Understanding Life Jackets and Flotation Devices

Have you ever worn a life jacket or personal flotation device (PDF)? Have you ever gone boating? Particularly in a Kayak, Rowboat, or Canoe? These are probably the most common types of boats people wear lifejackets in. Although most people equate wearing life jackets with smaller boat activities, larger boats are also required to have enough for all passengers and crew aboard. That is why many cruise ships have a mandatory kind of practice run for guests at the beginning of their trip. The real question is have you ever noticed the difference between the different types of life jackets used for different activities? Why are the life jackets on cruise ships giant bulky affairs while a kayaker’s “life jacket” is barely more than a vest? The particularly observant safety afficianido may have noticed that their life jacked has “USCG Type 2” or “USCG Type 3” stamped on the inside along with the size. That is what I plan on covering in this blog.

What are the different types of life jackets and flotation devices? Please note I included “flotation devices”, that’s because The United States Coast Guard (or USCG for short) includes them in their classifications. There are 5 classes or types in total.

TYPE ONE: Offshore Life Jackets

These are huge bulky affairs. They should be able to consistently be able to roll an unconscious swimmer on to their back. Technically they could be made of foam or be inflatable but as of right now, no Type 1 inflatable vests have been approved by the USCG. Extremely impractical for swimming. Most commonly used for boats that travel far offshore (like cruise ships) or boats that experience rough conditions (like certain kinds of commercial boats). Type 1’s are best suited for when rescue is a long, long way away.

TYPE TWO: Near – Shore Vests

The Type 2 is the stereotypical “life jacket”. Bulky but less so than type 1’s. It was also designed to be capable of rolling unconscious swimmers on to their back however recent research has shown it to be less successful than Type 1’s. That being said the jacket still makes it very easy to stay afloat for long periods of time. It is ideal for activities that occur in calm, near shore waters. I have even seen it used in pools for large summer camp groups. Personally this kind of lifejacket brings back memories of going canoeing with my Dad at a lake near my house when I was a kid.

TYPE THREE: Flotation Aids

These are less “life jackets” and more “life vests”. They are designed for sports and activities where mobility is important. Extremely popular with sailors and kayakers who need that extra comfort and mobility to perform their sport. A type three will not roll an unconscious swimmer on to their back but is designed to make it easier for conscious swimmers to rest on their back. Remember I said I used to wear a Type 2 when canoeing with my Dad? I specifically remember him wearing a Type 3. Having the less confident swimmer in a Type 2 while letting the more confident swimmer wear a Type 3 was definitely a good decision. Nice job Dad :).

TYPE FOUR: Throwable Devices

Life ring (left) and boat cushion (right)

These are not wearable devices at all. They are simply floating items that can be thrown towards a distressed swimmer. You may have seen “This is Not a lifesaving device” stamped on certain floating toys. That just means it has not been USCG approved for that purpose. In a true emergency, a USCG approved item may work best but I implore you to use anything at your disposal that will help you in a rescue if needed. That is a subject for another blog though.

TYPE FIVE: Special – Use Devices

Finally we come to the catch – all category for specialized life jackets. These models don’t really fit neatly into the other four types and are usually made with a specific sport or activity in mind. From my research I believe these can include varieties for sailing, kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests and deck suits. The intended activity is normally stamped next to the Type classification.

This picture from Boatus.org is a nice little comparison of each type:

Which one is best for you and your children? Probably either a Type 2 or Type 3 depending on the skill level and chosen activity of the wearer. However, I highly recommend checking out the United States Coast Guard website for reference material. They have a link to an excellent PDF file at the top of this page: https://www.uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/life-jacket-wear-wearing-your-life-jacket.php

It does an excellent job of recommending what type of Life Jacket would be best for your needs. In fact that page is generally excellent at explaining a lot of things about Life Jackets. It also gives the exact specifications for each class of Life Jacket. I strongly encourage you to check them out.

Swim fast. Swim Safe.

Eric Wembacher