Boating safety is important in the Lone Star State, and it all starts with wearing your life jackets. 

The BOATsmart! way of life is all about enjoying that particular brand of fun that seems to come out on the water. There’s something about how the sun sparkles on the waves and glistens on the surface. However, the significance of wearing a life jacket on the water in Texas can’t be overstated. 

Texans have it good when it comes to waterfront fun, whether floating the river and tubing in the lake or enjoying time on the beach and swimming in the ocean. With 15 major rivers, thousands of streams, over 7,000 lakes and even part of the Gulf of Mexico, boating and water activities are a big part of life for many residents and visitors of the Lone Star State. With all of that fun comes a need for safety. 

We’re breaking down everything you need to know about wearing a life jacket in Texas.

Who needs to wear a life jacket in Texas?

Under 13: According to Texas state law and the Water Safety Act, all children under 13 years of age on any vessel under 26 feet must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. 

16-feet or Less: All vessels under 16 feet — including canoes and kayaks — must be equipped with a personal flotation device for each person on board. 

16-feet or More: All vessels 16 feet or longer must also be equipped with an additional, throwable Type IV flotation device.

Motorcraft: Each person operating a personal watercraft must also wear a life jacket, regardless of their age. 

Illustration of children's life jacket with lable indicating approval.

What are the exceptions to Texas life jacket laws?

Children under 13 years of age are not required to wear a life jacket if below the deck or in an enclosed cabin. 

Canoes and kayaks longer than 16 feet are exempt from the requirement for an additional, Type IV throwable device. 

Who should wear life jackets in Texas? 

Texas ranks 6th in the country for registered boats, and has more square miles of inland water than any other state in the nation, making it a hotspot for boating. While there isn’t always a specific legal requirement for every person on a boat, canoe or kayak to wear a life jacket, that doesn’t diminish its importance. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, 85% of boating accident fatalities were from not wearing a life jacket. 

While life jackets won’t stop a boating accident, they most definitely can prevent fatalities due to drowning. The truth is, boaters and swimmers often don’t think that drowning can happen to them. Unfortunately, that’s not true — and by the simple act of wearing a life jacket, Texas boaters can add an extra layer of safety to their excursions. Life jackets can help you stay afloat in the case of a boating accident, a strong current, cold weather, or from swimmers fatigue. Wearing a life jacket and insist that your friends and family wear one too.

If your days on the water involve swimming with your pet, make sure that they’re also protected with a life jacket meant for animals. This provides an extra layer of protection should your pup or animal be caught in a bad situation.

What are fines for non-compliance?

Those violating life jacket requirements in Texas state may be subject to a fine of $25 – $500.

Who enforces life jacket laws?

Boating safety and life jacket laws in the state of Texas are enforced by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Marine Safety Enforcement Officers

Additional peace officers in Texas can become MSEO certified to help enforce safety and the Water Safety Act. 

Life jacket requirements in Texas

All life jackets worn in Texas must be Coast Guard-approved, including those made available on vessels. Each life jacket on board or on a person should be in good condition and fit the wearer properly. This means that each life jacket needs to be sized appropriately for the wearer.

Child-sized life jackets should only be worn by children, and adult-sized life jackets should only be worn by adults. Make sure to have both child-sized and adult life jackets available on your vessel, and ensure that you have enough life jackets to be in compliance with the Water Safety Act.

Illustration of three different life jackets / PFDs

What are the different types of life jackets?

Life jackets — which used to fall in the category of Personal Flotation Devices (PFD’s) in the states — come in several classifications, which have changed and evolved over time. While the classification process is now different, life jackets classified by type are still allowed and approved by the Coast Guard, as long as they’re in good condition. 

By knowing the different types of classifications, you’ll be able to pick out the perfect life jacket for you and your needs. 

Old US Life Jacket Terminology

Though now known as the old labeling system, types were considered a great way to label life jackets in the past. Life jackets and PFD’s with these older labels — the type labels — are still fine to use and are approved, but they are being phased out and replaced with new labels as time goes on.

Illustration of a Type I Life jacket / PFD

Type I PFD’s – Inherently Buoyant: Type I Personal Flotation Devices are good for every kind of water condition, from the calmest of waves to the roughest of waters. They’re not a lightweight type of life jacket, but their bulkier build makes them incredibly buoyant. When wearing a Type I PFD, most unconscious individuals will be turned face-up. 

Inflatable Type I PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 33.7 lb

Foam Type I PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 22.5 Ibs

Illustration of Type II life jacket / PFD

Type II PFD’s – Near-Shore Buoyant Vests: Type II PFD’s are meant for wearers that will be boating close to shore in locations where there is a high chance of a quick rescue. Type II PFD’s are also wearable for long days of water and land adventures, still being buoyant while not super bulky. 

Inflatable Type II PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of  33.7 lb

Foam Type II PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 15.5 lb

Illustration of a type II life jacket / PFD

Type III PFD’s – Flotation Aids: Also known as inshore buoyant vests, Type III PFD’s are meant for situations in which the wearer can see the shore and the waters are relatively calm. Type III PFD’s, are designed with swimming and recreational boating activities and water-sports in mind. 

Inflatable Type III PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 22.5 lb

Foam Type III PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 15.5 lb

Illustration of a type IV throwable-device PFD

Type IV PFD’s – Throwable Devices: Type IV PFD’s aren’t life jackets but are designed to be thrown to a person needing rescue in the water (such as a buoyant ring, a life ring, etc).

