Inflatable Life Vest vs. Regular Life Vest: Which Is Better for Sailing?

It’s a beautiful morning and you’re planning for another great day of sailing. You have your sunscreen, some snacks and drinks, and a few activities to do in the water. Oh, and you need your life vest, but which kind? Should you go for an inflatable life jacket or a regular one when sailing?

Regular life vests may be the safer choice when sailing, even if inflatable life vests are easier to put on and offer more buoyancy. Inflatable life vests don’t float as well, and they might not flip you face-up in the water so you don’t drown. Further, inflating them manually can be cumbersome and energy-intensive if you’re capsized. 

In today’s extensive guide, we’ll explain the types of regular and inflatable life vests in detail. After we go through those, we’ll then discuss which is the best type of life vest for sailing so you can always cruise the seas with peace of mind. 

Let’s get started. 

What Is an Inflatable Life Vest?

Inflatable life vests fill up automatically or manually. If yours inflates automatically, when you’re submerged in water that’s at least four inches deep with the life vest on, it should begin filling up. A manually-inflating life jacket has a cord that you jerk to quickly give the vest some air. You can also apply air into the mouthpiece and fill the tube that way, although not feasibly when you’re in the water. You should only use compressed air or CO2 for filling the life jacket. 

When you’re safely on land and you want to deflate your inflatable life vest, you can open the inflation tube and press down on it, releasing all the air until the jacket is deflated. Then it folds up and stores neatly and easily on your sailboat. 

Make sure that you change out your CO2 cartridge after using your life vest once. You don’t want to find out the hard way the next time that you can’t fill up your inflatable life vest when you need it most since you’re out of CO2!

Inflatable life jackets are comfortable and cool since they leave more of your body open, but they do tend to cost more than a regular life jacket.

The Types of Inflatable Life Vests

The United States Coast Guard divides life jackets into five different types: Type I, Type II, Type III, Type IV, and Type V. Several of these types include inflatable life vests. The other categories are typically non-inflatable. 

Type I Inflatable Life Vests

The first category of inflatable life jackets is Type I. These life jackets are of the most buoyant vests and they are suitable for all types of offshore uses even if the rescue is delayed a bit. 

Although type I life vests look chunky compared to Type II and Type III, it has a distinct characteristic of turning the unconscious person face up in the water. Obviously this is a huge advantage as it can save lives. The good news is that type I vests come in different sizes from child to adult.

Here’s what you need to know about Type II, Type III, and Type V inflatable life vests.

Type II Inflatable Life Vests

The first category of inflatable life jackets is Type II. These vests provide at least 34 pounds of buoyancy for an adult-sized vest, sometimes more. If you plan on doing near-shore or inland cruising, a Type II life vest is recommended.

Younger adults under 16 years old should not wear a Type II, as it may not fit their smaller frames. Should you have anyone in your party who can’t swim, Type II inflatable life vests aren’t a good idea for them either. These vests take a few moments to inflate, so you need to be able to tread water until then. 

If you were to fall out of your sailboat and get knocked unconscious, a Type II inflatable life jacket might not necessarily flip you so you’re face up in the water. This could lead to drowning if someone doesn’t rescue you quickly enough.

Type III Inflatable Life Vests

In the Type III category, only one type of life vest is inflatable. Ideal for supervised boating like canoeing, dinghy or regatta riding, and sailing, a Type III inflatable life vest offers an adult user 22.5 pounds of buoyancy. 

Type IIIs don’t necessarily flip you up so your head is out of the water, which once again leaves you at risk of potentially drowning. Unlike Type IIs, a Type III does not have automatic inflation, but manual only. You’d pull a tab to inflate the life jacket, but there’s no failsafe if the tab doesn’t work.

Another downside of Type III inflatable life jackets is that younger users up to 16 years old cannot use this class of life vest, much as the case is with inflatable Type IIs. For adults who can wear them, you do get a rather comfortable user experience with a Type III life vest, which is important if you’ll be in the water for a while.

Type V Automatic Inflation Life Vests

Besides Type IIs and Type IIIs, two varieties of Type V life jackets are inflatable as well. The first of these is the Type V automatic inflation life jacket and the second is the Type V hybrid inflation life jacket.

