Life Jacket (PFD) Basics

Life Jacket (PFD) Basics

Life Jackets Explained – PFD Selection Guide

With all the different style life jackets out there, there’s the perfect PFD to suit your needs. When choosing a jacket, there are flotation basics to understand and also USCG classification types which designate it’s offshore range and safety factor.

Flotation fundamentals

Expandingly popular inflatable PFDs use blowup air chambers to create buoyancy. The horseshoe shape inflates either automatically in the water or manually by detonating a CO2 cartridge. They must be on you to count towards onboard requirement. Streamlined fit means they are more apt to be worn constantly. Automatic versions work on hydrostatic release that inflates upon submersion or tablets that dissolve with water exposure. Some offshore styles go one step further and integrate a harness for jacklines. All inflatable jackets require periodic maintenance and re-arming.
Permanently Buoyant
The most common life jackets have traditional permanent flotation. Years ago flotation was in the form of balsa or Kapok, but today’s jackets use foam flotation. These jackets are rugged, reliable and the best option for prolonged time in water. They are available in a huge range of designs, but overall the foam makes them more bulky than inflatable jackets. Good fit is critical for proper life saving performance. They are typically less expensive than inflatable jackets. These jackets must be readily accessible to count towards onboard requirement.
Hybrid jackets combine the benefits of inflatable with a bit of permanent flotation included. They must be worn when underway to meet requirements.

USCG Classification Types

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Type I PFDs- the Offshore jacket design

Provides maximum buoyancy and turns an unconscious victim face up in the water. Available in Adult and child sizes. Child size must provide a minimum of 11 lbs of buoyant lift, adult size a 22lb minimum (33lb inflatable). Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. High buoyancy keeps head clear of rough water. Abandon-ship lifejacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire. Foam style are bulky for everyday functionality.

Type II PFDs- Coastal life jacket

For near shore use, will turn unconscious victims face up in the water, but not as pronounced as Type I righting force. Adult size provides a minimum of 15.5 lbs of positive flotation (33lb inflatable), medium children size 11 lbs of buoyant lift, and small children size 7 lbs lift.
Good for general boating activities in calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.
Type III PFDs- Comfort over safety
Designed to complement your boating activities. Restricted to near shore activities where chance of rescue is much quicker. Does not turn unconscious person face up and wearer may have to lean back to prevent being face down in the water.
For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others. Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue. Category includes float coats and vests that insulate against cold water hypothermia.
Type IV PFDs- Throwables
Throwable devices such as cushions, horse shoe and life ring buoys, Type IV pfds no longer fulfill the personal pfd requirement for vessels under 16ft.
Type V PFDs- Special Design
Special use devices for specific water activities.
  • Hybrid Inflatable PFDs
  • Canoe/Kayak Vest
  • Boardsailing Vests
  • Deck Suits
  • Work Vests for Commercial Vessels
  • Commercial Whitewater Vests
  • Man-Overboard Rescue Devices
  • Law Enforcement Flotation Devices


Type PFDs
Minimum Adult Buoyancy
in Pounds (Newtons)
I – Inflatable33.0 (150)
II – Buoyant Foam or Kapok
22.0 (100)
II – Inflatable33.0 (150)
II – Buoyant Foam or Kapok15.5 (70)
III – Inflatable22.0 (100)
III – Buoyant Foam15.5 (70)
IV – Ring Buoys16.5 (75)
IV – Boat Cushions18.0 (82)
V – Hybrid Inflatables22.0 (Fully inflated) (100)
7.5 (Deflated) (34)
V – Special Use Device – Inflatable22.0 to 34.0 (100 to 155)
V – Special Use Device – Buoyant Foam15.5 to 22.0 (70 to 100)

What the Coast Guard Requires

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  • Recreational boats must have at least one PFD for every person onboard (excluding type IV throwables). These jackets must be in serviceable condition and be within easy reach.
    Any PFD must meet Coast Guard approval. be sure to check for USCG approval on label before purchasing. If it does not say “Coast Guard Approved,” the PFD does not meet the minimum requirements.
  • All children under the age of 13 are required to wear a life jacket while aboard a recreational vessel.
    The PFD must be the appropriate size for the intended user.
    Vessels 16 feet or longer are required to carry a Type IV – throwable – PFD. It must be immediately available for use.
  • Inflatable PFDs must be in good condition, and have a full cylinder and green status indicators or it is not considered serviceable and doesn’t satisfy the minimum requirements. They are approved for persons 16 years or older.
  • Check with your state to be in compliance with state laws in addition to federal requirements.
    PFDs are perhaps the single most important lifesaving device you’ll ever carry on your boat. Be sure to try your jacket before you need it. Learn how to put it on, make sure it fits and if it’s an inflatable type, test it out.
  • Check inflatables for green “armed” indicator. Practice good habits and have everyone put on a life jacket before leaving the dock. Be sure they’re stored properly and dry, and in serviceable condition.

Information obtained from US Coast Guard website