U.S. Coast Guard rules require that all recreational boats carry at least one wearable PFD for each person on board, including appropriate child-size PFDs and infant-size PFDs for youngsters on board, and that all boats 16 feet or longer (other than canoes and kayaks) also carry at least one throwable PFD. Check your state's regulations for additional requirements.
And don't forget your beloved furry friends! If your dog likes to go boating or swimming with you, be sure to put a doggie life jacket on him anytime it might be needed — in open water, in rough weather, in waters with a strong current or undertow. Dogs, particularly large dogs, can be very difficult to hoist back aboard your boat, and most doggie life jackets include a convenient handle on the top of the back area to allow you to lift your dog aboard. A winch, boom, or halyard can also be used to lift your dog aboard if he's just too heavy.
When it comes to PFD ratings, the lower the number, the higher the safety. Type I PFDs offer the best flotation and chance of survival for an unconscious person or one at sea far from rescue.
- Type I PFDs:
Also called offshore life jackets, these are the most buoyant, and are designed to turn an unconscious person face up in the water. Type I PFDs are suitable for offshore use, in rough waters, and in isolated waters where rescue may be a long time coming. They are more expensive, bulkier and less comfortable to wear than other types of PFDs, but provide the greatest degree of protection.
- Type II PFDs:
Also known as near-shore buoyancy vests, these PFDs are best for calm waters where rescue is expected quickly. They will turn some, but not all, wearers face-up in the water. They are more comfortable and less bulky than a Type I, and also less expensive.
- Type III PFDs:
Designed to keep the person vertical in the water, these life jackets are best suited for situations where rescue is certain to come very quickly. These PFDs are popular for recreational uses such as water-skiing and wakeboarding, because they are more comfortable than Type I or Type II PFDs.
- Type IV PFDs:
Type IVs are the popular "cushion-style" throwable PFDs, liferings, and horseshoe-shaped buoys. All boats 16 feet and longer (except kayaks and canoes) are required to carry at least one throwable PFD. These are not meant to be worn, but are designed to be thrown to a "man overboard" to give the person something to hold onto to keep him afloat while the boat turns around to rescue him.
- Type V PFDs:
Also called "special use" devices, the Type Vs include inflatable pouches and suspenders, hybrid devices, full-body hypothermia suits, and other devices. Some Type Vs are considered PFDs only when they're actually being worn, so if you choose to carry Type V PFDs on your boat, either they must be worn at all times, or you must also carry an approved Type I, II or III PFD for each person aboard.
Inflatable PFD pouches and inflatable suspender-style PFDs (such as the popular "SOSpenders") are more comfortable to wear while aboard a boat, and many boaters who wouldn't otherwise wear a PFD may wear an inflatable PFD. Some inflatable PFDs include buoyant material in addition to the air flotation. These are known as "hybrid" PFDs, and they may be worn by children as well as adults. Inflatable PFDs that use only air flotation are only available in adult sizes and may not be used by children.
Note that there are specialized vests and jackets for various activities, such as fishing PFDs and kayaking PFDs. For your required PFDs, always look for the CGA label and the type. There's nothing wrong with wearing a non-CGA vest if you wouldn't otherwise wear a vest at all, but you should know that it's not Coast Guard Approved for buoyancy or other functionality, and you must still comply with regulations requiring CGA life vests aboard your boat.
For more information on the important of PFDs, types of PFDs, and choosing the right PFD, the Coast Guard offers a wealth of information, including a downloadable pdf on choosing the right life jacket.