Can You Drown with a Life Jacket On? (Explained)


Life jackets are often thought to be a person’s saving grace in emergency crises involving the water. Unfortunately, wearing a life jacket does not necessarily guarantee that you’re safe from the clutches of drowning.

You can drown with a life jacket on. Rough water conditions, unconsciousness, underwater entrapment, hypothermia, old or poorly maintained life jackets, and loose-fitting life jackets can cause a person to drown if they’re not careful.

It’s important to be aware of each and every one of these dangers so that you can take steps to circumvent them. We will explore each of these drowning risks in detail below, along with tips on how to stay safe in the water while wearing a life jacket.

Why You Can Drown with a Life Jacket On

Unfortunately, many people are under the false notion that wearing a life jacket completely eliminates the possibility of drowning. Putting on a life jacket certainly helps to reduce drowning risk, but it doesn’t render it a non-factor. There are still several dangers that can affect even those that choose to wear a life jacket, which we will discuss below.

Rough Water Conditions Can Force Water Down Breathing Airways

Life jackets may be able to keep a person near the water’s surface, but it cannot fully protect against the rough side of Mother Nature. Those that take an involuntary plunge into whitewater conditions are at the mercy of the waves or currents. If these conditions are severe enough, there’s a realistic possibility that fallen swimmers can succumb to flush drowning.

As a quick reference, flush drowning describes a situation in which a fallen swimmer is moving downstream and continually being dunked underwater. This repeated submersion eventually causes the fallen swimmer to lose consciousness and perish due to lack of oxygen (source).

The tougher the water conditions, the greater the danger of flush drowning. This general trend was confirmed in a recent study where drowning fatalities were monitored in the Rocky Mountain Region, as shown. in the table below (source):

ClassificationPercentage of Whitewater Fatalities
Class I & II12%
Class III31%
Class IV38%
Class V19%

The trend above can be attributed to the constant impact of the waves, spray, and general disorientation that prevents the breathing airways from functioning correctly. Under these circumstances, water inevitably finds a way to obstruct the mouth and nose, no matter how experienced the swimmer may be.

Even though life jackets do offer buoyancy, they’re not meant to combat serious complications like these. They’re merely designed to keep the person afloat, not shield them from the constant force of the waves.

This is the underlying reason why whitewater paddlers have to take such extreme precautions to avoid capsizing. Any wrong move that throws them into the whitewater could prove fatal.

Cannot Protect Against Unconsciousness in the Water

As aforementioned, flush drowning may result in unconsciousness due to the inability to get oxygen into the lungs. However, it’s important to note that unconsciousness can be a danger in and of itself.

In the event that someone accidentally takes a serious blow to the head, they can become incapacitated and lose their ability to keep their head above water.

Even if they have a life jacket on, it will matter little if their head is face-down and their breathing pathways are blocked. Depending on the nature of their fall, facing head down in the water could be the most likely scenario.

Sadly, the potential for experiencing head trauma and subsequent unconsciousness is not a possibility that can simply be ignored. Any fallen swimmer could easily hit their head on their watercraft or a hard rock on their way down into the water. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that such a blow could cause someone to lose consciousness.

Wearing a life jacket may boost a swimmer’s chances of survival, but only to a point. There’s no guarantee that a life jacket could save an unconscious individual from drowning. Brain damage, and eventual death, could occur within just four to six minutes of continuously breathing in water (source).

It goes without saying, but that’s a very brief stint of time. Under these circumstances, every second is precious. If another person doesn’t act within this four to six minute timeframe, irreversible damage will be inflicted on the neuronal cell, to the point where any resuscitation efforts will be futile.

Underwater Entrapment Renders Life Jackets Useless

Another potential drowning hazard is underwater entrapment. The most prevalent form of this is foot entrapment, where an individual’s foot gets pinned beneath underwater debris and the force of the current causes them to fall. The entrapped foot restricts their mobility, making it near impossible for them to resurface (source).

Although foot entrapments occur in shallow waters, this doesn’t make this hazard any less concerning. If the current has enough force behind it, even knee-high waters could pose a serious drowning risk. You may have an exhaustion threshold, but a river does not. The current will continue to run its course, heedless of how tired you may be.

Life jackets are no guarantee of safety in this type of situation, particularly if you fall forward. Since your head is face-down in the water and your foot’s completely entangled, there’s no way for you to deliver any oxygen to your lungs. Your fate lies in the hands of those around you.

Foot entrapments are not the only form of underwater entrapment though. Rock undercuts are yet another hazard that can trap swimmers underwater.

As rivers continue to flow year after year, rocky banks slowly get eroded away and create an overhang (source). The worst of these rocky overhangs have rocks underneath as well, creating a dangerous sieve. If the current draws a person into this rock undercut, it will be very difficult to pass through the other side or go back out the way they came.

Again, life jackets will not be of great benefit in this scenario. They will not magically allow you to fit through a tight sieve and come out unscathed. The only way to not succumb to this drowning hazard is to avoid getting entrapped in the first place.

