No matter how light the breeze is or how calm the surface of the water, all boaters should remember and respect the power of the sea. To do so is to make safety a top priority for each and every person on board a vessel. One extremely important aspect of boat safety is the wearing of and availability of PFDs – short for Personal Floatation Devices – commonly called lifejackets. Though many boaters wear lifejackets only on occasions when the conditions appear threatening, most marine fatalities occur in calm waters because people were not wearing their PFDs.

With this information in mind, the United States Coast Guard requires that every boat have one wearable lifejacket for every person aboard. Not only must the lifejackets be on board, but they must be Coast Guard approved, easily accessible, in good condition, and suitable to the size of whoever may wear them. In addition, children under a certain age are required to wear a lifejacket at all times on board the boat, but these regulations vary from state to state so it is recommended that you check with your local boating authority if you will be boating with children.

Most types of PFDs come in two basic styles: inflatable and inherently buoyant. Inflatable lifejackets, as the name implies, must be filled with air before use, while inherently buoyant lifejackets are filled with buoyant foam or a material called kapok. Each type and style has a minimum buoyancy requirement, and if these seem low it is because people weigh much less in the water than they do on land, so a full-grown adult needs, at the bare minimum, only around 7 to 12 pounds of support to stay afloat.

There are five types of PFDs which every boater should know about, and should use according to their specific needs – it is important to be well-informed about all the options before heading out on the water. Below is an explanation of these five types, in addition to information about their regulation. 

Type I PFDs

Type I PFDs are for use in open water and rough conditions. They are designed to turn someone who is unconscious face-up so that they do not drown while waiting for rescue, which can take a long time when far from land. As a rule, they are bright orange, in order to be seen more easily by rescuers. For recreational boaters who plan on staying closer to shore, they may not be the right choice as they are very bulky and generally uncomfortable.

The Coast Guard mandates a minimum buoyancy of 22 pounds for Type I PFDs that are inherently buoyant and 33 pounds for those which are inflatable. 

Type II PFDs

One of the most common types of PFDs is Type II, which is recommended for general use, especially in waters close to land where rescue is more likely to be fast. Many Type II lifejackets are the classic lifejackets you may recall from childhood or boating seen on television – the orange vest which wraps around the back of the neck and buckles in the front with one strap. Though they meet all safety needs, their shape is not the most comfortable for extended periods of time.

Minimum buoyancy for Type II PFDs is set by the Coast Guard at15.5 pounds for inherently buoyant lifejackets and 33 pounds for inflatable lifejackets.


Type III PFDs, like Type II, are designed for general use in calm waters and areas which are not far from land and are also very common. They are also regarded as some of the most comfortable lifejackets, and are well-suited for boating activities which involve some sort of sport, such as fishing or waterskiing, as they are made to allow movement and comfort. These come in a variety of different styles, so you may choose whatever suits both your safety and aesthetic needs.

The minimum buoyancy for Type III PFDs is 15.5 pounds for inherently buoyant lifejackets and 22.5 for inflatable lifejackets.

Type IV PFDs

Unlike the other types of PFDs, the Type IV is not made to be worn. Type IV PFDs are those designed to be thrown overboard to someone who is already in the water. Picture the classic lifesaving ring that is aboard many a vessel – that is a Type IV. This type also may include boat cushions, which are most of the time just as buoyant and may be tossed in case of a man overboard. 

An additional regulatory aspect of this type to keep in mind is that the Coast Guard requires that every boat of a length over 16 feet must have a Type IV PFD aboard. For cushions, the minimum buoyancy is 20 pounds, and for the lifesavers (also called ring buoys), the minimum buoyancy is 16.5 pounds.

Type V PFDs

The Type V PFD is the most varied of all PFDs, as it includes many devices that are designed for special use only and is somewhat of a “leftover” category for those that do not fit in the other four. Some of the lifejackets in this category are: hybrid inflatable devices which are partially buoyed by foam and then require some inflation on the part of the wearer; canoe and kayak vests; work vests that are largely used on commercial vessels; and belt-pack inflatables which may be worn around the waist.

As this category is spread so wide, the minimum buoyancy requirements vary a good deal. For hybrid inflatables, minimum buoyancy is seven and a half pounds deflated and twenty-two pounds fully inflated. Inflatables in this category have a minimum buoyancy of 22 to 34 pounds, and inherently buoyant devices 15 to 22 pounds. 

An important note about Type V PFDs is that they must be worn to truly be considered a PFD. Just having enough Type Vs for each person aboard would not pass a safety check if the Coast Guard were to randomly inspect your vessel. They must be worn.

To learn more about the PFD categories, how to care for yours, and more, check out the United States Coast Guard website. 

So when buying a PFD, remember to make sure that it is suitable for your needs and has been approved by the Coast Guard – and enjoy your time on the water knowing that you are safe and well prepared!