blue lifejacket hanging on a pole

It’s that time of the year! On May 19, 2022, we celebrate National Lifejacket Day, a moment to promote the use of lifejackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs). The team at DSH has put together some tips and resources about these lifesaving must-haves, so you are super ready for your next boating trip!


Why a National Lifejacket Day?

Canada is a water country, for us, summers mean trips to lakes, rivers or oceans in which we swim, boat, fish, canoe, kayak, etc. Yet, most people aren’t aware of the possible dangers or accidents that can occur in the water, and sadly these actions can lead to drowning. The latest Lifesaving Society Drowning Report shows that “Of those who drown, 88% are not wearing, or are not properly wearing a lifejacket or PFD.”

That is why National Lifejacket day was created, to promote and encourage the use of lifejackets and PFDs. Because most boating-related drownings can be prevented when you accurately use them. There are a lot of cases of boaters that have the equipment at hand but do not wear it, and in an emergency,  they will not have time to put it on. That’s why this campaign wants to educate boaters of all ages to not only get the proper lifejackets and PFDs but also to wear them at all times. This campaign also wants to emphasize that pool and swim toys such as noddles, or inflatable rings, are not meant to be water safety equipment and must never replace a lifejacket or PFD.


What’s the difference between a lifejacket and a PFD?

Though commonly used as an interchangeable term, and both lifejackets and PFDs are designed to keep you afloat, there are some important differences to consider when buying one, especially considering the activity you plan to do on the water. Either way, it doesn’t matter which one you choose, the important fact is that you must wear it. 



One of the main differences between a lifejacket and a PFD is that lifejackets are designed to turn an unconscious person onto their back (away from the water), thus allowing them to breathe and reduce the risk of drowning. For the device to be able to do this, it must be bigger and bulkier than a PFD, which also provides a higher level of flotation and protection.

To be wearable, lifejackets must indicate that they are Canada-approved on their label. Red, orange, and yellow are the authorized colours for these devices since they are easier to spot in the water, they must also always have an attached whistle. 

In Canada, there are three approved types of lifejackets: Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Standard and Small Vessel. The difference between them resides mainly in the speed at which they will turn you away from the water, and the sizing options. Lifejackets will also provide more thermal protection, than a PFD. 


Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Contrary to lifejackets, PFDs are lighter and more comfortable, meant to be worn all day without interrupting any activity. They have reduced floating and turning capabilities, however, they are designed to keep you afloat and come in a variety of colours, sizes, styles and types.  

PFDs are specifically designed for different water activities (fast-boating, sailing, kayaking, etc) and have technical specifications and variations depending on their intended use. Some will have more insulating materials for cold-water sports, others might be more resistant in case of a speedboat emergency, and others might be designed to allow easier movement for fishing or rowing. 

Even though there are lots of options in the market, be sure to always look for the Canada-approved label. The only organizations in Canada that can certify Lifejackets and PFDs are Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.  

Deciding if you are buying a lifejacket or a PFD depends on the water activity you have planned. Now let’s look at the most important aspects you need to know when buying your water-safety equipment. 


What to look for?

Buying a lifejacket or PDF can be overwhelming due to the extensive offer of styles, colours, and varieties. The one thing they all must have in common is that they are Canadian-approved. You can check this on the label. But do not worry, follow these recommendations to make your shopping experience much simpler. 



PFD sizing is different for adults and children. Adults’ size will be determined by chest size, while for children, the determining factor is weight. All children that weigh more than 20 pounds should wear a PFD or lifejacket when in or around water. If your child weighs less than 20 pounds, it is not recommended to go boating with them. There are no approved flotation devices for children who weigh 20 pounds or less. 

A common mistake parents make when buying a PFD for their children is that they buy a bigger one with the idea that their kid will “grow into it”. Always make sure your kid is the correct weight for the lifejacket you intend to buy. Weight specifications will always be on the label. 

A well-fitted PFD with all buckles and zippers in place will be snug, but not so tight that refrains movement or easy breathing. For children, you should not be able to lift it up their ears or over their head. Zippers and buckles should always be manageable, sturdy and rust-free. 

When trying on an option, move around the store, sit down, move your arms, etc. Same for kids. The idea is that the PFD feels as comfortable as possible, and doesn’t cause any friction or rashes. 

Make sure to check the PFD fits on your child every time they wear it. Walking, sitting, breathing and bending over should be easy to do actions. 



The Canadian Coast Guard recommends bright colours like red, orange, and yellow for your PFDs since they are very visible in the water. 



As mentioned earlier, the features you choose on your PFD vary according to the activity you want it for, but some general tips can be helpful. 

The ideal PFD for children should have a large collar (for head support) with a grab strap, functioning buckles and zippers, front and back waist-ties, a safety strap between the legs that impedes the PFD from slipping over their head, a whistle, and reflective tape. 

A popular type of PFD is the inflatable or self-inflatable one, to use this device you must be over 16 years old and weigh more than 36 kilograms. In Canada, inflatable PFDs are not approved for specific activities such as riding a personal watercraft, paddling in white water, being towed behind a boat or using a sailboard. 



Especially if you have kids, it is very important to test your new PFD before going to open waters. 

In a controlled environment, put on the PDF and wade into the water until you reach chest level. Then bend your knees and float on your back. If the PFD works correctly, your head should be above water and you should be able to breathe with no complications. Practice swimming on your back and stomach until you feel comfortable with the device. When testing a lifejacket for kids, remember to always supervise them. 

Teach and practice with your kids the movements needed to float on their backs. 



If you want your PFD to last, it must be properly stored and maintained. Lifejackets and PFDs are not cushions to be sat or reclined on, the weight could damage them and make them unsafe. Store them in a dry area with good ventilation. 

Every time you use your PFD on you or your kids, inspect the device thoroughly for signs of wear. Replace it if you find any rips,  broken zippers, straps, buckles, rot, or mildew. Use mild soap and water to clean it and air-dry it in the shade. 


Checklist for Choosing a Lifejacket or PFD

Red Cross Canada has put together a very handy checklist you can take with you when buying or testing your PFD or lifejacket: 

  • Is it Canadian-approved?
  • Will it support the person it was made for?
  • Are all the snaps, belts, ties, tapes and/or zippers in good condition?
  • Is it easy to put on and take off?
  • Can you move your arms freely when wearing it?
  • Does it let you bend at the waist?
  • Can you see the ground at your feet and walk over obstacles easily?
  • Does it keep your head above water?
  • Can you swim and manoeuvre easily in the water?
  • Have you attached a whistle to your flotation device?

Where to wear a lifejacket or PFD?

Regardless of their swim experience, or the presence of a lifeguard, all children and teenagers should always wear a lifejacket or PFD when on a boat/raft, or when swimming in open water. For kids under 5 years old, it is also recommended that they wear these devices in and around the water, including docks and beaches. Older kids that are non-swimmers or are not water-confident should also wear a PFD or lifejacket at docks. 

If you want your child to be comfortable with a lifejacket on, lead by example and also wear one in the above-mentioned situations. You are the best mirror for your kid to imprint on. Furthermore, it will be easier for a child to get used to a lifejacket or PDF when they are younger, so start at an early age and make it a standard practice every time you go boating or are near water. 

Though they are lifesaving equipment, PFDs and lifejackets do not replace adult supervision. Make sure to keep your child within arm’s reach when in, on, or around water. 

As part of the DSH program, kids will learn how to properly use a lifejacket and how to float on their backs while wearing it, plus other swim safety tips. Sign up for swim lessons and increase your kids’ swimming confidence.