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Life Jacket vs Buoyancy Aid vs PFD: The Differences

Mark Armstrong
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Trying to figure out the difference between a buoyancy aid, PFD, and a life jacket can be difficult. But it can be important to know how they differ so that you can decide which one will be right for you and your activities.

To help you discover a little more about these differences we’ve put together some information on each type of device.

The difference between a buoyancy aid vs a life jacket and a PFD is that a buoyancy aid is designed to help you swim. A life jacket is a type of PFD that is built to provide increased buoyancy to help you float in situations where you may not be able to swim.

Life jacket vs Buoyancy Aid vs PFD_ The Differences - PinterestPin

​What Is A Life Jacket?

A life jacket is designed to be a life saving device when worn. It is crafted to provide buoyancy to keep you afloat in the water.

Life jackets come in various different types, with each type having its own intended use. There are four types of wearable life jackets that are approved in the United States by the US Coast Guard, ranging from Type I to Type V (Type IV is a throwable device).

There are also different sizes, including infantchild, youth and a range of adult sizes. This is because a life jacket is designed to be well fitted so that it can offer maximum performance. If the life jacket doesn’t fit you well, it may not be able to save your life.

It should fit snugly but comfortably and shouldn’t move around while you’re wearing it. Some life jackets, particularly those for infants and young children, will have additional features, such as leg straps to allow the life jacket to remain in place around the upper body.

> PFDs for big and tall persons

​When To Use A Life Jacket

  • Boating
  • Watersports
  • ​Fishing

Life jackets can be ideal to wear for most water activities. But it’s important you choose the right type for the activities you plan to do.

For most recreational activities, such as kayaking, canoeing, near shore boating, fishing or other water sports, a Type II or III life jacket can be advisable. A Type I life jacket is generally for offshore boating and rough conditions where help may be far away.

For children, it’s a Federal requirement to wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket while on a moving vessel. The age at which a child must wear their life jacket on an open deck can vary between states but for Federal regulations the age is 13.

​What Is A Buoyancy Aid?

​​​A buoyancy aid is different to a life jacket because it is not designed as a life saving device. It is built to increase your natural buoyancy but is not generally designed to keep you afloat.

This means you will need to swim in order to stay afloat while wearing a buoyancy aid. Because of this, they are not recommended to be worn by non-swimmers.

Buoyancy aids are not considered life jackets and thus are generally not approved by the US Coast Guard. This means that they will not meet Federal regulations where you are required by law to either wear or have on board a personal flotation device (PFD).

While they can increase your buoyancy in the water, they have a lower level of buoyancy, which may not be enough to keep you afloat for long periods or in choppy conditions.

​When To Use A Buoyancy Aid

  • Competent at self rescue
  • Sheltered waters
  • Competent at self rescue

Buoyancy aids can be easier to move in and swim in than a bulkier life jacket, which can make them more comfortable for activities such as kayaking or paddle boarding. But they can often look similar to life jackets.

​Video: Wear A Buoyancy Aid

​However, because they don’t provide as much buoyancy as a US Coast Guard approved life jacket, they should only be used if you are an experienced swimmer and plan to be in sheltered waters close to shore.

They can be ideal for activities where you are likely to be able to quickly climb back onto your vessel and don’t foresee any dangers, such as from currents or cold water shock.

​What Is a PFD?

​​​A PFD is a Personal Flotation Device and is a buoyant life saving device that is usually worn.

Most life jackets are categorized as PFDs, typically if they are rated and approved by the US Coast Guard for use in waters in the United States.

There are five types, with four of them being wearable life jackets and one (Type IV) being a throwable PFD.

The Type IV PFD is designed to be thrown to a person in the water who is in need of rescue. You have probably seen them at marinas, beaches and swimming pools in the form of a ring but they can also come in the form of a square cushion or horseshoe.

PFDs come in different styles, including inherently buoyant, inflatable and hybrid (a combination of inflatable and inherently buoyant). Some can even be worn as a waist pack. However, these inflatable devices are not suitable for children.

In some waters and on some vessels, you may be required to wear a USCG approved PFD while on board.

However, sometimes the requirement is that you have the correct size and type of PFD on board for everyone on your vessel. Children must wear their PFD in order to meet the requirements.

​When To Use A PFD

  • ​​Boating
  • ​Watersports
  • ​To meet US Coast Guard carriage requirements

PFDs can be used for a variety of water activities and sports. The type of PFD you will need will depend on what you will be using it for.

Inflatable PFDs can be useful for activities where you may want less restrictions for moving, such as for paddling or fishing. But if you plan to be in rougher conditions or if you will be in frequent contact with the water, you may want to opt for an inherently buoyant one.

PFDs are designed to save your life by providing you with buoyancy. A PFD in the form of a life jacket can only provide you with buoyancy when you’re wearing it.

A throwable PFD can provide you with additional buoyancy when it is thrown to you while you’re in the water. This can enable you to be rescued by grabbing hold of it and can be used in addition to you wearing your own PFD.

​Levels Of Buoyancy

Buoyancy is generally referred to in terms of Newtons, with the levels of buoyancy called the Newton Range. One Newton is the equivalent of 0.225 pounds, so the higher the Newton rating, the higher the level of buoyancy.

Life jackets are generally rated by buoyancy level in the UK and Europe. These ratings use the Newton Range to categorize them for intended uses.

The lowest rating is 50n, which is often the rating for buoyancy aids. This means it can provide 11.25 pounds of buoyancy, which is less than the required 15.5 pounds of buoyancy for a US Coast Guard approved life jacket.

Life jackets with the Newton Range scale begin at 100n, providing 22.5 pounds of buoyancy.

​50n​11.25 pounds​Buoyancy aid for swimmers in sheltered water
​100n​22.5 pounds​Life jacket for near shore or sheltered water
​150n​33.75 pounds​Life jacket for inshore and rough conditions
​275n​61.86 pounds​Life jacket for offshore and commercial use in extreme conditions

​In Conclusion

​​​​Hopefully you now know the difference between a life jacket, PFD and a buoyancy aid. Remember that a buoyancy aid is designed as an aid and shouldn’t be relied upon to save your life.

A life jacket can be the ideal PFD for boating and many watersports and can help you to meet US Coast Guard requirements. Remember, a life jacket will generally need to be worn for it to work.

Let us know in the comments whether you prefer a buoyancy aid or a PFD. And remember to share this to help others stay safe on the water.

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