How To Choose the Best Life Jackets, Vests & PFDs For Your Boating Needs

life jackets

Whether fishing or sailing,  having a life jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD) on board can help keep you safe. 

There are different types of life jackets available, and finding one that fits you perfectly is key to ensuring your safety on the water.

As a boat owner, I have been there many times, searching for the right PFD for a particular situation. Whether it is for fishing in open water, a new life vest for a growing kid, or for a pet. 

Remember, life jackets are not only for people who can’t swim. As a boater you can fall in the water and a PFD is there to provide you extra safety. 

But you can’t just pick any life vest and throw it on board while going out boating. The PFD should suit the type of activity you are planning and its user.

Keep reading as we cover how to choose the right life jacket for your boating needs including:

Type of Life Jackets

Life jackets or PFDs come in different types to cater to various needs. The main types are standard, inflatable, and hybrid.


life vest

Standard life jackets are the most common type of PFD and have been around for many years. They are ideal for use by anyone who spends time on or near the water, such as boat users, water sports enthusiasts, and kayakers. Standard life vests are available in different sizes and styles to fit a wide range of body types.

One of the benefits of a standard life jacket is that they do not need any inflation to work. Foam material provides buoyancy and ensures floatation if you fall into the water.

Standard life jackets are also practical and durable. They can withstand harsh conditions and last for many years with proper care and maintenance. Some models come with pockets for storing small items, such as a whistle, compass, or signaling mirror.



Inflatable life jackets have steadily gained traction in recent years due to their lightweight design, comfort, and user-friendly features. They offer a less restrictive alternative to traditional life jackets, and are available in both manual and automatic inflation varieties.

Manual inflatable life jackets need the wearer to pull a cord or blow into a tube to inflate the PFD. This is the most basic type of inflation system and is often found in older inflatable models.

Automatic inflatable life jackets are more advanced and popular than the manual type. They have a water-sensitive mechanism that inflates the PFD when it comes into contact with water. Many models also offer a backup manual inflation mechanism in case the automatic system malfunctions.

The primary inflation method for most automatic life jackets involves a small CO2 gas cylinder, which facilitates rapid inflation. One downside is that these cylinders need replacing to ensure the PFD operates in top condition.

It is important to remember that the CO2 cylinder is good for only one inflation. These cylinders must be replaced after their initial use and before their expiration date to ensure proper function. 

Life jacket manufacturers generally recommend a CO2 cylinder replacement period of approximately 3-5 years, depending on the specific model and brand. Also, keep in mind that stock of CO2 cylinders may sit on shop shelves for a long time, so it is crucial to check the expiration date before purchasing a replacement.

It is worth noting that inflatable life jackets are not suitable for everyone. They are for users over 16+ years old. They are not intended for children or anyone who cannot swim, as they may not float unless getting inflated.

Lastly, inflatable life jackets are not recommended for high-impact water activities such as water-skiing, white water paddling, or tubing, due to their design limitations.


A hybrid life jacket combines the features of both standard and inflatable PFDs. You get a life jacket made from buoyant material that can also get inflated to provide extra buoyancy. 

These hybrid models are ideal for kayakers and mild water-sports enthusiasts. Those who want the comfort of an inflatable life jacket combined with the durability and practicality of a standard PFD.

The inflatable features of hybrid life vests are often located between the liner and the outer material. These life vests are lightweight and less restrictive than the standard ones.  But they still provide enough buoyancy in case of an emergency.

Hybrid PFDs are usually more expensive than standard or inflatable types. But they offer the best of both worlds for those who want comfort and durability in one PFD.

Classification of Life Jackets

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has established several categories of life jackets based on different metrics. These include: the level of buoyancy, suitability for various water scenarios, and design.  Here is a closer look at each category.

Type I

The Type I category of life jackets are the most buoyant type of life jacket available, with a minimum buoyancy of 22 pounds. 

They have the ability to keep a person upright and floating in the water even if they are unconscious. This makes the Type 1 category suitable for harsh weather conditions and extended periods in the water.

The downside is this type of PFDs are bulky, which makes them best suited for offshore use and are not ideal for recreational water activities.

Type II

Type II life jackets provide buoyancy and keep a person afloat in calm waters where quick rescue is possible. They have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds, which makes them less bulky and more comfortable to wear than Type I. 

