Everything You Need to Know about Choosing a Life Jacket – Foundry Outdoors

Everything You Need to Know about Choosing a Life Jacket

Choosing a Life Jacket is a basic, but important, decision to make. Keep these factors in mind to ensure you get the best floatation device for your situation. 

For many Americans, the idea of outdoor fun conjures up images of water. Whether fishing the local lake or out on big water, many fond memories have been made on the water. Families head to water to celebrate holidays and for lazy Saturdays just kicking back. While there certainly is fun to be had on the water, it’s important to practice some basic safety as well. Accidents do happen, and every year people who head to their local watering hole never return. The best way to prevent an accident in the water is to take a few simple precautionary steps.

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One easy way to safeguard against accidents is to always have a personal flotation device (PFD) within reach. PFD’s, otherwise known as life jackets, are a good idea for personal safety. They are often lawfully required by state governments when on the water. They are a basic, but reliable, precaution to help prevent an accident. As the US Coast Guard notes, fatalities occur in all kind of water and all are unexpected. Having, and using, a PFD is a good first step to ensuring your day on the water is a day of fun.

Choosing a life jacket that not only suits your body, but your situation, is important for it to be effective. There are many types of flotation devices to choose from. This means you can surely find one that fits your needs perfectly. 

Choosing a Life Jacket

The first and most important step in choosing a life jacket is to buy one you will use. It cannot save your life if you don’t wear it. More than any other feature, this is the thing to keep in mind. Fortunately, these days there are so many styles to choose from you’ll have no trouble finding a good fit.


As you browse floatation devices you will notice they are classified by types. This classification comes from the United States Coast Guard which governs the entire PFD industry. The Coast Guard organizes floatation devices in the following categories.

  • Type I:  Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.  Abandon-ship lifejacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire.
  • Type II: For general boating activities.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.
  • Type III: For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.  Designed so that wearing it will complement your boating activities:
  • Type IV: Ring buoys/ Boat cushions
  • Type V: Only for special uses or conditions. 

Although all life jackets and other buoys can help keep you afloat, each type has specific advantages. Type I jackets have maximum buoyancy but are generally used by commercial ships. These PFDs are large, but stow away easily in large numbers. Similar to the Type I, the Type II jacket is generally orange and well suited for situations where a fast rescue is anticipated. The downfall of both Type I and Type II life jackets is the cumbersome design. Both styles have bulky designs most people will not enjoy wearing. Again, if you won’t wear it, it cannot help you when you need it. Type IV devices are not meant to be worn and deal with thrown items.

For the average lake goer the Type III category is a good place to start looking. PFDs in this category are generally viewed as the most comfortable and encompass a wide variety of jackets. Narrowing down this broad group might be challenging though. Narrowing down the Type III jackets by activity type is a good way to filter this group.


Having the correct jacket for the job contributes to the most important aspect of a life jacket, actually wearing it. Here are a few of the most popular designs for PFDs:

Youth Life VestYouth: If you happen to be bringing some kids with you on your water adventure, make sure to bring them a PFD as well. Youth life vests are designed to fit snugly on small bodies and help keep them afloat. Most kids won’t even know they are wearing them while they splash in the water.

Paddling: If you are into paddling sports like canoeing or kayaking, you may consider going with a PFD specifically designed for those sports. Vests for paddlers offer a good blend of ventilation and ability to move. Their slim design still provides adequate buoyancy.  

Watersports: Watersports such as waterskiing, jetskiing, and wakeboarding also have specially designed PFDs. These are designed to be comfortable yet tight fitting. The fit on these jackets is important due to the fact these sports are performed at high speeds and often involve people hitting the water. Taking a fall while wakeboarding is expected, and poorly fitting vests may not stick with you as you tumble through the water.

Fishing: Although some folks may not equate a night slowly drifting on a flat bottom boat around your favorite fishing hole with a life jacket, they are still required for the activity. Fortunately there are companies out there producing specialty fishing life jackets. Fishing PFDs come with a variety of pockets and features fishermen need. Many also have a small table that fold down from the front of the vest. This feature allows fishermen to change lures more easily.  

Hunting: Even waterfowl hunters have specially designed lifejackets. Hunting PFDs are oftentimes designed with camo fabric to help waterfowl hunters blend into their environment. They also feature a variety of pockets to hold shells, calls, and other hunting gear.

Inflatable PFDInflatable: Another type of specialty PFD is the inflatable style of vest. These are designed for people who plan on spending a great deal of time in the water and demand top level comfort. Inflatable PFDs offer the advantage of being almost unnoticeable when not in use. Although  unnoticeable, they still provide adequate safety when the device is triggered. Some inflatable PFDs must be manually triggered, while others will inflate automatically when submerged in water. Obviously the automatic trigger would be ideal for someone who has gone unconscious. If you can afford the extra cost, and plan on spending lots of time on the water, the inflatable might be the way to go.

Cold Weather/Rough Water: Finally, if you are going to cold water, especially rough and cold water, you may decide a floatation jacket is best for you. Jackets have the advantage of excellent comfort and insulation. They also have a range of features working folks, like deckhands and yachtsmen, may appreciate.

As you can tell, choosing a life jacket doesn’t have to be a confusing decision. The important thing is to choose the best design for your particular interest. Not only will it make your time on the water more enjoyable, but it will also make you more likely to actually wear it. Before hitting the water for your next day of fun and sun, make sure to pack a PFD. Doing so will ensure your weekend ends with nothing but smiles.


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