Choosing the Right Life Vest For You

There are few things as important to boaters and water sports enthusiasts than a quality life vest. A personal flotation device (PFD) is key to not only being safe on the water, but to staying within the bounds of the law as well.

Of course, only slightly better than no life vest at all is a cheap or poorly-fitted flotation device that could break or slip off when you need it most.

As part of our continuing drive to help keep boaters and water sports enthusiasts safe, we wanted to take some time to talk about how to choose a quality life vest or other personal flotation device, and how to properly fit one.

We’re going to go over the various styles of PFD, who they’re best suited for, and how to make sure your PFD fits properly so that it can function as intended.

Understanding PFD Ratings

PFD Types

There are five United States Coast Guard ratings that apply to PFDs.

  • Type I PFDs: These are for activities in difficult or remote areas where rescue could be a long time coming. These are the ones you’ll find on say, a cruise ship or other commercial vessel such as a chartered fishing boat.
  • Type II PFDs: These are typically for folks that are on a lake, or somewhere else that rescue can get you quickly. They’re very basic, and less expensive than a type I.
  • Type III PFDs: These PFDs are meant for continuous wear by active users such as kayakers, paddle boarders, and water skiers. They are more expensive than a type II, but far more comfortable. This is the most often recommended variety.
  • Type IV PFDs: Throwable PFDs such as buoyant cushions and rescue throwables like the iconic life preserver rings.  
  • Type V PFDs: These are PFDs geared towards a specific activity such as boating/fishing, kayaking, skiing, etc. To be considered properly worn and approved by the Coast Guard, they must be worn at all times during the specified activity.

Types of Personal Flotation Devices

There are three main types of PFDs/Life Vests that you need to be aware of. Each has its pros and cons, and the only way to choose is to decide which one best meets your needs.


Standard life vests are the old school kind you’re probably familiar with the most. They are classified as Type III PFDs in most cases. They are multipurpose, and can often be found worn by everyone from fisherman to kayakers to skiers and wakeboarders.

Standard PFDs utilize a buoyant material, almost always foam, that creates positive buoyancy to keep the wearer afloat. This is great because it means there’s no real maintenance require other than checking it for damage, and you don’t have to activate anything upon going into the water.

On the downside, they can be quite bulky and hot, especially if you’re doing something like SUP boarding where you’re moving around, out of the shade and out of the water. These are best for fishing and other activities where you don’t need full mobility, and you can get out of the sun if need be.


Inflatable life vests…inflate. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The thing to consider here is what you’ll be using them for. There are two types, manual and automatic. Manual ones require you to pull a cord, not unlike a parachute ripcord, or the cord on an emergency raft.

Automatic ones inflate automatically when you submerge them in water. For this reason, you shouldn’t use them for things like skiing, wakeboarding, or whitewater rafting where you’ll probably be getting wet.

You’ll also not want to use manual inflatables for anything where there’s a high chance you’ll take a bump to the head and be knocked unconscious, so choose something else for rafting, wakeboarding, etc.

Inflatable PFDs are great for fishing and other sports where the goal is to stay in the boat and dry, just be careful in rain with an automatic one.


Hybrid flotation devices are the best of both worlds, although they are a bit more expensive. These are neutrally buoyant on their own for quick rescues, and can be inflated for extra buoyancy for situations where you’re in the water waiting for rescue for an extended time.

They are the recommended option if you can afford it, but they can be a bit pricey.

Sizing and Fitting Your Life Vest

Personal Floatation Devices

For an adult, you should size your life vest based on the size of your chest. Measure around your chest at its broadest point, and use this number to narrow down your selection.

Once you’ve found one, loosen all the straps and put it on. Start at the waist and tighten all the straps, moving upwards towards the shoulder straps and tighten these last. It should be snug, but not uncomfortable or overly restricting.

Now, have someone tug upwards on the PFD to simulate what will happen when you’re in the water and the vest rises up. It should come up some, but not above your mouth and nose.

If you’ve got that, you’re done!

A note about children’s life vests: Children’s life vests are actually sized by weight and come in three different sizes for three different weight ranges.

  • Infant PFDs: 8–30 pounds
  • Child PFDs: 30–50 pounds
  • Youth PFDs: 50–90 pounds

Having a PFD is not only required in most states, it’s downright vital to staying safe on the water. Follow the steps above to make sure you’re doing everything you can to enjoy your time on the water safely.

Choosing the right life vest for you

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