They are suitable for most boating and water activities but may not be suitable for rough waters or extended periods of time in the water. They are typically less expensive than Type I and often come in a variety of sizes and styles to fit different body types. 

They can also turn an unconscious person face up in the water, but they are primarily designed for conscious individuals.

Type III

Type III life jackets are specifically designed for conscious individuals. Type III are ideal for children and young adults alike. They are commonly used in boating and water sports such as kayaking or fishing. 

They have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds and a form-fitting style that makes them comfortable to wear. 

Type III are perfect for recreational boaters who are near the shore, where rescue is imminent. They are also perfect as kayak life jacket, fishing life jacket, or sea doo life jacket.

Type IV

The Type IV life jackets are not wearable. They are throwable devices to help you stay afloat if you fall into the water. They offer a minimum buoyancy of 16.5 pounds and they are best used in combination with a wearable life jacket. 

As users can’t wear this type of life vest, it means Type IV are not ideal if you have dogs or children on board. 

Do not sit on them, as this can cause foam degradation and limit their floatation capability. 

Some type IV come with an automatic inflation feature that operates when the units come in contact with water.

Type V

The Type V life jackets are specialized devices designed for a specific application. For example, commercial white water rafting, or specific uses such as sailing harnesses and kayak rescue vests. They are not suitable for generic boating activities.  

They offer minimum buoyancy ranging from 15.5 to 22 pounds and are designed to be worn all the time. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure maximum safety in the water.

Understanding Buoyancy Ratings in Life Jackets

Buoyancy is defined as the amount of upward force the PFD can provide to help keep a person afloat in water. This buoyancy is typically measured in Newtons or pounds of buoyant force. The more buoyant force a PFD can provide, the better it can support the wearer’s body weight and keep them afloat.

Buoyancy ratings can be confusing at first, but understanding the concepts behind them will enable you to choose the right PFD for your needs.

For example, let’s say you find a PFD with a rating of 15.5 lbs. This means that the device is designed to float 15.5 lbs of dense matter. 

But how does a PFD rated for 15.5 lbs work for someone who weighs, say, 150 lbs?

The answer lies in our effective weight in the water due to our body composition. Let me explain: approximately 80% of the human body is water, which has no weight in water. Also, bodies have 15% fat on average, which tends to float.  So the less fat you have (or the more fit you are), the more buoyancy you will need. And while other factors such as clothing and water conditions do play roles in buoyancy levels, they are not as critical for calculating buoyancy as body composition.

To calculate the amount of weight a PFD needs to support in water, we can remove the 80% water and 15% fat from our body weight, leaving us with an effective weight in the water of approximately 5% of the original body weight. 

For a typical 150 lbs person, the effective weight in water is about 7.5 lbs (150 lbs x 5%). So, this is why a life jacket rated for 15.5 lbs can provide the necessary buoyancy for a 150 lbs person.

It is important to note that buoyancy is just one aspect of choosing the right life jacket. In the next section, we’ll explore other relevant factors to consider when selecting a PFD.

Choosing the Right PFD Size

Choosing the right size of a life jacket is crucial for your safety while on the water. The size of a life jacket can mean the difference between life and death. A PFD that is too small or too big can be uncomfortable and may not provide adequate buoyancy in case of an emergency.

PFDs are available in various sizes and types depending on the intended user. For instance, these include:

  • Life jacket for children  
  • Life jacket for adults
  • Life jacket for Women
  • Life jacket for Dogs

Life Jackets for Children

kids life jacket

Kid’s life jackets come in different sizes based on the child’s age. The best way to determine the right size for a child’s life jacket is by weight. A child weighing 10-30 pounds should get an infant life jacket.

A child weighing 30-50 lbs. should get a child life jacket, while one weighing 50-90 lbs. should get a youth life jacket.

It is crucial to ensure that a life jacket for kids fits snugly and securely on the child to prevent it from slipping off or shifting while in the water. 

Always check the weight and age recommendations from the manufacturer to ensure the correct size for your child.

Life Jackets for Adults

adult life jacket

Adult PFDs come in various sizes based on chest size and not weight. It is crucial to choose a life jacket that fits snugly and securely around your chest. 

