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Selecting a Life Vest

By Tom Burden

Selecting the best life jacket for the boating activities that you enjoy can be a daunting challenge when you enter a West Marine store. There are a wide variety of different life jackets, but that’s a good thing, because there are a wide variety of types of boating.

What you’re required to carry

The Coast Guard requires you to have one life vest, of Type I, II, III or V, of the correct size for each person, for every person onboard your boat. This requirement also applies to kayaks and in most cases SUPs. Also, on boats longer than 16', you need to have a throwable device, a cushion, horseshoe, ring buoy or a Lifesling.

  • Type I is typically a large, commercial vest with 22 pounds of buoyancy that’s intended for commercial vessels, not recreational vessels.
  • Type II usually describes the old-style, inexpensive Type II, always orange, with one strap. While these meet Coast Guard requirements, they’re not comfortable, and we would recommend a different type of life jacket.
  • Type III life jackets, like the Medalist vest in the photo below, provide 15 1/2 pounds of buoyancy, with pretty good in-water performance. Their main benefit is the number of styles available, so wakeboarders, kayakers, sailors and boaters who engage in other activities can find a life vest that’s made for their style of boating. You can even find Type III products - float coats - that look like a jacket, and are ideal for colder seasons.
  • Type IV: Any boat 16' and longer (except sailboards, racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes, and racing kayaks) must also carry one throwable PFD.
  • Type V is the catchall category, containing life vests that don’t fit into one of the Type I, II or III categories. This Offshore Automatic Inflatable vest is a Type V because it has a harness built into it for offshore sailing. Type V life jackets might have just the features you require for your style of boating.
  • PFDs must be Coast Guard Approved, in good and serviceable condition, and the appropriate size for the intended user.
  • The Coast Guard considers a stand-up paddleboard to be a “vessel” when used “beyond the narrow limits of a swimming, surfing or bathing area.” This means that, SUPs used outside of the surf zone, are required to carry a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), a whistle (or other sound producing device) and, if out after dark, a white light to give warning to other boaters in the area. In most states, children under age 13 are required to wear a life vest.

There are roughly eight different styles of boating, and we’ve grouped our life jackets around these. Take a look at the choices below:

Life Vests

Type IV Throwable Device. Not to be worn.

What’s your type of boating?


This type is recommended for powerboats or sailboats in relatively calm, warm water, where comfort and freedom of movement are important. Choose from either a belted or day sailing vest, or an inshore inflatable. The choices are many, since this is the most popular type of boating, but demands are not very rigorous.

Owners of small powerboats often choose belted vests, which can be adjusted for a comfortable fit depending on the conditions, while sailors will select a more flexible vest or an inflatable. Our Coastal Inflatable Vests, with 26lb. of buoyancy, are easy to wear, don’t restrict your movement, and are available in automatic, manual, and belt pack manual designs. They fit adult boaters over 80lb. with 30" to 52" chest sizes.

We also sell a remarkable number of economical Type II vests, but we don’t recommend them as primary PFDs since they are unattractive and uncomfortable to wear. View Type IIs as extra vests for unexpected guests, or consider stocking up with some relatively low-priced Type III vests of different sizes and designs, which tend to fit better and are more likely to be worn.


Activities like wakeboarding, water skiing, being towed on an inflatable tube and riding a personal watercraft include a risk of hitting the water at high speed. PFDs for watersports must withstand these impacts and stay intact and attached to your body. Belted vests with three or four strong belts encircling your torso work best because they won’t get torn off easily, even when you crash and burn at high speed. Look for vests that have Watersports marked on the label, and ensure that they can be adjusted to a snug fit.

Life Vests

Type III Medalist Vest: Minimum 15.5lb. buoyancy adult; 11lb. child. Intended to help this sailor self-rescue her El Toro in a capsize.

Day Sailing

Small boat sailing requires freedom of movement and flexibility, yet a good PFD has to fit snugly and hug the upper body. The preferred style has a zippered closure and is made from soft, pliable foam. To increase the vest’s flexibility, thin strips of foam are inserted into “channels” so the foam wraps comfortably around your chest. Deep armholes offer additional freedom of movement, but may allow the vest to “ride up” when in the water, so a good, snug fit is important. If you sail a dinghy or beach catamaran your PFD may have to be worn with a trapeze harness, so take the harness with you when you go shopping for a new life jacket. Many customers will find that Day Sailing vests are a good choice for a variety of boating styles except for high-speed watersports.


