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Buying Guide | Life Vests (PFDs)

By Steve Kopitz

Most everyone enjoys a day out on the boat, basking in the sun of a beautiful summer day. No doubt you will be doing some waterskiing, fishing, wakeboarding, tubing, or other form of watersports activity. For this reason, it is imperative that you take the necessary steps to insure you are equipped with a reliable and appropriate personal floatation device (PFD). Person Floatation Devices (PFDs) come in several different types and United States Coast Guard (USCG) classifications. You should be aware of what each type and classification is so that you may make the proper PFD selection. Outlined below is information that will allow you to learn what types of PFDs are available, and which is appropriate for your watersports activity.


Life Vests


Life Vest Type Definitions




Life Vests


Regardless of the type of activity or the level at which you perform, life vests are an absolute must for any watersports activity.


Life vests are worn similar to a regular jacket. They usually provide a zipper or buckle closure system, with some jackets often utilizing both.


Three types of flotation products are present for life vests: foam, inflatable, and hybrid.



Foam – This is considered to be the most reliable by the USCG. It is designed for both swimmers and non-swimmers.


Inflatable – Intended for swimmers only, inflatable flotation products are the most compact of the three types.


Hybrid – A reliable selection by the USCG, it is also designed for both swimmers and non-swimmers.

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Life Vests Type Definitions


Type I: Off-Shore PFDs


Best for open, rough or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.


Provide the best flotation.


Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water.


Foam = 22 lbs. of flotation.


Easy to put on.


Type II: Near-Shore Buoyant Vest


Good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue.


Turns some unconscious wearers face-up in water. Not as definite as Type I PFDs.


Foam = 15.5 lbs. of floatation.


Inflatable = 33.5 lbs. of flotation.


Type III: Flotation Aid


Generally the most comfortable type for continuous wear.


Lightweight and comfortable.


Good for calm, inland water, or where there is good chance of fast rescue.


Available in many styles, including vests and flotation jackets.


Designed so user can put him or herself into a face-up position in the water.

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Type IV: Throwable Device


Can be thrown to someone in the water.


Includes approved boat cushions, rings, and horseshoes.


May be required equipment on some boats.


Intended for calm, inland waters where boat rescue is always possible.


Should be used in addition to wearable life vests.


Type V: Special Use Devices


Special uses or conditions apply.


PFD label will always specify what the conditions are and what type of PFD the Type V may be substituted for to meet the carriage requirements.


Of additional importance is the necessity to test your PFD in shallow water or guarded swimming pool. This will help to insure that the fit is appropriate and the PFD is in working condition.


Also, always take the necessary steps to inspect the condition of your equipment before taking part in any watersports related activity. Finally, it is vitally important that you be certain you have enough life vests aboard your boat to accommodate every passenger.

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