Life Jackets & Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Presented by National Safe Boating Council

Life jackets, or Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), come in many shapes, colors and materials. Some are made rugged to last longer while others are made to maintain body heat in cold water. No matter which life jacket you choose, get one that is right for you, your planned activities and the water conditions you anticipate. Spending a little time now can save your life later.

Always look for the United States Coast Guard approval number before you purchase any life jacket and make sure you understand the regulations and requirements in the state you are in. Also ensure you properly maintain whatever life jacket you choose.

Which Life Jacket or PFD is right for you?

Types of Life Jackets

Offshore Life Jacket Type I - Offshore Life Jacket

This Life Jacket 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 Life Jacket to keep you afloat in remote regions where rescue may be slow in coming.
Near Shore Buoyant Vest Type II - Near Shore Buoyant Vest

This "classic" life jacket 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.
Flotation Aid Type III - 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.
Throwable Device Type IV - Throwable Device

These are designed to be thrown to a person in the water. Throwable devices include boat cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. They are not designed to be worn and must be supplemented by wearable life jacket. It is important to keep these devices immediately available for emergencies, and they should not be used for small children, non-swimmers, or unconscious people.
Special Use Device Type V - Special Use Device

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


Safe Boating Council


Children's Life Jackets

All life jackets are clearly labeled with the appropriate weight range for the product. Check the label to match the weight range of your child. To check for a good fit, pick the child up by the shoulders of the life jacket. If the life jacket fits, the child's chin and ears will not slip through. Children come in many sizes and shapes. If a life jacket style does not work well, try another one.

While some children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds may like the freedom of movement that a Type III life jacket provides, most children in this weight range, especially those who cannot swim, should wear a Type I or Type II life jacket.

Read about life jackets for dogs.

PFD Checklist

To enforce equipment requirements, the USCG and Marine Patrols frequently board boats for routine inspections. During inspections your boat will be checked for the following concerning PFDs:

  1. The proper number, type, and size of PFDs.
    • Is it USCG approved?
    • Is it designed for your chest size and weight?
    • Is the PFD type suitable for the type of boating you’re doing?
  2. The condition of the PFD. A PFD is only good if kept in proper condition while stored on your boat. Again, be sure to replace if there is excessive wear or damage.
    • Do not place heavy objects on your PFD or use it as a fender. PFDs loose buoyancy when they are crushed.
    • Only wear your PFD. Do not use it to cushion yourself or other boats.
  3. Convenient storage and access to your flotation device.
    • Store inflatable PFDs per manufacture’s recommendations.
    • Remove your PFD from the plastic after purchasing.
    • If you’re not wearing your PFD, keep it in an easily accessible location so in the event of an emergency you can grab it quickly.
  4. A throwable device on board.
    • Practice your knots on a life ring, horseshoe buoy or buoyant cushion, and then practice throwing the device.

Images shared with permission from the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association