Anglers often like to carry a collection of lures, leaders, etc. and will appreciate a vest with built-in pockets. They may also operate small and fast boats, which could lead to a high-speed water impact. Therefore, we offer two distinct types of fishing vests; those with pockets that can hold lure boxes, a sandwich or fishing tools, and those with wide encircling belts. The second style is similar to watersports PFDs and can be adjusted to a snug and secure fit, so the vest will stay on during high-speed impacts.

Offshore Sail

Offshore vests provide lots of buoyancy, freedom of movement, and commonly a safety harness that the wearer tethers onto jacklines to stay connected to the boat. In the past, offshore sailors chose between a life jacket and a safety harness, since the two items were seen as interfering with one another. Today’s inflatable life jackets with integrated harnesses provide a high level of safety with one single product.

Offshore PFDs are now available with Hammar hydrostatic inflators, so they won’t suddenly inflate due to spray, rain or humidity. West Marine/Mustang Ocean Series vests only inflate when submerged. Decide which type of inflation you prefer (manual or automatic). Virtually all models in the Offshore Sailing category will have similar buoyancy (35lb.) and a harness that complies with ISAF standards.

We recommend that offshore powerboaters also have one or two of these vests aboard, since they might face similar challenges as sailors do when they have to venture out onto a pitching, slippery deck in rough conditions to get the anchor ready or to secure a dinghy that has come loose.

Life Vests

Belt-pack inflatable is most comfortable, but must be placed over head after inflation. Requires regular maintenance (like all inflatables). Not for children under 16 or non-swimmers.

Offshore Power

Passagemaking requires high buoyancy life jackets designed for rough waters. While the chances of ending up overboard are far lower on a trawler with an enclosed pilothouse, crew should always wear high buoyancy inflatable life jackets every time they go on deck. If a crewmember goes overboard, the time to rescue may be long, the water may be cold and most likely the seas will be rough.


Canoeists, kayakers, and whitewater rafters need PFDs that combine freedom of movement and protection. Many specialized life jackets have been developed for niche markets and different styles of paddling, so make sure you try different models that are labeled for paddle sports. But almost all will offer freedom of movement and freedom from chafe while performing repetitive motions, with large armholes and foam that is distributed away from normal arm movement. Kayakers may need vests with high-cut waists that don’t interfere with a spray skirt. Manually-operated inflatable vests with waist packs are ergonomic and convenient, but require you to slip the inflated bladder over your head. They're very popular among stand-up paddleboarders.

Commercial Vessels

These vessels must have specific types of life jackets onboard to be legal. We offer a range of Type I life jackets and SOLAS-approved models but we don’t recommend their use on recreational boats, since Type I devices are virtually unwearable and they take up gobs of valuable storage space. But if you operate a commercial fishing boat that is required to have Type I vests on board, we’ve got ’em.

Life Vests

Type I Offshore: Minimum 22lb. buoyancy adult; 11lb. child. Turns most unconscious wearers face-up.

Life Jackets for your dog

We’ve got a growing assortment of life jackets sized to fit your dog, which hold the animal in a natural swimming position and boost your pet’s endurance. These usually include a strong, low-profile handle so you can help lift your dog out of the water.

Do you want an Inflatable or Inherently Buoyant life vest?

Traditional Personal Flotation Devices use inherently buoyant materials, such as foam, to stay afloat. Inflatable PFDs, as their name indicates, rely on inflatable chambers that provide buoyancy when inflated. Uninflated, these PFDs are less bulky than inherently buoyant PFDs.

Inflatable life vests come in a variety of USCG-defined PFD Performance Types. The specific Type of PFD is determined by characteristics such as its amount of buoyancy, its in-water performance and its type of inflation mechanism. All Inflatables contain a backup oral inflation tube (which also serves as the deflation tube!).

Advantages of Inflatables:

  • High visibility when inflated
  • Turns most wearers face-up faster than traditional PFDs
  • Will keep some unconscious users face up
  • More comfortable than inherently buoyant PFDs
  • Superior in-water performance

Disadvantages of Inflatables:

  • Some, especially manually-operated belt pack inflatables, require multiple steps to deploy
  • Some types are not suitable for nonswimmers
  • Not recommended for children under age 16
  • Not appropriate for activities that involve frequent water entry or high speed boating activities (such as personal watercraft use, dinghy racing, sailboarding or whitewater rafting)
  • Require frequent inspection and maintenance (see our West Advisor: Check Your Inflatable Life Vest)
  • Do not protect against hypothermia

Types of Inflatable Mechanisms:

Automatic: Uses a water-soluble capsule attached to the inflation unit. Its mechanism pierces the CO2 cylinder and releases the gas when submerged. Units with automatic inflation mechanisms may also be manually inflated by using the ripcord.

