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 – what’s the difference?
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.
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 indicates how buoyant they are.
The ‘N’ stands for Newton, and this is known as the ‘Newton Range’.
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.
In very cold water you should be wearing a winter rated wetsuit (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 has a large front pocket, but of course, cannot be used when the buoyancy aid is on.
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. Prices can start from around £35.
Recommended Life Jackets and Buoyancy Aids for Children
Use our guide above and shop around to find the right personal flotation device for your child.
Here are two that we have used and found particular good.
The Crewsaver Junior Spiral 100N Life Jacket is something we’ve used when our children were young yet we still wanted to get out canoeing on the water (in calm waters).
As our children have got bigger and could swim, they transitioned to buoyancy aids. We found this Helly Hansen one good.
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