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Buying Guide To Life Jackets

Mark Armstrong
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Life vests, PFDs and life jackets are often used to describe the same thing: a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). But there can be various differences when it comes to their features.

We’ve put together this quick guide to PFDs to give you a better idea of what to look for when it comes to choosing one for yourself, your kids, or even your dog.

Buyer's Guide To Life Jackets (And PFDs) - PinterestPin

Main Types Of PFD/Life Jacket (And How They Work)


A standard life jacket is generally an inherently buoyant PFD. This means that it is made with naturally buoyant materials, often foam, to provide instant flotation when you hit the water.

Video: Understanding The Different Types Of Life Jackets

 These can be ideal for a range of watersports and a range of people, including children and non-swimmers.


These life jackets can only provide buoyancy when they are inflated. There are usually two types of inflatable PFDs – manual and automatic.

Automatic ones are designed to inflate automatically when you hit the water. They will also usually have a manual inflation mouth tube or pull cord.

Manually inflatable PFDs are designed so that you can inflate them yourself when you hit the water, usually by pulling a cord.

Inflatable PFDs usually feature a CO2 cylinder, which needs to be replaced after each inflation.

Inflatable PFDs are not suitable for children under 16 and not recommended for non-swimmers.


Hybrid life jackets feature a combination of inherently buoyant materials and an inflation system. This means they can provide some initial buoyancy before the inflation system kicks in, giving you the benefits of both standard and inflatable PFDs.

Who PFDs Are For?

Life Vest PFD and Jackets - How To ChoosePin

Generally, PFDs are for anyone who is going to be on or near the water. They can be used for safety in a range of water activities.


PFDs can be an essential accessory when it comes to kayaking, even when you’re paddling in calm water.

You may want to think about larger arm holes to allow you to paddle, as well as a high back design that can let you sit more comfortably in your kayak seat.

Best kayak life vests

Kayak Fishing

Just like for recreational kayaking, PFDs can be a vital part of your kayak fishing gear. A low profile life jacket can be a more suitable option if you’re fishing from a kayak, as this can give you more freedom of movement, both for casting and paddling.

PFDs with pockets and D-rings could be useful for kayak fishing, giving you additional storage.. 


Beginners on kayak - woman and childPin

Women’s life jackets are engineered to fit a woman’s body. This means they are often shorter in the torso and contoured to better fit a woman’s shape. This can make them fit more securely, which can be safer in the event that you need to be rescued.

Women’s life jackets also often have built-in bust cups for added support and a more comfortable fit.

Big And Tall People

Big life vests will often have a larger chest size to accommodate larger bodies. But they will also tend to have other features that can make the PFDs more comfortable to wear.

Some of these features can include expanding panels, which can help the life jacket move with you. Several points of adjustability can also be useful, as it can let you tailor the PFD to the shape of your body.


Kids are often required to wear inherently buoyant life jackets when on the water. Child life jackets are usually sized by weight, rather than chest size. But you may find some models that can give you an indication of recommended chest size along with the recommended weight.

There are generally two sizes to accommodate children; child and youth. Kids’ PFDs often have additional features such as grab handles and crotch straps.

Infants And Babies

Infant life jackets are usually sized by weight, like child sized life jackets and are usually for babies and toddlers weighing between 8 and 30 pounds.

Infant life jackets are designed to provide instant buoyancy and will often be designed to turn your child face up in the water, depending on the specific model of life jacket.

PFDs for infants will tend to have crotch straps and a grab handle for safety, and will often have head support for additional flotation.


Dog life jackets tend to have grab handles on the back to let you lift your dog out of the water more easily.

They will also tend to have straps that can adjust around your dog’s chest and neck.

Regulations And Law

Penalty Notice DUI Kayak - Alcohol consumptionPin


The US Coast Guard sets the laws and requirements for PFDs in the United States. PFDs need to be worn in certain conditions and in certain states during some water activities.

Children under the age of 13 must wear an approved PFD while on an open deck of a moving vessel but this age can vary depending on the state law.

Rest Of World

The laws around the world can vary, with Ireland requiring a life jacket to be worn on all vessels under 23 feet. It’s recommended, no matter where you are, to wear a PFD on board kayaks or other small watercraft, as this can help to prevent drowning.

How To Size And Fit A Life Jacket

PFDs should be snug but comfortable and should not ride up when you pull up on the shoulders.

Video: How To Properly Fit A Life Jacket

Step 1: Secure The Life Jacket

Put on the life jacket and secure it to yourself using the adjustable straps and zips, if applicable.

Step 2: Make Adjustments

You’ll probably need to make adjustments to the straps at various sections in order to get a comfortable fit. Loosen or tighten as necessary.

Step 3: Lift Up On The Shoulder Straps

You may want to have someone help you with this. Pull up on the shoulder straps of the life vest. The vest should stay in place around your body and should not ride up above your chin or ears.

If the life vest does ride up when you do this, try adjusting the straps for a more secure fit. If it continues to ride up, it may be that the life jacket is too big and you need a smaller size.

Fitting For Adults

Adult life jackets are categorized by chest size; the measurement around the widest part of your chest and will often be rated for adults weighing a minimum of around 80 to 90 pounds.

