Safety First: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Best Life Jackets for Rafting

Close-up of young person rafting on the river, extreme and fun sport at tourist attraction

Key Points

  • The U.S. Coast Guard has five ratings for life jackets, so choose a life jacket rated for the water activity you enjoy.

  • Test your life jacket in shallow water to ensure it fits properly.

  • A buoyancy rating of 15.5 lbs on a life jacket considers that your body is 80 percent water and fat is lighter than water — it easily keeps a person weighing 200 lbs above water.

Are you going on your first whitewater rafting trip and need a life jacket? The U.S. Coast Guard has a list of things to consider before you spend your hard-earned dollars on one.

Determine Your Needs

Young pair of kayakers wearing life vests.

If you're serious about your time on the water, consider the water conditions you're typically in before buying a life jacket. Are you whitewater rafting or kayaking a slow stream? Is the weather cold or hot, and is rafting the only reason you need it?

Additionally, consider the trip's duration and your experience with buoyancy level rafting. If you only raft a few times a year, you may not want a top-of-the-line life jacket, but you'll need a quality life vest if you're whitewater rafting all summer.

Plan to be in the water on your first whitewater rafting trip, especially if you're a rookie. Even those with more experience get caught off guard. Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest any time you raft for utmost safety.

Choose the Right Type

Even those new to whitewater rafting understand the importance of U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests. They're the difference between life and death. To help you choose the right life jacket, the Coast Guard separates them into five types. Types III and V are designed for conscious users.

Type III

US Coast Guard approved Type III life vest.

Photo source: Landfall

Water skiers often use the Type III life jacket. Sometimes referred to as ski vests, they're comfortable and great for buoyancy level rafting. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends Type III life jackets for watersports with plenty of nearby help. Anytime a rafter ends up in the water, ensure they're conscious and able to tread water. Type III life vests do not flip an unconscious swimmer to their back as more heavy-duty life vests do.

Type V

US Coast Guard approved recreational Type V life vest.

Photo source: Landfall

Type V life jackets are inflatable option life jackets. The two types of Type V inflatable life vests are manually inflated and automatically inflated life vests. The manually inflated option life jacket requires pulling a handle when you fall in the water. The automatically inflated life vests detect that they're in the water and automatically inflate.


Type V inflatable option life jackets are also known as inflatables. They're popular with fishermen and those active on the water. You must be at least 16 years old and weigh over 80 pounds to wear a Type V inflatable life jacket on the water.

Manually Inflated

Type V manually inflated life vests are a poor choice for whitewater rafting. Manually inflated life vests require another rafter to pull the handle to inflate an unconscious person's life vest. Reaching another rafter and pulling their inflation handle in turbulent water is challenging.

The two kinds of Type V life jackets both have a blow tube as a backup. If your vest fails to inflate, blow into the tube to inflate it. However, blowing through a tube is difficult when treading rough water. The Type III ski vest does not need inflating and is a better choice for rafting.

Check the Fit

Asian mother fastening young son's life vest.

Always test the fit of your life jacket. The National Park Service explains, "Your life jacket should fit comfortably snug." Raise your hands above your head to see if the vest rides over your chin. If the vest rides above your chin, it's too loose.

Test the vest in shallow water. Ensure it's big enough to latch or zip properly but not so big that it rides over your chin in the water. Take note of how you float in the water with the vest. Try a different one if your vest doesn't keep your head above water. A Type III life jacket is a correct fit if you can keep your head above water with little effort.

Inflatable vests are shorter, with a belt that fits under your chest. Ensure the vest is long enough that the belt fits snugly under your chest.

Safety Tip: Never wear an inflatable under a jacket or shirt. Should the life jacket inflate, your shirt or jacket can choke you.

Look for Safety Features

Familiarize yourself with your life jacket's safety features and accessories. Accessories like a brightly colored emergency whistle on a tether are easy for you to find and loud enough for rescuers to hear in choppy water.

Another must-have life jacket safety feature is a rescue loop on the back. A rescuer can connect a D-loop and tether to the loop and tow or pull you to safety.

Purchase a life jacket with reflective material or tape. The reflective tape alerts rescuers to your location if you're in the water at night. Additionally, clip a waterproof strobe light onto your vest. They have bright LEDs that light up if they get wet.

Consider the Material

Young person rafting on the river, extreme and fun sport at tourist attraction.

There are many things to consider when shopping for a life jacket. None is more important than your life jacket material choice.

Neoprene life jackets are the most durable and last longer than those made from other fabrics. They're also the most comfortable. If you or the kids plan to wear them all day, go with neoprene. It keeps you warm and is the most popular jacket for cold water rafting.

A neoprene life jacket is great for cold water but gets warm when it's hot outside. Another downside to neoprene is that it takes longer to dry out. Put neoprene life jackets in a plastic bag for the ride home. They also tend to be more expensive.

If you plan on whitewater rafting during the summer, a life jacket made from mesh and nylon is a good life jacket material choice. This combination is much cooler than neoprene. These life jackets are not as durable or comfortable as neoprene but are a great warm-weather option. They're also cheaper for those with life jacket budget considerations.

Check the Buoyancy

Adult life jackets rated at 15.5 lbs are in many stores. Since everyone weighs more than 15.5 pounds, this rating is confusing. To understand it, do the math!

On average, 80 percent of your body weight is water, so when you're in the water, you weigh 80 percent less than you do on land. On top of that, the average body is 15 percent fat, and fat is lighter than water. When you do the math, a life jacket must account for only 5 percent of your actual weight.

Clothing, lung size, and choppy water affect buoyancy. Here's how buoyancy breaks down when you do the math on a 200 lb person:

  • 80 percent water x 200 lbs = 160 lbs of water

  • 15 percent fat x 200 lbs = 30 lbs of fat

  • 200 lbs – 160 lbs of water – 30 lbs of fat = 10 lbs

Though a rating of 15.5 lbs seems too low, it's more than enough for a 200 lb person.

Determine the Color

Rescuers struggle to locate life jackets that blend in with the surroundings. Avoid colors like black, grey, and blue. Choose orange, yellow, red, white, or lime green to help rescuers locate you.

Whitewater rafting helmet colors should also be bright. Color coordinating your helmet and life jacket colors is fun. Give each person their own colors to quickly account for everyone during a big spill.

Check the Certification

Many states' laws require children on a moving watercraft to wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests, and adults must have them nearby. The tag indicates if the U.S. Coast Guard approves the life jacket or personal flotation device, so always check the tag before you buy.

Consider Your Budget

All life vests should be U.S. Coast Guard approved, but life jacket budget considerations are a real thing. Less comfortable life vests are less expensive, and more comfortable life vests are more expensive. Choose a less expensive life vest for those only on the water for short trips. Choose a more expensive and comfortable life vest for those on the water all day.

Test It Out

Kids jumping off a boat into the lake.

Ensure your entire family has confidence in their flotation device. Have them spend time in the pool or shallow water while wearing their life jackets. Explain where the whistle, beacon, and other accessories are. Check that the accessories are in the same place on every life jacket. That way, everyone can use every life jacket.

Now That You Know

Whitewater rafting is an adventure that everyone can enjoy. Now that you know how to select a life jacket, check the fit, and test it, your next adventure will be safe.

For more information on life jackets for rafting and anything else you need for the great outdoors, subscribe to MyOutdoorGear.

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