Life Jacket, Vest, Preserver Buying Guide

Whether called a life jacket, life preserver, buoyancy suit, floatation aid, or something else, a personal floatation device can save lives. In an accident, an injured person thrown into the water or trapped on a sinking vessel may lose consciousness, which could lead to drowning. Also called PFDs, these floatation aids provide buoyancy to help that person keep his or her head above the water even after losing consciousness.

Merchant Mate II -- a Type 1 PFD. (Image courtesy of Stearns)
U.S. Marine Corps Merchant Mate II — a Type 1 PFD. (Image courtesy of Stearns)

Today, boaters everywhere may choose from several styles of floatation devices. Devices range from simple vests to jackets to a full-body floatation suits that can even prevent hyperthermia in cold water. Some look similar to the old Mae West inflatable preservers. Many PFDs now come packed with floatation material instead of air chambers and fit around one’s neck and across the shoulders. Popular with hunters, fishermen, paddlers and other sportsmen, some PFDs look almost like fashionable vests complete with pockets and places to hang equipment. Many of these also come in popular camouflage patterns.

A PFD of the appropriate size should fit snuggly, but allow freedom of movement for the arms and head. Most PFDs come with several adjustable straps so they can fit a range of sizes and body shapes. When tightening straps, start at the waist and tighten the shoulder straps last. The device should feel snug, but not uncomfortable. After adjusting all the snaps, let someone pull on the shoulders. If it moves up past the wearer’s nose, tighten the straps or use a smaller device. A PFD does no good if it floats over a person’s head.

Guide Gear Type II Adult Flotation Vest
Guide Gear Type II Adult Flotation Vest

The U.S. Coast Guard categorizes PFDs into five specific types. Most are made of some type of synthetic material in bright colors and contain a buoyancy source such as foam or air chambers. Most types range in size to fit anyone from infants to large adults. People can even buy custom PFDs for their pets. When selecting a PFD for a small child, use one with a padded head support to keep the child’s head out of the water, a handle for grabbing the child if necessary, and crotch or leg straps to keep the PFD from riding up.

Most often used offshore in rough or remote waters, Type I PFDs offer the most buoyancy, body coverage and protection, particularly for unconscious wearers. Although more bulky than other types, these Navy-style wrap-around jackets will turn a person face up in the water so that he or she can still breathe even when unconsciousness. They can also keep a person floating for a long time until rescued.

A child's PFD should have a padded head support to keep the head out of the water, a handle for grabbing, and leg straps.
A child’s PFD should have a padded head support to keep the head out of the water, a handle for grabbing, and leg straps.

Still bulky, but less so than a Type I, a Type II PFD will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position, but not all of them. More comfortable than a Type 1, these generally work best for use in inland or calm waters where wearers could expect a rescue within a reasonable amount of time.

A Type III floatation aid, popular with many paddlers who expect a quick rescue, look like ordinary vests. Generally the most comfortable type, they offer more freedom of movement for prolonged wear. These devices keep the wearer in a vertical position and work best in calm waters. With a Type III PFD, a wearer must rotate his or her own body to the face-up position.

For use only in an emergency and not for wearing, Type IV throwable PFDs come in the form of foam cushions that can double as padded seats, horseshoe shapes or ring buoys. These devices provide backup buoyancy in conjunction with other types of PFDs. If a person goes overboard, another person can grab a throwable device and toss it to the person in the water. Some throwable devices come equipped with lines so that the rescuer can pull the person back to safety. Type IV PFDs should not be used for unconscious people, small children or non-swimmers, but only for someone capable of grabbing the device and holding on to it.

Guide Gear Neoprene Life Jacket, a Type III PFD
Guide Gear Neoprene Life Jacket, a Type III PFD

A catchall category, Type V special use devices include anything not listed above. Type V PFDs include such floatables as waterskiing belts, floating work suits or inflatable devices reminiscent of the World War II Mae West vests. A Type V PFD may also qualify for Type I, II or III performance.

Many professional anglers, who often travel long distances at high speeds, prefer to wear upgraded Mae West style inflatable vests. They can wear them for long periods of time in comfort and inflate them quickly in case of an emergency. Some inflate automatically when they hit water, good for an unconscious person. Others require the wearer to initiate a rapid inflation mechanism that quickly fills the chambers with gas or use a manual tube inflation system. The disadvantage is these devices may not adequately inflate or not inflate at all if damaged.

PFD buyers should also consider weight and buoyancy before making a purchase. Don’t just consider price before making a decision. How much is a person’s life worth? Buyers should buy the appropriate size and type for the water activity they plan to do. Labels on most PFDs describe the type of device, chest sizes of the wearer and the weight range or maximum weight of a person that should use it.

Guide Gear Type IV Boat Cushion/Throwable PFD
Guide Gear Type IV Boat Cushion/Throwable PFD.

PFD wearers also need to consider buoyancy. Buoyancy describes the force required to keep a person’s head and chin above the water. Since people generally float fairly well in the water, even more so in salty water, most adults only require an extra seven to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water high enough to breathe. However, variables about the person’s body size, fat content, lung capacity, clothing, and any extra weight they carry in pockets or elsewhere could affect the amount of buoyancy required. Weather and water conditions can also affect minimum required buoyancy levels.

A Type 1 PFD provides up to 22 pounds of buoyancy. Types II and III provide 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Ring buoys provide 16.5 pounds while boat cushions provide 18 pounds of buoyancy. Type V devices range from 15.5 to 22 pounds of buoyancy.

Onyx® Auto / Manual Inflatable Type V Life Vest
Onyx® Auto / Manual Inflatable
Type V Life Vest

With any PFD, keep it dry until needed. PFDs stored for long periods in lockers could mildew. Place them in a dark, cool, dry, well-ventilated place. Periodically check for rips or holes, particularly when using inflatable devices, and make sure all straps and snaps still work. After using a PFD, dry it, but not in direct sunlight since harmful ultraviolet rays could damage the material.

Many fishing events require competitors to wear PFDs when running under the main engine power. By law, boaters must carry at least one PFD for every person onboard the vessel. In addition, most states require children under a certain age to wear PFD at all times when in a boat. Check your local DNR for exact regulations.

No matter what style, type, brand, color or price the boater selects, no PFD can save a person while stored in the locker. A person may only need a PFD for a few minutes in a lifetime, but one never knows when those few minutes might occur.

Click here for a fine selection of Life Jackets, Vests, Preservers!

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