Selecting the correct Life Jacket or PFD (Personal Flotation Device) today can be a daunting and confusing task. Go into most any well stocked boating supply or sporting goods store and you will probably find what looks like miles and miles of Life Jackets on display, in all sizes, colors and types. Given the fantastic selection of Life Jackets today, you should be able to find one that you like, is suitable for your on the water activity and fits well.
Asking someone what the “right” Life jacket to use might get you a very long explanation of the different types and uses for them with the final word being “depends on your use”
The “right” Life Jacket is the one you have on when you need it. Life Jackets save lives
When a boating accident occurs that results in a death, and the cause of death was known, 78% of the deaths were due to drowning. In 84% of the drowning deaths, the people were not wearing a Life Jacket. So wearing a Life Jacket can greatly improve your chances of surviving a boating accident if you go into the water.
For more information on boating accidents and simple steps you can take to have a safer time on the water, see: 2014 Boating Accidents & How You Can Reduce Your Risk Of Having An Accident
Some personal thoughts about Life Jackets. More flotation is generally better as it will float you a bit higher if you are in the water, that little extra lift will help to keep your mouth clear of the water and waves. I always wear my Life Jacket when underway, I have worn a Life Jacket while boating since shortly after I started boating and was almost thrown off the boat, due to an accidental jibe at the dock (why the skipper had the full main up stern to the wind and bow down to the dock is still beyond me to this day), granted I would have hit the pier head first but it got me to thinking and the following week I went out a bought a nice Auto Inflate Life Jacket. Now I don’t feel comfortable without one on. I wear an auto inflate Life Jacket with about 34 lbs of flotation, if I go in the water I want the best chance of being flipped face up. Yes I need to take extra time and cost to inspect, test and replace the auto-inflate trigger (per manufactures instructions) the Inflatable Life Jacket. I find Inflatable Life Jackets more comfortable to wear than foam Life Jackets. An Inflatable Life Jacket is not as warm as a foam Type III Life Jacket so in cold weather I need to put on an extra layer of warmth.
I also have a survival knife and other safety gear in a pouch or pocket attached to my Life Jacket. See Personal Boating Safety Equipment for more information.
All Life Jackets should be worn on the outside of your clothing, this is especially important for inflatables as wearing an Inflatable Life Jacket inside your jacket can cause the inflatable to not inflate properly, prevent you from breathing, cause serous injury and in the event of a problem with an Auto Inflate Life Jacket you will not be able to reach the pull cord or the oral inflation tube without unbuttoning or unzipping your coat. This could be a real problem in cold water with hands and fingers that are cold and not working properly.
Selection and Proper fitting of Life Jackets: If you are buying a Life Jacket, TRY IT ON IN THE STORE FIRST, all Life Jacket manufactures have slightly different ways of making the Life Jacket and what fits well for a friend might be very uncomfortable for you. Different sports such as Kayaking and other paddle sports have different arm motions than sitting in a power boat, personal watercraft and water skiing need Life Jackets with the proper speed rating.
DO NOT get a Life Jacket that the child will “grow into” a Life Jacket that does not fit properly (be it for a child or adult) is a safety risk for the person wearing the Life Jacket. If you are getting a Life Jacket for a child during the off season consider giving them a gift certificate and taking them to the store at the start of boating season and help them pick out a properly sized Life Jacket.
Some groups sponsor free Life Jacket giveaway days for children and young adults, you need to bring the child to the event to receive a free Life Jacket, this is because the Life Jacket needs to be fit to the child with the child present. Please do not make it awkward for the people giving out the Life Jackets by by trying to get a Life Jacket for someone “about this tall” I thank you in advance for your respect for the people handing out the Life Jackets.
Try out your Life Jacket, try it on and see how it fits and feels, go to a swimming pool and wear it in the water and see how well you float, how the Life Jacket feels, how your movement is restricted or more awkward. Does it ride up? Do you need to adjust the fit? See how the Life Jacket floats you in the water, can you easily float face up? Caution, if you do this with an inflatable you will need to rearm and repack the Life Jacket. Make sure you have the proper rearm kit before you test the Life Jacket. Take the Life Jacket off while you are in the water and try and put it back on, you might be amazed at how difficult it can be. CAUTION: only do this if you are a good swimmer and comfortable in the water. Try swimming with the Life Jacket on, you might be surprised at how difficult it is to swim even a short distance.
A nice time to do a swim test with an Inflatable Life Jacket is when the cylinder, bobbin or inflator mechanism needs to be replaced for normal maintenance, that saves a bit of money by using parts you would be replacing anyway.