Manual: Releases the CO2 gas from the cylinder via the ripcord.

The Coast Guard Eliminates Type Ratings

The big news for 2015 was that the Coast Guard decided to ditch familiar Type I-V code labeling requirements for recreational boat life jackets. What does this mean for you and me, when choosing a life vest? At the present time, not very much. For the long term, we think it will be a benefit for boaters. BoatUS has been following the developments on this issue:

“The boating safety community believes this move by the Coast Guard will help lead the way toward more comfortable and innovative life jacket designs, help boaters stay on the right side of the law, lower costs, and save lives.” said Chris Edmonston, BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety President and Chairman of the National Safe Boating Council.

Explains Edmonston, “This is positive news. This type coding was unique to the United States, tended to confuse boaters, limited choice and increased the cost of life jackets.” He says removing the type coding is a first step toward the adoption of new standards that will eventually simplify life jacket requirements for recreational boaters.”

  • Type coding has been removed as a USCG requirement as of last October 22nd. However, manufacturers continue to use Type I-V coding until newer labels are designed and approved, and new standards are adopted.
  • Removing type coding is simply the first step in a multi-year process, which includes designing new labels and developing new, ‘harmonized’ standards. Once that is accomplished, manufacturers will then be able to get jackets approved under the new standards. It’s at that point that we’ll see life jackets without the current type coding on their labels.
  • Our friends in the life jacket industry advise that 2017 is likely the earliest they could see new life jacket standards on production lines.
  • Current life jackets that have Type I-V coding on  their labels will be legal to sell and wear for the useful life of the jacket.
Life Vests

Type V Inflatable PFDs: Manual inflatables are usually classified as Type III. Manual/automatic inflatables are classified as a Type V, with Type II or Type III performance.

What size, color and features?

Size: Inflatable life vests are built to one-size-fits-all standards. Inherently buoyant foam vests are made to fit a range of chest sizes, so if you haven’t got any idea of your measurements, you should check with a tape measure. Foam vests for kids are rated by the child’s weight range.

Features that add value: Life jacket technology has come a long way - the bulky, ugly, orange life jacket is a thing of the past. Radical changes in life jacket design - extra large armholes, shaped fit, flexible panels, pockets, inflatables and more comfortable materials - make today’s life jackets easy to wear.

Life vests for children

Infants and small children are hard to keep floating in a face-up position, and sometimes protest when wearing a PFD. Frankly, we think that boating with infants is not a very good idea if there is any likelihood of the baby ending up in the water. As kids get older and more water-savvy they become right at home onboard, because there are many choices for well-fitting PFDs that provide stability and buoyancy.

Those of us who have had to pull our children out of the drink appreciate behind-the-head flotation collars with a grab strap, which are standard, along with crotch straps, on vests for smaller kids. The recently-redesigned Mustang Lil’ Legends vests have always been popular, since they are well made in high-visibility colors. We highly recommend testing the life jacket you select for your child in a safe environment, like a pool, ahead of time, to familiarize yourself and your child with the device’s characteristics.

Be safe on the water

  • Always have the federally required safety equipment on board, meaning Coast Guard-approved life jackets. If you select non-approved devices, make sure you back them up with what the law requires.
  • If you have an older, non-approved SOSpenders, Crewfit, or West Marine inflatable, wear it confidently until its useful life is over (around 10 years). If you have life jackets in your inventory that must be worn to be counted, back them up with Coast Guard approved life jackets so you are never caught short (and, at $500 per incident, this can get expensive).
  • Establish rules on board your boat defining when life jackets are to be worn and lead by example. Kids 13 years and younger should always wear them, and there would be far fewer boating deaths among adults if they wore them, too.

Please wear your life jacket! Boating is becoming safer, with fewer accidents and deaths as a continuing multi-year trend. Nonetheless, when there were fatalities, almost three-fourths of all boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 85 percent were not wearing a life vest (according to Coast Guard statistics for the year 2015). With the huge variety of life vests West Marine sells, remember that the best life vest is the one you’ll wear.