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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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How to Choose the Right Life Jacket

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The U.S. Coast Guard produces and distributes a number of helpful informational pieces (pamphlets) intended to improved water safety and to decrease morbidity and mortality in the water. Two of these are very germane as we enter the summer season, and so I am going to repeat the content here in separate posts – the first entitled “How to Choose the Right Life Jacket,” and the second entitled “Paddle Safe! Have Fun!”

How to Choose the Right Life Jacket

Fact: One-half of all recreational boating fatalities happen in calm water, close to shore and due to drowning. In most cases, life jackets are not worn. When an unexpected emergency happens, there is usually not time to don a stowed life jacket.

If a life jacket fits properly, it will help keep your head above water. If it is too large, the jacket will ride up around the face. If it is too small, it will not keep the wearer afloat.

Always try on a life jacket for proper size and fit. First, check the label. Next:

1. Make sure that the jacket is properly fastened.
2. Hold your arms straight up over your head. Have someone grasp the tops of the arm openings on the jacket and gently pull up. Be sure that there is no excess room above the openings and that the jacket does not ride up over your chin or face.
3. For the best fit, try the life jacket in shallow water under safe and supervised conditions.

Auto Inflatable life jackets inflate automatically upon immersion or with manual activation. Manual inflatable life jackets only inflate upon manual activation. Both types of jackets require regular maintenance, and are not recommended for children under the age of 16 years or for non-swimmers. They are not for sports, such as whitewater paddling, where immersion is expected, because they will inflate and may interfere with the activity. They may turn the unconscious wearer face up.

Belt pack inflatable life jackets must be placed over the head after inflation, and should not be expected to turn the unconscious wearer face up.

Vest type life jackets require little maintenance, are good for non-swimmers, provide good flotation, are less bulky than offshore vests, and may turn the unconscious wearer face up.

There are children’s life jackets, both vest type and hybrid inflatables. The most important feature of these is a proper fit. You should not count on an adult-size life jacket to properly fit and protect a child.

Flotation aids, whether in vest type or abbreviated style, assist with flotation, but should not be relied upon to turn the unconscious wearer face up.

Other jackets combine features and fit appropriate to their intended use, such as waterskiing, hunting, rafting, whitewater paddling, and so forth. The “offshore vest” type of lifejacket is intended for boating offshore, open water, and coastal cruising. It offers the most flotation, may help prevent hypothermia, is bulky, and is designed to turn an unconscious person face up.

Please be aware of the U.S. Coast Guard life jacket requirements for recreational vessels:

1. A wearable life jacket for each person must be aboard.
2. The life jackets must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, the proper size for the intended wearer, in good and serviceable condition, and properly stowed (e.g., readily accessible).
3. When a vessel is underway with children under the age of 13 years, the children must be wearing a life jacket unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. This requirement may vary by state.

Preview the Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society, which will be held in Snowmass, Colorado July 24-29, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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