If you have children, take them to the pool and have them try on their Life Jacket and see how the Life Jacket feels in the water. Some younger children are not comfortable in the water, helping them to understand how a Life Jacket feels in the water can go a long way to preventing panic should they fall into the water. Type II Life Jackets are recommended for younger children as a Type II Life Jacket will help flip the child face up in the water and the child will rest easier in the water.
Cold Water: If you fall into water the temperature of Puget Sound (about 50 degrees F) and you are not wearing flotation, the survival time according to Professor Popsicle who runs the Cold Water Boot-camp is about 10 minutes. For more information on cold water survival please see: Hypothermia / Cold Water Boot Camp. Wearing the proper Life Jacket will extend your survival time in the water greatly. If a person goes overboard in cold water without a Life Jacket the return to pick a person up needs to be quick and precise, no real room for error, having a Life Jacket on extends the time allowed for a rescue to happen.
All Life Jackets should be inspected on a regular basis, per the manufactures instructions (the instructions that come with your Life Jacket should be saved, read and followed) clean with mild soap and water as appropriate (see Laundry Day & Washing The Life Jackets for cleaning suggestions).
At a minimum check your Life Jackets twice a year, at the start of the boating season and at the end of the boating season. If a Life Jacket is found to be deteriorated at the end of the boating season, the boat owner has all winter to purchase a replacement so they will not be caught by surprise at the start of the next boating season.
When inspecting a Life Jacket, check for rips, tears, holes, the seams and straps should be in good condition as well as any fasteners and zippers. Tug on any straps to make sure they are still attached and secure. The flotation material should not be waterlogged or mildewed, check for signs of shrinkage in the flotation material.
To count as a Coast Guard Approved Life Jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD) the printing and approvals label must be able to be read and show the proper approvals for your intended use. NOTE: There have been some cases of vessels brought into the United States with Canadian Life Jackets on board but the Canadian manufacture had not gotten the U.S. Coast Guard approval, the Life Jackets were serviceable and in good condition, but they did not count toward the required number of Life Jackets for that vessel as required by the U.S. Coast Guard. This has happened a few times on Vessel Safety Checks (done free of charge by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and other groups) See: The Vessel Safety Check and the Boarding Officer for more information on Vessel Safety Checks.
Fading fabric can indicate the strength of the fabric is deteriorating and the fabric might be weaker and tear easier resulting in a loss of flotation or the Life Jacket coming off the person in the water. Store Life Jackets where they will not become mildewed, a cool dry dark place is preferred.
If you throw a Life jacket away because it is no longer serviceable, please cut the straps off to make sure that the Life Jacket can not be used again.
If you take Life Jackets off the boat in the fall to store them, remember to put them back on the boat in the spring. I have talked to several boat owners and forgetting to put the Life Jackets back on the boat in the spring is not uncommon.
Type I – Off Shore Life Jacket
Good for offshore, open water, remote areas where rescue might be slow in coming. Abandon-ship Life Jackets on commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire.
- 22 lbs of flotation (Buoyant Foam or Kapok) for adults
- 33 lbs of flotation (Inflatable)
- Floats you the best for fixed flotation Life Jackets
- Bulky and not very stylish
- Will turn most people face up if they go into the water unconscious and face down
- Any color you want as long as it is bright International Distress Orange
- Used on cruise ships and other vessels carrying passengers for hire
- Two sizes, fits most adults and children
Type II – Near Shore Life Jacket
Good for inland calm water or areas where there is a good chance of a quick rescue. General boating activity.
- 15.5 lbs of flotation (Buoyant Foam or Kapok) for adults
- 33.0 lbs of flotation for Inflatable Life Jackets
- Will turn some people face up if they go into the water unconscious
- Less bulky than a Type I Offshore Life Jacket
- Available in Adult, Child-Medium, Child-Small and Infant
- Less expensive than some other types of Life Jackets, popular when a boat owner needs to add extra Life Jackets to a boat when guests are on board.
- Available in a vest type for small kids
- Vest type popular with small kids, has a lifting strap to make lifting the child out of the water, also has a crotch strap to keep kits from falling out of the Life Jacket when the child is lifted out of the water
Type III Life Jacket
Good for calm inland water or areas where there is a good chance of a quick rescue. Used by people in Kayaks, Canoes, Personal Water Craft, and Water Skiers.
