Survival Suit Basics

Construction, Care, Storage, and Training

Mariners Develop Many Skills in STCW Training
Mariners Take Part in Safety Training as Part of STCW Courses. USCG

The survival suit may be cumbersome and uncomfortable but it is responsible for saving many lives. Although it is thought of as a cold water safety device, vessels operating in moderate waters offshore should also consider carrying one suit per person.

A survival, or immersion suit protects the occupant by putting a barrier between skin and water. This keeps body heat from being lost to the water which can lead to hypothermia and death.

There are two main types of suits that differ in construction and purpose. The first is a flotation type suit which resembles a scuba diver's dry suit. Another type of suit can be called a barrier suit which as little insulation or flotation.

Flotation Suits

Flotation is only one of the excellent properties of these suits. They also have great insulation properties and some rigidity to hold the thick foam material away from the skin of someone bobbing in the sea.

All survival suits have roughly the same shape. They roughly follow the form of the body and include a hood with a gasket seal. A short zipper allows access but it should be a tight squeeze. Ideally the suit should fit close to body size but additional straps at the ankles and wrists can make it less floppy. The hands are covered in mittens that give the user very little dexterity.

Buoyancy in most suits is 20 - 30 pounds (9- 13.5 kg)and is plenty considering a commercial USCG Type 1 PFD has the same flotation.

A flotation suit replaces other flotation devices so don't try to put a PFD on over or under your flotation suit.

While this equipment is excellent for cold water use and long survival time they are about twice as much as a barrier suit. Expect to pay between $400-600 US for a good quality suit.

Barrier Suits

These are tough, waterproof membranes designed to keep you dry.

The clothing under your suit keeps you warm. Ice divers use these techniques when they layer thick synthetic fleece under their dry suits.

This lack of insulation makes the barrier suits more flexible. If you operate in seasonally cold areas it will allow you to use the suits more comfortably in warmer times. You should avoid wearing short sleeves or other exposed skin if possible since abrasion will quickly give you sores while submerged.

Also consider that many orders to put on survival suits are well into an emergency and you may be thoroughly soaked. Being wet inside a barrier suit gives you little insulation. A floatation suit partly full of water still has good insulation value.

Extra straps for ankles, wrists and waist are more necessary for these suits since they are very flexible and droopy.

Care and Storage

Proper care and storage of suits is essential. Suits that are very scuffed, torn, or have cracks will not pass equipment inspection and need to be replaced.

In most cases the suit will be kept in your duty area, some smaller vessels will require it to be kept in personal quarters. Wherever it is it should be in the hanging locker.

Folding a survival suit will weaken it as it is unfolded and refolded.

The creases break down the waterproof outer coating. These show up as darker areas on foam suits and are a sign of wear. If you must put it in a small space rolling is a better option than folding

If the suit needs to be cleaned avoid regular detergents and only use a product made for scuba dry suits since the waterproof coating can be damaged. Some outdoor clothing products made to maintain waterproof coatings are also suitable but check the manufacture's instructions.


By now you might be asking why these suits are subject to wear. They are just for emergencies, right?

Yes, but emergencies are chaotic and you don't to put that suit on for the first time in the dark on a pitching deck.Practice is essential, and mandated.

The additional training requirements of the STCW Manila Amendments will increase the training and record keeping for all safety equipment including survival suits.

Practice putting on your suit on a soft and clean surface like carpet. This will keep the feet free of damage. Best practices are to use a checklist so nothing sharp is brought inside the suit where it could cause a tear or puncture.

More practice should be done in the water so the situation is comfortable. This is also a good time to test the position of whistles, flares, and strobe lights. Each crew member should include basic and personal equipment to their PFD and you can learn how to Build Your Ultimate PFD.

Some crews make this a game and compete against other crews in survival suit swimming races.