Life jacket FAQ: all your big questions answered

Navigate the high seas of life jacket grades, materials and styles with this handy FAQ to guide you

Person paddling while wearing a life jacket
(Image credit: Rodrigo de Mendoza on Unsplash)

There are thousands of different types, styles and brands of life jackets and buoyancy aids. Trawling through them to work out which the best life jackets are is a tricky process, and one only made easier with the full information to make an informed choice. We’ve put together this comprehensive frequently asked questions list to help you choose the best life jacket or buoyancy aid for your chosen activity.

While you're sorting your watersports kit, you might also want to check out our guide to the best paddle boards for beginners, the best wetsuits, and the best water shoes for hopping in and out of water with confidence and in comfort. 

What's the best material for a life jacket?

There are three main types of life jacket material: foam filled, gas filled, and hybrid, which combines the first two types. While foam tends to be used for lower-performance 'buoyancy aids' as opposed to full life jackets, there is plenty of crossover too. Foam is ideal for low-maintenance general use life jackets, as well as more specialised buoyancy aids for paddling activities, because it's essentially maintenance free, inexpensive, and lasts for years. 

Gas jackets need regular checks to ensure the bladder(s) are in working order, and that the gas bottle is charged and ready for an emergency. Hybrid jackets also need maintenance of the gas inflator too. So, the best material for a low-maintenance jacket is foam, the best for a high-performance jacket is gas or hybrid. 

What's the safest life jacket?

The safest life jacket is the one you're wearing, rather than the really uncomfortable one you left in the car. It's essential that you pick the right type of life jacket or buoyancy aid for the activity you're taking part in – there are specific models for everything from round-the-world sailing to fishing and SUP – all with dramatically different performance characteristics. Get the best fitting you can afford for your chosen niche, and enjoy. 

What are the different types of life jacket?

In general, you're most likely to encounter two types of life jackets – inflatable and foam – although hybrids of the two exist and are useful in some specific situations.

In the UK, there are four main 'grades' of life jacket, rated by the buoyancy they provide: 50, 100, 150 and 275. The lower two grades tend to be built from foam, the 50 grade is used for buoyancy aids suitable for paddling, sailing and the like, while the 100 is for basic foam-filled life jackets like you might find on a rental boat or other leisure craft. 

There are inflatable 100 grade life jackets available, but because the bladder of a 100N jacket is almost the same size as a 150N when deflated, most tend to aim at the higher standard. The 150 and 275 grades are 'proper' offshore life jackets, either inflatable or hybrid, and aim to keep a person afloat in rough conditions, wearing increasingly bulky clothing. For more info on this, alongside info about the grading system in the US, head to our life jacket types explainer.

Do life jackets expire?

As with most safety equipment, the answer is very much 'yes' – depending on the material the life jacket is made of. Foam has an official lifespan of 10 years, assuming no damage has occurred to the straps, buckles and covering material. Gas and hybrid jackets should be regularly serviced in order to pick up any developing issues, but also have a theoretical lifespan of 10 years. Manufacturer recommendations may vary, but the minimum should be servicing at two year intervals. Many good quality life jackets will have a service interval disc attached to ensure service records are up to date. 

Do I need to wear a life jacket for paddle boarding / kayaking / sailing?

In any organised setting, such as a sailing club or instructor-led lessons, the answer is definitely 'yes', even if you think you're a fantastic swimmer and highly experienced paddler or sailor. If you're headed out on your own, on your own paddle board or boat, then it's very much a personal decision, which should be based on the situation and a host of other factors – a solo paddle around the coast in a sea kayak is a different matter to a group SUP yoga session on a dedicated watersports lake. 

In general though, wearing buoyancy aid for all watersports where there's any danger of ending up in the water is highly recommended. With modern materials and specific designs a good buoyancy aid isn't much of a hindrance at all, and you might well be very glad you're wearing one at some point. The dangers of cold water shock (where the body responds to 15°C or below by uncontrollable gasp reflex) are very real indeed, and even strong swimmers are subject to 'swim failure' after 30 minutes or so in cold water. 

What size buoyancy aid should I get, and how should it fit?

Sizing buoyancy aids is a varied business, with so many specific cuts and designs on the market, it's certainly the case that one size doesn't fit all! The key is to aim for comfort, especially for more active sports – such as paddling – where a poor fit will really cause discomfort on a long day. Thanks to paddling-specific designs there should be a style that suits you down to the ground, both in fit and cut. The fit should be snug without being too tight, and once securely fastened shouldn't ride up in use.  

Mark Mayne has been covering tech, gadgets and outdoor innovation for longer than he can remember. A keen climber, mountaineer and scuba diver, he is also a dedicated weather enthusiast and flapjack consumption expert.