Lifejackets are also known as personal flotation devices or PFDs. There are three levels of lifejackets specified by international standards. They are 100+, 50, and 50S. The number in the level name relates to the newtons of upthrust provided by the lifejacket. The level must be printed on the lifejacket.
In Australia, the requirement to wear lifejackets differs between states. While it is not always compulsory to wear a PFD, there’s no reason not to do so whenever you are on the water, particularly if it is comfortable. Look for low profile designs that provide maximum buoyancy over a small area. Flexible shoulder and waist adjustments are important for a good fit. Soft flexible foam helps with contouring the jacket to the shape of your body. A couple of pockets can prove valuable as well.
Previously known as Type 1. These are designed so that the wearer will float on their back with their nose and mouth out of the water even if they are unconscious. Level 100+ lifejackets have high visibility safety colours and they come in both inflatable and non-inflatable varieties.
Inflatable lifejackets contain a CO2 cylinder which must be activated for them to be buoyant. The trigger for this can be manual or automatic. A manually inflatable lifejacket is activated by the wearer pulling on a string.
Automatic ones inflate when they are submerged in water. The majority of inflatable lifejackets hang around your neck so they are ready to activate but there are a few that can be worn in a belt around your waist. Some people opt for inflatable lifejackets because they are less stifling and more streamlined than non-inflatables but drawbacks include the weight of the CO2 cylinder, the need to replace the cylinder every time it is activated, and the legal requirement to have them serviced regularly.
Non-inflatable lifejackets have foam buoyancy. Paddlers tend not to wear these because they are too bulky and they get in the way.
Previously known as Type 2. These are high visibility safety colour vests with foam inserts that will float the wearer on the surface of the water but not necessarily face-up. This is what most paddlers wear because they are comfortable, hassle-free, and can be seen easily in case of an emergency.
A Level 50 jacket will not automatically be comfortable. Some are manufactured for a completely different purpose like waterskiing and may not leave enough room under your arms. Others have long bodies that can get caught on your spraydeck or backrest. These are best avoided.
Previously known as Type 3. These are the same as Level 50 except that they do not have high visibility safety colours. Paddlers tend not to wear these because they may not be seen in case of emergency.