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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