Foam vs Inflatable Life Jacket | Which is Better

Foam vs Inflatable Life Jacket | Which is Better

Last Updated on April 22, 2022 by Amit Abhishek

A life jacket is a type of personal flotation device (PFD) that any sailor, boater, or person engaging in water-based activities will know about the importance of.

Not only can choosing the right one help a person to ensure their safety while in the water, but it could also even save their life! So when buying one, the decision should always be taken seriously.

Not all life jackets are the same. There are several options of them to choose from, all with different modes of activation and characteristics.

Some life jackets and PFDs are also more suitable for particular groups and when engaging in certain activities.

The situation is one major factor that can influence whether a person decides to choose one type of jacket over another, and should always be considered.

While a person might choose a foam, inflatable, or hybrid life jacket depending on their circumstance, in most cases an inflatable one will be the best and most appropriate to use.

They are less bulky and tend to be more comfortable to wear than other types of life jackets, such as foam jackets, with an automatic version available that acts more conveniently for the user.

Here, we discuss more about the difference between a variety of life jackets available and what situations each are suitable for.

Different Types of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Foam Life Jackets

Foam life jackets are life jackets with easy-to-use technology that improves buoyancy and flotation. Foam materials are used to make these jackets that are fitted inside a textile outing.

They are available with either a 50N buoyancy or 100N buoyancy. Those with a 50N buoyancy are known as buoyancy aids and their main job is to support the wearer.

Buoyancy aids alone aren’t strong enough to keep the person floating above the water.

Foam life jackets with 100N buoyancy will have a collar attached. They’re durable and tough. In general, jackets made from foam are cheap and easy to wear, while maintaining a good condition.

However, one downfall is their bulk and size which makes them a less comfy option to wear, for example when compared to inflatable PFDs, and will need greater room for storage.

They are meant to be the safety jacket having large buoyancy aid foams on the front of the jacket. Thanks to their design and color you can also spot them easily.

Their limited insulation and padding help guard against hypothermia.

Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable Life Jackets

With comparably less buoyancy than foam types these life-jackets are designed best for situation where rescue is nearby. These are more compact, easy to store / use and comfortable.

Inflatable life jackets come in two types: manual and automatic.

They share an inflatable tube that can be used orally if the main inflation tube doesn’t work correctly to lift the wearer face-forward when returning back to the surface of the water.

This is to ensure they’re protected from becoming unconscious and possibly drowning.

An automatic inflation jacket is also called a self-inflating vest. This one will automatically be activated when entering the water.

The carbon dioxide cylinder actuates from a pill or pin when it hits the water causing the device to inflate.

A manually inflatable jacket while similar in the manner in which it inflates to a self-inflating jacket involves a different method of activation. Here, the person must tug a cord for it to work and inflate.

This means that action is required on the part of the wearer whereas with the automatic vest it will happen upon impact with the water.

Hybrid Life Jacket

Hybrid life jackets represent vests that are a cross between a foam and inflatable PFDs with elements that are contained in both.

However, they still work the same in that their main goal is to help the user float if an incidence occurs in water that may cause to be in danger.

They tend to be more comfortable for the wearer than foam life jackets, but aren’t suitable if a person has become unconscious in the water.

Hybrid vests can be used by either pulling the cord on the device for it to inflate, or they can activate upon impact with the water.

Just like inflatable jackets, a tube is available as a backup method to blow into and inflate the jacket orally if needed.

Life Jacket Performance Factors

Life Jacket Performance Factors

When it comes to choosing a life jacket, you might think that any jacket will do.

However, there are a lot of performance factors to take into account because if they aren’t met, your jacket might not be as safe and secure as you presume.

When it comes to your safety in water, you can never be too cautious.

In 2015, The Clagett carried out a study of the efficiency of life jacket performances and found that some “improvements could be made to make them safer and more wearable”, so we should all be as proactive as possible in ensuring that our jackets perform as perfectly as possible.

Fit and Comfort

Your jacket should fit you well, but not too tightly because otherwise you might not be able to fasten it properly.

Similarly, your jacket shouldn’t feel too big or baggy because this will affect its abilities to properly support your body in the water.

The Clagett’s study reported that “1/3 of the repsonses reported problems with the fit and comfort” of their jacket, so it’s essential that you find your perfect fit.

If the jacket is comfortable and isn’t squeezing or hanging off you, it is a good fit. You should be able to fasten it without feeling uncomfortable and your body should feel supported.

For reference, you should be able to fit roughly three finger widths between your shoulder and the jacket.

Static Stability

Static stability refers to the buoyancy of a life jacket and its abilities to keep you afloat. A good jacket will elevate your upper body and keep your head above the water at all times.

If your head is slipping down, then your jacket is likely too big or not fastened tightly enough. Most adults require an estimated seven to twelve pounds of buoyancy in order to keep them afloat.

The Clagett’s study found that, when testing static stability, “80% remained in a vertical position or rotated onto their back”, so you can test your jacket by assuming a still, vertical position in the water.

