Part 2: Types of Life Jackets

Part 2: Types of Life Jackets

Types of life jackets

The U.S. Coast Guard has two rating systems for PFDs.  In this article we will cover the traditional Performance Type rating system, this article (link) covers the more recent Performance Level system.  You should only buy USCG approved PFDs which will be labeled with”

  1. A Type
  2. An intended use
  3. A Coast Guard Approval Number.


In Part 2 of our introduction series we will cover types of life jackets, their pros and cons and when you should use them.


We will cover how to read life jacket labels in Part 3: “How to Read Life Jacket Labels.”

Pros and Cons of Standard vs Inflatable PFD

There are two main categories of PFDs:


  • Standard or inherently buoyant
  • Inflatable

Standard PFDs


These are the life jackets most people think of when they imagine a life jacket.  for the most part, they are Type III PFDs and are used mainly by kayakers, paddle boarders and canoers.


These PFDs are bulky and filled with a floatation material like foam.   



Standard PFD Pros:


  • They do not require inflation.
  • They are easy to maintain.
  • They can be used for many kinds of water sports from kayaking to waterskiing and wakeboarding.
  • They are warm and can help protect you from hypothermia.
  • Pockets!  Definitely not a feature of inflatable PFDs.

Standard PFD Cons:


  • They are bulky, which can make them uncomfortable.
  • They are hot!  While it is nice to know they can keep you warm if you fall in the water, that means they can get hot while you play in the sun.

Inflatable PFDs


Normally Type III or V, inflatable PFDs are a newer type of PFD that come in vest and waist pack design.  Inflatable life jackets also come in automatic CO2 cartridge inflation and manual inflation types.



Inflatable PFD Pros:


  • They are more comfortable.
  • The offer greater range of motion.
  • They allow you to stay cooler.

Inflatable PFD Cons:


  • They require inflation! If you are unconscious a manual inflating PFD offers no protection.  Conversely, if you are using an automatic PFD and get splashed with water while kayaking or paddle boarding it will inflate automatically.
  • They require regular maintenance and CO2 cartridges must be replaced after every inflation.
  • They are specifically designed for certain sports like water skiing, or white water kayaking, and are only meant for people 16 or older who can swim.

Type I Inherently Buoyant Life Jacket

These PFDs are true life jackets.  They only come in adult sizes, and are not available to the general public.



The Type I is designed for rescue situations in open rough or remote water.


The bulk of a Type I makes restricts freedom of motion and helps keep you warm.



Will turn most unconscious people from a face down position to a vertical and slightly backward position, greatly increasing the chance of survival.



22 lbs.

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Part 1: The Basics – Life Jacket VS PFD

Part 1: The Basics - Life Jacket VS PFD

Life Jacket VS PFD

As you get ready for your next adventure you may be asking, what is a life jacket vs a PFD, what types of PFDs are there, and how to choose the life jacket.

In Part 1, we will cover these basics and provide you links to our more in depth articles if you want to skip ahead in our “Life Jacket Basics Series.”

1. Life jacket vs PFD

A life jacket, or life vest, is a type of personal flotation device (PFD), although many people use these terms interchangeably.  


The main difference between a life jacket and other types of PFDs is that a life jacket is designed to turn the wearer face up when they are in the water. 


You may be thinking, a life jacket would be the better choice. However, there are several reasons you want to choose a PFD over a life jacket.

  • Unlike like jackets, PFDs have their buoyancy system in the back.  This makes PFDs less bulky and more comfortable than life jackets.  Which makes it more likely that you will wear it.  The best PFD is the one you are wearing! 
  • PFDs have a better range of motion and freedom of movement. 
  • Most PFDs are designed to be worn for specific sports like kayaking or paddle boarding.  this means they have specialized features generic life jackets do not.

2. Types of PFDs

There are 5 types of PFDs, each intended for a different use like kayaking, water skiing or sailing.  Some types even come in “inherently buoyant” and “inflatable”.

  • Type I: For open, rough or remote water, a true life jacket
  • Type II: For protected, inland water near shore
  • Type III: For protected, inland water near shore
  • Type IV: Designed to be thrown to an overboard victim  
  • Type V: Specially designed PFDs intended for a specific use


Click here to learn more about types of PFDs:

3. Who needs to wear PFDs?

Anyone out on the water!


90% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.  Even strong swimmers are in danger of drowning.


Swimmers can be swept away from boats, paddle boards, kayaks and other crafts by the wind and currents.  Hypothermia can then cause even the best swimmers to drown in minutes. 


PFDs and life jackets even help retain body heat, in addition to keeping you afloat.


Federal law even requires children 13 and younger wear life jackets while a vessel is “under way.”  Many state have stricter laws.


We cover PFD requirements in Part 3: “Life Jacket Requirements”.

4. Choosing the right PFD

First, you want to consider what Type of PFD you need.  Different states and activities have different requirements.  For example, boating in Lake Powell in Arizona may require a different type of PFD than Rafting the Snake River in Idaho.


Next, you want to make sure you get the right size.  An ill fitting PFD can slip off in rough water, or when someone is being pulled back onto a boat.

PFDs are also designed with different different weights, sizes and body shapes in mind.  there are universal adult PFDs, PFDs for women, child life jackets and even dog life jackets! 


Finally, you can customize your PFD with special features like pockets, tabs, colors and accessories.


Most importantly, always make sure you purchase a coast guard approved PFD.


Click here to read our article “How to Choose the right life jacket.”

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