Life Jackets, Vests & PFDs: How to Choose the Right Fit

Life jackets, life vests, ski vests…they’re all common names for PFDs, or personal flotation devices. Their job, as the names imply, is to keep the wearer alive and afloat should they unexpectedly end up in the water or elect to participate in watersports such as skiing or wake surfing. Although the goal might be simple, life jacket styles, fit and method of use can all affect whether your PFD does the job it’s intended for.

Here’s a guide to selecting, fitting and using various life jackets, vests and PFDs.

How to Choose the Right Life Jacket

  1. Select the proper type based on activity or boating conditions.
  2. Check for a proper fit.
  3. Examine the outlined size and weight requirements.
  4. Ensure the life jacket is in good condition—look for holes and tears.
  5. Don't forget to wear it!
life jacket types

Select the Proper Life Jacket Type

Personal flotation devices come in various types, and ideally should be chosen to best match your activity or boating conditions.

  • Type I jackets offer the greatest buoyancy (over 20 pounds) and are designed primarily for offshore use. They’re bulky to wear but have the distinct advantage of turning an unconscious person face up in the water.
  • Type II jackets are likewise designed to turn an unconscious person face up in the water. They offer a minimum 15.5 pounds of buoyancy and are typically chosen for nearshore boating excursions. Though not exactly fashionable, their inexpensive price and often simple construction make Type II life jackets a longstanding favorite for boaters looking to satisfy U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements.
  • Type III jackets likewise offer 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Often referred to as “ski vests,” their comfortable, formfitting style makes them an excellent choice for watersports as well as general passenger use. Type III jackets typically feature a front entry and buckle, or buckle-and-zipper closure. The catch with Type III jackets is that they are designed for conscious wearers with an imminent chance of rescue; a Type III jacket is not guaranteed to turn an unconscious wearer face up in the water. Type IV personal flotation devices are designated as “throwables,” and typically take the shape of a ring or flat cushion that can be thrown to a person who lands unexpectedly in the water.
  • Type IV PFDs are designed to be held onto, rather than worn, by the user. They offer a minimum 16.5 pounds of buoyancy. Tip? Though some might look the part, don’t use a designated throwable as a seat cushion. Over time, the practice will degrade the foam and reduce the amount of flotation.
  • Type V jackets are special-use PFDs, often combined into flotation coats, whitewater rafting vests, even sailboard harnesses. They should be used only for their intended purpose.

Check for a Proper Fit

Once you select the proper type of PFD for your conditions and/or activity, make sure it is in good condition, with no holes or tears, and fits properly. A jacket that is too large can slip off the wearer. One that is too small might not offer sufficient buoyancy to keep the wearer afloat.

  1. Look for the manufacturer’s labeling that details the size and weight the jacket is intended to fit.
  2. Once you have the proper size, put on the jacket, fasten any closures (buckles, zippers, etc.), then lift your arms up straight over your head and ask a friend grab the top of the jacket above the arm openings and pull upward.
  3. Ideally, the jacket should not rise any higher than the wearer’s chin. If it rides up as high as the ears, it’s too large and could slip off in the water; size down to get the proper fit.
  4. Don’t overlook the crotch strap found on life jackets designed for young children. This additional strap runs between the legs from the back of the jacket to the front and offers added assurance the jacket will not ride up or slip over a child’s head.

Don't Forget to Wear Itlife jackets for kids

Don’t make the all-too common mistake of having a life jacket available for every passenger aboard, but having those jackets stowed in a difficult-to-reach location. Accidents might be rare, but they happen—and when they do, they typically happen quickly. In the majority of cases, they happen too quickly to find and don a life jacket. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, drowning is the cause of death in the vast majority of recreational-boating accidents. Of those fatalities, over 80 percent of the victims were found not wearing a life jacket.

That’s why the best life jacket available just might be the one you’re willing to wear…every time you’re out on the water.

Worried that a life jacket will feel constricting and hot on a warm summer day? Try the comfort and freedom provided by a suspender-style inflatable PFD. In their non-inflated state, bulk is minimal. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “float coat” jackets combine flotation with the insulation of a jacket when it’s cool. They’re a favorite of fishing enthusiasts.

Next Read: Sunscreen & Sun Safety Guide

Looking for more safety tips? Read...


Category: Day Cruising