Always test the static stability of your jacket in a safe area before venturing into deeper water.

Life Jacket Performance Factors - flotation level
Image Credit: NSW Maritime | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Flotation Level

The flotation level links closely with the static stability of your jacket because its main job is to keep you afloat in the water.

‘Level flotation’ is a phrase used to describe boats that are fitted with enough flotation to keep them above the waterline. It is the same with flotation jackets because your upper body should be constantly elevated.

Your head should be above the surface, with your shoulders and chest also feeling as though they are being pulled upwards. Flotation should feel easy and not as though you are struggling to stay afloat.

Face-Down Rotation

In the water, you might want to dip your head down to explore, but you don’t want to get stuck in this position! Luckily, a good jacket will be designed to support your body and flip it over so you can breathe.

Test this by lying face-down in the water with no movement. If your jacket responds by flipping you onto your back, it is performing well.

If it doesn’t, there might be some fault with its buoyancy, or it might not be properly fastened to your body. Your jacket needs excellent face-down rotation in case you get into trouble in the water.

Dynamic Stability

Dynamic stability is a little similar to static stability, but it refers precisely to your jacket’s ability to keep you afloat when there is movement in the water, such as waves.

After all, water is unpredictable, so you need your jacket to perform well in both smooth and uneven conditions in order to keep you safe.

A life jacket with good dynamic stability will keep your body elevated in choppy waters and then return it to its original position when the water smooths out again.

Your body should always be stable and elevated towards the surface.

Visibility in Water

In case of an emergency, you need to be as visible as possible in the water. This is why a lot of the life jackets you’ll come across will be bright colors, such as orange, yellow and red.

Though darker jackets do exist, you should choose one that is bright enough to make you visible when the weather is both bright and dark.

For even better visibility, choose a jacket with reflective strips on it as these will reflect light and attract extra attention to you. If you do ever find yourself in danger in the water, a visible jacket that helps you to be instantly spotted could save your life.

Life Jacket Performance Factors - visibility in water, life jacket lift and feeling safe.

Life Jacket Lift

Life jacket lift is a procedure that involves grabbing a person by their jacket’s shoulder straps to pull them from the water and into a boat.

The Clagett’s study refers to this as a “1-2-3 bounce and life” maneuver, done as quickly as possible to pull the person to safety.

To support this process, your life jacket must have firm, non-elastic straps, fit your body properly so that you don’t slip in it during the lift and be made of a strong material that won’t rip when pulled on.

If you do need to be rescued, your rescuers need to be able to pull you swiftly and comfortably from the water, and this depends primarily on your jacket.

Feeling Safe

Above all, you should feel safe when you wear your jacket. You should float easily enough in it, with your head comfortably above the water so that you can breathe.

If you feel like you’re being pulled down or paddling to stay upright, your jacket could be too big or underinflated or damaged.

Floating in the jacket should be effortless, but if anything makes you question your safety, get out of the water as soon as you can and examine the jacket.

Never take risks when it comes to your safety and ensure that your life jacket is the best fit for you.

Which Type of Life Jacket is the Right Type for Your Situation?

A different type of life jacket will be required depending on the situation of the user. Here, we share what situations each life jacket should and shouldn’t be used for.

Foam Life Jackets

When it comes to wearing foam jackets, a 50N buoyancy vest will be suitable only for strong and confident swimmers. In addition, they should be used when fast help is needed in an emergency at sea close to shore.

Offshore and in deeper waters, these PFDs won’t fare well due to their bulkiness and heaviness.

Some water-based activities where 50N buoyancy vests will be useful include kayaking, canoeing, and jet skiing, and can be used when assistance is required.

For beginners and those involved in water-based sports, this jacket is a great option that comes at low expense and helps ensure safety when needed to swim back to the shore, dinghy, or boat.

100N buoyancy jackets provide protection more inland and areas of sea closer to shore. Just like 50N buoyancy PFDs those with 100N buoyancy are also suitable for beginner users and can be worn by both adults and children.

They can be used in situations such as when sailing on small boats or dinghies in calm conditions, but shouldn’t be used in rougher waters.

Research shows that sailors favor the use of non-inflatable jackets, with 73% choosing non-inflatable over inflatable PFDs. This indicates that foam life jackets are the preferred option for this type of situation.

Related Post: Best Inflatable Life Vest For Fishing In 2022

Inflatable Life Jackets

There are some common requirements and suitability measures that are shared between both types of inflatable life jackets: automatic and manual.

The wearer must be at least 16 years of age and weigh more than 80 pounds or else they can’t wear an inflatable PFD. In addition to those who aren’t of the right age or weigh enough, these types of jackets shouldn’t be worn by anyone that’s unable to swim.

It would be a great idea to choose an inflatable type vest when either sailing or engaging in water activities where balance is required such as paddle boarding.

This is because they have a small, nice fitting, and are comfortable.

Foam life jackets on the other hand wouldn’t be the most suitable option for an activity like paddle boarding since they’re more bulky and harder to wear.

