Real Lifesavers: The 5 Main Types of PFD Every Boater Should Know About

Real Lifesavers: The 5 Main Types of PFD Every Boater Should Know About

When it comes to PFDs, personal flotation devices, you might think that one size fits all. But that's just not true. It's personal.

Your first clue: It says "personal" right in the name of the item.

So, you'll need to account for the different people who'll be wearing them and the types of boating situations they'll be in.

Whether you're boating in rough seas or calm lakes, the type of PFD you have on board is crucial. It should be more than just one haphazardly-chosen piece of your boat emergency kit.

You should choose which PFDs to keep on your boat with care. You'll need to consider the type of vessel you have, what types of activities you'll be doing and the type of water you'll be doing them in.

And you'll want to think about any guest passengers who might step on board your boat, apart from yourself. How many people might be on board at one time? How old are they? What are their measurements?

As you can see already, there's much more to passenger safety than the personal life vest you pull over your own head.

With this guide, we'll ensure that you choose the correct PFD for yourself, your boat and your passengers.

How to Choose Types of PFDs for Adults and Children

Life jackets are meant to be snug but they shouldn't be uncomfortable.

Different PFD brands and manufacturers will always be designed a little differently. They'll vary in the way they cut their patterns of fabric and foam.

Don't rush into your personal PFD purchasing decision. Make sure it fits snugly but doesn't result in chafed underarms.

Also, keep in mind that you can sometimes judge a PFD by the number of straps it has. The more the merrier. You can always adjust to your own body shape as needed.

Ladies! Do yourself a favor and find a PFD designed to fit the female figure. There are more and more manufacturers out there offering women's PFDs (as opposed to unisex). They'll give you a fit for longer torsos and larger chest sizes, have built-in cups and even use a formal wear pattern called princess seams.

And one more thing: When choosing an adult PFD, it's important that you measure by your chest size not your weight. A child-sized PFD is chosen based on the child's weight. Children can have a difficult time keeping their heads afloat, so oftentimes there's a cushioned pad built into the back.

Type I: Offshore Life Preservers and Jackets

These are strong life jackets for passengers who may find themselves stranded in very remote, open and rough swells. They're usually made in bright colors and reflective tape so helicopter rescue crews can easily spot you.

They're also the most buoyant and can rotate wearers into a face-up position should they become unconscious from common overboard emergency situations like shock, dehydration or hypothermia.

Commonly known as:

Good for:
  • Inherently Buoyant Life Jackets
  • Inflatable Life Jackets

Type II: Near-shore Buoyancy Aids


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Opposite of the Type I PFD is the Type II PFD. Also called near-shore vests, these PFDs are for calmer waters like lakes and rivers or anything inland, but not the ocean.

They're designed for areas where rescue crews can easily reach you without the need for USCG helicopters. Like the Type I PFD, these vests will also turn over its wearer into the upright position (most of the time).

Commonly known as:

Good for:
  • Calm inland waters

Type III: Standard Flotation Aid


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This type of PFD offers a bit more comfort, movement and flexibility. They're perfect for paddlers who need to, well... paddle. Designed with wide arm openings, these PFDs are made for paddling in many areas.

The Type III vests are considered interchangeable across water sport activities. So if you're both a lake boater and a paddler, this PFD is best for you!

The only note I'd argue is that whitewater rafting should require a Type V.

Commonly known as:

  • Recreational PFDs
  • Commercial Whitewater PFDs
Good for:
  • Boaters doing a variety of water sports and activities

Type IV: Throwable Devices

These are your typical life ring buoys you see around. Sometimes they're custom-made decorations with your family's name and mounted on your boat's stern or the front of your dock for lake neighbors to easily find you.

Extra cushions you have lying around your boat aren't for sitting! Okay, so maybe you need a pillow for a nap, but you better be sure someone will yank it out from under your head if a passenger is in danger.

Horseshoe buoys are also common (though they're not extra lucky, in case you were wondering).

They're all good for short-notice emergency situations such as for simply tossing in the water if someone falls off the marina dock. But they're not the go-to PFD a person would need to have on board a boat.

They're especially incapable of keeping an unconscious person afloat. And you'll still need to throw a typical PFD if the overboard person is in true danger or in rough waters. In short they're backups only!

Commonly known as:

  • Life Ring Buoys
  • Horseshoe Buoys
  • Cushions
Good for:
  • Last-minute overboards at the dock
  • Extra buoyancy support for overboard passengers

Type V: Special Use Device

These types of PFDs are labeled for specific water sports: Kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing and sailboarding to name a few activities.

The only requirement the USCG requires is that they're used only for that water sport activity. Think you can go whitewater rafting with that kayak PFD? You better think again.

Special-use devices can also just be anything that doesn't fall under a typical PFD life vest style. Neoprene sailboard suits and exposure suits are a good example of this. They cover the entire body and, believe it or not, do add a bit of buoyancy.

Commonly known as:

  • Buoyant Work Vests
  • Exposure Suits
  • Sailboard Suits
Good for:
  • Dangerous conditions
  • Specific water sports: Because there are many water sports, I'll just point out a PFD for the more dangerous of them: Whitewater Rafting

PFDs for Pets


Boating with pets can be a lot of fun! But it's important to carry safety gear and creature-comfort accessories for them.

Just because the USCG and DNR lack regulations regarding pet safety on board, doesn't mean our furry family members don't need a PFD too.

If you regard your pet as part of the family, please get your pet accustomed to wearing a life vest. It might take them some time getting used to it, but the moment Fido goes overboard, you'll be happy they have a little personal life preserver on!

All pet PFDs, like human PFDs, should fit snugly. Beware of dogs with thick coats. Don't misjudge their fur. Pets should not be able to back out of a PFD.

Test the buckles to ensure a quick release. And make sure there aren't too many straps or loose parts that could catch.  

And, whether you have a small puppy or large dog, make sure their PFD has some sort of handle to help you lift them out of the water.


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Preserving All Types of PFDs

What the USCG sees as a  "Serviceable Condition"

The USGC will at some point decide to pull you over. It may not even be because you were doing anything suspicious. It's just their job to ensure that passengers and boating equipment are all accounted for.

One of the items they'll always check is the PFDs. Obviously, they'll check that you have the correct amount for the number of passengers on deck, but did you know they'll also be checking to make sure that the PFDs aren't worn down and are actually capable of preserving a person in the water?

This is known as "serviceable condition." While there's no time limit on the term "serviceable condition," it means there are no torn or fraying threads that could allow water to penetrate, the foam isn't waterlogged and the buoyancy hasn't deteriorated.

It could even be a stiff buckle that gives trouble. Also, be sure to check all your PFDs at the beginning of the season and make sure rodents haven't made a mess of things. You never know what you might find!

Keep out of direct sunlight

Besides gnawing rodents in the winter months, the summer's strong UV rays can also cause PFD fabric, Styrofoam and other materials to disintegrate over time. When not in use, be sure to place your PFD in stowage and out of direct sunlight. This will preserve your preservers and allow them to last many years!

Rinse off saltwater


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As mentioned before, saltwater can really damage anything boat-related. PFDs are no exception!

If you get your PFD wet in salt water, be certain to rinse the saltwater from the fabric. And, of course, be sure it's completely dry after so it doesn't get mold and mildew either.  

Once you've chosen the right types of PFD, be sure to check your state and federal regulations.

Check out United Marine and click on your state to learn more. What you really need in your state can fluctuate based on the age of the boaters or the size of the body of water. It's always better to be safe than sorry!