The operator, captain or paddler of any water vessel must be aware of all life jacket regulations for the area. Illinois, like many states, varies its life jacket regulations depending on the type of vessel being operated. Kayaks, because they are considered personal watercraft and measure less than 26 feet in length, require each person on board to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, though the type and design may vary.
Summary of Illinois Life Jacket Law
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources' laws and regulations require that all water vessels have on board one life jacket for each person aboard. Kayaks, even those that measure longer than 16 feet, do not have to have on board a Type IV throwable flotation device. No kayak may be operated without each person aboard, regardless of age, wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, Type I, II, III or V.
Type I Life Jackets
Type I life jackets are considered "offshore" life jackets. They provide optimum safety in rough and dangerous conditions in which rescue may be delayed. They are most often pulled on over the wearer's head and will keep the person's head above water if knocked unconscious. Type I life jackets are required of kayakers who plan to paddle in Lake Michigan or over a half mile form shore unless wearing a Type V specialised flotation device.
Type II Life Jackets
The Type II life jackets, or "near-shore vests," should be worn only when paddling in calm waters at an easily swimmable distance from shore. These vests may turn unconscious wearers face up, but it is not guaranteed. Type II life jackets are not recommended for kayakers 13 and younger, though it remains legal for them to wear near-shore vests.
Type III Life Jackets
Type III life jackets are considered to be "flotation aids" in the Handbook of Illinois Boating Laws and Responsibilities. The term refers to their short-term flotation abilities and the jackets' inability to turn unconscious wearers' faces upright in open water. Type III life jackets are most often worn during water sports when rescue would be quick. Some Type III life jackets do not inflate until the wearer is submerged. Use of these flotation aids in kayaks can be uncomfortable due to their full chest and back cut.
Type IV Flotation Devices
These are throwable devices that are not required on kayaks or canoes, according to Illinois boating laws and regulations. For any other watercraft measuring 16 or more feet, Type IV flotation devices are always required. Keeping a throwable device on board a kayak can be dangerous; their size and weight can reduce a kayak's buoyancy in rough waters.
Type V Life Jackets
Type V life jackets, also known as special-use devices, are designed for specific water-related activities. Type V life jackets made for kayaking have shortened backs and a design that does not impede arm movement. Type V kayak vests provide the most specialised safety choice for kayakers because they do not negatively affect paddling and will stay afloat for long periods of time if rescue is delayed. Type V life jackets do not always keep the wearer's face above water when unconscious. Next to Type I life jackets, Type V are the best suited for kayak safety and are recommended by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.