- Probably the most used / popular type of Life Jacket
- 15.5 lbs. of flotation (Buoyant Foam) Adult
- 22.0 lbs of flotation (Inflatable)
- Many sizes from Adult XXL down to Child-Small
- If you go into the water unconscious and face down you will not be flipped face up
- Come in several sizes for children and infants
- Should be properly sized for children, DO NOT “the child will grow into it”
- Sizing is based on the weight of the child
- Comfortable to wear
- Comes in many colors and styles
- Good news in cool weather they help to keep you warm like an insulated vest
- Bad news in warm weather they help to keep you warm like an insulated vest
- When used on high speed craft (Personal Watercraft, jet skis etc.) they must be rated for the speed of the craft. This does not mean that you will survive a high speed accident but only that the Life Jacket will still be attached to your torso when you stop bouncing.
- A person in the water may need to work to keep their head tilted back and mouth out of the water.
- In rough water a person’s face can be covered by waves a significant part of the time.
- Not recommended for extended time in rough water.
- If a person trips and falls, a Type III Life Jacket can act much like a flack jacket if a person hits their ribs, I have some friends that have avoided bruised or worse injury to their ribs when they tripped and fell on board a boat.
Type IV Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
- Can be thrown to someone
- Backup to wearable Life Jackets
- 16.5 lbs of flotation (Ring Buoys)
- 18.0 lbs of flotation (Boat Cushions)
- Some can be used as seat cushion (but not recommended as the flotation foam can be compressed over time
- Required on boats 16 feet and over (except for canoes and kayaks) to be immediately available for use
- Should have a floating retrieval line attached to them (so if thrown to a person in the water the person can be retrieved or if you miss the person in the water the PFD can be retrieved and thrown again
- Not help an unconscious person
- Not recommended for non-swimmers or children
- Not recommended for extended time in the water or rough water
- Come in three styles, Ring, Horseshoe and Cushion
Special Use Devices
Type V Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
- For special use and conditions
- See the label for specific types and conditions of use
- Includes Deck suites, Coveralls, Work Vests, Hybrid PFD’s, Board Sailing Vests
- Required to be worn to be counted as a regulation PFD / Life Jacket
- 7.5 lbs Flotation (Hybrid Inflatable – Deflated) 22.0 lbs Flotation Fully Inflated
- 15.5 lbs to 22.0 lbs Flotation Special Use Device – Buoyant Foam
- 22.0 lbs to 34.0 lbs Flotation Special Use Device – Inflatable
Inflatable & Hybrid
- A hybrid Life Jacket has some built in flotation with an inflatable bladder providing additional flotation when inflated.
- A pure Inflatable Life Jacket does not have any built in flotation and MUST be inflated to provide flotation
- Most have about 35 lbs of flotation, I have seen some “North Sea” versions with 66 lbs of flotation
- Many Type V Life Jackets now have Type I (about 22 lbs) or Type II (about 15.5 lbs) performance READ THE LABEL!!! I and everyone I know prefer the higher 34 lbs of flotation so we ride a bit higher in the water to keep our mouth clear and make us easier to see by someone searching for us.
- There are versions with a harness or without a harness. A harness lets you attach yourself to the boat with a tether, so if you slip you might not go overboard.
Many people use a harness in bad weather or when offshore.
- Very comfortable to wear, almost don’t notice that you have one on
- Cool in warm weather
- Cool in cold weather, does not provide the insulating warmth of a Type III Life Jacket
- Only recommended for those that can swim. If the inflator fails to inflate the Life Jacket and the manual pull cord does not worrk it will need to be orally inflated, this means you will need to puff about five gallons of air into the Life Jacket, while calmly treading water and watching the transom of whatever you fell off of go into the distance.
- Inflatable Life Jackets are made of fabric, over time the fabric will wear just like a pair of jeans, this makes proper maintenance and inspection extra critical to maintain the safety of the Life Jacket
- If an inflatable Life Jacket in inflated with the CO2 cylinder, either automatically or with the pull cord it will need to be both rearmed and repacked. Carrying a spare rearm kit is a good idea.
- Rearm kits cost from about $15.- to $75.- depending on the model and style (auto inflatables (my preferred style) are more expensive to rearm than a simple manual pull cord inflate version). Check the service life / replacement cycle of auto inflatable Life Jackets. The recommended replacement span for some parts ranges from one to five years depending on the style.
- A Type V Life Jacket must be worn to count toward the required number of Life Jackets on board a vessel
The Coast Guard also has a nice page / section on PFD Selection, Use, Wear & Care Guide.
I would also like to thank GaRRy, Debra, Jim and Moti of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 2, Seattle area for helping with suggestions to make this article better.
Thanks for your interest in and support of boating safety.
– c / m –