July 29, 2011

Life Jackets 101

Everyone has seen a life jacket. Right? Maybe so, but do you know about all of the different kinds of life jackets? Which ones you need? Which ones are required by law? Maybe not. But spending a few minutes browsing through the Life Jacket Center will answer your questions.

What we know as “life jackets” or “life vests” are better known today as Personal Flotation Devices, or PFDs. This is because PFDs have been designed for virtually every water based activity available. You may think that this makes selection more difficult, but in practice it is actually easier to find the right type of PFD based on what you are going to use it for.  Let’s take a quick overview:

There are five official U.S. Coast Guard types of PFDs.

Type 1 Life Jacket

Type I

  • TYPE 1 – Offshore Life Jacket

This PFD is designed for extended survival in rough, open water. It usually will turn an unconscious person face up and has over 22 pounds of buoyancy. This is the best PFD to keep you afloat in remote regions where rescue may be slow in coming.

Advantages: Floats you the best; Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water; High visibility. Disadvantages: Bulky and uncomfortable.

Type 2 Life Jacket

Type II

  • TYPE 2 – Near Shore Buoyant Vest

This “classic” PFD comes in several sizes for adults and children and is for calm inland water where there is chance of fast rescue. It is less bulky and less expensive than a Type I, and many will turn an unconscious person face-up in the water.

Advantages: Less bulky; Turns some unconscious wearers face-up; More comfortable than Type I PFD. Disadvantages: Not for long hours in rough water; Will not turn some unconscious wearers face-up.

Type 3 Life Jacket

Type III

  • TYPE 3 – Flotation Aid

These life jackets are generally considered the most comfortable, with styles for different boating activities and sports. They are for use in calm water where there is good chance of fast rescue since they will generally not turn an unconscious person face-up. Flotation aids come in many sizes and styles.

Advantages: Generally the most comfortable type; designed for activity marked on the device; available in many styles. Disadvantages: May have to tilt head back to avoid face-down position;”>

Type 4 Ring Buoy

Type IV

  • TYPE 4 – Throwable Devices

For calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always nearby.

Advantages: Can be thrown to someone; Good back-up to wearable PFDs; Some can be used as a seat cushion. Disadvantages: Not for unconscious persons; Not for nonswimmers or children; Not for many hours in rough water.

Type 5 Vest (Inflatable)

Type V

  • TYPE 5 – Special Use Device

Special use PFDs include boardsailing vests, work vests, deck suits, and hybrids for restricted use. Hybrid vests contain some internal buoyancy and are inflatable to provide additional flotation.

Advantages: Made for specific activities or sports; Least bulky of all types; High flotation when inflated; Good for continuous wear. Disadvantages: May not adequately float some wearers unless partially inflated; Requires active use and care of inflation chamber; MUST BE WORN to be counted as a regulation PFD.

The latest commercial option is the Inflatable PFD. Typically a TYPE 3 or TYPE 5 PFD, These are highly visibile when inflated and turns most wearers and unconscious users face-up faster than traditional PFD’s.


Next to selecting the proper type of PFD is selecting the proper fit.  A proper fit means that once it’s zippered and/or buckled, it should keep your head and upper shoulders above the water.

  • If it fits too loose, the flotation will push the jacket up around your face.
  • If your life jacket is too small, it won’t keep your body afloat.

Because of this, PFDs come in a variety of sizes and have limited adjustment capabilities. Shop carefully.

Some PFDs are designed especially for women or children. Others are designed for specific activities like kayaking, wakeboarding, fishing, snorkeling, and many others.

PFD Care and Feeding

When not using your life jacket (when you’re not boating, fishing, tubing, etc.), clean it and then  store it in a readily accessible place away from sunlight and chemicals. Nylon and other synthetic materials used to make your life jacket will be harmed over time by ultra-violet radiation from the sun. Fabric that becomes discolored may indicate ultra-violet damage. In other words, don’t leave your PFD hanging outside all summer exposed to the sun and expect it to be unharmed. Plus, prolonged exposure to chemicals or exhaust fumes can attack the PFD’s flotation foam. Check out the FAQ for more information on how to care for your PFD.


Further Information:

How to Choose the Right Life Jacket Brochure – PDF

The Life Jacket and Vest FAQ


Comments or questions are welcome.

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