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Inspired by the question Where should a person who can't hold a paddle sit in a tandem kayak? "One friend was born without arms"

Many life jackets are vests that are in part, kept on the person by the arms extending through arm holes. If worn by a person without arms, it would seem likely the life jacket would easily slip off of the person rather then support them.

What kind of Life Jacket for a person without arms?

  • 6
    A simple crotch strap. – paparazzo Jul 27 '17 at 12:40
  • @Paparazzi I was having similar thoughts, is there an off the shelf version? If not what would be the best type to customize? How does the lack of arms impact the face up self recovery for an unconscious floating person, with the different styles? – James Jenkins Jul 27 '17 at 13:30
  • @JamesJenkins I've seen off-the-shelf life jackets with such a strap (normally of the emergency evacuation variety "pass the straps around your waist and between your legs"). – Chris H Jul 27 '17 at 14:50
  • 1
    Many paddling PFD's have a waist strap that snugs up under the ribs so the lifejacket can't ride up. – ShemSeger Jul 27 '17 at 15:11
  • Many (most) kids life jackets have crotch straps. They are also used in emergency life jackets because a poorly fitting jacket will work reliably (e.g. Aircraft where the jacket has to be 'one size fits all'). Last thing you want in an emergency is to form lines for the right sized life jacket and have people trying them on to find the right one (script for a dark comedy forming in the back of my mind). If price is not object, I imagine some adaptation using concept from leg straps from a climbing harness could be worth investigating. – user5330 Jul 29 '17 at 4:20
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The expensive way is to get a harness lifejacket.

The cheap way is to fit a crotch strap to a lifejacket (type 2 pfd), this is a standard part and I believe most lifejackets have fittings for one.

By your description I'm assuming in this case that you actually mean a buoyancy aid (type 3 pfd) rather than a lifejacket, but you can still follow the same principle of rigging a crotch strap or if you're concerned about your creative abilities and comfort, rig it to a climbing harness.

In practice, for someone with no arms, I would advise a proper lifejacket (type 2 pfd) unless they're a strong swimmer.

  • Why do you think I mean a buoyancy aid rather than a lifejacket? – James Jenkins Jul 27 '17 at 14:49
  • 1
    I would have assumed it too, from "vest". – Chris H Jul 27 '17 at 14:50
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    @JamesJenkins, the "vest" description matches buoyancy aids rather than the more common lifejacket designs, "jacket" not really being a suitable name for modern type 1/2 PFDs. – Separatrix Jul 27 '17 at 14:54
  • @ChrisH there are several types boatus.org/assets/img/aside/life-jacket-types.jpg many look like a vest to me. The majority of the ones I see at the big stores look like vests. – James Jenkins Jul 27 '17 at 14:54
  • 1
    @JamesJenkins, type 1 is offshore, normally issued only when you abandon ship on a cruise liner, type 2 is an inshore lifejacket, type 3 is a buoyancy aid, type 4 is throwable, type 5 is a special use. – Separatrix Jul 27 '17 at 14:57
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I think the best bet for a person without arms (assuming we aren't talking rough water/offshore use) is a type 2 life jacket. Specifically the type that look like an oversized bib.

Stearns Adult Type II Boating Lifevest

These jackets don't rely on arms to secure them to your body, and will generally allow conscious people to remain face up without much effort which is nice if the wearer is scared of water or can't swim. You can also purchase a "universal crotch strap" that should prevent it from riding up. I think this combination would be the cheapest and easiest option.

Of course there are disadvantages to this type of life jacket. Namely they make you look like a dork, and aren't exceedingly comfortable. One other concern I'd have is if the jacket could rotate while your friend is in the water. Admittedly I have no idea if it would happen but it would be a scary experience if it did happen. The crotch strap should limit the twisting/rotation to some degree so this might not be a problem in practice.

If it were my friend I'd try out the jacket with crotch strap combo on land first. If you both came to the conclusion that rotation/twisting is a non-issue this is the route I'd go.


If twisting/rotation is a valid concern with the bib type 2 life jacket then you could experiment with an "upside-down" life jacket.

UFloat marketing demo with people

These are worn basically like a diaper over your swimming suit. There are even some models that are Coast Guard approved. Your friend's lack of arms should pose no problem. I've never used or seen one of these being used but I'd wonder how stable it was in the water. I'd assume since it is Coast Guard approved it is reasonably stable. Also I can't imagine that would be comfortable to sit in for a full day in the water...


Another option is full blown disabled life jackets. These are likely to be the safest option out there. Two of the models shown in the link above don't seem all that practical since they look like a life ring with seat cushions sewn on. The other model looks like an over built version of the standard type 2 life jacket, which confirms that the first option I gave above is likely a good choice.

  • The answer is not strictly correct - You can get Type 2 buoyancy aids in the form a vest which are comfortable to wear all day even during activity (e.g. maritimenz.govt.nz/recreational/safety/lifejackets/…). The Bib type shown are really only for emergency use - they are uncomfortable and restrict movement too much. – user5330 Jul 29 '17 at 4:29
  • @mattnz sure, but I never claim that this is the only design of a type 2 life jacket. That is why I said "specifically the type that look like an oversized bib." Since the bib design relies mostly on the neck and back/chest to secure it. The lack of arms shouldn't play a role, especially with a crotch strap. I also never said it was super comfortable. I said it would be an effective option for both safety and the cost. While not my first choice personally if I had to wear one all day I would. I've been on boats with kids before where they wore one all day too. It isn't perfect but it is viable – Erik Jul 29 '17 at 16:58

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