What’s the Difference Between a Life Vest and a Life Jacket?

For most watersports, wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) is crucial for safety reasons. A PFD can protect you when you’re in the water and could be mandatory depending on the water activity you’re engaging in. However, with so many different flotation devices available, it can become confusing to know which one you should be wearing. Particularly, it can be confusing knowing the difference between a life vest vs life jacket.

In this guide, we’re going to cover the differences between these two types of PFDs and go over a couple of other types of PFDs and when you should use them.

life vest vs life jacket

What Is a Snorkeling Life Vest?

A snorkeling life vest is designed in a way that allows the wearer to easily balance their body – even when they’re face down in the water. Many life vests are made to be inflatable, which means they don’t have any foam in them.  

The wearer can achieve different levels of buoyancy depending on how much air is put into the vest. Additionally, life vests come in vibrant colors, so they’re easy to spot.

There are two types of snorkeling life vests: a jacket and a horse collar.

A jacket design provides the wearer with more coverage, which provides some exposure protection. Another key benefit to this type of life vest is that it comes in various sizes and can accommodate people of different weights and heights better than the horse collar.

Additionally, they will often have D-rings or pockets for any equipment you decide to take on your snorkeling adventure. The downside to jackets is that they’re much bulkier and take up more space in your travel bags.

A horse collar design fits over your head and comes with buckles and straps to secure the vest in place. This vest type is easy to use, travel-friendly and compact. However, because it only covers the wearer’s chest, it doesn’t provide any UV protection. This isn’t ideal for snorkelers because they spend most of their time with their back exposed to the sun.

Remember that this type of personal flotation device isn’t United States Coast Guard approved. Therefore, they shouldn’t be used or stored as an approved PFD on a boat.

life vest vs life jacket
Source: Unsplash

Who Should Use a Life Vest?

Several places are beginning to require snorkeling customers to wear snorkeling life vests on guided tours. If you find a place where this isn’t true, it’s always a good idea to wear one. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Local or state laws could require that you wear a snorkeling life vest.
  • You’re new to snorkeling.
  • You’re not a strong swimmer and could use the extra buoyancy.
  • You’re in the open water and need to be visible to boats.
  • You plan on spending extra time in the water and don’t want to become overly tired.
  • You have back injuries, musculoskeletal problems, or other medical concerns that tire you out quickly.
  • You want to take it easy and relax.

Life vests are ideal for children too. With only a little practice and instruction, it is easier for kids to learn how to snorkel safely using a life vest. Remember that you shouldn’t use a snorkeling life vest to teach kids how to swim because they don’t keep your child’s head above the water. However, they do allow flexibility with different swimming positions.

Life Jackets: What Are They?

A life jacket is a term used to denote a wearable Coast Guard approved PFD. While some life jackets look similar to snorkeling life vests, they have different constructions and purposes.

The most important thing that sets them apart is that a life jacket has been designed especially for keeping someone’s head above the water in the case of unconsciousness or injury. For this reason, snorkeling using a life jacket isn’t ideal. Most people will find that they have a hard time putting their bodies into a prone position when they’re snorkeling while wearing a life jacket.

Life jackets can be inflatable, inherently buoyant or hybrid. An inflatable life jacket tends to be more compact and comfortable. Some can be inflated manually, while others have air chambers that fill automatically once the wearer enters the water. Buoyant life jackets are mostly made from foam, making them incredibly durable but bulky.

Hybrid life jackets combine foam and inflation, which creates a perfect balance between reliability and comfort.

Who Should Use a Life Jacket?

There are five types of United States Coast Guard-approved PFDs, and three of them (Types I, II and III) are considered life jackets. These different life jackets have different uses.

  • Type I: These life jackets are designed to be used in remote or rough waters where rescue can take a while. They are bulky, but they have the most buoyancy and can turn an unconscious wearer face-up in the water. These are the type of PFD used on vessels for boating safety Their intended use is for fishing, race or cruising offshore, or boating alone, or in stormy conditions.
  • Type II: These are best worn in calm, inland waters when rescue is likely to be fast. They have a much more basic design and are less bulky than Type I, but they can still turn an unconscious wearer face-up. Their intended use is for inland sailing, fishing and day cruising.
  • Type III: These are more suitable for a quick rescue. They provide more comfort and freedom of movement for continuous wear, so they’re often worn during paddling activities and towed sports. Like other life jackets, these will turn the wearer face-up in the water. However, you may have to tilt your head back to avoid flipping over. Their intended use is for watersports.

Other PFD Types

We haven’t mentioned two other types of PFDs yet that aren’t considered life jackets. These are:

  • Type IV: This is a throwable device, such as a buoyant cushion and life ring. They’re designed to supplement the buoyancy of someone who’s been thrown overboard, not to be worn. The person in the water must hold onto the Type IV floatation device to stay afloat. These are not intended for children, non-swimmers, or unconscious people.
  • Type V: These are considered special-use devices and should only be used for special activities. To be accepted by the Coast Guard, they have to be worn at all times and used only for the activity listed on the label.
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