How Old Do You Have To Be To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat?

How Old Do You Have To Be To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

April 5, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Children under 13 years of age should wear a Coast guard approved life jacket
  • Michigan law requires different rules than New Mexico, so check where you live
  • Double check that the Coast guard approved life jacket fits properly
  • Test your personal flotation devices and life jacket in shallow water
  • Most boating related drownings happen because someone was not wearing a life jacket

Many arguments can be made on how old to wear life jacket on boat. But is their a proper age for how old you need to be?

U.S. Coast Guard mandates that children under 13 on boats must wear a fitting life jacket approved by them, in states lacking a specific children's life jacket law. Some states have different rules, like Florida, which requires children under the age of six wear a life jacket in vessels less than 26 feet.

The U.S Coast Guard rule does not go against what the federal law requires, just the states that do not have one in place. It is worth noting that it is the parent’s responsibility to decide whether their child should wear a USCG approved PFD, even in situations where it is not legally required.


Table of contents

What Life Jacket Laws Apply to You?

Depending on what state you reside in, federal law will be different from another state. Coast Guard requirements are a good rule of thumb (under 13 years of age, wear a life jacket), but some states do not require past a certain age.

Michigan law requires that all children under six years old are required to wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket or PFD at all times when they are on the open deck of any water vessel. In comparison to Florida state laws, the same age applies but only under a 26 foot vessel underway. Compared to other state laws, both Florida and Michigan are the least strict when it comes to age requirements and life jackets.

What is the Proper Fit of a Life Jacket for a Child?

For a child's life jacket to fit correctly, it must be snug enough to prevent the child from slipping out of it. Life jackets for infants and smaller children (under 50 pounds) should feature a crotch strap and a large float collar to provide head support.

To verify the fit, lift the child by the shoulders of the personal flotation device (PFD); if it stays below the child's chin and ears, then it is a good fit. It is always a good idea to check the user label before purchasing a life jacket for a child to make sure it is approved for the child's weight range.

Federal Law Life Jacket Ranges for Children

The life jacket ranges for children vary based on a variety of factors. Ideally, the label on the jacket will help determine what should fit your child.

  • Infant: Newborn to two years old, less than 30 pounds, 16 to 20 inch chest size
  • Small child: Two to five years old, 30 to 50 pounds, 20 to 25 inch chest size
  • Medium child: Four to eight years old, 30 to 50 pounds, 21 to 25 chest size
  • Large child: Six to 12 years old, 50 to 90 pounds, 26 to 29 inch chest size

Tips for Choosing Your Child’s Life Jacket

It is essential to consider a child's swimming ability when choosing a life jacket. For non-swimmers, a Type II child vest is recommended as it provides more buoyancy than a Type III PFD.

Additionally, age and experience level around water should be taken into account. Teaching children how to relax and float while wearing a PFD can be beneficial. Always select the appropriate PFD for the activity and ensure that the size fits the child's weight.

How to Properly Wear a Life Jacket

Choose a life jacket based on your needs and the water conditions. So if you plan to do water skiing, you would likely choose one that is comfortable and best for water sports. It should fit properly - one that is too big can be dangerous and ride up, while one that is too small will not provide enough buoyancy.

There are many options to choose for a life jacket in terms of shape, type, different colors, and even  the material used. When trying it on, consult the manufacturer's size and weight guidelines before use.Zip or buckle the jacket and properly align the straps. Ensure the jacket does not rise more than an inch off your shoulders when lifting your arms. Simply check by pulling up on the shoulders; if it rises up to your face, adjust the size or straps for a snug and comfortable fit.

Should You Buy Life Jackets for a Child to Grow Into?

You should never purchase life jackets in hopes for a child to grow into it. So if you find a life jacket on sale and it is not the correct size, you should avoid purchasing. This could prove to be dangerous, as the incorrect fit could do more harm than good in the event it is needed.

Instead, you should always aim for the correct fit for a child. Keeping up with the child’s weight and size will help make it easy when looking at the life jacket labels.

What are the Best Life Jackets for Kids?

The best life jackets for kids will vary based on a few factors. It should really come down to what activity you will be doing on the water.

  • Type I are considered offshore life jackets, where prolonged survival in challenging oceanic conditions with limited chance of prompt rescue.
  • Type II are best for near shore adventures, with tranquil freshwater areas suitable for boating and likely have readily available rescue options.
  • Type III is considered a floatation aid only, arguably the most comfortable and lightweight option that is ideal for extended wear.

If a person is unconscious, a Type I life jacket will help keep their face up due to a lot of buoyancy. With Type II, these life jackets are less bulky than Type I, but offer less of a chance to keep a person face up if unconscious and not meant for rough seas. Type III life jackets offer the most comfort, but safety is essentially out the window and only to be used to help keep a person afloat temporarily, so best to use this in shallow waters.

What Life Jacket Design is Best?

Life jackets come in different designs and offer convenient features. There are three main types of life jackets you could use, known as inherently buoyant, inflatable, and hybrid.

Standard/Buoyant Life Jackets

These are made out of foam or neoprene, are low-maintenance, durable, and activate automatically without any effort from the wearer.

Inflatable Life Jackets

Automatically deploying upon submersion or through manual inflation, inflatable life jackets are not suitable for non-swimmers or children under the age of 16. Due to additional maintenance needs, they are also not suitable for activities in and out of the water.

Hybrid Life Jackets

Combining buoyant material and an inflatable chamber, hybrid life jackets are designed for children and require regular maintenance. While not suitable for all water activities, they are less bulky and perfect for extended wear and those who prefer less restrictive jackets.

How Old Do You Have To Be To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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