Set Your Hook

Picking a Life Jacket

The Outdoor Princess in the Kayak

For a lot of people, fishing and boating go hand in hand. Since I’ll be doing some fishing from my kayak next weekend, I wanted to write about life jackets. Life jackets are also known as a life vest. The proper name of a life jacket is actually Personal Floatation Device or PFD.

But come, on, who really says: “Be sure to wear your personal floatation device today, honey, when you’re catching our dinner!”? Life jacket, life vests, life preservers, personal floatation device: it all comes down to what type do you need and when do you need to wear it.

Categories of Personal Flotation Devices:

The United States Coast Guard has broken the types of personal floatation devices into 5 categories:

Type I – Offshore Lifejacket

This PFD is designed for extended survival in rough, open water. It usually will turn an unconscious person face up. See the life vest at

Example of Type I

Type II – Near Shore Buoyant Vest

The “classic” Personal Floatation Device comes in several sizes for adults and children and is for calm inland water where there is chance of fast rescue. It is less bulky and less expensive than a Type I, and many will turn an unconscious person face-up in the water. See the life vest at

Example of Type II

Example of Type II

Type III – Flotation Aid

These life jackets are generally considered the most comfortable, with styles for different boating activities and sports. They are for use in calm water where there is good chance of fast rescue since they will generally not turn an unconscious person face-up. See the live vest at

Example of Type III

Type IV – Throwable Device

These are designed to be thrown to a person in the water. Throwable devices include boat cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. They are not designed to be worn and must be supplemented by wearable PFD. It is important to keep these devices immediately available for emergencies, and they should not be used for small children, non-swimmers, or unconscious people. See the flotation device at

Example of Type IV

Type V – Special Use Device

Special use PFDs include work vests, deck suits, and hybrids for restricted use. Hybrid vests contain some internal buoyancy and are inflatable to provide additional flotation. See the life vest at

Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable life jackets rely on inflatable chambers that provide buoyancy when inflated. Uninflated, inflatable life jackets are less bulky than inherently buoyant life jackets. All inflatables contain a backup oral inflation tube (which also serves as the deflation tube).

Most people will use a personal floatation device in a recreational setting only. So types II & III are very common.

Picking a Life Vest

The summer I graduated from high school, I worked at my local YMCA as a lifeguard. I took my job extremely seriously: I was responsible for the life of somebody’s child and it was my job to make sure they were able to swim safely. I would always freak me out when my boss would hire a new lifeguard since I was never sure if my fellow guards quite understood the gravity of our job.

I’m only bringing this up to impress upon you the importance of picking the RIGHT floatation device for each member of your family. I know that when a family is just getting into boating, and spending all that money getting set up with gear, it’s tempting to try to do things on the cheap.

A life jacket is NOT where you want to save money!

Match the Vest To Your Activity

Many water activities have specific life jackets. For example, the vest I wear in my kayak not only has great safety ratings, it is specially designed for woman kayakers.

Size It Correctly

Just like clothes, life jackets come in a variety of sizes. The sizing chart is not only for the chest size and height of the person, but also the weight.

Try It On!

If the life vest is uncomfortable you won’t wear it. You also want to make sure it fits correctly. A properly adjusted life jacket should be snug but still allow the wearer to breathe and have freedom of movement.

If you’ve never purchased a personal floatation device before, I recommend buying your first one from an outdoors store. Have a sales associate (who knows what they’re doing!) help you find a life vest that matches your activity, buoyancy requirements, and body size. The sales associate should also be able to show you how to adjust it for correct fit.

When I bought my kayaking life jacket, I spent about twenty minutes with a very knowledgeable employee who helped me pick the perfect vest.

Kid’s Personal Flotation Devices

While some children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds may like the freedom of movement that a Type III lifejacket provides, most children in this weight range, especially those who cannot swim, should wear a Type I or Type II lifejacket.

Remember that water wings are NOT a flotation device and will not save your child in the case of an emergency.

When To Wear It

Every state has different rules governing personal flotation devices. In my opinion, wearing a life jacket is just like lifeguarding: not something to take lightly. For that reason, I recommend that no matter what, you wear it when you’re on the water.

I am a very good swimmer but I am never without my life jacket when I’m in our family row boat or in my kayak.

Arizona Game & Fish will issue tickets for PFD violations so be sure you know the laws in your state! I’ve looked and looked but I can’t find a list that has each state’s agency listed. I would recommend to contact your state’s department Game & Fish and ask about the boating safety requirements.

For a real, and funny, story of what happens when you don’t wear your life vest, check out this article written by John M of Muddy Feet Gang: Fishing or Swimming?

If you’d like to start your research or ready to buy, I recommend taking a look at Overton’s. They’re a large boating retailer and have lots of personal flotation devices to choose from.

Readers weigh in:

  1. What type of personal flotation device do you wear?
  2. Do you have any stories about where the life jacket helped in an emergency?
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