A. Is in the market for a new lifejacket this year. While he actually still fits the weight requirement for a child size jacket he’s at the top end and by the time you add a winter jacket or two he needs the extra space of the youth size.

His old lifejacket has been great, a Mustang Survival lifejacket with a cosy neoprene neck to stop chafing. We thought that we might be able to sell it on once he was done with it…but look at the thing…..”well used” would be the polite word.

That is one dirty lifejacket...and yes, that is a rock collection in the pocket.
Yes we let him go out in public wearing this…and yes, that is a rock collection in the pocket.

So upon looking around for a new lifejacket I discovered that there’s new technology on the market. On asking questions about it in the stores, I received blank looks from the sales staff so I ended up calling a couple of manufacturers directly and now I’m bringing you the results of my extensive (ahem) investigative journalism.

Note: While I am mentioning  specific products in this article, I have no affiliation with any company. They were just the jackets that were available to me at the time I was looking.

Lifejacket’s I compared:

  • Hyperlite (from Costco) – made of a similar and more ‘eco friendly’ material to neoprene. (This style isn’t available on the Hyperlite website as far as I can see.)
  • Mustang Survival Lifejackets both neoprene & nylon
  • MEC lifejackets – Nylon.
  • Second hand lifejackets from Sports Junkies – nylon.

What:

The first thing to check on any life jacket is that it is Transport Canada approved in Canada, or Coast Guard approved in the US. If it is approved, there should be a tag attached right front and centre on the lifejacket, as well as written inside.

Look for a tag and writing inside the jacket.
Look for a tag and writing inside the jacket.

There are now two choices for kids lifejackets. nylon (the old style we all know and tolerate) and neoprene (the new kid on the block that makes nylon look like Velma from Scooby Doo.)

Neoprene lifejackets – the scoop:

At first glance neoprene lifejackets seem different to the nylon ones we’re used too. Pick one up, it bends and the fabric feels soft. They were invented for watersports like wake boarding and water skiing. If you can, try on an adult one and compare it with a nylon one. Chances are, when you put the neoprene one on you will find yourself thinking “ooooooo that  ain’t half comfy!” Even if you don’t have an English accent, they are that much more comfy.

But here’s the thing- beware of jackets for kids that are more for lake or flat water use than for ocean/sea use. The difference lies in terminology.

PFD = Personal Floatation Device.

The big give away is that they do not have the flappy head cushion on the back. Often times they have floatation all the way round them. They may have less floatation in them which would give you less ‘freeboard’ if you fell in the water…not a big deal if you are in a lake, but in an ocean with waves it makes a lot of difference.

A PFD’s job is to stop your body from sinking. It won’t lift your face out of the water.

 

This is a nice PFD from MEC. Note that it has no flappy head cushion and it does have floatation on the back. Nothing wrong with these, for the right application.
This is a nice PFD from MEC. Note that it has no flappy head cushion and it does have floatation on the back. Nothing wrong with these, for the right application.

It’s not that PFD’s are bad in the right situation, and it’s not that PFD’s don’t come in nylon. It’s just that there are a lot of neoprene PFD’s out there and fewer neoprene lifejackets. If you don’t know what you are looking for then it’s easy to be confused. Here is a screenshot from the kids section of the Hyperlite website. There are 6 PFD’s shown here and potentially 2 lifejackets. There are NO YOUTH sized life jackets (the top row).

Screenshot from Hyperlite website
Screenshot from Hyperlite website

Lifejacket:

A life jacket has the flappy head cushion and typically no floatation in the back other than the head cushion. It is designed this way in order to flip you on your back if you fell in the water unconscious thus getting your head out of the water. A Youth sized lifejacket should have 44n of buoyancy.

Many of the neoprene lifejackets are actually PFD’s because they are designed primarily for watersports. They can also be approved by Transport Canada / USCG so don’t assume that approval means that it’s good for sailing. So the next thing to look for in a neoprene lifejacket is the head cushion and then check that it has the same amount of buoyancy as the equivalent nylon jacket.

Here is a standard nylon kids lifejacket from MEC. Note it has a head cushion and no back floatation. (You can't tell from this pic.)
Here is a standard nylon kids lifejacket from MEC. Note it has a head cushion and no back floatation. (You can’t tell from this pic.)

The crotch of the matter:

One thing I noticed right away when looking at Youth life jackets is that there is a trend away from crotch straps. I know it is a trend away because pretty much all of the new youth lifejackets don’t have crotch straps while all the second hand youth sized lifejackets had them.

Having done the Survival at Sea course, jumped into a swimming pool in my inflatable lifejacket and tried it with and without crotch straps I can attest that crotch straps are a necessity not an option. Going back to the ‘freeboard’ concept, when you are supported by a lifejacket it obviously floats as far up as it can as you sink down as far as you can. This puts the lifejacket up round your ears and your nose about 2″ from the surface of the water. Now imagine waves.

With a crotch strap you can raise your nose out of the water by tightening the crotch strap. A few inches makes a big difference. With a kid, the crotch strap could be the difference between keeping them in the lifejacket or sliding out – especially upon re-entry to a boat if you are lifting the child out of the water.

I called both Mustang and Hyperlite. I asked them if their neoprene lifejackets were approved for sailing. The answer from both was yes.

I asked why they no longer put crotch straps on their youth lifejackets. Mustang’s response was “well the adult size doesn’t have them, and the child size does so we decided not to put them on the youth lifejackets any more.”

Hyperlite said that as their lifejackets were primarily designed for watersports like wake boarding and waterskiing where people are in the water a lot, their users found that  crotch straps were more of an inconvenience than anything else. They noted that their child size jacket does have a crotch strap.

Mustang make a really nice lifejacket, but for the price. I went back to Costco and looked more carefully at the Hyperlite brand lifejacket. It was TC approved, contained the same bouyancy as all the other lifejackets and the straps that clip the thing together go all the way round which is the same as the Mustang. It was not black, and it cost 50% of the mustang jacket. I bought it, but you can be absolutely sure that I will be sewing a crotch strap onto it before A. Gets to use it.

Here is what we ended up with....the lack of crotch strap keeps it on the sewing pile and off the boat for now.
Here is what we ended up with….the lack of crotch strap keeps it on the sewing pile and off the boat for now.

To conclude:

When purchasing a new life jacket for sailing:

  • First check that it is Transport Canada or US Coast Guard approved.
  • Confirm that it is a lifejacket not a PFD by checking the floatation location (head cushion and almost none in back) & by comparing the boyancy (rated in newtons) to other similar lifejackets.
  • Regardless of who the lifejacket is for – add a crotch strap.

Nylon Lifejackets:

Pro:

  • Relatively inexpensive to buy. (around $30 new)
  • Last for ever and a little bit longer.

Con:

  • They tend to make you feel a bit like the Michelin man.
  • They can chafe around the neck.

Neoprene Lifejackets:

Pro:

  • Waaaaaaaay more comfortable
  • They fit snugger
  • Lighter

Con:

  • They are approximately double the price of Nylon. (around $60 new although the Costco one was $30)
  • At this point we don’t know if they will wear out.
  • If you buy a black one, they may be hot. I recommend buying lifejackets in a lighter colour for heat reflection but also for visibility in an overboard situation. Mustang Survival has a yellow neoprene jacket that seems really great.

 

 

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Nylon vs Neoprene Lifejackets
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