Types of Personal Flotation Devices

According to the US Coast Guard, nearly 70% of boating deaths are drownings, and 90% happen when people do not wear an appropriate life-saving flotation device. With this, the use of Personal Flotation Devices has been emphasized more often, but it would be best if boaters themselves ensured that all PFDs are always in perfect working order.

Making sure each life jacket is in good condition plays a significant role in ensuring the safety of boaters and passengers. Even something as simple as checking its buckles or seams can change the entire storyline in boating. Boaters should follow the manufacturer’s instructions if they need to confirm that the life-saving flotation device works. If boaters do not carry PFDs or fail to carry the wrong ones onboard, fines and citations can be issued. 

Every recreational vessel must have a Type I, II, or III Personal Flotation Device (life jacket) that is approved by the US Coast Guard and is of the appropriate size for each individual on board. A throwable Type IV flotation device is also required on boats 16 feet or longer (other than kayaks and canoes). 

There are a variety of styles of life jackets, and operators should ensure they choose the most appropriate type for their marine activities. Life jackets can be classified into three types based on flotation: Inherently Buoyant (mostly foam), Inflatable, and Hybrid (with foam and inflation). 

Below is a list of the different types of life jackets that have been approved:

Inherently Buoyant (Mostly Foam)

Inherently buoyant life jackets are considered the most reliable type because they are primarily made of foam. With wearable and throwable styles, this type of life jacket is equally suitable for people who know how to swim and those who do not. It offers maximum protection but is sometimes bulky. These life jackets come in sizes for infants, kids, youth, and adults.

image of inherently buoyant life jacket


Due to their lightweight and compact design, inflatable life jackets are the most comfortable type. The best inflatable jackets work best in water, but they are only for swimmers and are sized for adults.

orange and black inflatable life jacket

Hybrid (Foam and Inflation)

A hybrid life jacket combines both foam and inflatable materials. This type is a reliable option with sizes for children, youths, and adults. Unlike inherently buoyant life jackets, a hybrid life jacket is only designed to be worn. However, these life jackets are designed for swimmers and non-swimmers (others are for water sports). There is inherent buoyancy and inflatable buoyancy combined with foam and inflatable components.

blue and yellow hybrid life jacket

Life Jacket or PFD Types

In the United States, personal flotation devices are available in various classifications, types, uses, and buoyancy all of which are approved by the US Coast Guard. Some PFDs are life jackets and multiple kinds of PFDs designed for different purposes and activities.

The chart below outlines the types of life jackets or PFDs that are approved for use in US waters:

Inflatable devices with a safety harness are approved as Type V devices, although the US Coast Guard advises that this type of device may cause more harm than good. Its use to prevent falls overboard may present several risks, including the possibility of injury from a sudden stop or from being tethered to a capsized or sinking vessel. As a result, a harness should not be attached to a boat unless worn in conjunction with a tether not exceeding 6.5 feet in length or if it has a quick-release mechanism.

A few examples of Type V Special-Use Devices are work vests, deck suits, and hybrid inflatables.



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