Fitting For Women

Women’s sizes are generally rated by bust size. This is the measurement around the fullest part of your bust, which will usually be a larger number than your bra band size.

Fitting For Kids

Kids’ PFDs are sized by weight, usually in two sizes; child and youth. Child size is for kids weighing between 30 and 50 pounds. Youth size is usually for kids weighing between 50 and 90 pounds.

Fitting For Infants

Infant PFDs are rated by weight and are generally for babies and toddlers weighing between 8 and 30 pounds..

Fitting For Dogs

Dog PFDs are usually sized by weight but there will generally be recommendations for back length and shoulder height.

Dog jumping into sea with life vestPin

Main Features To Look Out For

Safety First – USCG Classification

Type I

  • Inherently buoyant
  • For open water/rough seas/commercial use
  • Should turn most people face up

A Type I life jacket is designed for extreme conditions. It has the highest level of buoyancy of all the life jackets and is made for open oceans where rescue may be a long distance away.

The increased buoyancy of these life jackets are made so that they can keep you higher above the water, which is essential in rough water or large waves. These life jackets are also designed to turn most people face up in the water, so they can be life saving even if you’re knocked unconscious.

Type II

  • Inherently buoyant or inflatable
  • For day cruising/near shore/fishing
  • Should turn some people face up

A Type II life jacket is designed to provide enough buoyancy for a rescue situation in calm waters, such as inland waters and those close to shore. They are made to turn some people face up, but they are not guaranteed to turn every wearer face up.

These PFDs can be ideal for recreational boating and fishing. They can also be suitable for both children and adults, as long as they are made from inherently buoyant materials. Inflatable PFDs of any type are not recommended for children.

Type III

  • Inherently buoyant or inflatable
  • For kayaking/recreational boating/fishing
  • Not designed to turn people face up

A Type III life jacket can come in both inherently buoyant and inflatable options. These life vests are designed to offer less bulk than a Type I or Type II PFD are can be more suitable for near-shore activities where there is a higher chance of a swift rescue.

Type III PFDs are ideal for a range of recreational watersports, such as kayaking and paddle boarding. But these life jackets are not designed to turn you face up in the water, so they may not be suitable for activities where there’s a risk of you being knocked unconscious.

Type III life jackets come in both adult and child sizes, with the inflatable ones being suitable for adult swimmers only.

Type IV

  • Throwable device – not worn
  • Ring/horseshoe or cushion
Life Buoy Belt Type IV PFDPin

A Type IV PFD cannot be worn. It is a throwable PFD that is inherently buoyant. Some longer vessels may be required to have a Type IV PFD on board and accessible at all times while the vessel is moving.

These PFDs are often in the shape of a ring, horseshoe or cushion, and can often be seen mounted near the water at marinas or swimming pools. They are designed to be thrown to someone who has fallen in the water. The person in the water can then grab the device and use it to help keep them afloat during a rescue.

Type V

  • Inherently buoyant or inflatable or hybrid
  • Dedicated use for specific activities

A Type V PFD is designed for a specific use and generally only meets the US Coast Guard requirements if it’s used for that particular purpose. These uses can include whitewater, deck suits and paddling vests.

They can be either inherently buoyant, inflatable or hybrid. These types of life jackets are generally not designed to turn you face up in the water if you’re unconscious.


Bright colors can be useful as this can increase your visibility on the water, which can be important during a rescue. Some PFDs will also have reflective strips to improve visibility during low light conditions.


Life jackets can be made out of various materials, including neoprene, nylon and polyester. The core of inherently buoyant PFDs is often closed cell foam which provides the flotation.


Pockets can be useful on PFDs, especially for activities such as kayaking, fishing or paddle boarding where you may be short on deck space and want to have small items within easy reach. They can also be handy for storing a whistle for added safety.

Looking After Your PFD/Life Jacket

Life Jackets On A BoatPin


Looking after your PFD can extend its life. Standard PFDs should be kept clean with mild soapy water and allowed to dry completely before storing.

Float tests should be carried out regularly in calm water, such as a pool.

Inflatable PFDs require additional maintenance to make sure the cartridge is in working order and correctly installed.

Time To Dump?

Your PFD should be discarded if it has a tear in the fabric or if it has become faded or damaged. This can mean that the life jacket won’t work as intended and that it may not keep you afloat in an emergency situation.

Check your life vest regularly, inspecting the fabric, seams and straps, particularly at points where the life jacket may undergo increased pressure, such as the shoulders or waist straps.

Frayed straps could mean that they may not stand up to pressure in the water. A rip in the exterior fabric could mean that the flotation foam has suffered damage, which may affect its buoyancy, and so your life jacket will need to be replaced.

Faded fabric could be a sign of UV damage, which may mean weakened components.

Water Temperature vs Survivability ChartPin
Stats courtesy: ussartf.org

Final Words

A PFD is a life saving piece of equipment that should be worn whenever you’re on the water. In many cases, you may find it’s the law to wear one.

There are many types available to suit all sizes and ages of people and dogs, as well as various styles for different activities.

Remember to make sure your PFD fits correctly and is approved for your specific water activity.