Federal Requirements
and Safety Tips for Recreational Boaters 

Equipment Requirements 

The Coast Guard sets minimum safety standards for vessels and associated equipment. To meet these standards some of the equipment must be Coast Guard approved. "Coast Guard Approved Equipment" has been determined to be in compliance with USCG specifications and regulations relating to performance, construction or materials.

Personal Flotation Devices

PFDs must be Coast Guard approved, in good and serviceable condition, and of appropriate size for the intended user. Wearable PFDs must be readily accessible, meaning you must be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.). They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them. Throwable devices must be immediately available for use. Though not required, a PFD should be worn at all times when the vessel is underway. A wearable PFD may save your life, but only if you wear it.

All recreational boats must carry one Type I, II, III or V PFD (wearable) for each person aboard. For Type V PFDs to be counted they must be used according to their label requirements. Any boat 16ft and longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one Type IV (throwable) PFD.

When available, Coast Guard Approved Inflatable PFD's will be authorized only for adults.

Child PFD requirements:  Some states require that PFDs be worn by children of specific ages under certain conditions. Check with your state boating safety officials.

Federal law does not require PFDs on racing shells, rowing sculls and racing kayaks; state laws vary.

Remember, PFDs will keep you from sinking, but not necessarily from drowning. Extra time should be taken in selecting a properly sized PFD to insure a safe fit. Testing your PFD in shallow water or guarded swimming pool is a good and reassuring practice.

Types of PFDs

A TYPE I PFD, or OFF-SHORE LIFE JACKET provides the most buoyancy. It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position. The Type I comes in two sizes. The adult size provides at least 22 pounds buoyancy, the child size provides at least 11 pounds buoyancy.

Off-Shore Life Jacket 
Graphic of an off-shore life jacket. 


A TYPE II PFD, NEAR-SHORE BUOYANCY VEST is intended for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. This type will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water. The turning action is not as pronounced and it will not turn as many persons to a face-up position under the same conditions as a Type I. An adult size device provides at least 15 1/2 pounds buoyancy, a medium child provides 11 pounds. Infant and small child sizes each provide at least 7 pounds buoyancy.

Near-shore Buoyancy Vest 
Graphic of a near-shore buoyancy vest. 


A TYPE III PFD, or FLOTATION AID is good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. It is designed so wearers can place themselves in a face-up position in the water. The wearer may have to tilt their head back to avoid turning face-down in the water. The Type III has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II PFD. It comes in many styles, colors, and sizes and is generally the most comfortable type for continuous wear. Float coats, fishing vests, and vests designed with features suitable for various sports activities are examples of this type PFD.

Flotation Aid 
Graphic of a flotation aid. 


A TYPE IV PFD, or THROWABLE DEVICE is intended for calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always present. It is designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued. It is not designed to be worn. Type IV devices include buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys.

Throwable Device 
Graphic of a throwable device. 


A TYPE V PFD, or SPECIAL USE DEVICE is intended for specific activities and may be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to the approval condition on that label. Some Type V devices provide significant hypothermia protection. Varieties include deck suits, work vests, board sailing vests, and Hybrid PFDs.

A TYPE V HYBRID INFLATABLE PFD is the least bulky of all PFD types. It contains a small amount of inherent buoyancy, and an inflatable chamber. Its performance is equal to a Type I, II, or III PFD (as noted on the PFD label) when inflated. Hybrid PFDs must be worn when underway to be acceptable.

Inflated Hybrid PFD 
Graphic of an inflated hybrid PFD. 


Water Skiing, PWC's and PFD's

A water skier is considered on board the vessel and a PFD is required for the purposes of compliance with the PFD carriage requirements. It is advisable and recommended for skiers and PWC (Personal Water Craft) riders to wear a PFD designed to withstand the impact of hitting the water at high speed. "Impact Class" marking on the label refers to PFD strength, not personal protection. Most states require skiers and PWC riders to wear PFD's while underway.  Coast Guard Separator Bar 

Courtesy Exam LogoFor the CME, all boats must be equipped with a wearable PFD for each person on board. There must be a minimum of two PFDs even if there is only one person on board (one wearable PFD and one Type IV). Boats 16 feet and over are required to have a minimum of two wearable PFDs plus a Type IV.

Check List