When do you need a lifejacket or PFD? What’s the right type for your water vessel and activity? And what features are most important? We assessed 16 models to see which are best in different situations.
Lifejackets – sometimes called personal flotation devices (PFDs) – are worn to help you float and stay alive if you end up in the water.
If you’re on any water vessel powered by an engine, sail or paddle, maritime law requires you to have a lifejacket or PFD. Surfboards and similar unpowered watercraft are excluded.
While there are some low-risk situations when you don’t legally need to be wearing your lifejacket, you always should. Dozens of New Zealanders drown each year, many of whom could have survived if they’d been wearing a well-fitted lifejacket. Your lifejacket is no use stowed on board if you end up in the water.
But not all lifejackets are suitable for all water activities.
Types of lifejackets
There are different types for different purposes, each with different features.
For example, some PFDs are shaped to allow unrestricted movement for paddling, with a compromise on buoyancy. Those designed for offshore waters prioritise keeping an unconscious person’s face out of the water.
For use in New Zealand, a lifejacket must meet one of the national or international standards listed by Maritime New Zealand for each of the following types. But visit a specialist in person to choose correctly.
This type is suited to open and coastal waters, rough waters, offshore yachts, passenger launches and commercial fishing boats. They’re designed to keep an unconscious person upright with their face out of the water.
• Flotation is via an air bladder (at least 150 Newtons for 13+ years >40kg, and 100 Newtons for 8-12 years <40kg). The bladder is inflated by a CO2 gas cylinder, which needs replacing after each inflation. Some models require a more expensive ‘rearming kit’ for each inflation.
• Some are manually activated with a pull-cord and others will automatically inflate when submerged in water (‘hydrostatic’). Children’s sizes should be automatic inflating. All inflatables should also have an oral inflation tube.
• Crotch or thigh straps are recommended for all users (either built-in or retrofitted) – these are essential for children and anyone not confident in the water.
• They’re designed to be comfortable and convenient to wear full-time.
• They require regular servicing by a manufacturer-approved agent, plus owner checks of gas cylinders and inflation bladders.
• Flotation is via buoyant foam – minimum of 100 Newtons.
• They’re best for high-risk conditions as they’re not convenient to wear full-time.
• This type is suited to calm inshore waters and recreational boats. They’re not suitable for rough conditions.
• Flotation is via buoyant foam – minimum of 71 Newtons (adult sizes).
• They must have a buoyant collar, but they’re not designed to keep an unconscious person’s face out of the water.
• They’re comfortable and convenient to wear full-time.
There are a range of specialist PFDs for activities close to shore, such as kayaking, jetskiing, paddleboarding, jetboating, white water rafting, rock fishing and more.
Their flotation levels vary, but most have a lower buoyancy rating than the offshore and inshore waters types (401 and 402). That’s because typically they’re used near shore, where help is close to hand and they have less bulk to allow freedom of movement.
These PFDs also have different features depending on their intended use. Some have insulation to help retain body heat, some have pockets and attachment points for specialist equipment plus food and water, and some have bright or reflective elements to aid visibility.
Speak to a specialist to find the right lifejacket for your activity – so you’ll stay safe and have a good time.
What to consider when buying a lifejacket
• Choose the right type of lifejacket for where you’ll be using it and what you’ll be doing. Visit a specialist in person.
• It needs to be convenient and comfortable to wear for your planned activities. For example, you’ll want freedom of movement for paddling a kayak or paddleboard, racing a yacht or fishing. A lifejacket or PFD is most helpful when firmly fitted to your body, not stowed on board.
• Get the correct size – try it on rather than relying on size guides. Make sure it has good fastenings that are easy to use so you can get a secure fit and the lifejacket won’t ride up in the water. Some have straps that are difficult to tighten without help.
• If you’ll be in rough ocean waters, choose a model with a thigh or crotch strap to prevent it riding up in the water, or buy one separately. Crotch straps are also essential for young children and anyone not confident in the water.
• Make sure manually inflated lifejackets are logical and easy to inflate. Keep in mind that injuries and cold or rough conditions will make everything more difficult. You probably won’t be able to see the pull-cord when you’re in the water.
• Automatic or ‘hydrostatic’ inflatable lifejackets inflate on contact with water. Some models won’t activate unless you fall in the water, preventing unwanted inflation from splashing waves. Check the manufacturer specifications. It won’t be any good if you choose not to wear it because it inflates when you don’t want it to.
• Make sure the supplier of any inflatable lifejacket or other local retailer has ongoing supply of replacement gas cylinders or rearming kits and find out what they cost.
• Look for safety features such as high-visibility colours, reflective patches, a whistle and an attachment point for your personal locator beacon (PLB). Some offshore models have a harness loop to attach a safety line. Some have a spray hood to prevent the user breathing in water, and some have strobe lights.
• Think about what other features you need, such as extra attachment points and pockets for tools and equipment, plus your phone, food and water.
Get your lifejacket ready before your outing
• Check your lifejacket or PFD for wear and tear: Ahead of your outing, make sure your lifejacket’s fastening straps and clips are in good order. For inflatables, check the gas cylinder is not rusty and make sure the inflation bladder doesn’t have any wear or holes.
• Rearm and repack inflatables after use: Gas cylinders are single use, so make sure your lifejacket has a new cylinder before you head out. Some models require a new entire ‘rearming kit’ each time the lifejacket is inflated – check what’s required for yours. You’ll also need to repack the inflation bladder as directed in the user manual.
• Know how to use it: Before any trip, practise putting on your lifejacket and tightening the straps. Check it won’t ride up. Some are more straightforward than others. For inflatables, check where the manual inflation cord is and the direction in which it should be pulled. You’ll likely need to inflate it when you’re in the water and can’t see the cord toggle.
• Wear your lifejacket and attach your safety equipment: Before you leave the shore, put on your lifejacket and fasten securely. Attach your safety gear, such as your personal locator beacon (PLB), whistle, perhaps a strobe light and any tools you need. Don’t forget water and food, either in your lifejacket or on your water vessel as needed.
This report is free thanks to funding from Maritime New Zealand Nō te rere moana Aotearoa and New Zealand Search and Rescue Rapu Whakarauora Aotearoa.