Buoyancy Aids or Life Jackets: what’s the difference?

It is quite common for people to call a buoyancy aid a life jacket, however they are different. In this post we look at those differences, and what you should choose for family water activities, and what’s best for younger and older children.

Buoyancy Aids or Life Jackets

Buoyancy Aids or Life Jackets – what’s the difference?

Use a buoyancy aid for activities like white water kayaking
Essentially buoyancy aids are designed to help you swim if you capsize for example, whereas a life jacket is designed to keep a person afloat without the need to swim.

This last point is important. A life jacket should keep someone afloat even if they are unconscious and should have a collar designed to keep the person’s face clear of the water. They are ideal for non-swimmers.

However, you can get different types of life jackets. Some will not keep a person afloat in rough conditions nor if the person is wearing lots of clothes…

What does 50N mean?

You will often see 50N on buoyancy aids and 100N or 150N on life jackets. This refers to how buoyant they are.
The ‘N’ stands for Newton, and the this is known as the ‘Newton Range’.

Newton Range Type Usage
50N Buoyancy AidISO 12402-5 This is not a life jacket and should be worn by good swimmers in sheltered waters, with help at hand, though it does depend on the activity and age.
100N Life JacketISO 12402-4 This is your basic life jacket, and keeps a person afloat in sheltered waters. It isn’t buoyant enough to keep a person afloat who is wearing foul weather clothing for example.
150N Life JacketISO 12402-3 If you are going offshore, where you are likely to encounter rough weather, then you need get a 150N life jacket. This should keep a person afloat even if they are wearing foul weather gear.
275N Life JacketISO 12402-2 This level of floatation is required if you are going offshore and are likely to encounter extreme weather conditions, and will be wearing extreme weather gear.

 

When should I use a buoyancy aid and not a life jacket?

Because life jackets are more buoyant they can actually be a problem for some activities as they make swimming difficult.
For example, if you are dinghy sailing then capsizing can be expected. It this situation you need to swim back to your boat and right it. A full life jacket will make this more difficult.

The same is true of kayaking.

Are buoyancy aids suitable for young children?

For young children, and for all non-swimmers, then a life jacket is required.

If you are family canoeing on calm (not too cold) waters, then the adults would be wearing buoyancy aids and any young children wear life jackets.

If you capsize, the adults can rescue the children and get them back into the canoe.

For our setup, our youngest have always worn a life jacket, and transition to buoyancy aids when they are older and have become good swimmers.

 

When not to wear a buoyancy aid

You always need to take conditions into account.

If you are sea kayaking in poor conditions then a life jacket would be more appropriate. However, you wouldn’t be family sea kayaking in rough conditions, would you?

Take into account the amount of clothing you are wearing (including shoes) and how cold the water is.

I have done whitewater kayaking in glacier melt water and can tell you first hand that capsizing in water that cold can reduce your immediate reaction to swim, and very cold water can make breathing difficult and force you to take in a breath…which is not good news when you are under the water.

But in very cold water you should be wearing a winter rated wet suit (otherwise hypothermia will soon set in), and wetsuits can help with buoyancy, so if you are correctly kitted out for cold weather white water canoeing or rafting, then a buoyancy aid can still be appropriate. After all you would be doing this activity in a group where rescue is at hand, and you wouldn’t be doing it with very young children.

What to look for when buying a life jacket

Use the Newton Range table above to select a life jacket suitable for the activity.

When buying a life jacket for young children or babies then you must have a crotch strap (in fact, all life jackets should have this to avoid them riding up in the water) and a good collar to keep their head clear of the water.

Always choose a life jacket appropriate for the weight of the person (including clothing).
Life jackets should also come with a rescue whistle. Instruct your kids that this is for emergency use only.

 

What about automatic life jackets?

You will see many adult life jackets as ‘automatic’ and often come with a built in harness. These are usually slightly more expensive.

Automatic life jackets are generally used for sailing (in a yacht, not a dinghy) or power boats, and will self inflate if immersed in water.

Moving around a boat is easier with a deflated life jacket, leaving your arms free to work winches, etc. The harness element is for attaching to a safety line, which you use when moving around a yacht in rough conditions.

Although these life jackets will not inflate if splashed with water, they are not suitable for dinghy sailing or kayaking where you are more likely to end up in the water.

These type of life jackets use a CO2 cartridge to self-inflate, so using them in sports where you are more likely to end up in the water will mean you will get through a lot of CO2 canisters, as well as the disadvantages in ease of swimming and movement when inflated.

What to look for when buying a buoyancy aid

You are going to want to use a buoyancy aid for sports such as canoeing, kayaking, or dinghy sailing.

For these activities you are going to need a jacket that doesn’t restrict arm movement, and are comfortable to move around in.

You do not need a crotch strap, though a crotch strap can help prevent the aid rising up when in the water, but a well fitted buoyancy aid should not do this too much.

As with life jackets, choose a buoyancy aid that is appropriate for the weight of the person.

There are generally two different types of fitting: pull over your head or zipped front.

We prefer the latter, though if you are worried that people would not do the jacket up properly, get the pull over the head type.

Other features you may find useful are buoyancy aids with pockets. You may be wearing a cag or spray top under the jacket, which often have a large front pocket, but of course cannot be used when the buoyancy aid is on.

Buoyancy Aids for Canoeing

How much do buoyancy aids cost?

When kitting your family out the costs can soon rise. And like everything else, some buoyancy aids are more expensive than others.

Here’s a few recommended family buoyancy aids with their price, which will give you some idea how much they are.

Helly Hansen Junior Safe Child's Life Jacket
Helly Hansen Sport II Buoyancy Aid
Helly Hansen Baby Safe Life Jacket SEE IT
* Product and pricing data are sourced from third parties for informational purposes only. We strive to provide correct information but are not responsible for inaccuracies. Click the 'SEE IT' button to confirm the price on the seller's website. Some links may be affiliated, which means you help support GOWTK without it costing you a penny 🙂 Click to view more details.

 

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Gav Grayston
Father to 3 kids, who loves getting out and about (hiking, running, camping, cycling, canoeing...) Co-founded Get Out With The Kids to help other parents enjoy the outdoors with their family.
Gav Grayston

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2 Comments
  1. The table with the Performance Levels should be updated. The old standards EN 393, EN 395 and so forth have been withdrawn and since 2006 the ISO standards are valid, ISO 12402-5 for 50N buoyancy aids, ISO 12402-4 for 100 N lifejackets ISO 12402-3 for 150 N lifejackets and ISO 12402-2 for 275 N lifejackets.

    10:58 am on January 20, 2015

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