We’ll start with the automatic inflation type. This life vest comes in a variety of styles so it can accommodate all sorts of activities. From float coats to deck suits, belt packs, and more, the buoyancy of Type V automatic inflation life vests is between 22.5 and 34 pounds.

To increase the buoyancy of a Type V automatic inflation life vest, manufacturers might include foam within the life jacket. Even still, you’re not likely to see more than 34 or 35 pounds of buoyancy with Type V life jackets.

Like a Type II, a Type V automatic inflation life vest might not flip you up if you’re facing down in the water, which yes, still puts you at risk of drowning. That doesn’t mean foregoing an inflatable Type V is a good idea, as federal requirements may mandate this or another type of life vest when on the water. 

As the name suggests, automatic inflation life vests do indeed inflate automatically. The life vest should have a manual mechanism for inflating and deflating in case the automatic inflation fails.

Type V Hybrid Inflation Life Vests

The final type of inflatable life jacket is a Type V hybrid inflation. The foam included in the life vest adds 7.5 pounds of buoyancy. When fully inflated, the life jacket’s buoyancy increases to about 22 pounds. 

If you have a sailboat accident and rescue is coming soon or is already underway, a Type V hybrid inflation life vest is an ideal pick. These are among some of the more comfortable life jackets, even more so than inflatable Type IIs, which is saying something. 

However, a Type V hybrid inflation life vest is never recommended for capsized victims who are unconscious or barely conscious, as this life vest may need manual effort for inflation.

If your life jacket is a manual one, then you can grab a pull tab to activate the life jacket. The built-in CO2 cartridge is punctured, sending gas to the inside of the life vest so it fills up. Should this mechanism fail, you can also use the included blow tube to orally inflate a Type V hybrid inflation life jacket. 

If your life vest model is automatic, then the moment you’re submerged in the water, the life vest should activate and fill up. 

The Types of Regular Life Vests

Now that we’ve covered inflatable life vests in detail, let’s turn our attention to regular life vests. These are any non-inflatable type of life jacket, including Type I, Type IIs, Type IIIs, Type IV, and some Type Vs. Here’s an overview of each type of regular life vest. 

Type I Life Vests

The first class of life vests is Type I. The US Coast Guard calls Type Is “inherently buoyant,” which means the child-sized Type I life vests have 11 pounds of buoyancy and the adult ones 22 pounds. 

You can rely on Type I for a variety of activities, including sailing or doing other types of boating by yourself as well as offshore fishing or cruising. Even if the conditions turn dark and stormy and your sailboat is at risk of capsizing, Type I is a good life jacket to have on deck. 

Type I life vests often flip you so your face is out of the water, even if you’re unconscious. Your head will also be propped up higher. This can prevent unnecessary drownings, unlike inflatable life vests. 

Even in remote waters or those that are rougher, Type I life jackets work exceptionally well. That’s why the US Coast Guard recommends this type of life vest if you know that rescue will come, but it could take a while to happen.

You get the most protection with a Type I since it’s a larger life vest that’s very encompassing. This is sort of a double-edged sword, admittedly. You can indeed retain your body heat in a Type I life jacket due to the size as well as the fabric and foam built in. That said, the size of this life vest makes it bulky, which turns some wearers off from Type Is.

Type II Inherently Buoyant Life Vests

Not all Type II life vests are inflatable, such as inherently buoyant Type IIs. Due to the lack of air, you do have less buoyancy with this regular life vest, only 15.5 pounds for adults. Still, this class of non-inflatable life vest is recommended for activities such as light-craft boating as well as everyday sailing, fishing, and inland daytime cruising. 

You should be close to shore if you’re wearing a non-inflatable Type II life vest since you have less buoyancy. This is also a smart life jacket choice if you know that someone will rescue you relatively soon. If you’ll be in rougher waters or you think you’ll spend hours in any type of water, skip the inherently buoyant Type II, as it’s not sufficient.

Why? Well, for one, these regular Type IIs aren’t guaranteed to flip you up so your face isn’t in the water. Their lower buoyancy requires you to tread and do a bit of swimming in rougher waters, as this life vest alone won’t keep your head over the waterline. You also won’t float as much, especially compared to Type I life vests.

