Safety equipment and life jacket requirements

General safety

Every boat should contain the following safety equipment:

  • Life jackets
  • General equipment (fire extinguishers, flares, anchors, lines, etc.)
  • GPS
  • VHF Radio
  • Through Hulls (aka Thru Hulls)

In case of an emergency, always make sure to leave a copy of a written Float Plan describing the safety equipment onboard, where you expect to boat, and when you expect to be in certain locations. Tell the person holding the Float Plan to notify the Coast Guard or other appropriate agencies if you do not return within a reasonable time after your scheduled arrival.

Life jacket information

Please be sure to note the location and quantity of the life jackets on board, ensuring there are enough for all passengers. All children under the age of 12 must wear a life jacket at all times. 

Boaters enjoy the feel of sun and spray, especially on nice days. While it's tempting to boat without wearing a life jacket, they are important for safety and are more comfortable to wear than you think. Modern life jackets are available in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Here are guidelines for how to choose the right ones for your boat. There's no excuse not to wear a life jacket on the water!

Things to know

  • Life jackets are designed to keep your head above water and help you remain in a position which permits proper breathing.
  • To meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements, a boat must have a U.S. Coast Guard Approved life jacket for each person aboard. Boats 16 feet and over must have at least one Type IV throwable device as well.
  • All states have regulations regarding life jacket wear by children.
  • Adult-sized life jackets will not work for children. Special life jackets are available. To work correctly, a life jacket must be worn, fit snugly, and not allow the child's chin or ears to slip through.
  • Life jackets should be tested for wear and buoyancy at least once each year. Waterlogged, faded, or leaky jackets should be discarded.
  • Life jackets must be properly stowed.
  • A life jacket, especially a snug-fitting flotation coat or deck-suit style, can help you survive in cold water.

How do life jackets save lives?

  • When capsized in rough water.
  • When sinking in unexpectedly heavy sea conditions.
  • When thrown from the boat as a result of a collision.
  • When injured by rocks or submerged objects.
  • When unconscious from carbon monoxide fumes.
  • When tossed into freezing water.
  • When thrown off balance while fishing.
  • When unable to swim because of heavy or waterlogged clothing.

Accessibility

  • Wearable life jackets must be readily accessible.
  • You must be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.).
  • They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.
  • Though not required, a life jacket should be worn at all times when the vessel is underway. A wearable life jacket can save your life, but only if you wear it.
  • Throwable devices must be immediately available for use.

Inflatable life jackets

  • Inflatable life jackets may be more comfortable to wear.
  • Inflatable life jackets require the user to pay careful attention to the condition of the device.
  • Inflatable life jackets must have a full cylinder and all status indicators on the inflator must be green, or the device is NOT serviceable, and does NOT satisfy the requirement to carry life jackets.
  • Coast Guard Approved inflatable life jackets are authorized for use on recreational boats by person at least 16 years of age.

Children's life jacket requirements

Some states require that children wear life jackets. This applies to:

  • Children of specific ages
  • Certain sizes of boats
  • Specific boating operations

Check with your state boating safety officials about local requirements.

Child life jacket approval is based on the child's weight. Check the "User Weight" on the label, or the approval statement that will read something like "Approved for use on recreational boats and uninspected commercial vessels not carrying passengers for hire, by persons weighing __ lbs". They can be marked "less than 30", "30 to 50", "less than 50", or "50 to 90".

Life jacket requirements for certain boating activities under state laws

The Coast Guard recommends and, in many states requires, wearing life jackets:

  • For water skiing and other towed activities (use a life jacket marked for water skiing).
  • While operating personal watercraft (PWC) (use a life jacket marked for water skiing or PWC use).
  • During white water boating activities.
  • While sailboarding (under Federal law, sailboards are not "boats").

Check with your state boating safety officials about local requirements.

Federal law does not require life jackets on racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes, and racing kayaks; state laws vary. Check with your state boating safety officials.

If you are boating in an area under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, or a federal, state, or local park authority, other rules may apply.

Life jacket flotation

There are three basic kinds of life jacket flotation in the five types of life jackets with the following characteristics:

Inherently buoyant (primarily foam)

  • Adult, youth, child, and infant sizes
  • For swimmers and non-swimmers
  • Wearable and throwable styles
  • Some designed for water sports

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Inflatable

  • The most compact
  • Sizes only for adults
  • Only recommended for swimmers
  • Wearable styles only
  • Some with the best in-water performance

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Hybrid (foam & inflation)

  • Reliable
  • Adult, Youth, and Child sizes
  • For swimmers & non-swimmers
  • Wearable styles only
  • Some designed for water sports

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