Life Jackets are for Everyone

A life jacket (or Personal Flotation Device - PFD) is the single most important piece of equipment on your boat and the most important consideration should be size. More than two-thirds of all boating fatalities are drowning incidents and 90% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. So buy a life jacket that you will wear … it could save your life.

There several types of traditional foam flotation devices as well as new inflatable life jackets. Each is designed for different boating activities and water conditions and each has its own maximum buoyancy, performance level, and limitations. You should choose your life jacket based on your boating activities and conditions. Life jackets must be U.S. Coast Guard-approved in order to meet carriage requirements.

A child being fitted properly in a life jacket by two adults.

The Requirements for Life Jackets

There must be a properly fitting life jacket for each and every person aboard a recreational vessel. Life jackets must be Coast Guard-approved, in serviceable condition and the appropriate size for the intended user. Obviously, they are most effective when worn. On a vessel underway, children under 13 must wear an appropriate Coast Guard-approved PFD, unless they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin. Within the geographic boundaries of any State that has established a child PFD wear requirement, that State’s requirement will be adopted. Our Life Jacket Loaner Program for kids can help you get the right life jacket for the day or weekend.  To find the loaner site nearest you, use our convenient map.

Each state may have additional wear requirements, such as for water skiing, personal watercraft operation, white water boating activities and during certain cool-weather months. Additionally, a boat 16’ in length or greater, except canoes and kayaks) must have a throwable flotation device. See specific state requirements for life jackets.

Life Jackets – Some Things to Know

  • There must be at least one life jacket for each person aboard
  • Life jackets must be properly sized for each person aboard
  • Children under a certain age are required to wear their life jacket (typically under 13 – see state requirements)
  • Participants engaged in certain water sports are required to wear a life jacket (typically skiing and personal watercraft operation – see state requirements)
  • Life jackets must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard in order to meet requirements
  • Life jackets are grouped into categories called “Types”. A life jacket will be a Type I, II, III or V
  • These life jackets must be readily accessible and not in an out-of-reach location or in original packaging
  • Any boat 16’ and longer (except canoes and kayaks) must carry a throwable PFD called a Type IV
  • Throwable devices must be immediately available for use such as in the cockpit or near the helm
  • An inflatable life jacket must be properly armed with an unused gas cylinder
  • Inflatable life jackets are authorized for use on recreational boats by a person at least 16 years of age

Kids fishing in properly fitted life jackets.

Different Types of Life Jackets

Below is a brief description of each type of life jacket, their intended use and the buoyancy they provide.

2 orange, offshore life jackets.

Type I – Inherently buoyant recommended uses and features:

  • When cruising, racing and fishing offshore , or when boating alone, or in stormy conditions.
  • Minimum buoyancy: 22 lbs. (11 lbs. for child size)
  • Best for open, rough or remote water where rescue may be slow to arrive. Will turn MOST unconscious wearers face-up in water.
  • Offers the best protection, but is somewhat bulky and uncomfortable. Does the best job of retaining body heat, as it has additional foam and fabric, and keeps your head higher above water.
  • Currently, there aren't any Coast Guard approved Type I inflatable PFD's available to the general public.

 

Type II – Inherently buoyant recommended uses and features:

  • Inland day cruising, fishing and sailing. Good for boating in light craft.
  • Minimum buoyancy: 15.5 lbs.Type 2 near shore life jackets.
  • Good for protected, inland water near shore, where chances of immediate rescue is good. Not suitable for extended survival in rough water. Will turn SOME unconscious wearers face-up in water. Poor performer in rough water, often requires you to tread water in order to keep your head above water.
  • More comfortable but less buoyant than Type I. Provides far less flotation than a Type I.

 

Type II - Inflatable recommended uses and features:

  • Minimum buoyancy: 34 lbs.
  • Recommended uses: For serious inland and near shore cruising.
  • Not guaranteed to turn unconscious wearer face-up.
  • Advantages: very comfortable, more buoyant than Type II Inherently Buoyant jackets.
  • Disadvantages: High price; may be manual or automatic. 
  • There are many Type V (special use) inflatable jackets (covered later in this section) that provide Type II performance characteristics.
  • Inflatable PFDs are not meant for children under the age of 16.

Type III - Inherently buoyant features and recommended uses:

A type 3 life jacket.

  • Supervised activities, such as sailing regattas, dinghy races, water skiing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and during personal watercraft operation.
  • Minimum buoyancy: 15.5 lbs.
  • Good for protected, inland water near shore, where chance of immediate rescue is good.
  • Not suitable for extended survival in rough water. Not designed to turn unconscious people face up in water.
  • More comfortable to wear than a Type I or a Type II, but provides far less floatation than a Type I.

