From the types of personal flotation devices (PFD) to storage tips, here’s everything you need to know about adult life jackets. 

At BOATsmart!, we’re big proponents of spending as many of our days as possible in the water. There’s just something about the sun sparkling on the surface, about the feeling of crashing waves and about boat days galore. Safety is paramount, though — which is where wearing the proper life jacket comes in.

Wearing the properly fitted life jacket built for your body type and activity style is essential to enjoying activities and fun on the water safely. Whether wearing a life jacket on the boat or having a life jacket for watersports galore, you’ll need to know best practices for life jacket wearing. With our guide to adult life jackets, you’ll be better prepared for your next day out on the water:

Illustration of three different types of life jackets / PFDs

What Are the Different Types of Life Jackets?

Life jackets — which used to fall in the category of Personal Flotation Devices (PFD’s) in the states — come in several classifications, which have changed and evolved over time. While the classification process is now different, life jackets classified by type are still allowed and approved by the Coast Guard, as long as they’re in good condition. 

By knowing the different types of classifications, you’ll be able to pick out the perfect life jacket for you and your needs. 

Old US Life Jacket Terminology

Though now known as the old labeling system, types were considered a great way to label life jackets in the past. Life jackets and PFD’s with these older labels — the type labels — are still fine to use and are approved, but they are being phased out and replaced with new labels as time goes on.

Illustration of a Type I Inherently Buoyant Life Jacket / PFD

Type I PFD’s – Inherently Buoyant: Type I Personal Flotation Devices are good for every kind of water condition, from the calmest of waves to the roughest of waters. They’re not a lightweight type of life jacket, but their bulkier build makes them incredibly buoyant. When wearing a Type I PFD, most unconscious individuals will be turned face-up. 

Inflatable Type I PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 33.7 lb

Foam Type I PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 22.5 Ibs

Illustration of a Type II Near-Shore Buoyancy Life Jacket / PFD

Type II PFD’s – Near-Shore Buoyant Vests: Type II PFD’s are meant for wearers that will be boating close to shore in locations where there is a high chance of a quick rescue. Type II PFD’s are also wearable for long days of water and land adventures, still being buoyant while not super bulky. 

Inflatable Type II PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of  33.7 lb

Foam Type II PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 15.5 lb

Illustration of 2 types of Type III Life jackets / PFDs

Type III PFD’s – Flotation Aids: Also known as inshore buoyant vests, Type III PFD’s are meant for situations in which the wearer can see the shore and the waters are relatively calm. Type III PFD’s, are designed with swimming and recreational boating activities and water-sports in mind. 

Inflatable Type III PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 22.5 lb

Foam Type III PFD Minimum Buoyancy: a minimum of 15.5 lb

Illustration of a Type IV throwable-device PFD

Type IV PFD’s – Throwable Devices: Type IV PFD’s aren’t life jackets but are designed to be thrown to a person needing rescue in the water (such as a buoyant ring, a life ring, etc).

Throwable Device Type IV PFD Minimum Buoyancy: A minimum of 16.5 lb

Illustration of a Type V Special-Use Life Jacket / PFD

Type V PFD’s – Special-Use Devices: Type V PFD’s are specially designed for specific uses. From devices used to prevent hypothermia, or for rescue operations to those meant for kayaking, Type V PFD’s must be used according to their specifications. Some of these devices are not approved for certain activities, or must be worn to be approved for use. 

Minimum buoyancy: Depends on specific PFD

Illustration of three different life jackets / PFDs

New US Life Jacket Terminology (Performance System)

While life jackets categorized by type are still approved for use as long as they’re in good condition, the new US classification system for life jackets relies on performance categories.

Inherent Life Jackets: These devices are always buoyant (usually made of foam) and meant to float immediately without any action required by the wearer. They are adjustable, they are typically in vest form and they are of an accessible price and maintenance standard. 

Inherent wearable life jackets are offered in a variety of performance levels, making them a great choice for most activity levels and environments.

Inflatable Life Jackets: These devices inflate with air (usually with an installed gas canister) and are activated when the wearer pulls the tube to inflate them. Inflatables come in a variety of performance levels, but are never recommended for weak or non-swimmers, children or those on personal watercraft. 

Inflatable life jackets are also low bulk until inflated, making them a great option for constant wear. 

