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A life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) is an essential piece of gear when out on the water. They can be convenient for carrying items such as pliers, lip balm, or snacks but they are are primarily responsible for keeping you at the surface of the water if you go for an unintentional swim. According to the US Coast Guards (USCG) 2016 boating statistics, there were 4,463 boating accidents with 701 deaths. Drowning accounted for 80% of those deaths and 83% were NOT wearing life jackets. Like a vehicle’s seat belt, life jackets and PFD’s only work if they are worn.
Today, lifejackets are lightweight, easy to move in and come in many styles and colors. They are not only functional but also stylish. It is a USCG requirement to have a PFD for each person on your vessel. This includes stand up paddle boards (SUP), kayaks, canoes, sailboats, and powerboats. But, which one should you choose and do you need a different one for different types of boats? Many of the types worn for kayaking, sailing, and canoeing can be used on any powerboat if they are USCG approved. Typically they are labeled on the inside and state whether they are for an adult, youth, or child.
Things to Know:
  • Life jackets are designed to keep your head above water and help you remain in a position which permits proper breathing.
  • To meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements, a boat must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket for each person on board. Boats 16 feet long and over must have at least one Type IV throwable device as well.
  • All states have regulations regarding life jackets worn by children.
  • Specific child size life jackets are available and adult-sized life jackets will not work for children. To work correctly, a life jacket must be worn, fit snuggly, and not allow the child’s chin or ears to slip through.
  • Life jackets should be tested for wear and buoyancy at least once each year. Waterlogged, faded, or leaky jackets should be replaced.
  • Life jackets must be properly stowed.
  • A life jacket especially a snug-fitting flotation coat or deck-suit style can help you survive in cold water.
Life Jacket Flotation
There are five types of life jackets with the following characteristics:
  • Adult, Youth, Child, and Infant sizes
  • For swimmers & non-swimmers
  • Wearable & throwable styles
  • Some designed for water sports
Minimum Buoyancy
Wearable Size
Inherent Buoyancy (Foam)
22 lb.
15.5 lb.
15.5 to 22 lb.
11 lb.
11 to 15.5 lb.
Child and Infant
7 lb.
Ring Buoy
20 lb.
16.5 & 32 lb.

TYPE 1 -These are for offshore vessels and more of the horse collar type with reflective tape. They are required to have 22lbs of buoyancy and must float a person face up. Typically not very comfortable for paddle sports.

TYPE 2 – The near shore buoyant vests with a minimum of 15.5 lbs of floatation and will float a person face up. Often these are on working boats, barges etc. It is worn more like a coat and not the best for sitting in a kayak.
TYPE 3 -These have a minimum of 15.5 lbs of floatation and are the typical jacket style worn for general boating, kayaking, canoeing etc. They can buckle or have a zipper in the front. Many come in different chest sizes with adjustment straps on the sides.
TYPE 4 -These are throwable buoyancy aids like a boat cushion or a life ring.
TYPE 5 -These are specialized wearable PFD’s. They can have 15.5-22 lbs of floatation. They can be used for rafting, kayaking etc. Often a PFD will be labeled for TYPE 5 when it has a special use.
If you are taking your kids out on the water, their life jackets are rated by body weight.
Infants 8-30 lbs.
Child   30-50 lbs.
Youth 50-90 lbs.  
In many states, children under 16 must wear life jackets while kayaking or boating.

For paddle sports, TYPE 3 and 5 are the most commonly worn. The above list is for a “standard” foam filled PFD. Foam is inherently buoyant and can be used for many years. They can have added pockets, lash tabs for a knife, hand warmer pockets, and other features added to them without affecting their function.

Since 1996, inflatable lifejackets can be worn while boating and usually designated as either TYPE 3 or TYPE 5. They are either inflated by a manually activated CO2 cartridge or have the CO2 cartridge auto-inflated by water pressure. Inflatable PFD’s must have a new cartridge installed after inflation and should be inspected often for wear, rust and holes in the air bladders and must be worn to be considered a legal PFD. Children under 16 years old and under 80 pounds may not wear inflatable lifejackets. Most states do not require you to wear a lifejacket while boating but you are required to have one “accessible” for each person on board. It is a USCG requirement for kids 13 yrs or younger to wear a lifejacket and some states may regulate kids up to 16 yrs old. Check with your state’s boating regulations for more details.
As more and more people enjoy getting on the water it is important that you not only have a lifejacket with you, but that you WEAR it. Physically wearing one may be the difference between a fun day on the water and a day that ends in tragedy.
– Tom Reilly