Hypothermic Conditions Can Compromise Your Ability to Swim

Another commonly overlooked drowning danger is the threat of hypothermia. In many popular aquatic locations, the water temperature can dip extremely low, to the point where hypothermia becomes a real danger.

Many people are surprised to find that hypothermia can arise in water temperatures as high as 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit with prolonged exposure (source). Generally, the lower the water temperature, the faster the onset of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is directly correlated with drowning in that it can cause a person to lose consciousness in severe cases. As aforementioned, a lack of consciousness puts a person at a greater risk for fatal water immersion.

Life jackets may add another layer of insulation onto a fallen swimmer’s body, but prolonged exposure to hypothermic conditions will affect the individual eventually.

Even if a lack of consciousness doesn’t cause a person to drown, the lack of body heat is sufficient enough to deal fatal damage on its own. Once a person’s core body temperature plunges below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s only a matter of time at that point (source).

Think about the character, Jack, from the film Titanic. Ultimately, it wasn’t drowning that caused him to pass away, it was hypothermia (source). The lack of body heat caused the vital organs in his body to shut down, which ultimately led to his demise. No life jacket could’ve saved him from this fate.

Old or Poorly Maintained Life Jackets Will Lack Buoyancy

Contrary to popular opinion, life jackets do lose their buoyancy over time. Physical wear and tear with constant use damages the buoyant material within the life jacket itself, which detracts from its ability to keep you afloat on the water’s surface.

You will exhaust yourself much more quickly with an old or poorly maintained life jacket that has lost a significant amount of buoyancy because you have to put that much more effort into treading water. If enough time passes without outside assistance, this compounded exhaustion can lead to drowning.

Since there’s no definitive expiration date to life jackets, it can be difficult to tell exactly when it’s a good idea to replace them. Not only that, but since the material on the interior is the root of the problem, it’s hard to see how much damage has been done. The outside may look perfectly fine, but the insides may be destroyed beyond repair.

Life jackets that are well-kept can last several years longer than poorly treated life jackets. Even so, the standard life span of a foam jacket is approximately ten years (source). So if your life jackets are nearing that decade mark, it may be time to consider investing in a fresh set.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be afraid of using your own judgment either. If you notice that one of your life jackets isn’t up to standard, it’s time to buy a new one. You don’t want to have to deal with this issue when an emergency strikes. It’s better to be prepared beforehand.

Inflatable Life Jackets May Not Inflate Properly

Foam jackets aren’t the only type of life jackets out there. Inflatable jackets are also popular, though they present their own set of problems:

  • Insufficient Inflation – Since inflatable life jackets rely on air for flotation rather than buoyant material, it’s critical that enough air is fed into the life jacket to keep its user at the water’s surface. A seemingly minor amount of deflation can cause major problems if an unexpected emergency does indeed come about.
  • Failure to Activate – Certain inflatable life jackets need to be activated for the material to fill up with air. If this activation mechanism fails to work for whatever reason, then its user is essentially left without a life jacket.
  • Punctures in Material – All it takes is one tiny puncture in the inflatable material for air to seep out. Such punctures can be hard to detect since they can rarely be discerned by the naked eye. As the air slowly leaks away, so does the buoyancy and the very function of the life jacket itself.

With all of these potential issues, inflatable life jackets are typically less durable than foam life jackets. Consequently, it’s recommended that they be replaced after 1 to 3 years of frequent use (source).

Loosely Strapped Life Jackets Can Slip Off

Lastly, it’s worth bearing in mind that just because you put on a life jacket during your trip doesn’t mean it will stay there during a crisis situation. An oversized life jacket can slip off if enough force is applied at the right angles.

Although it may cause some mild discomfort, life jackets should always fit snug around the torso. This way, if you do end up falling into rough water conditions, there’s little chance of the life jacket inadvertently sliding off. Wearing an oversized life jacket may feel less restrictive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Along those same lines, you should take care to tighten your straps accordingly. Wearing the appropriately sized life jacket won’t matter all that much if you deliberately have your straps unbuckled or at their loosest setting.

If you lose your life jacket in rough waters, your chances of drowning go up significantly. For this reason, you shouldn’t take these precautions lightly. It cannot be emphasized enough that just because you’re wearing a life jacket doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the hazards of drowning.

Is It Even Worth It to Wear a Life Jacket?

With all of the inherent dangers that fallen swimmers face while still wearing a life jacket, some of you may be questioning whether life jackets are even worth wearing.

To be clear, life jackets should be worn every time that you head out onto open water. You’re much better off wearing a life jacket than not wearing one in troubling situations.

There’s plenty of evidence to back up this claim. According to the statistics provided by members of the U.S. Coast Guard, “over 80% of drowning victims were NOT wearing life jackets when found” (source). That means for every five drowning fatalities, just one out of the five afflicted an individual with a life jacket on!

When crisis strikes, those that enter the water typically do so unexpectedly. Rarely do they ever have the luxury of grabbing a life jacket before being submerged.

