Personal Flotation Device Types and Carriage

Recreational boating statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard point out that nearly 70% of boating deaths are caused by drowning, and 90% of the deaths occur when a person is not wearing an appropriate life saving flotation device. Not only is it essential to wear a personal flotation device (PFD), but also to ensure before each boating trip that each flotation device on board is working correctly. Boaters should check to make sure that each life jacket is in good condition (buckles, seams, zippers, etc.) and follow any manufacturer instructions to confirm that the device will work properly if needed. Boaters who fail to carry sufficient PFDs or who carry improper PFDs are subject to fines and citations.

Every recreational watercraft is required to carry one wearable life jacket for each passenger on board. Boats that measure 16 feet or longer in length (other than kayaks and canoes) are also required to carry one throwable Type IV flotation device in addition to the life jackets.

Lifejackets come in many styles and operators should ensure that they have chosen the most appropriate style for their marine activity. The five approved types of life jackets are described below and are based on three kinds of flotation, including Inherently Buoyant (primarily foam), Inflatable and Hybrid (foam and inflation).


Inherently Buoyant (Primarily Foam) – Inherently buoyant life jackets are primarily made of foam and are the most reliable. This type of jacket is designed for wearers who can swim and those who cannot and comes in wearable and throwable styles. Inherently buoyant life jackets are available in infant, child, youth and adult sizes.

Inherently Buoyant (Primarily Foam) life jacket


Inflatable – Inflatable life jackets are the most compact, lightweight and comfortable of all options. Some inflatable jackets have the best in-water performance, but they are only designed for use by swimmers and only sized for adults.

Inflatable life jacket


Hybrid (Foam and Inflation) – A hybrid life jacket is made of foam and inflatables and is a reliable option that is available in child, adult and youth sizes. Hybrid life jackets are designed for swimmers and non-swimmers and are only available to be worn. The combination of foam and inflatable components provides inherent and inflatable buoyancy together. Some hybrids are designed for water sports.

Hybrid (Foam and Inflation) life jacket

Life Jacket/ PFD Types

In the U.S., there are several different U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices available in various classifications, types and sizes. Some PFDs are also called life jackets and there are several types of PFDs that are designed for different uses or activities. The following section describes the types of PFDs/ life jackets that are approved for use in U.S. waters.

Type I Off-Shore Life Jacket (22 Pounds of Buoyancy)

Type I Off-Shore Life Jacket (22 Pounds of Buoyancy)

Effective for all waters, including open and rough waters, a Type I Off-Shore Life Jacket is a high-buoyancy option that will turn the wearer face up in the water to avoid drowning, even if the person is unconscious. Because they are more bulky than a vest option, they may be less comfortable.

Type II Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest (15.5 Pounds of Buoyancy)

Type II Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest (15.5 Pounds of Buoyancy)

A Type II Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest is best for calm waters that are closer to land or where quick rescue is probable. Type II buoyant life jackets may turn a person face up in the water, but may do so more slowly than the Type I life jacket.

Type III Flotation Aid (15.5 Pounds of Buoyancy)

Type III Flotation Aid (15.5 Pounds of Buoyancy)

A Type III Flotation Aid is ideal for use in calm, inland water where there is a good chance for quick rescue. Type III Flotation Aids are available in a wide variety of styles, colors and sizes. Generally, this type of life jacket is the most comfortable for continuous wear. There are several variations of Type III Flotation Aids that are designed specifically for usage for various activities, such as fishing vests and vests with features suitable for sporting.

The wearer of a Type III Flotation Aid may have to tilt their head back to remain in a face-up position in the water, but a Type III foam vest or inflatable has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II life jacket.

Type IV Throwable Device

Type IV Throwable Flotation Device

A Type IV Throwable Device is designed for use in any type of water and is not a wearable option, but is instead intended to be thrown in the water so that a user can hold onto it until rescued. Different types of Type IV Throwable Devices include horseshoe buoys, buoyant cushions and ring buoys.

As mentioned before, boats that measure 16 feet or longer in length (other than kayaks and canoes) are required to carry one throwable Type IV flotation device in addition to the required life jackets.

Type V Special-Use Device

Type V Special-Use Flotation Device

Intended for use for special activities, a Type V Special-Use Device can be carried in place of another life jacket only if it is used for the conditions for which it is approved. Boaters can find information about the approved usage of a Type V device by checking its label. Some Type V Special-Use Devices are labeled as “approved only when worn,” and therefore must be worn to meet carriage requirements. This does not apply to passengers in enclosed spaces on the watercraft.

It is important to understand that an inflatable with a safety harness is approved as a Type V device, but the U.S. Coast Guard has warned that this type of device may cause more harm than good. Its use to prevent falls overboard poses several risks, including injury from a sudden stop or being tethered to a capsized or sinking watercraft. For these reasons, the harness should not be attached to the boat unless it is being worn with a tether of less than 6.5 feet in length or is fitted with a quick release mechanism.

Examples of approved Type V Special-Use Devices include work vests, deck suits and hybrid inflatables.