Lifejacket selection and use guide
Lifejackets, also known as personal flotation devices (PFDs), play a key role in boating safety. Understanding their proper ratings and use is critical for providing effective protection.
PFD type designations (U.S.)
UL certified PFDs include a type designation marked on each device that indicates the type of protection provided, as follows. Consult U.S. Coast Guard or other applicable regulations to determine the type of PFD to provide on your vessel.
- Type I PFDs / off-shore life jackets: Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. Abandon-ship lifejacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire.
- Type II PFDs /near-shore buoyant vests: For general boating activities. Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.
- Type III PFDs / flotation aids: For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others. Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.
- Type V PFDs / special use devices: Only for special uses or conditions. See the label on the device for limitations of use.
PFD wearing and caring information
(Courtesy of the USCG Office of Boating Safety)
Try your PFD:
- Try on your PFD to see if it fits comfortably snug. Then test it in shallow water to see how it handles.
- To check the buoyancy of your PFD in the water, relax your body and let your head tilt back. Make sure your PFD keeps your chin above water and you can breathe easily.
- Be aware: your PFD may not act the same in swift or rough water as in calm water. The clothes you wear and the items in your pockets may also change the way your PFD works.
- If your mouth is not well above the water, get a new PFD or one with more buoyancy.
- A PFD is designed not to ride-up on the body when in the water. But, when a wearer’s stomach is larger than the chest, ride-up may occur. Before use, test this PFD in the water to establish that excessive ride-up does not impair PFD performance.
Wear your PFD:
- Most drownings occur way out at sea, right? Wrong! Fact is, 9 out of 10 drownings occur in inland waters, most within a few feet of safety. Most of the victims owned PFDs, but they died without them. A wearable PFD can save your life, if you wear it.
- If you haven’t been wearing your PFD because of the way it makes you look or feel, there’s good news. Today’s PFDs fit better, look better and are easy to move around in.
- One more thing. Before you shove off, make sure all on board are wearing PFDs. To work best, PFDs must be worn with all straps, zippers, and ties fastened. Tuck in any loose strap ends to avoid getting hung-up.
- When you don’t wear your PFD, the odds are against you. You’re taking a chance on your life.
Caring for your PFD:
Follow these points to be sure your PFD stays in good condition:
- Don’t alter your PFD. If yours doesn’t fit, get one that does. Play it safe. An altered PFD may not save your life.
- Don’t put heavy objects on your PFD or use it for a kneeling pad or boat fender. PFDs lose buoyancy when crushed.
- Let your PFD drip dry thoroughly before putting it away. Always stow it in a well-ventilated place.
- Don’t leave your PFD on board for long periods when the boat is not in use.
- Never dry your PFD on a radiator, heater, or any other direct heat source.
- Put your name on your PFD if you’re the only wearer.
- Practice throwing your Type IV PFD. Cushions throw best underhand.
Checking your PFD:
- Your PFD is required to be in serviceable condition in order to be used on your boat as one of the required PFDs.
- Check your PFD often for rips, tears, and holes, and to see that seams, fabric straps, and hardware are okay. There should be no signs of waterlogging, mildew odor, or shrinkage of the buoyant materials.
- If your PFD uses bags of kapok (a naturally buoyant material), gently squeeze the bag to check for air leaks. If it leaks, it should be thrown away. When kapok gets wet, it can get stiff or waterlogged and can lose some of its buoyancy.
Don’t forget to test each PFD at the start of each season. Remember, the law says your PFDs must be in good shape before you use your boat. Ones that are not in good shape should be cut up and thrown away.
* Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.