut to allow bending and a trapeze harness. A dingy jacket should have a smooth exterior to avoid getting caught on the rigging. Because rescue is typically close at hand, a 50N buoyancy aid should suffice. Carry a knife to avoid entrapment in the event of a capsize. 


For swimmers with rescue close at hand, a 50N PFD can work well. For non-swimmers, or when rescue is not close at hand, a higher Newton life jacket is recommended. 


When you’re venturing farther from land, a higher Newton life jacket is necessary. Look for at least 150N. A deck harness is another important feature.  


Look for life jackets or buoyancy aids that are cut away around the shoulders and the arms. You need to maintain mobility for paddling and swimming. Ensure that the life jacket has a belt or a drawstring to pull tight around the chest. Bright colors that are easy to spot are also important. 


Whitewater rafting PFDs require more buoyancy to keep you above water in fast currents. Therefore, they’re also bulkier. The fronts are also high cut to allow you to lean forward comfortably. A whitewater rafting life jacket must be secured tightly to ensure it’s not ripped off by water pressure. It must also have at least one pocket for rescue equipment and have a smooth, snag-free exterior.


A buoyancy aid should be comfortable, but it does not have to be sport-specific. Find the right level of buoyancy in the right size, and your buoyancy aid can work for many watersports. But, double-check that it has a minimum buoyancy of 50N.

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