Life Jackets vs. Comp Vests: Which One’s Best for Watersport

Life Jackets vs. Comp Vests: Which One’s Best for Watersport

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Whether you’re riding a water ski or wakeboard, or just riding atop your local lakes and rivers in your favorite boat, you should always wear appropriate safety gear when you’re on the water. Life jackets are the most important piece of safety gear you can buy when participating in any watersports. Wipe-outs and hard impacts can knock out a skier or wakeboarder – when this happens, the only thing that’ll prevent drowning is a life jacket.

But plenty of watersport goers choose to wear something else instead: Competition vests, or “comp vests,” for short. What exactly is a comp vest? Is it a proper life jacket? Which one should you wear? Let’s review.

US Coast-Guard Approve Life Jackets

Before we compare comp vests and life jackets, we need to summarize what each flotation device does. Let’s start with life jackets. A real life jacket – one that can prevent drowning, and keep a wearer above water if they’re unconscious – must be rated by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Life jackets with a Coast Guard rating are usually advertised as “CGA-” or “USCGA-” (US Coast Guard) approved. Any CGA-approved life jacket must have enough flotation to keep the wearer above the water line.

Some CGA jackets will even turn the wearer face-up automatically – this is critically important for those engaging in high-speed watersports (like skiing and wakeboarding), because the chance of being knocked unconscious is very real, and surprisingly common.

Competition Vests

Competition vests look like life jackets, and they’re made to float – but, importantly, they’re not Coast Guard-approved. That’s because they simply don’t have enough padding nor flotation to keep the wearer above the water on their own. 

In other words, a comp vest won’t stop a wearer from drowning. Instead, a comp vest will provide additional buoyancy, making treading water easier. But the wearer must remain conscious and try to remain above water under their own power, to some degree.

What’s The Point of a Comp Vest?

You’re probably asking why a competition vest is even an option. The answer’s simple: CGA-approved life jackets are big and bulky, and they don’t provide the best range of motion nor maneuverability for the wearer. 

Being able to flex, bend, twist, and move freely is important for any water skier or wakeboarder. That’s why many watersport riders choose to wear a comp vest instead. Comp vests are significantly slimmer and more maneuverable, providing little to no restriction and allowing for proper form when skiing or boarding. 

Life Jacket vs. Comp Vest: Which Should You Choose?

Competition vests are designed for experienced riders participating in – as the name suggests – competitive watersports. That means a comp vest is only suitable if you’re on a closed slalom ski course or participating in a planned water skiing or wakeboarding event. In these settings, quick rescue is always close by, and riders are usually deft swimmers who know how to reduce the risk of suffering injuries while riding.

If you’re a casual water skier or wakeboarder, if you’re riding a towed tube, or if you’re otherwise participating in any recreational watersports or boating on any public body of water, should wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

Local and state laws in virtually all 50 U.S. states even legally require boaters, water skiers, wakeboarders, boat tubers, and anyone else recreating on the water to wear a CGA life jacket.

Type I vs Type III Flotation Aids

When you pick a comp vest or life jacket, you’ll likely see both flotation aids listed as “Type I” or “Type III.” These ratings refer to the safety rating assigned to a particular life jacket or vest based on its buoyancy. 

Virtually all competition vests are non-CGA Type III flotation aids. But CGA-approved life jackets can be categorized as Type III or Type I flotation aids.

To keep things simple: Type III life jackets and vests are slimmer and lighter, and are primarily intended for near-shore and freshwater activities, or activities wherein a quick rescue by a boater is always nearby. Type I life jackets have much larger flotation pads, providing the most buoyancy for deep-water and ocean activities.

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