Can You Swim With A Lifejacket On? (I tried it)


a swimmer in the sea swimming while wearing a buoyancy aid

As someone who learned to swim later in life, I am so grateful for life jackets and buoyancy aids, as they have allowed me to enjoy the water safely for years.

Lifejackets are designed to save your life in the water and they are recommended for all water users, strong swimmers included.

I have heard many strong swimmers complain they cannot swim in a lifejacket. What they actually mean is that they do not have a full range of motion to move freely in the water and perform a perfect front crawl stroke.

Traditional swim strokes such as front crawl can be difficult to do while wearing a lifejacket. Because of the bulky size and strong buoyancy offered by a lifejacket, you will need to adapt your swim strokes. Often, swimming on your back is the easiest way to move through the water with a lifejacket on.

Lifejackets are an essential item. According to the RNLI, around 200 people drown in the coastal waters around the UK and Ireland each year, as a result of people taking part in a wide range of waterside and water-based activities. [source]

In this article, I will explain what it feels like to wear a lifejacket and what to expect, including:

  • Can you swim with a lifejacket on?
  • What is the difference between a PFD, buoyancy aid, and a lifejacket? 
  • How to swim in a lifejacket.

Can You Swim With A Lifejacket On?

Lifejackets are designed to protect your life in the water and it is recommended that everyone wear one, even if they are a strong swimmer.

Here is advice regarding wearing a lifejacket from Gareth Morrison, head of water safety at the RNLI

“Our advice is simple, always wear a lifejacket when you’re on the water, as accidents can and do happen to anyone, regardless of your experience or ability,” says Gareth Morrison, head of water safety at the RNLI

Marine Industry News

I have heard strong swimmers complain they cannot swim with a lifejacket on, as they do not have a full range of motion or too much buoyancy to complete a front crawl or other traditional swim strokes.

As lifejackets keep you buoyant and keep your head out of the water, it can be very difficult to place your face in the water and complete a front crawl. At the end of the day, the function of the lifejacket is to keep your head, in particular your air passages, out of the water.

Having tried to swim in a lifejacket, I have found that the most effective way to move around is to lie on your back and kick. The only swim stroke I can manage in a lifejacket is the backstroke or lying on my back while completing a scissor kick.

How well you can swim and move in the water depends on the actual lifejacket, as there are many types which vary in the following ways:

  • The amount of buoyancy they offer
  • The shape and fit
  • The ability to flip an unconscious person onto their back in the water.

What Is The Difference Between A PFD, Buoyancy Aid And Lifejacket? 

PFD stands for Personal Flotation Device. Both buoyancy aids and lifejackets are types of personal flotation devices. 

Buoyancy Aids

Buoyancy aids are designed to act as an aid to keep you afloat in the water. They are not designed to be lifesaving tools, just an aid.

They should only be used where help is close, by water users who can help themselves, and when some buoyancy aid is needed.

There are many types of buoyancy aids on the market, and they are often tailored to specific water sports. For example, a buoyancy aid designed for kayaking will allow a lot more movement in the shoulder region.

Lifejackets

Lifejackets are designed to save your life. Unlike buoyancy aids, which are just an aid to swimming, a lifejacket should meet a high specification.

Some lifejackets will turn an unconscious person upright in the water so they can still breathe.

New lifejackets sold in the UK and Europe should meet the International Standards Organisation standard ISO12402.

Within this standard, there are different levels of lifejacket, which are suitable for different levels of water sports activities. [source]

Lifejacket LevelWater Activity
Level 100Sheltered or calm waters where help is nearby. May not roll an unconscious body onto their back.
May not have enough buoyancy to help someone who cannot help themselves according to the RNLI
Level 150High standard of performance.
Coastal and offshore activities.
Should turn an unconscious body onto their back.
Level 275Offshore extreme conditions.
Will flip a person onto their back.
Can provide buoyancy and compensate for additional heavy protective clothing being worn.
This Table Shows The Different Levels Of Lifejacket Standards

Lifejackets will also have additional safety features such as a bright colour that can be seen in the water and a whistle, with some even having a light. [source]

There are a wide variety of lifejackets on the market and it is essential to get the right life jacket for the type of activity you will do on the water. It can really mean the difference between life and death. [source]

Do Lifejackets Work If You Can’t Swim?

Lifejackets which meet standard levels of 150 & 275 are designed to work for everyone. This level of life jacket should turn an unconscious person upright and keep non-swimmers afloat with sufficient buoyancy. [source]

Buoyancy aids and lifejackets which have a level standard of 50 and 100 are not recommended for non-swimmers. Although they offer buoyancy, they will not flip an unconscious person upright and are only recommended for swimmers who can help themselves. 

How comfortable and well your lifejacket works depends on how well it fits and how suitable it is for your water activity.

According to the RNLI, most 150 and 275-level lifejackets are suitable for all adults weighing over 40kg. Since all adults have a net weight of 5kg when immersed in water, you do not need a lifejacket with more buoyancy just because you are big. However, it is essential to get a good fit. [source]

How To Swim In A Lifejacket

Often the most effective way to move through the water while wearing a lifejacket is to float on your back, especially for non-swimmers.

  1. Lie on your back with your face looking upwards.
  2. Gently kick your legs, and you will feel your body start to move. You can try a regular kick, where there is a slight bend in your knee or a scissor kick.
  3. For extra propulsion, you could use your arms to gently pull yourself through the water. To do this, place your hands out to shoulder level and gently sweep down into the water until your hands are moving towards your feet.
  4. If you get tired, just stop and rest, as the lifejacket should have enough buoyancy to support you as you float on the water.

The only problem I had while trying to swim with a lifejacket on was fit. If your lifejacket is not secured with straps or a snug fit, it could ride up, which is uncomfortable and makes it a little harder to have more control in the water.

If you find the lifejacket is not fitting well while in the water, use the adjustable straps to get a better fit.

Final Thoughts

A lifejacket is a piece of safety equipment that can save your life. It is important to choose the right one for the water activity you are doing and make sure it fits well.

There are different levels of lifejackets depending on how extreme the conditions will be, and they should all meet high specifications in order to work effectively.

You can swim in a lifejacket, although because of the high level of buoyancy offered and bulky size, it may not be possible to complete traditional swim strokes such as the front crawl.

At the end of the day, lifejackets are recommended for all water users, on or next to the water, for both swimmers and non-swimmers.

Be safe and happy swimming!

Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure. I am also authour of the "The Mindful Swimmer", the very first mindful journal and swimming log book which combines the art of mindfulness and swimming so you can get even more from your swims. Check it out here on Amazon.

Recent Posts