Life jackets, buoyancy aids and impact vests: The difference?

Lifejackets, buoyancy aids and impact vests. What’s the difference? It’s understandable that confusion often surrounds the three given that each will help you float.

Simply put, buoyancy aids and impact vests will assist you in the water. Whereas life jackets are intended to save your life by fully supporting your body if submerged.

A buoyancy aid such as the Zhik P2 PDF 50N Lightweight Buoyancy Aid are made to help you stay afloat whilst treading water. Essentially, if you’re not kicking and/or paddling, it can't assure you'll be kept above the surface. This is due to the fact buoyancy aids only has 50N (newtons) of integral buoyancy instead of the required 150N required to fully support the weight of an adult. Additionally, if a device such as a buoyancy aid can’t be guaranteed to turn over an unconscious body, it cannot be regarded as a ‘life saving’ mechanism.

Life jackets such as the Crewsaver Crewfit 180N Pro Automatic are purposely designed to keep your airways clear of any water, even if you happen to be unconscious or badly injured. To be considered ‘life-saving’ the lifejacket must have 150N and a proper collar to support your neck. When inflated, either manually or automatically, lifejackets can turn your body over and bring your face above the water, thus allowing you to breathe without ingesting water. Additionally, a lifejacket can come with a sprayhood, which will prevent sea spray from hitting your face, and being swallowed.

An impact vest is a type of PFD, designed for use if the activity involves hitting the water at speed. As the name suggests, impact vests provide protection against impacts to the torso area, thus lessening the risk of injury and bruising. Impact vests are ideal for adrenaline watersports, such as wakeboarding and kitesurfing. The O'Neill Slasher Kite Impact Vest offers ideal protection for adventure sports.

A buoyancy aid is commonly worn in calm waters, such as for kayaking/canoeing and dinghy sailing. Essentially, if you’re going to be out of the water more than you’ll be in the water, and still manage to see the shoreline, then a buoyancy aid is the most appropriate piece of safety kit. Swap your buoyancy aid for an impact vest when the activity involves harsher, more rapid contact with water. If you could be getting bashed about a lot in the water, opt for an impact vest. Trust me, your ribs will thank you.

Life jackets are needed when you’re out on the open ocean and don’t intend to be in the water. If you’re on a yacht, speedboat or cruise liner then you should have access to a life jacket. It’s important to note that life jackets, like buoyancy aids, come in different shapes and sizes. So, you should test your life jacket or buoyancy aid in a controlled environment to see whether it fits perfectly.


If you have any queries when it comes to purchasing a life jacket, buoyancy aid or impact vest, then feel free to give us a call on 01702 295678.


Updated on 5th May 2022

Originally published on 25th September 2018 in Guides

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