How to wear a lifejacket: Top tips for buying, fitting and maintaining your PFD

Wearing a lifejacket is one of the most important things you can do to increase safety afloat, writes Jon Mendez.

But unless you wear and maintain your lifejacket correctly, it won’t work as well as it’s meant to if and when you fall into the water.

Any Personal Flotation Device (PFD) provides buoyancy that helps keep you afloat. This is measured in Newtons and for most PFDs starts at 50N.

However, from 150N upwards it should be buoyant enough to turn you face up even when unconscious, greatly improving your chances of survival.

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Here are three things you can do to improve the chances of your lifejacket doing what it’s meant to do when you need it most.

Choose a suitable lifejacket

Buoyancy aids are not the same as lifejackets as they only provide 50N of lift. However, they are great for any form of watersports where there is a good chance of falling in but still being able to swim, such as paddleboarding or kayaking.

Anything that involves you being more than an easy swim from shore needs a proper lifejacket with at least 150N of uplift, and in my view it really should have automatic inflation – the last thing you want to be worrying about is finding the inflation toggle.

If you are of a larger build or likely to be wearing thick clothing then 150N might not be enough so consider a lifejacket offering a higher level of buoyancy – full offshore ones go up to 275N.

Read YBW’s guide to the best lifejackets on the market today

Also think about the features you might need such as a strong clip-on point, crutch straps, a water-activated light if you ever go boating at night, a sprayhood if you risk being caught out in bad weather or a holder for a personal locator beacon if venturing offshore. All are available if your budget allows.

How to wear a lifejacket correctly

The most important thing is that you wear it in the first place, so be sure to find one that’s easy to put on, quick to adjust and comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

While this sounds simple, some always seem to end up in a tangled mess, others push your head forward and cause neck pain, so I strongly recommend going to a well-stocked chandler and trying on the various shapes and sizes until you find the perfect fit.

For it to support you properly in the water, it needs adjusting to fit your build and the amount of clothing you are wearing – you can’t just adjust it once and forget about it – so make sure it’s easy to adjust.

The main strap needs to be tight enough for you to just be able to fit a clenched fist inside, while the crutch strap (an essential extra in my view) must not allow the jacket to ride up over your head.

Check and service your lifejacket

So many people just buy a lifejacket, wear it occasionally and chuck it in a locker without bothering to look after it.

A few simple steps can greatly increase a jacket’s lifespan and its ability to function correctly when you need it. If it gets damp, sponge off any salt with fresh water, hang it up and only stow it away when properly dry.

Take the time to read the instructions, open it up, discover what’s inside and how it’s activated, check the gas bottle is tightly screwed in place and the service dates have not expired.

For leisure boating it will normally require servicing every two years, but in the intervening years, I’d recommend opening it, inflating it manually (preferably with a pump to avoid moisture from your breath) and check that it stays inflated for 24 hours before repacking it. I spend a lot of time afloat so I unpack mine and check it all through at six-monthly intervals.

Watch Yachting Monthly’s in-depth guide to servicing a lifejacket

Do these three simple things and your lifejacket will give you years of reliable service and will be there to save you when you need it most.

How to use a lifejacket properly


1. Buoyancy aid or lifejacket? – A standard 50N buoyancy aid such as this one is great for close-to-shore watersports where there’s a good chance of getting wet. They are easy to swim in and they don’t need re-arming after use. However, they are not the same as a lifejacket as they won’t keep you face up when unconscious.


2. Choosing a lifejacket – When buying a lifejacket, make sure it’s easy to put on, comfortable to wear for long periods of time and that the buckle is simple for you to open and close as well as quick to adjust. Also check that the manual activation toggle is easy to find if the automatic trigger should fail.


3. Adjust to fit – If the jacket is too loose it won’t support you and may slip off. You should just be able to get a clenched fist inside the main strap. It will need to be readjusted if you add or remove a layer of clothing.


4. Use the crotch straps – In my view crotch straps are essential and they need to be pulled reasonably tight so that the jacket doesn’t ride up when you are in the water. In the worst case scenario the inflated bladder can even push your head under the water.


5. Without crotch straps – If you don’t use crotch straps then the jacket rides up and your body hangs below. If the main strap is also loose it can end up above your head and your airway becomes compromised.


6. Yearly checks – Ensure you check the date on the auto inflation mechanism and that the bottle is tight in the holder, then inflate it with a pump and repack, making sure the manual inflation toggle is available.

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