boy with floatation device

© Monino

personal flotation device

Personal flotation devices (PFD's) are usually known under other names, including life jackets, life preservers, life rings, life buoys and life vest, all of which have slightly different meanings. This entry discusses PFD's for recreational boating. Commercial regulations differ.

Some general advice

United States

Federal law requires all recreational boats to carry at least one wearable Type I, II or III PFD for each person on board.¹ They must be Coast Guard approved (see the label) and must be in good condition. A Type V hybrid PFD can be substituted for any of the above types if its label so states, but when the boat is underway it cannot just be on board, but must be worn by anyone not in an enclosed cabin. Federal law does not require PFD's on racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes or racing kayaks, but state laws may.

One may also need to be aware of local regulations. For example, some beach communities in California require windsurfers to wear a PFD, though the state does not.

After 1 January 2003, federal law requires all children under 13 to wear a PDF while the boat is underway, unless they are in a closed cabin or below deck. States having existing child PDF laws were exempted from this regulation.

Any boat 16 feet or longer, except kayaks and canoes, must also carry one Type IV Throwable Device in an easily accessible location.

Type I, II and III PDFs in boats operating in the ocean, including coasts, and in the Great Lakes must be equipped with a personal flotation device light attached to the front shoulder of the PFD. 

U.S. Coast Guard
Comment Where Used
Type I
Offshore Life Jacket
Designed to keep the wearer in an upright, slightly tilted back position, even if unconscious. Only two sizes: 
  • Adult (over 90 pounds, provides at least 22 pounds of buoyancy).
  • Child (under 90 pounds, at least 11 pounds of buoyancy).
Ocean. Open water.
Type II
Near-Shore Buoyant Vest
Not as effective as a Type I PDF in keeping an unconscious person face up, but less bulky and so more comfortable out of the water. Comes in four sizes: 
  • Adult (90+ pounds, provides 15.5 lbs of buoyancy)
  • Child-Medium (50-90 lbs, provides 11 lbs of buoyancy)
  • Child-Small (less than 50 lbs., provides 7 lbs of buoyancy)
  • Infant (less than 30 lbs,  provides 7 lbs of buoyancy).

Manufacturers and the Coast Guard recommend that child and infant PFD's be tested immediately after purchase in a swimming pool with the youngster who will wear it. The distribution of infants' body weight is so variable that no one model can be relied upon to keep all infants face up. 

The Coast Guard recommends that infants under 18 pounds not be taken aboard a recreational boat.

Type III
Flotation Aid
Keeps a conscious person afloat in calm waters; it is up to them to tilt their head back. Provides at least 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Will not keep an unconscious person face up in the water. Used in water sports where there is plenty of boat traffic and the person can expect to be rescued quickly. Many sizes and designs, often labeled for a particular sport. Vests for various sports, fishing vests and floatcoats are Type III PFDs. Calm inland waters.
Type IV
Throwable Device
Unlike the preceding types these devices are not worn, but thrown to a person in the water. However, a Type IV PFD is of no use to an unconscious or exhausted person. Examples include
  • "Cushions" with straps. They are not cushions and using them as such will decrease their buoyancy. In the water, the straps are used to hold the "cushion" to the chest, not to the back. Worn on the back, they push the face down, promoting drowning. Provides at least 20 pounds of buoyancy.
  • The classic ring. Depending on size, provides at least 16.5, or 32 pounds of buoyancy.
Type V
Special Use Device
The label will indicate the activity for which the PFD was designed and whether the device provides the performance of a Type I, II or III PFD. The PFD is approved for use in the labeled activity only. Deck suits, board sailing vests, and work vests are Type V PFDs.

Unlike other Type V PFD's, Type V hybrid devices can be substituted for Type I, II, or III in general recreational boating. They are called "hybrid devices" because they use both buoyant flotation materials, such as foam, and inflatable compartments. It . The label may indicate a weight range; otherwise:

  • adults over 90 pounds (provides at least 7.5 lbs of buoyancy deflated, and 22 lbs inflated)
  • youths 50-90 pounds (provides at least 7.5 lbs of buoyancy deflated, and 15 lbs inflated)
  • small children 30-50 pounds (provides at least 7 lbs of buoyancy deflated, and 12 lbs inflated)
Types of Flotation
  Pros Cons Available for Types
Inflatable Generally more comfortable than foam. Coast Guard regulations limit use to persons at least 16 years old.
Requires more consistent maintenance than foam.
Not recommended for non-swimmers.
Not suitable for impact situations, such as water skiing, whitewater paddling, or riding, for example, jet-skis.
Hybrid   A Type V Hybrid PFD must be worn; merely carrying it on board does not satisfy requirements.  


dog in life vest

© Fromer

Life vests are also available for dogs.

1. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46, section 25.25-5. Life preservers and other lifesaving equipment required.

Section 25 can be accessed through

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