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Life Jackets Basic Training

Personal Floatation Devices Kinds, Types, and Requirements

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Life Jackets, PFDs

Inflatable Life Jacket

Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

When choosing a life jacket, also known as personal floatation devices (PFDs), it is important to know the basics – the type or classification, what boating activity it is suitable for, and the federal requirements enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Kinds of Life Jackets

There are three kinds of life jackets approved for use by the U.S. Coast Guard:

Inherently Buoyant – A PFD made primarily of foam. This PFD is recommended for adults and children, for swimmers and non-swimmers, and they are rugged and easy to maintain.

Inflatable – An inflatable air chamber inflates automatically upon submersion in water, or when activated manually. This kind of PFD is only recommended for swimmers, and is not suitable for children, or for use in water sports or personal water craft. The advantages of the inflatable PFD are they are the most comfortable to wear, have high performance and will turn an unconscious person face up. The disadvantage is they require regular maintenance to work properly and be Coast Guard approved.

Hybrid – Combines foam and inflation. This PFD can be worn by adults and children and is recommended for swimmers and non-swimmers. The advantages of this type of PFD is comfort, style and high performance. The disadvantage is they require regular maintenance to work properly and be Coast Guard approved.

Types of Life Jackets

Within the three different kinds of life jackets, there are five basic classifications, or types:

Type I – recommended for use in offshore or rough waters where rescue may be delayed; will turn an unconscious person over onto their back; available as inflatable or inherently buoyant personal floatation device; offers 22 lbs. and 34 lbs. of buoyancy.

Type II – classic life jacket recommended for near shore boating activities where there is a chance of quick rescue; many designs and styles available for both children and adults; available as an inflatable, inherently buoyant, or hybrid personal floatation device; offers 7, 11, and 15.5 lbs. of buoyancy.

Type III – floatation aid that is comfortable to wear, and comes in many styles suitable for varied boating activities for both children and adults; for use in calm waters in an area with a good chance of fast rescue; available as an inflatable, inherently buoyant, or hybrid floatation device; offers 9, 10, 11, 15.5 and 22.5 lbs of inherent buoyancy.

Type IV – a throwable PFD required on boats 16 feet or longer; available in cushion or life ring style; offers 16.5, 20, and 32 lbs. of inherent buoyancy.

Type V – special use PFDs such as work suits, work vests, and hybrid PFDs that combine internal floatation with inflation for added buoyancy; available as an inflatable, inherently buoyant, or hybrid floatation device; offers 7.5, 11, 15.5, 22, and 34 lbs. of buoyancy.

Coast Guard Requirements:

  • All recreational boaters must carry at least one type (I, II, III, or V) of PFD for each person aboard, and it must be in serviceable condition and easily within reach.


  • The PFD must be Coast Guard approved. Read the label of the life jacket carefully before purchasing. If it does not say “Coast Guard Approved,” the PFD does not meet the minimum requirements.


  • Children under the age of 13 are required to wear a life jacket while aboard a recreational vessel.


  • The PFD must be the appropriate size for the intended user.


  • Vessels 16 feet or longer are required to carry a Type IV – throwable – PFD. It must be immediately available for use.


  • Inflatable PFDs must be in good condition, and have a full cylinder and green status indicators or it is not considered serviceable and doesn’t satisfy the minimum requirements. They are approved for persons 16 years or older.


  • Check with your state to be in compliance with state laws in addition to federal requirements.


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