Types of Life Jackets / Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
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Types of Life Jackets / Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

By: SurvivalAtSea.com | Liferaft Services

The personal flotation device, or PFD, is one of the oldest and most basic forms of water safety equipment. Spanning the centuries from rigid cork vests dating back to the 1800s to synthetic foam cells in the 1900s. With the rapidly evolving technology of inflatable and hybrid models today, there is much more to a life jacket than people realize. The version that probably comes to mind for most people is the standard orange foam life jacket they wore as a kid or might even still have hanging in a garage. That's still a valid option in some situations, but there are so many other great models out there that are worth exploring. The saying goes that "the best life jacket is the one you'll wear," and our goal is to give you the information you need to choose a life jacket that you might actually wear.


Foam (Inherently Buoyant) - Type I, II & III Life Jackets

Type II

So let's start with the basics - The good old orange type II life vest—the essential staple for the everyday recreational boater. If your boat didn't come with a pack of these when you bought it, then you probably went straight to the store and picked some up so you would be legal if the coast guard or marine patrol pulled you over. And that's really what they're meant for: to meet the regulations, so you're legal out on the water. In reality, no one wants to wear one of these for an extended period unless they're in an actual survival situation. These are available in adult and child sizes. The adult version provides at least 15.5 lbs of buoyancy and at least 11 lbs for the child size.


Type I

The next step up in foam flotation is the Type I life vest. These can look similar to Type II life jackets, except more foam provides additional buoyancy. These are usually found onboard commercial fishing or charter boats or larger passenger vessels required to carry a commercially approved PFD for every passenger on board. Type I PFDs are designed to take up as little space as possible so they can be stored on passenger vessels without taking up a lot of room, so comfort tends to take a back seat to function. The slightly more comfortable option for commercial Type I life jackets is the vest-style version which is more comfortable than the yoke or collar style. Still, it takes up more storage space and is pretty bulky to wear. Type I's are available in adult, child, and infant sizes with at least 22, 11, and 7 lbs. of buoyancy, respectively.


Type III

Some other common foam PFDs include type III models designed with a specific activity in mind. You'll find recreational type III PFDs intended for watersports like skiing, kayaking, or fishing. Commercial type III PFDs are often configured as a work vest. Work vests are used by people working on docks or doing marine construction near the water but not necessarily offshore.

 That's a very basic look at foam life jackets. There are thousands of models within those groups that we just talked about, but that should give you a general understanding of what's out there. The bottom line with foam PFDs is that they do what they are designed to do. Still, generally speaking, they are worn for a specific type of activity or are just being carried onboard for emergencies and to meet regulations.


Inflatable Life Jackets & PFDs

 So that brings us to a more modern option for personal flotation, which is the inflatable PFD. There's no foam on this type of life jacket, and as the name implies, they rely on an inflatable chamber to provide buoyancy in the water. The most obvious difference is the smaller size compared to traditional lifejackets, thanks to the lack of foam. The smaller size translates into a more comfortable PFD that you are more likely to wear on purpose, not just when you see the marine patrol coming.  

So how does an inflatable PFD work? The good news is that they inflate super quickly using a small CO2 cylinder and an activation mechanism (more to follow on that). The not-as-good news is that the cylinder needs to be replaced each time you inflate the life jacket, and they do require a little bit of maintenance to keep them working correctly. That doesn't mean they are one-time use, and you can inflate them hundreds of times if you want. You'll need to buy a new rearm kit each time which will run you anywhere from about $30 to $75 depending on the model. That's not a big deal for most people, but something to be aware of when considering an inflatable life jacket.

Okay, so more about the inflation mechanism. There are several ways inflatable PFDs can inflate. The three main types are:

  • Manual: You have to physically pull a cord to release the CO2 into the chamber.
  • Automatic: These have a small piece inside the inflator that dissolves when it gets wet, triggering the CO2 cylinder. These have been around for a long time, but the technology has improved so they aren't as sensitive to rain and moisture causing them to go off prematurely. Automatic PFDs also have a manual cord that can be pulled to inflate the vest, just like the manual version without the need for it to get wet.
  • Hydrostatic: This modern automatic inflatable version uses water pressure to activate the CO2 cylinder. You can spray a hydrostatic PFD with a hose all day long, and it won't activate, but as soon as the inflator goes about 4" underwater, the water pressure will trigger the mechanism, and it will inflate! The drawback is that these will be more expensive at the initial purchase, and the rearm kits are more expensive. The benefit is you don't need to worry about your life jacket inflating on a rainy day or if you get splashed by a wave. Hydrostatic inflation is the choice of many sailors, and Mustang Survival even makes a commercial work vest model.


There are many options when it comes to inflatable PFDs, and choosing one will come down to what type of boating you're doing. Some things to think about when looking at inflatables:

  • How far from shore are you going, what type of conditions can you expect? Suppose you're going offshore in potentially foul weather conditions. In that case, you should be looking at a model with more buoyancy and probably a hydrostatic inflator. If you're cruising closer to shore and staying out of the weather, you could go with a standard automatic model with less buoyancy.
  • What type of activity are you doing? If you're fishing, you might want something sleek that doesn't have a lot of extra attachments to get in the way when you're fighting a fish. If you're sailing, you'll probably want to get a PFD that has an integrated harness and crotch straps.


The other cool thing about inflatable PFDs is the capability to install an emergency beacon inside the PFD. Several AIS beacons are available that can be installed within an inflatable PFD to automatically activate when the vest inflates. This is the ultimate combination to help protect yourself or your crew in the event of a fall overboard, even if the person is unconscious or unable to activate the AIS beacon on their own. 


Hybrid Personal Floatation Devices (Life Jackets)

The last type of PFD I want to mention is a hybrid combination of foam and inflatable PFDs, which can give you the best of both worlds for certain activities. A Hybrid PFD gets its base buoyancy from foam material, but if you find yourself in the water needing some extra lift, there is an additional CO2 cylinder and chamber that can inflate to give you the additional buoyancy. These are great for watersports like kayaking and paddleboarding, where you need the full-time buoyancy of a foam PFD but the mobility of an inflatable.

No matter what type of PFD you choose, the most important thing is to find one you actually want to wear. That old orange foam life jacket isn't going to do you any good hanging in the garage if you do happen to find yourself in the drink!



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