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Life Jacket Facts

Life jackets save lives. It is important to choose a life jacket that you will wear, that meets the needs of your boating activity, and that works for the boating environment it will be exposed to. 

Knowing the facts about the different types of life jackets  also referred to as PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) can help you decide which is appropriate for you. ODNR strongly encourages all boaters to wear life jackets, whether or not the law requires it. 

Regardless of type, all life jackets must meet these U.S. Coast Guard requirements: 

  • Life jackets must have a "U.S. Coast Guard-approved" label with approval number listed. 
  • Boats (including canoes and kayaks) must be equipped with a wearable life jacket for each person on board. 
  • Each PFD must be the appropriate size for the person who wears it. Size, weight ranges and recommended uses are listed on the label. 
  • All straps, buckles, zippers and stitching on a life jacket must be intact and the fabric should be in good condition. 
  • Life jackets must be readily accessible to occupants of a boat. They should NOT be stored in sealed packages or in a locked or closed storage area. 

The type and size of your boat determines if a throwable flotation device is required in addition to wearable devices for all persons onboard. 

Life Jacket Safety Tips  

Life Jackets MUST BE WORN in Ohio for these situations: 

  • While riding a personal watercraft (PWC or jet ski). 
  • While waterskiing or being towed on a similar device. 
  • By children less than 10 years of age on any vessel less than 18 feet in length. 

 The following factors increase risk and a life jacket SHOULD BE WORN:

  • When the boater cannot swim or is a weak swimmer. 
  • When boating alone. 
  • When the water is dangerously cold (the months of October through May in Ohio). 
  • During rough water/waves and severe weather conditions. 
  • When boating at night. 
  • In emergency situations. 
  • In swift and fast current. 

Types of Flotation

Life jackets are becoming highly specific to the activity type. Choosing an appropriate one also depends on the person wearing it and their swimming abilities. You might want to choose a particular type of flotation based on these qualities:

Inherently Buoyant (primarily foam) 

  • Adult, Youth, Child and Infant sizes 
  • For swimmers & non-swimmers 
  • Wearable & throwable styles 
  • Some designed for water sports 


  • The most compact 
  • Sizes only for adults 
  • Only recommended for swimmers 
  • Wearable styles only 
  • Very good "in-water" performance

Hybrid (foam & inflation)

  • Reliable 
  • Adult, Youth and Child sizes 
  • For swimmers & non-swimmers 
  • Wearable styles only 
  • Some designed for water sports 

Inflatables: Are They Right for You? 

Inflatable life jackets are nothing new but are finally gaining wider acceptance as more agencies recognize that their comfort or wearability could translate to increased life jacket use by the public. After more than 10 years of debate on the appropriate minimum standards of fully inflatable life jackets, the Coast Guard approved the first models in November 1996. 

While inflatable life jackets are often cooler and less bulky than traditional life jackets, they are not the life jacket of choice for all boating situations. Inflatable life jackets are... 

  • Sized for persons 17 years and older weighing more than 80 pounds. 
  • Not recommended for weak or non-swimmers. 
  • Not for water sports like skiing or whitewater boating 
  • Not for use with personal watercraft 
  • Not for children younger than 16 years of age. 
  • Inflatable suspender style, known as a stole 
  • Inflatable waist pack style 
  • Inflatable PFDs have manual or automatic inflation with oral inflation as a back-up. Manual systems are the simplest to maintain and less susceptible to unwanted or inadvertent inflation but rely entirely on wearer activation. The user activates the manual system usually by pulling a lanyard, which inflates the device with a carbon dioxide cartridge. 
  • Inflatable PFDs with automatic inflation are activated by submersion. When the PFD pouch is immersed in water, it automatically inflates. 
  • All models also have an oral backup. The oral system requires the user to blow air into the device through a tube. Oral inflation is considered a backup system because the effort required for inflation might be greater than the wearer can provide in some circumstances. Orally inflating the device should not be done before firing the carbon dioxide cartridge, as damage can occur from over-inflation. 

While all life jackets should be inspected from time to time to ensure they are in serviceable condition, inflatable devices should be looked over regularly to make sure the mechanism is working properly. Use the following checklist as a guide for evaluating inflatable life jackets: 

  • Don't wear a life jacket that has torn or broken buckles.
  • Don't wear a life jacket that has rips, unattached webbing, or missing straps.
  • Don't keep life jackets with rotting material or parts showing excessive wear.
  • Do check the inflatable lanyard to see that it hangs freely from the inflatable life jacket.
  • Do make sure all inflatable life jackets have a properly armed inflatable mechanism.