2017 Water Sports Gear Guide: Life Jackets

Use these keys to find and buy a properly fitting life jacket.

What’s the most critical piece of gear in this guide? Well, it’s tough to wakeboard without a board and boots, and you sure can’t surf without a wakesurfer. Still, life jackets carry that most-vital distinction hands-down.

After all, your life jacket is the only thing standing between you and some rather serious consequences should anything go wrong on the water. Take these keys to finding and buying a properly fitting life jacket seriously — your life could be on the line.

Fit to Float
If always wearing a life jacket is the most important factor, finding a properly fitting vest is a close second. Each vest is cut differently, so it's a very good idea to visit your nearest watersports outfitter to try on multiple models. Your life jacket needs to be snug — so snug, in fact, that a properly fitted jacket might feel a little uncomfortable in the store. Remember, most life jackets tend to loosen up by 10 to 15 percent when wet, so always err on the side of tight. After all, your brand-new life jacket won't do much good if it shifts up over your head on your first fall.

U.S. Coast Guard Approved vs. Competition Vests
The difference between U.S. Coast Guard-approved (CGA) life jackets and comp vests is simple yet hugely important: CGA life jackets are guaranteed to keep you afloat, and comp vests are not. CGA life jackets meet official standards for both buoyancy and impact protection, and in many states, a Type I, II, III or V life jacket is required for every passenger in your vessel. As their name suggests, competition vests are designed for the controlled contest environment, and their sleek, low-profile design offers enhanced mobility but doesn't meet official flotation standards.