Here’s a simple guide on how to size an adult life jacket correctly:

  • First, measure your chest size with a measuring tape. Wrap the tape around the fullest part of your chest, just under your arms.
  • Look for a life jacket that corresponds to your chest size. Check the manufacturer’s size chart to find the appropriate size for you.
  • Try on the life jacket and fasten all the straps and zippers. Make sure the life jacket is snug but not too tight. It should not ride up to your chin or ears when you lift your arms over your head.
  • Adjust the straps as necessary to achieve a comfortable fit. The life jacket should not be too loose or too tight. It should allow you to move your arms and breathe easily.
  • Test the life jacket in water to ensure that it provides enough buoyancy to keep you afloat. Make sure the life jacket stays in place and does not ride up when you’re in the water.

Remember that wearing a fitting life jacket is crucial for your safety while boating, kayaking, or participating in other water sports. A life jacket that is too loose or too tight may not provide adequate protection in case of an emergency.

Women’s life jackets

women life jacket

With different body shapes come different requirements. Women’s life jackets are available to fit the unique shape and curves of a woman’s body, offering both comfort and security. 

Here are some tips on how to select and size them correctly:

  • Look for a life jacket specifically designed for women. They tend to have a more tailored fit to accommodate the female body shape.
  • Consider the activity you will be doing while wearing the life jacket. Different activities may need different types of flotation devices, such as kayaking or fishing.
  • Determine your chest size and use the manufacturer’s size chart to select the appropriate size. You can measure your chest by wrapping a measuring tape around the fullest part of your chest, just under your arms.
  • Try on the life jacket to ensure a snug and comfortable fit. It should not ride up on your torso, and the straps should be adjustable to ensure a secure fit.
  • Check for mobility by lifting your arms above your head and twisting your torso. The life jacket should not restrict your movement.
  • Consider other features such as pockets, reflective material, and ventilation to suit your specific needs.

Life Jackets for Dogs

dog life jacket

Dogs often accompany us to the water, making a dog life jacket essential for their safety. Some of the features a dog life jacket should include:

  • Grab handles to help you lift the dog out of the water if necessary.
  • Buckles or straps to help secure the jacket on the dog. Best if buckles are easy to release (for emergency situations).
  • A snug fit will ensure that the dog stays afloat and comfortable while in the water.

What Type of Life Jacket or PFD Do You Need?

When choosing a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD), it’s important to consider the nature of the activity you’ll be doing, the intended user of the device, and other relevant factors. Here are some key factors you should consider:

Nature of the boating or watersport activity

Different activities require different types of PFDs. For example, if you’re boating or kayaking, you’ll want a device that’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time and provides ample buoyancy. 

If you’re water skiing, you’ll want a PFD that’s designed to withstand the impact of falls at high speeds. If you’re sailing, you may want a PFD with additional features like a harness or whistle. 

Type III PFDs are the most common type of PFDs used in recreational boating activities. But you may need a specialized device for some type of watersports.

Who will use the life jacket

It’s also important to consider the user of the PFD. Women may prefer PFDs that are designed specifically for their body shape and size. 

Children and pets need PFDs that fit snugly,  securely, and provide the appropriate amount of buoyancy for their weight.

Other factors

Other factors to consider when choosing a PFD include the level of experience of the user, and any local regulations or requirements.

In general, the best life jacket is one that is comfortable to wear, fits properly, and provides the appropriate level of buoyancy and protection for the intended activity and user. 

Be sure to try on different types of PFDs and read reviews from other users before making a purchase.

Have Fun and Be Safe

Enjoying a day on the water is one of life’s greatest pleasures. By taking the time to select the perfect life jacket, you can relax knowing you’re prepared for any situation. 

Whether you’re fishing, sailing, kayaking, or engaging in any other water activity, always keep a life jacket nearby and accessible. 

Don’t take any chances with your safety – choose the right life jacket that fits and meets all your boating needs. 

With the right PFD, you’ll be able to focus on having fun and creating unforgettable memories on the water.

Check out our other guides and articles to ensure that you’re ready to make this upcoming boating season your best one yet!

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Hi, I'm Tim and I've been a boat enthusiast for as long as I can remember. I've spent countless hours on the water and love sharing my knowledge and experience with others. When I'm not working, you can usually find me out on my boat with my family, exploring new places and enjoying the beautiful scenery.