What’s the Difference Between a Life Jacket and a PFD?

Although commonly spoken of and seen as the same thing, there are some critical differences between a life jacket vs PFD (personal floatation device) personal flotation device (PFD) that you should know. It’s easy to get them confused because they’re very similar, and they generally fulfill the same function – helping someone stay afloat – but certain things must be met before a life jacket can be called a life jacket.

life jacket vs PFD

So, what is the difference between a life jacket vs PFD? In essence, PFDs have been designed to assist conscious people, while life jackets can support an unconscious wearer.

What Is a PFD?

PFDs are protective or personal safety equipment designed to keep you afloat if you end up in a body of water. It’s a device that’s supposed to aid in flotation and give you more buoyancy so you can stay afloat longer.

It’s one of the most essential pieces of safety equipment that a paddleboarder, kayaker or canoer could have if something were to go wrong – it keeps their head above the surface of the water. 

A PFD is essentially a vest that the wearer fastens around their torso and doesn’t require them to hold onto.

What Are Life Jackets?

A life jacket is a type of PFD that essentially does the same job as a PFD – keeping the wearer afloat. However, a life jacket saves you from drowning by supporting the body’s 10 – 12-pound weight when submerged in water.

Life jackets are required on offshore rigs, and they come in a basic type of vest that will cover the wearer’s back and chest and is attached around the body with ties or zippers.

To be considered a life jacket, the PFD must provide a buoyancy of 150 Newtons and full collar support. When choosing a life jacket, be sure it is a Coast Guard approved life jacket. To be acceptable by the United States Coast Guard, the life jacket must be worn at all times and should be used for the water sport or activity listed on the label – also known as its intended use.

Life Jacket vs PFD: An In-Depth Look

PFDs and life jackets are made for two different purposes in mind. Kayakers, paddleboarders, and other watersport enthusiasts rely on PFDs instead of life jackets. Life jackets are less comfortable and bulkier to wear for extended periods. After all, they are designed to save lives.

Instead, PFDs are designed to create a balance between keeping the wearer safe while allowing unrestricted movements. Because of this, PFDs are less cumbersome to wear for watersports. You’ll also find that the buoyant area of the PFD is more dispersed compared to a life jacket.

One of the defining characteristics of a life jacket vs PFD is where the buoyant material is located. Having the buoyant material dispersed throughout the device makes it much more comfortable to wear, but having it located all in the front makes the device more effective at saving lives.

life jacket vs PFD
Source: Unsplash

The reason life jackets can save those who are unconscious is because of where the buoyant material is located in the device. Having the material in the front of the device will automatically position the unconscious person’s head up toward the sky.

This is why life jackets are preferred in life-saving situations as a buoyancy aid where the wearer might find themselves in the water for an extended time. Another reason life jackets are preferred is when the swimming ability of people cannot be determined or relied upon, for example, kayak lessons for children.

Unfortunately, the shape and size of a life jacket can get in the way and hinder watersport activities, such as swimming, paddle boarding and kayaking. So, when competent swimmers and regular watersport enthusiasts go out into the water, they opt for a PFD because of their ease of movement and comfort.

While there are a few exceptions, the general rule is that a PFD is designed for recreational activities in or on the water. At the same time, life jackets are generally used for undesirable situations.

To ensure that the wearers are grabbed out of the water quickly, life jackets need to accommodate several features that will grab the attention of rescuers. Because of this, life jackets are made from bold and bright colors and have shrill whistles.

life jacket vs PFD
Source: Unsplash

Different Classifications of a PFD

PFDs will be ranked by flotation level in types:

  • Type I – levels 150 and 100
  • Type II – level 50
  • Type III – level 50S

Type 1 is the only PFD type flotation aid classified as a traditional life jacket. These PFDs have neck support to keep the unconscious wearer face up above the water. A level 150 PFD, in terms of buoyancy and safety, refers to a deep-water life jacket that’s suitable for offshore use. The 150 means that the life jacket buoyancy at least 150 Newtons.

Bottom Line

To summarize, all life jackets are PFDs, but not every PFD is a life jacket. PFDs and life jackets are both designed to keep you afloat in the water if something were to go wrong.

In the difference between a life jacket vs PFD, life jackets are designed to keep an unconscious person afloat, while a PFD is used to keep conscious people afloat. This is because a life jacket has more buoyancy than a PFD and can turn the wearer around in the water, so their face is up toward the sky.

Competent swimmers and frequent watersport enthusiasts opt to wear a PFD instead of a life jacket because they can keep themselves afloat for a longer timeframe than those who aren’t confident in their swimming abilities. They also choose to wear a PFD because they’re more comfortable and less restricting than a life jacket.

It’s highly recommended that you always wear a PFD or life jacket when on the water unless it’s safe for you to take it off. Even if you’re a competent swimmer, this is true because you never know when something unexpected will happen that puts you in a situation that you aren’t prepared for, like rough water.

If you’re comfortable out on the open water, you should be okay wearing a PFD. However, if you aren’t comfortable or want to be prepared for the unexpected, you should opt for a life jacket. Ultimately, the choice is yours.

Hopefully, this article has helped you determine the significant differences between a life jacket and PFD.

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