Life Jackets: How to Read the Labels

Life jackets are also known as personal flotation devices (PFDs).

As with any tool or device, a life jacket has important instructions on its use and care. And because it’s a lifesaving device, labels must communicate plainly. 

There’s very little wasted space on the tags, inserts, or manuals that contain the warnings and instructions. All labels are important to note. 

Common Label Elements

  1. Type of PFD — Type I, Type II, Type III, Type IV, or Type V. Each type has different buoyancy characteristics and intended uses.
  2. Performance Level — Newer life jackets may have a performance level instead of a Type number. (Read more below)
  3. US Coast Guard Approval Number — This number confirms that the life jacket meets the safety standards set by the U.S. Coast Guard.
  4. Buoyancy Rating — The label will specify the minimum buoyancy rating in pounds or kilograms, indicating the amount of weight the life jacket can support in the water.
  5. Turn Ability — If the wearer is unconscious in the water, some life jackets will turn them face up. Test your PFD before use!
  6. Activity Type — Some life jackets are not approved for water skiing, jet skiing, whitewater activities, etc. 
  7. Size and Weight Range — Life jackets come in different sizes to fit various body types. The label will provide information on the size range and weight range that the life jacket is designed to accommodate. Adult sizes are not meant for children to wear.

Labels can include additional instructions, often on the reverse side. 

  1. Proper Use Instructions — How to properly wear and secure the life jacket, including information on adjustable straps, buckles, and closures.
  2. Care and Maintenance Instructions — Advising on how to clean, store, and inspect the life jacket for wear or damage.
  3. Warning and Safety Information — Examples include limitations of use, recommended age or weight range, and precautions to follow while wearing the life jacket.
  4. Reflective Tape or Material — Some life jackets have labels indicating the presence of reflective tape or material to enhance visibility in low light conditions.

The specific labels on PFDs vary depending on the manufacturer and the type of life jacket. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for specific care requirements. 

How to Understand PFD Performance Level

Life jackets with the new label have performance level (measured in newtons) instead of the legacy Type I through V. You can still use a life jacket with the older label as long as it is in good condition and designed for the activity.

50 ~ 70 ~ 100 ~ 150

Higher performance levels are more protective. They offer better flotation and stability, are more likely to have turning (to orient an unconscious wearer face up in the water), and are typically made of more durable material. 

When to choose higher performance levels:

  • If you’re going offshore where you’re hours away from rescue
  • If you’re boating through chop, away from shore
  • If you can’t stay upright or tread water easily during the activity

It’s important to honestly assess swimming ability and get a life jacket with a higher performance level when necessary. 

Lower numbers are appropriate when you are in calmer waters near shore. Lower performance levels typically provide more mobility while offering good flotation.

Choose a Life Jacket You Like

PFDs only work when you wear them. Put on your life jacket before you step on the boat and keep it on at all times. 

And find one you like! Choose colors you love, find a style that feels good, and check your fit. If you like your life jacket, you’re more likely to put it on so it can do what it’s meant to do.

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