How To Choose The Right Life Jacket For Fishing

When on a boat, few things are more important than wearing a life jacket. But choosing the wrong type of life jacket could leave you functioning under a false sense of security. So, to avoid disaster, you need to learn how to choose the right life jacket for fishing.

To choose the right life jacket for fishing, you need to consider type, fit, compliance and purpose. Testing whatever jackets you are considering is key. Depending on what you plan to do while wearing the life jacket, you can customize them to meet just about every activity you can do on the water.

A life jacket that doesn’t fit or doesn’t do what you need can leave you chafed or, in an emergency, in danger of drowning. Choosing the right life jacket can ensure that no matter what happens in the water, you are safe and comfortable. Below we discuss exactly how to choose the right life jacket.

Basics Of Life Jackets For Fishing

In a storm, boating accident or any other situation that leaves you in the water or about to be in the water, your life preserver or life jacket is your best friend. It can right you if you are unconscious, keep you afloat in rough seas, and serve as a beacon if anybody is searching for you.

Life Jacket vs Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

A life jacket is a PFD, but not all PFDs are life jackets. A PFD can be a floating cushion, safety ring or throw raft.

The main characteristic of a life jacket is that it fits like a vest or jacket, and provides you with the flotation necessary to keep yourself above water in an emergency. There was a time when life jackets were bulky and uncomfortable, but over the last few decades, there have been many improvements in size, fit and in how life jackets look.

What you want for fishing is a life jacket PFD because of the fit and the fact it will not impede your fishing.

Types Of Life Jackets For Fishing

The first characteristic of a life jacket that you want to consider is the type of jacket, based on United States Coast Guard standards and definitions.

Type I

These are also known as “offshore life vests.” They hold up in all conditions, including rough and isolated water. They’re ideal for occasions where there’s a possibility that rescue might be delayed. They will turn most unconscious individuals right side up and fit children to adults.

Type II

Type II life jackets, or “near-shore buoyancy vests,” work best in calm and open water, where a rescue is no more than a few minutes away. An unconscious person may be flipped face up in this type of vest, but they are not made for rough water or in scenarios where rescue is a long time away.

Type II jackets are not as bulky as Type I, are generally the least expensive and recommended for children.

Type III

The Type III vest is the most popular version of the life jacket and the most comfortable to wear. A Type III jacket will work best in calm and open water and in scenarios where rescue is imminent.

They are designed to keep a person wearing one vertical in the water, but the wearer of the vest must get themselves into an upright position. This type of life jacket does not hold up in rough seas. Sizes are available for children and adults.

Type IV

These aren’t strictly lifejackets. They’re flotation devices, and you hold onto them rather than wear them.

Type V

Also known as a “special use PFD,” this jacket is customized for certain activities. To work, they must be utilized in compliance with any operations directives. Some of these types of jackets are full body, which provides protection from hypothermia.

How To Choose The Right Life Jacket For Fishing

First, verify that the jacket you are considering is fully USCG compliant. That means it is suitable, per the Coast Guard rating, for:

  • Your size and weight
  • The type of activity the vest will used in
  • The type of water you will possibly encounter

Depending on what you use your jacket for, you may need more than one type. A jacket that works for you when you are fishing may not work for water skiing for example, or for using out on the ocean. Your jacket may also not fit another person correctly.

Another reason a person might have more than one life jacket is because of the type of water you will encounter. The jacket you wear when fishing an inland farm pond will likely not hold up well in the ocean, for instance.

The Fit

You want your jacket to fit snugly, but not so much that it chafes your skin. You also want to avoid a life jacket that is so loose it might slip off in the stress of an emergency. Here are a few fitting tips:

  • Try on several jackets to get a feel for how they settle on your body
  • Try jackets on with different layers of clothes to avoid a jacket becoming too tight or too loose if you add or subtract clothing when out on the water
  • Make sure the adjustable clips are easy to work
  • When wearing your jacket, pay attention to contact points as those will potentially chafe if exposed to skin

Once you are in a life jacket, raise your arms and have someone try and pull it off you. It shouldn’t come off easily, as you might expect!


The most important feature is head position. Make sure that your life jacket holds your head above water, even if you are unconscious. After that, you want to get a jacket that will flip you over if you are unconscious in the water.

The other feature you want to closely scrutinize is the buoyancy rating. This shows how much weight the jacket can hold before it sinks. For kayaks, you want a rating of at least thirty-five. Experienced anglers or boaters can choose a buoyancy rating of around twenty-five.

Approval And Compliance

The jacket you choose must be USCG approved. This information is on the body of every life jacket, usually on the inside. It is also listed on a tag on the inside of the jacket. If a jacket does not have the USCG stamp of approval, look at other options.

Inspect For Damage

Life jackets are often shipped loose with other items to a store. They can be damaged en route. Inspect your jacket to make sure there is no visible tears, rips, punctures or seams separating.

If you are looking at an inflatable jacket, inflate it and make sure it holds air. Let it sit fully expanded for 20 minutes and then check the pressure level again. You do not want to be in a life threatening situation to find out your inflatable has a slow leak. This is particularly important if you are renting the jacket.

Consider Customization

Life jackets have become specialized based on the activity they will be used for. Kayakers, for example, have jackets that support your back and shoulder. Fishing jackets tend to fit more like a vest and are designed not to be cumbersome. Water skiing jackets are designed to fit snuggly.

Consider the activity you are doing and what type of jacket best suits that activity. If you are doing more than one activity and the jacket is not a good fit for each, consider buying an additional jacket or looking at one that is more versatile.

The Look

The most important feature regarding aesthetics is that you can be seen in water. It is very difficult to pick out a floating object in water, especially from the air. You want your preserver to have clearly visible reflection stripes and colors to make it as easy as possible for someone to spot you.

Wearability And Comfort

You want a jacket that fits snugly, but you do not want a jacket that is going to rub and chafe your skin. You also don’t want one that fits so snugly that you are uncomfortable. Additionally, you want a life jacket you can take off easily if you want, but also can put on quickly.

When you try on your jacket, simulate being in a boat to the greatest extent possible. If you are using it for fishing from a boat, go through the motions of catching your PB from a fixed point. Bend, flex, shift, set the hook, lean backwards, check arm mobility, etc.

Make sure that you can remain fully active without your jacket becoming an obstacle to your ability to land that lunker. That includes bending over to lift the fish into your boat. You do not want to find out, as a fish is thrashing in the water on the side of the boat, that your jacket obscures your view or breathing when you bend over.

Do You Always Have To Have Your Life Jacket On When Fishing?

The USCG recommends you always wear your life jacket when fishing, or at least keep it very close to hand. Your life jacket is only useful if you are either wearing it or can put it on at the first sign of danger. In order to be 100% safe, always wear your life jacket when fishing.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right life jacket for fishing is a matter of choosing the right type of life jacket, and making sure you pick the right size. You want your life jacket to be USCG approved, and it should fit snugly, be easy to see, and be suited to the activity you’re doing.