Inflatable PFDs shouldn’t be worn for water-based activities such as jet skiing where a person will be more offshore than inshore and won’t want the jacket to inflate.

Foam jackets will be more suitable here. An inflatable vest also doesn’t perform greatly to protect against hypothermia in cold water conditions.

Since foam vests are bulkier, they’ll be the better choice and offer better protection against the cold.

There are a few points of consideration for choosing between automatic and manually inflatable life jackets, depending on the circumstance.

Hybrid Life Jacket

Hybrid PFDs can be used when in more shallow waters close to shore and engaging in activities such as kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

They’re suitable to be worn by both adults and children.

For adults, checking chest size will be required to determine the jacket of choice, whereas weight should be taken into account for children.

Automatic vs. Inflatable PFDs

Not all types of inflatable vests will be suitable for the same type of situation. In fact, one can even become possibly detrimental and dangerous to one’s safety, depending on the activity that they’re engaged in or the circumstance that they’re found.

One example of where a manual inflation PFD will be more suitable for use is when surfing.

Surfers catching big waves won’t use an automatically inflatable jacket. Instead, they opt for a manually used one.

This makes sense as they’re likely to experience some form of impact which if using an automatically inflated jacket, might be activated when they don’t need it to.

This can spoil their activity and become an inconvenience, so they’ll want to be in control of pulling the cord for manual activation if they’ve actually found themselves in danger.

On the other hand, take the example of where a person has become unconscious while at sea. If they’re no longer conscious, they’ll lose the ability to perform a manual activation.

In this case, an automatically inflatable life jacket will still be able to support them as the water impacts and causes the jacket to inflate.

In fact, it might even save their life! Another case in which the wearer might not be in control to activate inflation is due to cold water shock when conditions are harsher.

Here also is where it will be more beneficial and safe to be wearing an auto-inflation vest.

Lightweight, Comfortable and versatile.
Good for all ages, sizes, swimming ability.
Not recommended for those under 80 lbs.
Not comfortable.
May Require Manual activation.
No additional steps.
Min Required: 22.5 lbs
Min Required: 15.5 lbs
Manual Inflation Test
Visual Inspection
Type 2, Type 5
Type 1, Type 3, Type 4

Related Questions

1) Do inflatable life jackets work?

Inflatable life jackets are available in two forms: automatic and manual. Both automatic and manual inflatable jackets work, however they are operated differently.

To ensure the manually inflated jackets become activated, users are required to pull a cord for the jacket to inflate. Once the cord is pulled, it will work fine.

Pulling removes a clip that is attached to the jacket, causing carbon dioxide to be released resulting in inflation.

Jackets that are automatically activated don’t require any action to be made on the part of the user. Instead, they are activated upon impact with the water.

Both automatic and manually inflatable life jackets work the same way when they inflate, however, the mode of action required is what differs for both of them.

2) How long do foam life jackets last?

Life jackets generally last for around 10 years. However, there’s no exact expiry date for a life jacket. Wear and tear will cause it to lose its buoyancy and thus causing it to need to be serviced or replaced.

However, by keeping jackets in a cool, dry place and only using them when needed, you should expect their life span to be increased and you’ll be able to make longer use of your life jacket.

3) Difference between a life jacket and a life vest?

A life jacket and life vest are essentially two terms used to describe the same thing. They are both used interchangeably to describe an item that is worn by users while in the sea or water to protect them from drowning.

4) Do inflatable PFDs need to be worn?

Where the circumstance requires, an inflatable PFD should always be worn. Otherwise, another type of jacket such as a foam or hybrid vest should be occupied by the user.

Inflatable PFDs are suitable and required for use if a person is sailing at sea or when close to shore and engaging in water-based activities that require standing or balance.

They are a great option for example if one is paddle boarding since they’re light, comfortable, and easy to wear.

In comparison to foam PFDs which are bulkier and more uncomfortable, they have become the most popular of all the types of life jackets available, especially for inshore activities.

It’s worth noting that inflatable PFDs aren’t suitable for children under the age of 16, those who weight less than 80 pounds, or people who can’t swim.

However, for all who find themselves in a situation that is suitable for the use of PFDs and meets their requirements of use, they should be worn at all times.

By doing so, one can be more confident that their safety is ensured and they’re less likely to fall into complications should their circumstance lend the need for a life jacket to be used.

Final Words

It will always be in the wearer’s best interest to consider their options and choose a life jacket that will best suit their situation.

There are a variety of different types of jackets on the market and they won’t all provide the same usage across all events that can take place in the water.

An inflatable PFD might be a better option overall and cover more situations than other life jackets would. They’re lighter and less bulky than foam vests, more comfortable, and provide a better use for inshore activities that require more balance (such as paddle-boarding).

However, it’s worth remembering that there are two different options when it comes to inflatable PFDs: an automatic and a manual one, and there are pros and cons to each.

While a manually operable jacket can benefit certain groups of people such as surfers, an automatically inflatable one becomes more beneficial if one falls unconscious while at sea.

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