This is why it’s so critical that you wear a life jacket at all times when you’re on any kind of watercraft. It only takes a few moments for the situation to go from safe to dire. You want to be fully equipped for when a precarious situation arises.

You may be the best swimmer in the world, but those skills won’t do you any good if you become unconscious. The unfortunate reality is that severe head trauma can incapacitate anyone, regardless of their swimming ability.

If you ever lose consciousness when you take a tumble into the water, your best hopes of survival lie with your life jacket and the people around you. Sadly, there’s no guarantee that you can rely on yourself to get to safety.

How to Minimize Drowning Risk While Wearing a Life Jacket

Now that we’ve gone through the various dangers of drowning with a life jacket, you’re likely wondering how to protect yourself against a danger that could strike at any moment. Everyone knows you should wear a life jacket at the bare minimum, but what else can you do to ensure your own personal safety?

Find a Life Jacket that Fits Properly

The very first precaution you should take is to locate and wear a life jacket that fits your specific body type. No two people have the exact same body type. You need to find a life jacket that’s tailored to you—whether you’re short or tall, slim or bulky, light or heavy.

Despite what you may have heard, life jackets are not one size fits all (source). They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. It may take a bit of trial and error on your part to find the life jacket that suits you best.

Although it can be tempting to rush through the life jacket selection in haste, you have to resist this urge. Taking the extra time and effort to decide on the best life jacket for yourself and your peers is the best way to ensure that it will not accidentally come off.

On top of that, it will also help to make sure that your life jacket will have enough buoyancy to support your weight. Not everyone floats. Negatively buoyant individuals may need a bit of extra flotation in their life jacket if they’re to stand a chance at remaining on the water’s surface.

You can learn more about why some individuals naturally sink in water by clicking over to Why Can’t Some People Float? (Everything You Need to Know!).

Plus, you’re far more likely to wear a life jacket if it’s comfortable. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you forget you’re even wearing one on the water. This way, wearing a life jacket won’t even be a big deal.

Maintain Old Life Jackets & Replace Broken-Down Ones

Another way to promote your own safety is to pay close attention to the quality of your life jackets and to take extra measures to extend their life span.

Your life jacket should have enough buoyancy to easily keep your chin above the water’s surface. If you test one of your old life jackets and find that it cannot meet this simple requirement, it’s time to ditch this life jacket for a new one.

To prolong the use of your life jacket, you should take extra care to stow them away properly with each and every use by implementing the following steps:

  • Protect Your Life Jackets from the Sun’s Rays – Constant exposure to the sun can progressively damage life jacket material as a result of UV radiation. You should keep your life jackets stowed away in a shaded area that’s not exposed to the elements.
  • Don’t Pack Your Life Jackets Underneath Heavy Items – Weight compression can also slowly damage the buoyant material of a life jacket. It can be tempting to throw your life jackets haphazardly into a storage area beneath other boating accessories, but this is not the best habit to get into.
  • Don’t Use Strong Detergents to Clean Your Life Jacket – It’s smart to remove the filth from your life jackets every once in a while, but not with strong detergents. A mild soap cleanser or even a simple water rinse should suffice.

Dress Warm to Protect Against Hypothermia

If you venture into waters where the temperature is icy cold, you should dress accordingly. Forgoing extra layers of warmth is not a smart habit to get into.

Wetsuits are largely considered the best outfits to wear for the purposes of conserving body warmth in the event that you do fall into freezing waters. This is because wetsuits trap a layer of water between your skin and the actual wetsuit material. Over time, your natural body heat warms up this water, which subsequently heats up your skin (source).

Plus, wetsuits are a great complement to life jackets. Life jackets can easily be worn over the wetsuit material, just like they would be worn normally with any other shirt.

Not only is dressing warm better for your safety, but it will also make for a much more enjoyable outing on the water. You don’t want to constantly be shivering simply because you didn’t put in the extra effort to wear more layers.

Travel in a Group, Not By Yourself

The last tip for keeping yourself safe on the water is to avoid traveling alone. Although you’ve likely heard it before, the fact remains that there’s safety in numbers. The more people you have around, the better off you’ll be if tragedy does strike unexpectedly.

Life jackets are a valuable piece of safety equipment on the water, but they’re not intended to be your sole line of protection. Venturing out onto the water with a support network reduces your chances of drowning significantly because everyone can look out for each other.

Even when you do travel in a group, however, it’s important to let a third party know where you’re heading and when you plan to be back. This is just another backup plan in case everything goes south for your entire group.

In short, the more information about your water escapades that you share with others, the safer you will be. You don’t want to leave yourself stranded in the water with a life jacket as your sole means of safety. To put it bluntly, that’s just a recipe for disaster.

All content written by HydroPursuit is for informational purposes only. The material found on this site is not intended to replace professional medical advice, treatment, or diagnosis. Consult with an accredited health care provider prior to initiating a new health care regimen.

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Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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