The Difference Between Life Jackets and Buoyancy Aids

The Difference Between Life Jackets and Buoyancy Aids

Life jackets and buoyancy aids are two terms that get thrown around a lot in the kayaking world. Most of us know what these jackets do, they help you stay afloat if you capsize and hit the water, right? Yes. They essentially do the same thing and are relatively similar in appearance. However, although they are similar, they are not the same.

It’s important to know the difference between life jackets and buoyancy aids because choosing one over the other could be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. 

In this article, we’ll be looking at the differences between these two pieces of kayaking safety gear. We’ll also be assessing who, when, and why you would use one over the other. 

So, What’s the Difference?

To put it simply, a life jacket is designed to keep you afloat without the need to tread water or swim. A buoyancy aid is designed to provide you with buoyancy while you swim.

Although it sounds like they do more or less the same thing, they don’t. For example, if you capsize and somehow get knocked unconscious, a life jacket will keep you afloat with your head above the water whereas a buoyancy aid will not do this. 

This is because life jackets are designed to be more buoyant and include a floating collar that keeps a person’s face above the water. It’s in the name – life jacket. These buoyant vests are life preservers and guarantee your safety in an emergency situation. They have a high buoyancy rating and are designed to keep people afloat for long periods of time in the water. Life jackets are the precautionary items that you’ll often find on cruise liners, fishing vessels, and on aeroplanes (although these are slightly different). 

Buoyancy aids are not life preservers. As the name suggests, they help aid you if you enter the water. They aren’t as buoyant as life jackets and don’t have the same floating collar that keeps your head above the water if you end up fatigued or unconscious. However, they are much easier to swim with compared to life jackets. They are designed to offer buoyancy in the water without restricting your movement. This makes it easier for you to swim longer distances without tiring or having to keep yourself afloat.

Key Takeaways: 

  1. Buoyancy aids will help keep you afloat, but you must still tread water to keep your head above the surface. 

  1. Life jackets will automatically keep your head above the water regardless of whether you fall into the water headfirst and unconscious.


What Do the Different Ratings Mean on Life Jackets and Buoyancy Aids?

So, now you know the differences between the two, how do you know how buoyant they are and if they’ll support your weight? 

You can tell this by their “N” rating.

Life jackets and buoyancy aids are rated using newtons. The higher the number, the more buoyant they are. Legally, for a life jacket to be called a life jacket or life vest it must have a higher “N” rating than 150N. It must also have a buoyant collar and be tested to prove it will correct an unconscious body in the water. 

Any “life jacket” below 150N must not be called a life jacket. Instead, it must be labelled as a buoyancy aid or similar. 150N is the minimum requirement to be able to support the weight of an average adult, any less than this will require assistance from the person wearing the buoyancy aid – treading water or swimming. 

Let’s take a look at four of the most common buoyancy aids and life jackets to see what the differences between ratings are:

The 50N Buoyancy Aid

The 50N buoyancy aid should only be worn by confident swimmers on inland waterways where the bank is easily accessible. These are perfect for kayakers that tour rivers, fish, and cruise the shorelines of calm lakes.

The 100N Buoyancy Aid

The 100N buoyancy aid is verging on life jacket territory. It is buoyant enough to keep someone afloat in sheltered waters. However, it will not keep your head above the water in rough conditions or if you’re wearing cold weather clothing. These are perfect for people that can swim but are perhaps less confident in the water.

The 150N Life Jacket

The 150N life jacket is the least buoyant life jacket. However, it’s more than capable of keeping you afloat with your head above the water’s surface in rough water. You need a 150N life jacket if you are heading into the ocean in your kayak, whitewater kayaking, or are physically incapable of swimming. 

The 270N Life Jacket

The 270N life jacket is designed for extreme conditions. This type of floatation device is for people that are likely to encounter extremely rough conditions out at sea. Now, unless you’re planning on paddling to America in your kayak, it’s unlikely that you’ll need one of these. Nevertheless, we thought we’d include it on our list for you crazy ambitious kayakers out there!

When Should You Use a Life Jacket?

Life jackets are guaranteed to keep your head above the water in rough conditions and deep open water for extended periods of time. However, they do restrict your movement in the water because of how buoyant they are. This means it will be difficult to swim to shore or correct your kayak while wearing one. 

So, when should you use a life jacket on your kayak? 

You should use a life jacket over a buoyancy aid if you are not a strong swimmer. You should also use a life jacket when taking to the ocean in your kayak. The same goes if you’re planning on paddling out into large open bodies of fresh water far from the banks. They are also essential for whitewater rafters and kayakers as they can help bring you to the surface in an upright position in extremely rough conditions.

They ensure your safety if you capsize in deep water and are to far away from land to swim back. They also ensure you stay afloat and don’t fatigue from constant water treading. A life jacket is an essential piece of life-saving equipment for kayakers that paddle the Irish coastline, large bodies of freshwater, and our country’s whitewaters. 

When Should You Use a Buoyancy Aid?

Now, although buoyancy aids won’t correct you and keep your face above the water if you become unconscious, they do provide you with some help. 

They are not recommended for use in the ocean or in areas where you will stray miles from the bank alone. They should also only be used by confident swimmers. If you’re not confident in the water or are slightly older or physically restricted, you should use a life jacket over a buoyancy aid in most situations. However, they are perfect for use by confident swimmers on rivers and lakes when participating in water sports such as kayaking. 

Unlike life jackets, buoyancy aids don’t restrict your movement as much in the water. This makes it easier to swim to shore or correct your kayak if you capsize in open water. Buoyancy aids are often used by paddleboarders, water skiers, and freshwater kayakers. They are usually more compact and less restricting while on your kayak too which makes wearing them more enjoyable than bulky foam life jackets. 

Final Word

To summarise, we’ll keep this short and sweet. 

If you’re looking for a life jacket or buoyancy aid it’s important to ask yourself three questions. 

  1. How confident of a swimmer are you?
  2. Where will you be kayaking?
  3. How far from shore will you be? 

Your answers to these three questions will affect your decision. You should be able to now figure out what kind of life jacket or buoyancy aid you will need by asking these questions and reviewing the information above. 

Happy kayaking and stay safe out there!

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