All About Life Jackets – PFD’s

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I’ve been involved in water sports, and sailing in particular for my entire adult life. I’d just gotten involved in Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) so needed to buy a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Better known as a Life Jacket to most people. This is when I realized just how little I knew about this equipment. Despite using them throughout my life growing up. I’ve just seen an article about the increase in boat sales due to Covid 19. So, here is what I think is some timely information all about Life jackets.

PFD Classification System

First of all, not all PFD’s are created equal. There is no one size fits all system. Different conditions and areas of use require different equipment. There is a lot of additional information here on the USCG website. Basically there are 5 classifications of PFD’s. Type I, Type II, Type III, Type IV and Type V. These are recommended for a certain type of usage which I will elaborate on later.

Type I – Inherently Buoyant

People often ask “What’s the difference between a Life Jacket and a PFD?” Simply put, PFD’s are designed to assist conscious people while Life jackets can effectively support those who are unconscious. Type I units are Life jackets. This is where the term “inherently buoyant” comes in. This means that the unit itself floats without having to do anything else to it. As we will see later on, some PFD’s have to be inflated in order to work.

Type I life jackets are best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. Abandon-ship life jackets for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire. These are also for serious offshore boating or when boating alone. They will turn MOST unconscious wearers face-up in the water. Does the best job of retaining body warmth as well as keeping your head higher above water. Type I jackets offer the best protection but are bulky and often uncomfortable to wear.

Type II

Type II PFD‘s are recommended for near-shore general boating activities. Good for calm inland waters or where there will be a good chance for a fast rescue. They are not suitable for extended survival in rough water. Will turn SOME unconscious wearers face up in the water. But they do not provide as much buoyancy as Type 1. And often require you to tread water in order to keep your head higher out of the water. There are also some inflatable PFD’s that fit into this category.

Type III and IV

Type III PFD‘s are for inland or inshore waters where there are supervised activities like regattas. Or for use in personal watercraft eg canoes, kayaks, SUP’s and fishing, skiing etc. These are designed more with comfort in mind and to complement the activities they are used for. They will not turn an unconscious wearer face up in the water and are used where rescue is quick and imminent.

Type IV PFD‘s are designed to be thrown to a person in the water to supplement their buoyancy. They are like life rings, horseshoe rings and square style blocks. These look like cushions but should not be sat on as it degrades the foam material. They are not designed to be worn. Type IV devices must be immediately available to be thrown to someone in the water. So, they should not be stowed away thus limiting access.

Type V

Type V can be special use PFD’s in that they are restricted to the use for which they were designed eg sailboard harness, paddling vest etc. They must be worn to meet USCG requirements. Simply having them on board does not meet the USCG carriage requirements. This also covers the auto inflate type jackets or vests. These are very comfortable to wear as they only inflate on contact with water or some other auto inflate mechanism. There are also hybrid inflation models that can auto inflate or have blow tubes or pull cords to manually inflate as well. While these are more comfortable to wear than Type I and Type II they don’t work for unconscious wearers.


As we can see there are many types of PFD but the choice is yours depending on what you intend to use them for. Type I are mostly for commercial use and for those making a living on the sea and for passenger carrying boats and ships. Type II are just a step down. And generally used on recreational boats operating mostly in coastal or inshore waters where the expectation of rescue is imminent. Type III are designed more for comfort and ease of use depending on the water sport or water craft you are participating in. Type Iv refer to throwable flotation devices to help supplement buoyancy for someone in the water. Type V are mostly used in specialized areas where comfort and ease of movement is a priority. These do not inherently float but depend on an inflation mechanism of some sort.

So, for most of you out there you would probably be interested in Type II or Type III style PFD’s. Hopefully you now have a better understanding when you are ready to look for a suitable PFD.


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6 thoughts on “All About Life Jackets – PFD’s”

  1. Thanks for your well-researched article about different types of life-jackets and personal floatation devices. I’ve never realized the difference! It’s fascinating to know that some of these devices have the ability to turn unconscious people face up as well as keeping the body warmth. This was a brand new piece of information to me. Now I have much better understanding and will know what to choose for our next sailing trip and other sea-adventures. Many thanks for such an interesting and useful read!

  2. Hello there! this is an amazing review you have got here. I am very sure the quality informations here will be of great help to anyone who come across it. I would have preferred if you had shown me the pictures of the types of PFD which you have reviewed here. Though I will make my research on the type II to see how it looks like. Thanks!

    • Hi Joy, thanks for your comments. Had some issues with the photos but there are photos in the links. Next time will do better.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing a beautiful and insightful article with us. The prime element of this article is All About Life Jackets – PFD’s. It is truly impressive that you covered this subject so well in your post. I’ve learned a lot from reading your article and developed a lot of knowledge about it. I like the PFD Classification System of the points mentioned in your article. Life jackets are very important in the case of floating so I will suggest type 2. Because I also have such a life jacket and I can easily keep myself afloat by using it.

    I’ve read your article and enjoyed it so I’d like to share it with my friends by sharing it in the Facebook community so that everyone knows about your article and gets to know it.

    • Thanks for your comments and please feel free to share the article. I myself use a Type III PFD for the comfort and the usage only on inland waters in SUP.

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