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Life Jackets and PFDs

How to Select a Life Vest

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 need to know when buying a life jacket.

Life jackets are essential for safely living your best waterlife. From power boating and sailing to kayaking and paddleboarding, wearing a life jacket or life vest improves your chances of survival in drowning situations. For this reason, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) requires that boating and water sports participants wear an appropriate life jacket that properly fits you and is in good, serviceable condition.

There are various types of life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs) on the market, which can make purchasing the correct life jacket for you, your crew or family a bit daunting. Different types of life jackets have varying buoyancy ratings and size requirements making some more suitable than others for your specific water activity.

Below we explain the various types of life jackets and the activities where they are required. For in-depth information, consult our West Advisor article “Selecting a Life Vest”.

Life Jacket Types and Uses

Type I Inherently Buoyant

Type I life jackets are built for extended survival in open waters where rescue may be delayed and slow to arrive. Providing a minimum of 22lb. of buoyancy, Type I life jackets are not ideal for recreational use. These inherently buoyant life vests are designed to keep your head higher in the water and to turn most unconscious wearers face up. While they can be somewhat bulky due to the additional foam and fabric composition, they retain body heat better than other types while providing the best protection in the open seas.

Shop our selection of Type I Life Jackets.

Type II Inherently Buoyant

Designed to turn an unconscious wearer face up, Type II Inherently Buoyant life jackets provide a minimum of 15.5lb. of buoyancy. These classic orange life jackets usually go around your neck with one strap across your chest and are designed for inland cruising, fishing and sailing. Type II inherently buoyant life vests are best for protected inland waters near shore where immediate rescue is possible, but are not suitable for extended survival in rough, open waters. They are great to have onboard for extra or unexpected guests.

Shop our selection of Type II Life Jackets.

Type III Inherently Buoyant

Type III inherently buoyant life jackets are optimal for use in protected, inland waters where immediate rescue is likely. Due to their comfortable design, Type III life vests are great to wear during activities such as sailing, dinghy racing, water skiing, fishing, paddle sports or while using a personal watercraft. With a minimum of 15.5lb. of buoyancy, these inherently buoyant life jackets are versatile and functional for the active water enthusiast.

Shop our selection of Type III Life Jackets.

Type IV

A Type IV PFD is a throwable device that must be immediately available for use when a person is overboard in an emergency situation. Any boat 16’ and longer (excluding sailboards, racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks) are required to carry one throwable PFD. Type IV’s are available as a square cushion, a ring or a horseshoe style and must be mounted on your deck. They are not designed to be worn and are not for unconscious persons, non-swimmers or children. Never use as a seat cushion as it degrades the foam and reduces buoyancy over time.

Shop our selection of Type IV Throwable PFDs.

Type V Special Use

Type V special use life jackets are designed for specific uses and are restricted for that designated/stated use only. This includes life vests with sailboard harnesses, deck suits, paddling specific vests, commercial whitewater life jackets or float coats. They provide a minimum of 15.5-22lb. of buoyancy and must be worn when underway in order to meet USCG requirements.

Type V Hybrid

Type V hybrid life jackets are recommended for boating where rescue is close by and must be worn for their intended use at all times to qualify as a PFD. These life vests are usually comfortable while providing at least 7.5lb. of built-in buoyancy and 22lb. when inflated. Type V hybrid life jackets are inadequate for turning unconscious wearers face up.

Shop our entire selection of Type V Life Jackets.