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Coast Guard Approved Life Jackets: Your Boating Safety Guide

Post by Olivia Provencher-Hennedy - Published on 8/2/19 12:48 PM

Safety first, boaters! As people who find their passion by being on the water, we boaters are inherently a bit more adventurous by nature. Every time we untie from the dock, the experience is different: Maybe we explored a new harbor, or the wind shifted, and the tide changed. One thing is guaranteed though; no two trips will the elements be exactly the same.

Whether you’re a first time passenger or a seasoned skipper, knowing what type of life jacket to have on board and wear could save a life. PFDs vary by size and type, so in this post we break down the differences between Type I - Type V, how to wear them, where to buy them, and how to care for your PFD. 


For most boaters, ever-changing circumstances on the water are part of the fun, but also mean that preventative safety measures are always top of mind. Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are the most important safety equipment that you carry on your vessel, so it's crucial to understand the differences between them, because not all life jackets are the same.


Want more boating safety tips? Check out our History of Mayday and other Boater Distress Calls post.


Please note that the following information regarding life jackets are US standards, approved by the United States Coast Guard.

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Types of Life Jackets


Type I – Offshore Life Jackets  LifeJacket_A

Best used for:

  • Offshore boating 

  • Open water

  • Rough seas 

  • In waters where rescue may be slow coming

  • Abandon-ship life jacket for commercial vessels

  • All vessels carrying passengers for hire


Minimum Adult Buoyancy

Inflatable: 33lbs

Buoyant Foam: 22lbs



Type II  – Near-shore Vests LifeJacket_B

Best used for:

  • Calm, inland waters

  • Good chance for quick rescue

  • General boating activities 


Minimum Adult Buoyancy

Inflatable: 33lbs

Buoyant Foam: 15.5lbs



Type III – Flotation Aids  LifeJacket_C

Best used for:

  • Calm, inland waters

  • Good chance for quick rescue

  • General boating activities

  • Specialized activities such as: waterskiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, wakeboarding, etc. 

  • Designed for wearing the life jacket to compliment the boating activity


Minimum Adult Buoyancy

Inflatable: 22lbs

Buoyant Foam: 15.5lbs



Type IV – Throwables LifeJacket_D

Best used for:

  • Throwing to someone who has fallen overboard 

  • Extra flotation in use with a wearable PFD 

  • note: throwables should not be used for persons who are unconscious or exhausted


Minimum Adult Buoyancy

Ring Buoys: 16.5lbs

Boat Cushions: 18lbsType V –  Special-use Devices LifeJacket_E

Best used for: 

  • Canoeing/Kayaking 

  • Deck Suits

  • Sailing

    • Inflatable overhead jackets with harness

    • Overhead entry foam for dinghy sailing 

  • Hybrid Inflatables

  • note: Type V vests will often be labeled with the specific use or are marked as Type V for Type II or Type III performance. 


Minimum Adult Buoyancy

Hybrid Inflatable: 22lbs fully inflated / 7.5 deflated

Special Use Device - Inflatable: 22.0 to 34.0 

Special Use Device - Buoyant Foam: 15.5 to 22.0



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How to wear your life jacket / PFD

This may sound obvious, but try on your recreational life jacket before using it on the water. All zippers, straps and buckles should fasten securely and your life jacket should be snug and comfortable. 

In years past, PFDs could be bulky and restricting, but new design styles eliminated a lot that discomfort. It's essential that you don't alter your life vest to make it fit better – alterations will decrease its ability to properly protect you, so shop around and find what's best for you and your type of boating activity.

Lastly and most importantly: in order for your life jacket to protect you, you must wear it. 

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Life jacket / PFD Maintenance

Did you know that it’s actually a law that your life jacket must be in good condition before boarding a vessel? Proper care of your PFD will make it last longer and help it protect you better. So double check and make sure that everything's ship-shape before untying from the dock. Below are some quick tips for extending the life of your PFD.

  • Let it air dry. Never dry with a heater or any direct heat source.

  • Rinse with fresh water.

  • Avoid stowing in the boat for long periods of time when the vessel is not in use.

  • Don’t use them as fenders or kneel on them; PFDs lose buoyancy when crushed.

  • Check your PFD regularly for tears, holes, or any sort of damage. Water-logging, mildew odor, or shrinkage of the buoyant materials means that it’s time for a new one.

Where to buy your PFD

Any sporting goods store, marina shop and of course online. Life jackets will vary in price depending on type, material, and size. Some of our personal favorites include West Marine, REI, and Mustang Survival. 

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Life jackets for dogs  

The team here at Dockwa loves to bring our pups out on the water, and judging from the 2019 Best Boat Name categories, Dockwa boaters do too. Even if your dog is a good swimmer, things like strong current, bad weather conditions, fatigue, and general distractions on the water, could potentially harm your pet. When you're on or around the water, having your dog in the life vest prevents the likelihood of an incident occurring.

There are a variety of doggie PFDs out there, so before choosing one, here are some things to consider: 


  • Weight and size of your dog. Comfort is important for their safety too!

  • Do you prefer a handle on the back so it's easy to attach a leash?

  • Proper head and neck support is important to help keep their head above water.

  • Is it easy to put on and take off? No one wants to wrestle with a wet dog.

  • Durability. We find that nylon fabric stands up to the elements, is rip-resistant, and easy to clean.

  • Breathability. Life vests, if worn out of the water for too long, can cause your pup to over heat. Make sure to snag a PFD that has a light weight and durable fabric to keep your dog cool.

Life Jacket Guide

Half of all recreational boating fatalities happen in calm waters. In most cases, life jackets were on the vessel, but not worn. Click the image to the left to download your printable life jacket guide so that you're always prepared. 


What other boating guides, terminology, tips, and tricks do you like learning about? Let me know at olivia@dockwa.com or post in our Facebook Group.




Post by Olivia Provencher-Hennedy

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