Throwable Device Type IV PFD Minimum Buoyancy: A minimum of 16.5 lb

Illustration of a Type V life jacket / PFD

Type V PFD’s – Special-Use Devices: Type V PFD’s are specially designed for specific uses. From devices used to prevent hypothermia, or for rescue operations to those meant for kayaking, Type V PFD’s must be used according to their specifications. Some of these devices are not approved for certain activities, or must be worn to be approved for use. 

Minimum buoyancy: Depends on specific PFD

New US Life Jacket Terminology (Performance System)

While life jackets categorized by type are still approved for use as long as they’re in good condition, the new US classification system for life jackets relies on performance categories.

Inherent Life Jackets: These devices are always buoyant (usually made of foam) and meant to float immediately without any action required by the wearer. They are adjustable, they are typically in vest form and they are of an accessible price and maintenance standard. 

Inherent wearable life jackets are offered in a variety of performance levels, making them a great choice for most activity levels and environments.

Inflatable Life Jackets: These devices inflate with air (usually with an installed gas canister) and are activated when the wearer pulls the tube to inflate them. Inflatables come in a variety of performance levels, but are never recommended for weak or non-swimmers, children or those on personal watercraft. 

Inflatable life jackets are also low bulk until inflated, making them a great option for constant wear. 

Hybrid or Multi-Chamber Devices: These devices combine inherent material like foam along with an inflatable chamber. As Hybrid devices, these typically perform with full buoyancy without inflation, and inflation adds additional performance that can sometimes even include turning and freeboard.

However, Hybrid wearers must be aware of the ability of the device they wear to stand up to their performance. Some of these devices do not offer maximum buoyancy until inflated.

Special Purpose: These devices are meant for specific activities or restricted circumstances, and they often require extra training or action by the wearer. This classification lends itself to extra buoyancy for white water rafting or providing additional visibility, inflatable belt pouches or manual inflation devices.

Illustration of new life jacket label indicating performance system

New Performance System Label Icons

New life jacket labels will feature an icon and number to indicate the intended conditions for use. The numbers range from Level 50 – Level 275, with smaller level life jackets intended for use in calm water and close-to-shore scenarios, and higher level life jackets which are ideal for rougher waters, and situations where rescue may take longer. 

Level 50: This performance level is recommended for users who have strong swimming skills, and are best for close-to-shore scenarios where immediate assistance is available. Life jackets of this type will not turn the wearer face-up in the water. 

Level 70: This performance level is recommended for calm or sheltered waters that are close to shore, and where help is nearby. They will not turn the wearer face up in the water. 

Level 100: This performance level is also recommended for use in calm waters, however they will provide enough flotation that the wearer will have more time to wait for rescue. They have some turning ability, but will not always turn the wearer face up. 

Level 150: Devices of this performance level are more buoyant and are appropriate for off-shore scenarios, and will turn the wearer face up in the water. 

Level 275: Devices with a 275 performance rating are the most buoyant and are designed for offshore emergency rescue situations. They can be used by SAR crews, and will handle the additional weight of tools, equipment, or clothing. 

New life jacket labels will also feature a warning panel. This panel will include important information about the device and it’s intended use, in addition to indicating activities that are not recommended for the performance level of the device such as water-skiing, towed sports, and personal watercraft operation.  

How to fit life jackets properly

Life jackets should be snug, comfortable, adjustable and not able to rise above the wearer’s ears. Each person should wear a life jacket meant for their size, weight and body type, and wearers should ensure that the life jacket is intended for the situation that the wearer will be in.

These keys will help you to adjust your life jacket properly:

  • Put on a life jacket and make sure all pieces are fastened and zipped loosely, adjusting from there
  • After zipping up the life jacket, tighten from the bottom first and work your way up. Make sure that the bottom clasp is snapped in place
  • Adjust each side adjustment to make a snug fit, and keep them even so that your life jacket doesn’t ride up on one side
  • Tighten the shoulder straps last
  • Once adjusted, raise hands above the head. If a life jacket rises above the wearer’s chin or if it feels incredibly tight, adjust for another size. The wearer should be able to comfortably move in the life jacket
  • When possible, do a fit-test in the water. Float onto your back to ensure the life jacket doesn’t ride up, slip over your head and keeps you afloat
Illustration of a man in a boat house where life jackets are being stored

Life jacket best practices

Life jackets must be properly maintained to ensure that they’ll work when needed. If you store and maintain your life jackets, they can last you for many seasons.

Here are our tips for storing and maintaining life jackets so that they’ll last:

  • Wipe life jackets down with a gentle cleanser specifically made for life jackets
  • Store life jackets in a well-ventilated area, and let them drip dry first
  • Check life jackets each season for any loose fastenings, rips or tears

Note: Do not lay jackets in direct sunlight or heat, as this can eventually affect their buoyancy.

While floating, boating and water sporting in Texas, make sure that every operator is legally able to do so. Everyone in Texas born after September 1, 1993, must have a Texas Boater Education Card to drive a boat or operate a personal watercraft. However, everyone can benefit from a boater safety education course.

If you’re ready to be as safe as possible on the water, grab a life jacket and complete a BOATsmart! course. Our courses are engaging — with animated and narrated lessons, you’ll learn in a fun way that’s perfect for all ages. As a Coast Guard and NASBLA-approved provider, we’re the best choice for those looking to keep safety first and fun right behind it.