One upside inherently buoyant Type IIs have going for them is that they’re quite comfortable, just like inflatable Type II life jackets. That’s especially true when comparing regular Type IIs to Type Is. 

Type III Inherently Buoyant Life Vests

We talked earlier about Type III inflatable life vests. The other kind of life jacket in this class is a Type III inherently buoyant jacket. If you’re doing supervised aquatic activities, among them using personal watercraft, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, water skiing, racing dinghies, or sailing, then a normal Type III is recommended. Adult-sized life jackets in this class have 15.5 pounds of buoyancy.

Not too dissimilar from Type II inherently buoyant life vests, Type IIIs can protect you if you’re in inland waters and not super far from the shoreline. You should also be rescued soon, not hours from now. If the waters are rough and you’re expected to survive in them for hours, a Type III might not be suitable. 

Another issue with Type IIIs is the lack of flotation, even if these are among the most comfortable regular life vests. Most importantly, you can’t promise that you’ll flip upward with a Type III inherently buoyant life vest, which is problematic. 

Type IV Throwable Devices

Okay, so a Type IV isn’t a life vest, but rather, a throwable device. It still fits under the umbrella of regular life jackets though, so we included it here. Type IVs are great to have on your sailboat.

Type IV throwable devices have between 16.5 and 18 pounds of buoyancy. If one of your fellow guests capsizes in the water, you’d toss them this throwable device, which they can grab onto. These throwable devices are available in three styles: a horseshoe-shaped buoy, the classic ring-shaped buoy, or a square inflatable cushion.

You should never offer children a Type IV flotation device, nor those passengers who can’t swim. If someone is unconscious, they can’t grab onto the flotation device, making it moot. You also shouldn’t sit on a Type IV when not in use in the water, as you can break down the foam and make the device less effective.

Keep your Type IV in a place where you can reach it and throw it into the water at a moment’s notice. Don’t hide it in a cabinet or a locker, as those seconds you waste finding it could be the difference between life and death.  

Type V Special Use Life Vests

The last type of regular life vest is the Type V special use life vest. These jackets include float coats, commercial whitewater vests, paddling vests, deck suits, and sailboard harnesses. The buoyancy varies depending on the style of vest, but you should expect 15.5 to 22 pounds of buoyancy for an adult special use life vest.

To acquiesce with the US Coast Guard, if the activity you’re doing requires a Type V special use life vest, wear it before you start doing said activity. 

Which Type of Life Vest Is Best for Sailing?

Now that we’ve exhaustively covered the types of both inflatable and regular life jackets, it’s time to circle back around to our original question. Which type of life vest is the best choice for sailing?

Type II inherently buoyant life vests, Type III inherently buoyant life vests, and Type III inflatable life vests are all US Coast Guard-approved for sailing. We would recommend regular life vests over inflatable ones. 

Why? For a few reasons. For one, inflatable life jackets often require a degree of effort from you, such as pulling a cord or even orally inflating the vest. If you just fell out of a sailboat and you’re in cold water, you need to conserve your energy. Spending that energy filling up your life vest, while important, does sap you of energy that you could need for other activities, such as rescue.

Although you can buy an automatic inflatable life vest, you often have to be submerged quite deep into the water before the vest activates, such as four inches. Plus, what if the automatic inflation fails? It can happen. You’re then left with manual inflation again.

The biggest reason we’d recommend a regular life vest over an inflatable one is the propensity of the former to save lives. Many inflatable life vests may not necessarily flip your face out of the water. Some regular life vests also won’t, but far fewer. 

If you’re unconscious, you don’t know how to swim, or you’re too weak to swim, you need your life jacket to keep you afloat. Inflatable life vests are definitely great for buoyancy, although not always flotation. A regular life jacket in the type recommended for your activity is likely a safer choice. 


The US Coast Guard categorizes life vests into five types, four jackets and one throwable device. Life vests are available as regular, non-inflating types or inflating varieties. Although inflatable life jackets are more comfortable and they offer great buoyancy, they don’t float well and won’t always keep your head out of water. They can also take valuable time to inflate, time that you don’t necessarily have.

Above all, follow the US Coast Guard rules when choosing a life vest for sailing. This way, you can ensure your safety and that of everyone on your boat. All the best.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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