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Life Jacket & Personal Flotation Device Choices

Whether you’re out fishing or paddling in your kayak, you will need a life jacket.

Although it varies throughout the country, most states require boaters to have U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices. Personal flotation devices are more commonly known as PFDs, life jackets or life vests. There needs to be one life jacket per person on a boat. This includes kayaks and canoes. The life jacket must also be the proper size, in good condition and easily accessible. Learn about which PFD is right for you to stay safe on the water.

Sizing a Life Jacket

When you’re boating, swimming, water tubing or participating in other marine activities, staying safe is a priority. It’s important to not only wear a life jacket, but to also have a properly sized one.

PFD and Life Jacket Choices
Boating is a great activity for you and your family. Of course, safety should be a priority when boating. Every boat should have personal flotation devices. Learn about which life jacket is right for you.


When a child is wearing a life jacket, the goal is to keep their head above the water. Make sure your child’s life jacket has padded head support and a grab handle to help retrieve them out of the water. The more straps on a child’s life jacket, the easier it will be to adjust to their size. For children, size will depend on the child’s weight.

Infant Life Jackets: 8 to 30 pounds

Child Life Jackets: 30 to 50 pounds

Youth Life Jacket: 50 to 90 pounds


For adults, life jackets are measured in chest size, not weight. You want your life jacket to be snug, but also give you mobility. You want to make sure you can move without chafing against the life jacket. You don’t want it to ride up. It should not be able to slip up above your ears, or hit your chin.

There are also special life jackets made for women. The use of princess seams and contoured cups allow for a better fit than the unisex counterparts.

Types of Life Jackets and Personal Flotation Devices

Life jackets are divided into three categories: inherently buoyant (primarily foam), inflatable and hybrid (foam and inflation). Within these three categories, life jackets are separated into five different subcategories represented by roman numerals. Each Roman numeral indicates the inherent buoyancy of the life jacket. Roman numerals I, II, III and V are wearable sizes and Roman numeral IV represents throwable flotation devices.

Type I: Offshore Life Jackets

These types of life jackets are used for offshore vessels. They’re best for the open, isolated water where rescue time will be slow. Type I are known to be bulky when compared to Type II and Type III life jackets. However, they will turn most unconscious people into the face-up position. They come with a buoyant neck-rest, which stabilizes the individual in the face-up position. These life jackets vary in children to adult size.

Type II: Near-Shore Vests

These types of life jackets are meant for calm or inland water, where a quick rescue is a possibility. They are not meant for rough water. They are less bulky than Type I, and more comfortable. Type II life jackets will turn some people into the face-up position, but not all of them. A Type II will keep you afloat if you weigh 90 lbs or more. The U.S. Coast Guard classifies a child’s type II life jacket at an inherent buoyancy of 7 lbs. It is made for a child who weighs less than 50 lbs.  Out of all of the life jackets, these are usually the least expensive.

Type III: Flotation Aids

These are considered the most comfortable to wear out of the five kinds of life jackets. They allow for the freest mobility. An adult size type II and III life jacket both have an inherent buoyancy of 15.5 lb. in comparison to a type I, which has an inherent buoyancy of 22 lb. and a type V, which ranges from 15.5 to 22 lb.Type III life jackets are great for long kayaking or canoeing trips, where the wearer will be paddling for a continuous time. However, they are meant to be worn only if a quick rescue is possible. They’re designed so you can put yourself in the face-up position, but they don’t have a neck rest. You will have to tilt your head back to keep your face out of the water.

Type IV: Throwable Devices

Type IV PFDs are cushions or ring buoys. They are thrown to someone in the water. They are used as backup for a wearable PFD. Type IV PFDs are not meant for unconscious people, non-swimmers or use in rough water. They’re also not meant for children.The Coast Guard does not require these for canoeing and kayaking. Boats longer than 16 feet require a Type IV to be on board.

Type V: Special-use Devices

These kind of PFDs are used for special activities, specified by the PFD’s label. To be properly classified as a PFD, they must be worn according to what is specified on the label. It has to be worn at all times to be qualified as a PFD.  These devices can be found in a number of activities, including kayaking, water-skiing and windsurfing.


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