Choosing the Best Life Jackets for Kids

Keep your kids safe and secure in all types of water situations, such as boating and swimming, with our tips for choosing U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
Child wearing lifejacket


Life jackets can be bulky, uncomfortable, and less than fashionable. But there's one crucial fact to remember: Life jackets save lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is the second leading cause of death for kids age 1 to 14. In 2009, 3,358 people were injured and 736 died in boating incidents. Of those who drowned, 9 out of 10 were not wearing life jackets. Research indicates that life jackets (often used interchangeably with the term "personal flotation devices") are the safest and best devices approved by the U.S. Coast Guard to prevent drowning. We've gathered the age-appropriate guidelines you need to select the best life jackets -- based on type, style, and fit -- to keep your kids safe this summer.

Know the Rules and Requirements

Boating laws concerning the use of individual life jackets vary greatly from state to state. Some states require life jackets for anyone under the age of 6 or anyone under 14, depending on the boating situation. Other states require them for all persons on a boat, whether child or adult. Visit the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators to find the requirements for your state. Your state not listed? In December 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard passed an interim rule for states where no child life-jacket laws exist, requiring all children under the age of 13 to wear a life jacket on boats that are under way.

Match the Best Jacket to Your Activity

The U.S. Coast Guard classifies life jackets into five different types, but only Types I-III are approved for children to use. Select the jacket best suited for the type of activity and water conditions your child will encounter.

Type I - Offshore Life Jacket
Best for: extended survival in rough seas, open ocean, or remote water where quick rescue is unlikely
Advantages: designed to turn an unconscious person face up; lots of buoyancy
Disadvantages: bulky, not comfortable for extended wear

Type II - Near Shore Buoyant Vest
Best for: calm, inland water and most general boating activities where there is a good chance of a quick rescue
Advantages: many turn an unconscious person face up; less bulky than Type I
Disadvantages: will not turn all unconscious persons face up; not intended for extended support in rough seas

Type III - Flotation Aid
Best for: calm, inland waters only
Advantages: most comfortable and lightweight; easy to wear for extended periods of time
Disadvantages: most not designed to turn an unconscious person face up; not suited for rough waters or open seas

Choose the Best Type of Style

Modern life jackets, like those by Opa Cove, combine style and USCG-certified safety, but the most important decision in choosing a life jacket is the design underneath. Here are three different styles of life jackets.

Inherently buoyant - Made of floatable foam or neoprene, inherently buoyant life jackets are durable, need little maintenance, and require no action from the wearer to work.

Inflatable - Inflatable life jackets can automatically deploy upon submersion in water or be manually inflated. They are not approved for children under the age of 16 and not currently recommended for non-swimmers. Inflatable life jackets require extra maintenance, and are not appropriate for activities that involve frequent water entry.

Hybrid - Made with a combination of buoyant material and an inflatable chamber, hybrid life jackets are available in child sizes but require frequent maintenance checks. They are not suitable for all water activities, but because they are less bulky, they are ideal for extended wear and for those who are reluctant to wear a jacket.

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