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Picking the Right Life Jacket

Learn which type of life jacket suits your boating needs best.

Life jackets next to each other
While serving the same purpose, life jackets do differ in fit and feel. Courtesy West Marine

Life jackets might be the most important safety gear you can have on board for you and your crew. But what type of life jacket do you need? There are three types of inherently buoyant life jackets designated by the US Coast Guard. (There’s also Type IV, which are throwable PFDs; Type V are special use.) Here’s a brief rundown of the basics of Type I, Type II and Type III life jackets.

Type III: Mustang Hydrostatic HIT Inflatable

The Float: Type III jackets meet most recreational needs. They can be foam, but our edit staff prefers Type III inflatable PFDs such as the Mustang Hydrostatic HIT. (Automatically inflatable PFDs might also rate as Type III.) They’re comfortable to wear, which we do on our boat tests, and are easily inflated should you fall into the water.

The Catch: Type III inflatables are intended for recreational use in areas where rescue efforts can come quickly, and they are not required to rotate a user from a face-down position.

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Price: $249.99; westmarine.com

Type II: EXXEL Outdoors Type II

The Float: Almost all of the  life jackets packed into one of those Coast Guard kits is an inexpensive Type II with a bulky collar, such as this from Exxel Outdoors. They are an easy and inexpensive way to meet Coast Guard requirements for your boat. They do not have as much buoyancy as Type I jackets and can rotate some, but not all, wearers from a face-down position.

The Catch: These basic life jackets are notoriously uncomfortable to wear and intended for use when rescue efforts can be done fairly quickly.

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Price: $9.99;  westmarine.com

Read Next: Wear Your Lifejacket

Type I: Kent Type I Foam

The Float: According to the Coast Guard, Type I life jackets, such as this one from Kent, have the greatest required inherent buoyancy and should work to rotate an unconscious person out of a face-down position in the water. These are preferred for offshore situations where rescue efforts might take considerable time because they’re designed to keep people afloat and able to breathe for long periods in the water.

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The Catch: Type I life jackets are known to be bulky and can be uncomfortable to wear for long stretches of time on deck.

Price: $59.99; westmarine.com

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