Inflatable features and recommended uses:

  • Minimum buoyancy: 22.5 lbs.
  • Recommended uses: for boating inshore and near shore and for supervised activities such as sailing regattas, dinghy races, canoeing.
  • Not guaranteed to turn unconscious wearer face-up.
  • Advantages: more comfortable than a Type III Inherently Buoyant jacket.
  • Disadvantages: one manual inflation mechanism only.
  • Inflatable PFDs are not meant for children under the age of 16.

Type IV – Throwable device and recommended uses:Type 6 life jacket.

  • A Type IV is designed to be thrown to an overboard victim or to supplement the buoyancy of a person overboard. It is not to be worn. Minimum buoyancy: 16.5 lbs. for ring buoy or 18 lbs. for boat cushion.
  • A Type IV throwable device can be a square style, or a ring buoy or horseshoe buoy mounted on deck.
  • A Type IV is not for unconscious persons, non-swimmers or children. Although these devices are often referred to as seat cushions, you should never use it as such. This degrades the foam and reduces the amount of floatation that is provided.

NOTE - Type IV devices must be IMMEDIATELY AVAILABLE for use. You must have one at arm's length to throw over the side in an emergency. Having one in a locker under the driver's seat isn't considered "immediately available." 

Type V – Special use life jackets and recommended uses:

  • Restricted to the special use for which each is designed, for example: sailboard harness, deck suit, paddling vest, commercial white water vest or float coats.
  • Must be worn when underway to meet minimum US Coast Guard requirements. Simply having a Type V PFD on board will not meet the USCG carriage requirements.
  • Minimum Buoyancy: 15.5 to 22 lbs.

    Type 5 automatic inflating vest.

Type V – Automatic inflation models and recommended uses:

  • Minimum buoyancy: 22.5 to 34 lbs. depending on style.
  • Restricted to the one use for which it is designed, ex., sailboard harness, belt pack, deck suit, float coat.
  • Must be worn to meet federal requirements.
  • Not guaranteed to turn an unconscious wearer face-up. Some manufacturers claim Type II performance.
  • Some models feature a combination of CO2 inflation and built-in foam and provide 15.5 to 22 lbs. of buoyancy.

Type V – Hybrid Inflation and some special notes:

  • Models recommended for boating activities where rescue is nearby and must be worn when underway. Minimum buoyancy: Have 7.5 lbs. of built-in foam buoyancy and can be inflated to 22 lbs.
  • More comfortable to wear than Type I or Type II, but are inadequate for unconscious overboard victims.

Inflation Mechanism:  When activated, a CO2 cartridge is pierced, releasing gas to inflate the device. Water-activated models inflate automatically when submerged in water.

A type 5 inflatable life jacket.

Manual units are activated by yanking a pull-tab. Both types of inflatables feature blow-tubes to provide a back-up method of inflation. It is important to follow the manufacturer's instructions for checking and maintaining your inflation mechanism.

Maintenance: Inflatable life jackets require more frequent maintenance than inherently buoyant life jackets.

  • Check the status of the inflator every time to be certain cartridge is properly installed and the equipment is in working order.
  • Check for leaks every two months; inflate life jacket orally and leave it overnight to check for leaks. If it leaks then it should be replaced.
  • Immediately replace any spent CO2 cartridges with new ones. Frequent users of inflatables should check them often, especially if used around sharp equipment like fishing gear.
  • Make sure all straps and zippers are in working order - keep your equipment in serviceable condition.
  • Inflatables are NOT recommended for individuals who cannot swim (unless worn inflated) and are not for use where water impact is expected, like water skiing or riding a jet ski.
  • Inflatable PFDs are not meant for children under the age of 16.

How to Care for Your Life Jackets

The amount of buoyancy (and life-saving value) your life jacket provides will decrease over time. Treat your life jacket as if your life depends on it! Here’s how to take good care of it.

DO'S:

A type 5 life jacket

  • Check your life jackets at the beginning of each boating season.
  • Check that all hardware and straps are in good shape, are firmly attached, and are in working order.
  • Check for leaks, mildew, lumpy or hardened buoyancy material, & oil saturation in the fabric.
  • Make sure that there are no rips or tears in the fabric.
  • Make sure that the label stating USCG approval is attached, and that it is readable.
  • Discard and replace life jackets that show signs of deterioration - tears, mildew stains, punctures, etc.

DON'TS:

  • Don't use a life vest or throwable flotation cushion as a kneeling pad or boat fender.
  • Don't use harsh detergents or gasoline to clean it.
  • Don't remove any labels, straps or buckles.
  • Don't sew ANYTHING onto the life jacket.

STORAGE:

  • Store in an area with good ventilation.
  • If wet, allow it to dry thoroughly in open air before storing.
  • Drying it in a dryer, in front of a radiator, or other source of direct heat will destroy its buoyancy.