June 2020

    How to Choose a Life Jacket

    Life jackets are a form of personal flotation device (PFD) that will keep you afloat in the water. There are many different versions of PFDs to choose from and different activities often require different PFDs. For example, offshore sailing requires a different life jacket than dinghy sailing. Ultimately, picking the right life jacket can mean the difference between a fun day on the water or not, not to mention … life and death! So take the time to choose wisely. We’re here to help.

    Together with RNLI, we’ve put together an easy guide to explain some terminology associated with life jackets as well as how to choose and use the right gear for your activity.

    Do I Need to Wear a Life Jacket?

    Even if you’re an excellent swimmer, you should wear a life jacket or buoyancy aid when you’re out on the water. Nature’s water, from oceans to rivers and lakes, can be unpredictable and overwhelming. According to the WHO, an estimated 320,000 people die of drowning each year. Yet, research has proven that wearing a life jacket can increase your chances of survival by up to four times if you’re immersed in cold water.* Plus, just like wearing a seat belt, a life jacket is often a legal requirement. Whether you’re sailing across the globe or hanging out on the deck, wearing the right life jacket could save your life.

    Source* Professor Mike Tipton 2012.

    What is a Personal Flotation Device or PFD?

    A personal flotation device (PFD) is something you wear that will keep you afloat should you enter the water. There are different types, but the most common are buoyancy aids and life jackets. The words “life jacket” are often used to describe both buoyancy aids and life jackets, but there is a difference in the level of categorization, (more on that later). Both buoyancy aids and life jackets are under the category “life jackets” on *Helly Hansen Life Jackets are not available in North America

    Helly Hansen lifejackets

    Types of PFDs 

    PFDs are categorized based on their level of buoyancy —  measured in Newtons. The levels include 50N, 100N, 150N, and 275N. See the descriptions below for information on the capabilities of each level.

    All new life jackets sold in Europe are required to meet the International Standards Organisation standard ISO 12402. Older life jackets may carry the CE mark. This is numbered from EN393 to EN399, depending on the amount of buoyancy provided. Learn more about Helly Hansen’s life jackets’ certificates of conformity to aid in your choice of a life jacket.

    Level 50 buoyancy/floating aids are designed to keep the wearer afloat, but not to turn a person from a face/down position in the water. This level is ideal for swimmers in sheltered waters or where help is close at hand. However, they do not have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves.

    Level 100 life jackets are designed for those who may have to wait for rescue but would do so in sheltered and calm waters. It may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person on to their back.

    Level 150 life jackets are designed for use on coastal and offshore waters where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person on to their back and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Yet, its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and/or waterproof clothing.

    Designed for offshore use in extreme conditions, often for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of lesser lifejackets. Like level 150, this life jacket is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water.

    The Three Main Factors for Choosing your life jacket

    1. Size and Fit

    Did you know that all adults, regardless of their size, weigh approximately 5kg/11lbs when immersed in water? Therefore, you don’t need a higher Newton level PFD just because you’re big. However, level 100 buoyancy aids and life jackets usually come in a broad range of sizes (from baby to XXXL). Even if the buoyancy level doesn’t change, it’s important to find one that fits correctly.

    Fitting your 50N Buoyancy Aid 

    Ensure that your buoyancy aid is the right size by doing this quick check: put on the jacket and try to lift from the shoulders. If you can move the jacket, it’s too big (or not tight enough). Try a smaller size or a snugger fit.

    Watch this video from the RNLI for a detailed example of how to fit your buoyancy aid to your body.

    Fitting your 100N+ Life Jacket

    Crotch straps should be secure and all other straps adjusted correctly. If the life jacket belt is not securely fastened, the life jacket will rise above the shoulders and reduce its effectiveness.

    Familiarize yourself with the buckles on your life jacket and make sure that the belt does not slack. Try fitting the belts properly before you buy your life jacket.

    Watch this video from the RNLI for a detailed example of how to fit your life jacket correctly.

    Try the Life Jacket on

    If you’re shopping on, you can choose based on your weight (which gives a general window for your size). If you cannot fit the jacket securely, Helly Hansen has a 90-day return policy, and exchanges are very easy.

    If you’re in a store, consider how the life jacket feels: is it comfortable? Do you like the way it looks and feels? And of course, first-hand knowledge and recommendations can be the most valuable. What do your friends and family recommend? 

    2. Automatic or manual

    There are three inflation methods for gas-only life jackets. Most inflatable life jackets are inflated by piercing a bottle filled with carbon dioxide (CO2) attached to a firing head. Orally-inflated-only lifejackets (ones without a gas cylinder) are not recommended for everyday use.


