There are five main categories of PFD life jackets or life vests, as classified by the United States Coast Guard. In order to be considered a USCG-approved device, a PFD must meet specific criteria, which includes a minimum buoyancy requirement.
Type I PFDs
A PFD in this classification is intended to help a person stay afloat in rough, open water for an extended period of time. A USCG-approved Type I life jacket offers a high level of buoyancy (at least 22 pounds for foam models and at least 33 pounds for inflatable models), and will usually keep an unconscious person face-up in the water. Type I PFDs are often used as emergency life jackets on ocean fishing boats, cruise ships, freighters and other large seafaring vessels.
Type II PFDs
The Type II PFD is also called a near-shore buoyant vest, and is intended to keep a person afloat in calmer inland waters. A USCG-approved Type II vest has a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds and is slightly less bulky than a Type I vest. This style will usually keep an unconscious person face-up in relatively calm water.
Type III PFDs
Designed primarily for watersports like wakeboarding, water skiing, recreational kayaking and canoeing, the USCG-approved Type III PFD has a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds. Because it has a less-bulky design, this type may not keep an unconscious person face-up in the water.
Type IV Flotation Aids
Unlike life jackets and vests, which are designed to be worn over the torso, a Type IV device is designed to be thrown to a person who has fallen into the water or used as an emergency flotation aid. A ring buoy is one of the most common types of throwable device. Some watercraft and aircraft have detachable seat cushions that double as Type IV PFDs.
Type V PFDs
This is considered a “special-use” category. Buoyancy ratings for inflatable Type V PFDs are between 22 and 34 pounds. Foam Type V PFDs fall between 15.5 and 22 pounds of buoyancy. Life vests designed for off-shore deck workers, coast guard rescuers and professional whitewater guides are a few examples of Type V life vests.
Some PFDs are designed to be inflated once the wearer is already in the water. Life vests found on most commercial aircraft fall under this category. Inflatable PFDs can be classified as Type I, II, III or V, and are less bulky than foam PFDs of the same category. Most inflate by pulling a small tab, which activates a CO2 cartridge. In order to be considered a USCG-approved inflatable PFD, a backup oral inflation tube must be included.
This style of PFD includes solid foam flotation material along with an auxiliary air bladder that can be used to provide additional flotation. Most hybrid PFDs fall under the Type III or Type V category.
Adult PFDs will be too large for most children. For this reason, children who weigh less than 90 pounds should wear a PFD designed specifically for kids. Several companies make life vests for children, toddlers and even infants. USCG-approved PFDs for kids include a suggested weight range, so it’s important to make sure that your child fits within that weight range. As your child grows, they’ll eventually need a larger PFD. Note: It’s extremely important that your child’s PFD fit securely. Most models designed for smaller children have a strap that goes between the child’s legs, which prevents the PFD from riding up or slipping off completely in the water. Have your child try on a new life vest to make sure it fits correctly before a trip. Always help children secure their PFDs before hitting the water.
The list below covers common watersports and other activities that may require a life vest or flotation aid, along with the types of PFDs that are recommended for those activities.
USCG Type I
- Boating and sailing on the open ocean
- Commercial boating and fishing
USCG Type II
- Recreational boating (inland ocean or lake)
- Personal watercraft (inland ocean or lake)
- Ocean kayaking
USCG Type III
- Waterskiing and wakeboarding
- Towable tubing
- Kayaking, rafting and canoeing (river or lake)
- Jet ski or personal watercraft (river or lake)
- Fishing boat or float tube (river or lake)
USCG Type IV
- Rescue device for boat or pool
USCG Type V
- Kayaking or rafting guide
- Rescue professional
- Commercial use
Many PFD models from brands like Extrasport and MTI Adventurewear are available in multiple sizes. For adults, torso diameter determines a person’s ideal size. Be sure to measure the widest part of your chest to get the most accurate result. Kids’ PFDs are sized according to a child’s weight, rather than chest size. If your child falls within the correct weight range, the PFD should fit properly, with some adjusting.
- Tip: If you plan on wearing your PFD over a kayaking jacket, dry top or wetsuit, you should measure your torso diameter with the jacket or suit on. If you don’t, you may end up with a PFD size that’s too small.
A PFD should fit snuggly, but not be extremely uncomfortable or constricting. To achieve an optimal fit, loosen all straps and put on the PFD. Zip the front or side zipper (if it has one) and securely buckle all straps. If the life vest has shoulder straps, adjust them so that the bulk of the front panels rests squarely in front of your chest. Next, pull each torso strap until the vest feels snug from top to bottom.
To check the fit, place your thumbs underneath the shoulder straps and tug upward. If the vest if fitted correctly, it should stay in place and not slide upward. A small amount of give is okay. If you’re wearing a life vest for paddling, make sure that your arms have a full range of motion. If your arms cannot move freely, you may need to re-adjust the PFD, try a different size or select a different model.
- Tip: If you experience uncomfortable abrasion or chafing caused by your PFD, consider investing in a rash guard to wear underneath. A rash guard will also give you added protection from the sun.
Models designed for fishing, kayaking and canoeing frequently include pockets to keep important items close at hand. Some models even include a rear pocket to accommodate a hydration reservoir. Be sure not to put heavy objects in the pockets, as this will reduce buoyancy.
Lash Points and Gear Loops
These features provide another way to attach equipment to your PFD, such as a compass, emergency whistle, fishing tools and other items.
Some PFDs designed to be used in hot conditions include breathable mesh panels or mesh vents to enhance comfort.
This feature will make the wearer more visible to rescue workers, especially at night. Many PFDs also have a brightly colored exterior to enhance visibility during the daytime.
- Before a trip, always inspect your PFD for rips, holes, frayed straps, broken buckles and other damage. If there is any extensive damage, you should replace your PFD right away.
- Be especially diligent when checking an inflatable PFD for damage. If you see any potential punctures, inflate the air bladder using the auxiliary mouthpiece and check to see if the PFD holds air.
- Rinse your PFD with clean water and let it dry completely before storing it, especially if you’ve been in salt water. Don’t machine wash your PFD or use harsh detergents to clean it.
- Never leave your PFD out to dry in the sun. UV rays can weaken and damage the materials over time. Allow your PFD to dry in a cool, shaded place.