Life Jacket Types: Choosing a U.S. Coast Guard-Approved PFD
Buying life jackets for the first time may make you feel like most people do when in the grocery store’s snack aisle: I want them all, but what can I make the most of?
Unlike snacks, there are many great, safe, and quality personal flotation devices (PFDs) or life jackets that the U.S. Coast Guard approves! For instance, take the foam-filled PFDs (often named Standard) or inflatable PFDs, which inflate when they hit the water. And these life jackets come in various sizes to fit adults, teens, children, and even infants.
We suggest considering the following when choosing a life jacket:
- The type of boating activity you’ll be doing
- The life jacket you feel most comfortable in, and is sized correctly
U.S. Coast Guard Approved Life Jackets
The Coast Guard breaks down PFDs into two main classes:
- Life jackets that provide face up in-water support to the user regardless of physical conditions
- Buoyancy aids that require the user to make swimming or other postural movements to position the user with the face out of the water
Likewise, PFDs are categorized by performance type and/or level (50, 70, 100, 150, 275).
The different types of PFDs include:
- Type I (greatest required inherent buoyancy)
- Type II (intended to turn some unconscious persons from a face down position)
- Type III (intended to support a conscious person int he water in an upright position)
- Type V (approved for restricted uses or activities)
Choosing a life jacket based on activity
As the Coast Guard says, the best life jacket for you is the one you will wear! Wearing a top-of-the-line standard PFD for wakeboarding is no good if its design restricts your movement when you’re trying to grab the towrope or catch some air. That’s why we suggest considering options based on the activities you want to do on the water.
Next, you should spend some time thinking about which life jacket will let you feel most comfortable for the type of boating you intend to do. Here’s another scenario: You’re sitting amid a gorgeous blue sea or lake. You have on a slimmed-down inflatable PFD and feel somewhat secure. But in the back of your mind, there is a persistent, worrisome thought about whether your life jacket will inflate or fail you if an emergency happens. Needless to say, a PFD that doesn’t make you feel 100 percent assured and comfortable is not the one for you.
There is no best life jacket; there is only an optimal one. Look for PFDs with the Coast Guard-approved tags, and take your time trying on different versions for optimal fit and comfort.
Again, the snack-aisle comparison applies: You don’t want to bring home the bag of chips that makes you think, “I should have gotten barbecue flavor.” It won’t let you feel comfortable and focused on the show or movie of the evening.
The more life jacket types you try on, the more you will learn their differences. Like women’s PFDs place foam in key areas so as not to squish the bust while maintaining buoyancy overall. For tall guys who feel like straps on regular-size life jackets, some men’s PFDs are made more fitted for you. Kids’ life jackets, too, have come a long way since the days when it felt like you were being choked inside an oversized sofa cushion.
Some PDFs have specific functions other than keeping you afloat in the water. Standard life jackets may have pockets where you can store things like a driver’s license or cash. And others have one or more tabs where you can clip on accessories such as a whistle or personal locator beacon for extra safety or fishing tools such as lures and knives! For paddling sports, there are PFDs with built-in ventilation so you don’t overheat while in the sun and wider arm holes for all-day comfort in a kayak.
Color is also important! While an orange life jacket is an excellent option (especially if you want to highlight yourself in an emergency), Coast Guard-approved life jackets come in various colors. Plus, reflective tape is always a good idea.
It bears repeating: The best life jacket for you is the one you will wear. If you invest some time from the start in really looking at the pros and cons of different types of life jackets, then you’re going to end up with the best PFD for you—which means the safest, most comfortable experience out on the water.
Kim Kavin has been on boats in more than 50 countries and islands, including in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. She grew up learning to steer a ski boat and Hobie Holder at her grandfather’s lake house in New Jersey, and went on to spend time aboard everything from America’s Cup racing sailboats to submarines.
Kim is a PADI-certified scuba diver and animal lover who always enjoys a good, long look around a coral reef. Her award-winning writing and editing regularly appears in national marine magazines and on leading websites. In her early years, she was a Dow Jones editing intern and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. When she’s not writing, Kim can usually be found hiking northwest New Jersey’s beautiful park trails with her adopted shelter mutt, Ginger.