    Manually inflated life jackets are operated by pulling a cord that pushes a firing pin into the CO2 bottle, inflating the life jacket. With manually inflated activation, there is no risk of false activation which could happen when a wearer is hit by a large wave. The downside of manual activation is that it will not work when the wearer is unconscious or suffering from cold water shock. 


    Automatic water-activated life jacket

    Most people choose a life jacket that will inflate automatically if they enter the water.

    This life jacket works by water-activated automatic firing heads with a small pellet or bobbin that holds back a strong spring. When the pellet/bobbin touches water, it dissolves quickly, releasing the spring which pushes the firing pin into the gas bottle, inflating the life jacket.

    Automatic pressure-activated life jacket also called Hydrostatic or Hammar

    Choose this type of lifejacket if you take part in an activity where you are regularly soaked by waves or sea spray because it won’t fire unless fully submerged in water. Hydrostatic (Hammar) life jackets work the same way an automatic life jacket (with a dissolving pellet) but the pellet is protected by a case. Water can only get in once it is a few centimeters underwater. 

    Another bonus: CO2 bottles in pressure-activated life jackets are less likely to suffer from corrosion.

    Manually inflating automatic life jackets

    You can always manually activate automatic life jackets. The primary way to manually inflate a life jacket should be the pull cord. Always try to inflate your life jacket before entering the water. Newer life jackets may have indicators to show if gas bottles are empty or if automatic firing systems have been triggered.


    3. Type of activity

    Dinghy Sailing  

    Look for a slimmer cut that allows freedom of movement around the boat. It should be high cut to allow bending and a trapeze harness. A dingy jacket should have a smooth exterior to avoid getting caught on the rigging. Because rescue is typically close at hand, a 50N buoyancy aid should suffice. Carry a knife to avoid entrapment in the event of a capsize. We recommend a jacket like the Rider Stealth Zip.

    Inshore Sailing/Sheltered waters 

    For swimmers with rescue close at hand, a 50N PFD can work well. We recommend a Sport Comfort or something similar. For non-swimmers, or when rescue is not close at hand, a higher Newton life jacket is recommended. For example, the Sport Inflatable would provide added protection.

    Offshore and Coastal Sailing

    When you’re venturing farther from land, a higher Newton life jacket is necessary. Look for at least 100N. A deck harness is another important feature. Our Sailsafe styles are ideal for offshore adventures. We recommend the Sailsafe Inflatable Race for serious offshore sailors.

    Kayaking and Canoeing

    Look for life jackets or buoyancy aids that are cut away around the shoulders and the arms. You need to maintain mobility for paddling and swimming. Ensure that the life jacket has a belt or a drawstring to pull tight around the chest. Bright colors that are easy to spot are also important. 

    Whitewater Rafting

    Whitewater rafting PFDs require more buoyancy to keep you above water in fast currents. Therefore, they’re also bulkier. The fronts are also high cut to allow you to lean forward comfortably. A whitewater rafting life jacket must be secured tightly to ensure it’s not ripped off by water pressure. It must also have at least one pocket for rescue equipment and have a smooth, snag-free exterior.

    Other watersports

    A buoyancy aid should be comfortable, but it does not have to be sport-specific. Find the right level of buoyancy in the right size, and your buoyancy aid can work for many watersports. But, double-check that it has a minimum buoyancy of 50N. 

    What kind of life jacket should Kids wear?

    Kids have different body proportions than adults, so they should wear different PFD than adults do. Helly Hansen has a strong history of designing safe children’s life jackets. Our kids/junior life jackets have been voted Best in Test several times. When Kid Safe was launched in 2003, it was the first life jacket to fit children’s specific proportions. Because kids have a bigger head compared to adults, Kid Safe was designed with a large collar that keeps the child in a safe position.


    Last year, we upgraded our children’s vests with a brand new collar that adds even more power to turn the child into a safe floating position, so their mouth and nose are above the water. At the same time, the buckle was placed further down so kids can lie comfortably on a dock and fish crabs, (or just play around as kids do). Remember to check that the vest is well-positioned — when you lift the shoulders of the vest it should not be pulled over the child’s head.

    Maintaining Your PFD

    Once you’ve chosen your life jacket, it’s important to do regular maintenance. Read more about how to maintain your PFD.

    Watch this video for tips on maintaining your life jacket.

    Stay Safe, Stay Onboard

    Having the correct safety equipment is only the first step. The best way to stay safe is to stay onboard. Beyond wearing the appropriate safety equipment, there are a lot of behaviors that help keep you safe on and around the water. You can test your knowledge of water safety and learn more here

    Overall, one important takeaway is that you should always try to stay on or near the boat whenever you’re at sea. Stay clipped on and remember that a successful rescue is more likely when you’re near your boat — especially at night. 

    Follow safety protocols and stay vigilant. And, have a great season out on the water!

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