Hybrid or Multi-Chamber Devices: These devices combine inherent material like foam along with an inflatable chamber. As Hybrid devices, these typically perform with full buoyancy without inflation, and inflation adds additional performance that can sometimes even include turning and freeboard.

However, Hybrid wearers must be aware of the ability of the device they wear to stand up to their performance. Some of these devices do not offer maximum buoyancy until inflated.

Special Purpose: These devices are meant for specific activities or restricted circumstances, and they often require extra training or action by the wearer. This classification lends itself to extra buoyancy for white water rafting or providing additional visibility, inflatable belt pouches or manual inflation devices.

Illustration of new life jacket performance label.

New Performance System Label Icons

New life jacket labels will feature an icon and number to indicate the intended conditions for use. The numbers range from Level 50 – Level 275, with smaller level life jackets intended for use in calm water and close-to-shore scenarios, and higher level life jackets which are ideal for rougher waters, and situations where rescue may take longer. 

Level 50: This performance level is recommended for users who have strong swimming skills, and are best for close-to-shore scenarios where immediate assistance is available. Life jackets of this type will not turn the wearer face-up in the water. 

Level 70: This performance level is recommended for calm or sheltered waters that are close to shore, and where help is nearby. They will not turn the wearer face up in the water. 

Level 100: This performance level is also recommended for use in calm waters, however they will provide enough flotation that the wearer will have more time to wait for rescue. They have some turning ability, but will not always turn the wearer face up. 

Level 150: Devices of this performance level are more buoyant and are appropriate for off-shore scenarios, and will turn the wearer face up in the water. 

Level 275: Devices with a 275 performance rating are the most buoyant and are designed for offshore emergency rescue situations. They can be used by SAR crews, and will handle the additional weight of tools, equipment, or clothing. 

New life jacket labels will also feature a warning panel. This panel will include important information about the device and it’s intended use, in addition to indicating activities that are not recommended for the performance level of the device such as water-skiing, towed sports, and personal watercraft operation.  

What Are the Biggest Advantages and Disadvantages of Life Jackets? 

The importance of a life jacket can’t be overstated, as they are the best means of safety for those in the water. Life jackets are a great thing to have on hand for sudden bad weather, warmth and the possibility of an accident. While life jackets may have a reputation for being uncomfortable, they absolutely don’t have to be. The key is simply finding a life jacket that fits you well.

Need-to-Knows for Proper Life Jacket Fitting

Finding the perfect fit for your life jacket is the key to making sure that you’re comfortable and safe. Your life jacket can’t be too small — it won’t keep you afloat in the water — and it shouldn’t be too big, because it’ll ride up and be uncomfortable. 

Here’s what you need to know for ensuring that you have the perfect fit:

  • The fit should be snug, though not too tight
  • When you raise your arms over your head, your life jacket shouldn’t go too far 
  • Adjust waist strap first, then side straps second, shoulder straps third and then comfort straps
  • If your adjustments haven’t led to the perfect fit, try a different size of life jacket
  • When possible, do a fit-test in the water. Wade into chest-deep water and float onto your back to ensure the life jacket doesn’t ride up, slip over your head and keeps you afloat.

What Are the Best Ways to Care for Your Life Jackets?

Caring properly for your life jackets is key to making sure that they’re around and keeping you safe for a long time. Here are some key considerations for proper life jacket care:

  • At the beginning of each season, give every life jacket a lookover to check for any missing hardware or pieces. Make sure that there are no rips, tears or signs of mildew
  • Don’t clean your life jackets with harsh detergents or cleaners, but instead use gentle detergent or a specially-made life jacket cleaner
  • Don’t leave life jackets out in direct sun for any length of time, as this can affect buoyancy and fabric integrity
Illustration of a man inside a boat house where life jackets / pfds can be properly stored.

Best Storage Practices for Your Life Jackets

Storing your life jackets is essential to keeping them in great condition for many seasons to come, since proper storage can prevent mildew, mold growth and extra degradation. Keep these storage practices in mind:

  • Let life jackets drip dry before putting them in storage
  • Store in a well-ventilated, dry area away from direct heat
  • Try to hang life jackets whenever possible, and if stacking is necessary for storage, don’t place heavy items on top of them

While life jackets are an essential, key piece of boating and water safety, so is taking a boater safety education course. With BOATsmart’s courses, you’ll be well-equipped for all of the water days.