What Are the Advantages of a Type IV PFD?

And How to Choose the Right One for You

Photo used by permission from Overtons.com.

Boat safety is important and that is why personal flotation devices (PFDs) are required on all boats. There are different types of PFDs and one is the Type IV, which can be thrown to someone in the water and help prevent them from drowning.

While not the best PFD for paddling, it is important for all boaters to understand what a Type IV PFD is and how and when to use it.

What is a Type IV PFD?

Type IV PFD refers to the 4th level of the United States Coast Guard's (USCG) classification for personal flotation devices. Type IV PFDs are carried on boats as a device that can be thrown to a drowning person.

  • Type IV PFDs are also known as a throwable flotation device or Type 4 PFD.
  • On commercial boats and around swimming pools, these are circular flotation rings.
  • On recreational motor boats, these take the form of seat cushion style devices.

Type IV PFDs are not meant to be worn. Instead, they are designed to be thrown to someone who has gone overboard and is struggling to swim.

The boat cushion style of PFD has two straps. The person in the water can put their arms through these to keep the cushion with them, though it's not necessary.

  • With or without the use of the straps, the person places the PFD under their chest and floats on top of it.
  • The user can also kick their legs to propel them through the water.

It is important to know that at least one Type IV PFD should be on any recreational boat that is longer than 16 feet.

  • The PFD should be out of its original packaging and ready to use in case of emergency.
  • The throwable device should be placed in the boat's cockpit or helm, not stored under the seats.
  • The USCG does not require these PFDs on canoes and kayaks.

Remember, that your boat should have one PFD on board for every passenger, this is also the law in many states. It can be a combination of wearables and throwables, though the wearables need to fit the people on board. It does no good to have a bunch of kid-sized life jackets for a boat full of adults. Don't be cheap on safety.

Tip: Children under 13 need to wear a life jacket. Even if your state has no life jacket law for kids, the Coast Guard rules are in effect. Type IV PFDs are not an acceptable replacement for children's life jackets.

Choosing and Caring for a Type IV PFD

The nice thing about Type IV PFDs is that they are inexpensive and they last a very long time. Again, don't be cheap and think that your average stadium cushion can be used instead of a Type IV PFD. Your life may depend on it some day.

  • Choose a Type IV PFD that is USCG-approved. 
  • The average adult requires 7-12 pounds of buoyancy to stay afloat with a PFD. Flotation rings are often 16.5 pounds and boat cushions are often 18 pounds.
  • A bright colored PFD is easier to see in an emergency.

Caring for a Type IV PFD is very easy.

  • Rinse it with fresh water after every use.
  • Allow it to dry thoroughly prior to storing.
  • Keep an eye out for holes in the cover or any other type of damage.
  • It's best to keep it out of direct sunlight.

Type IV PFDs and Paddle Sports

When it comes to paddling, the Type IV PFD is the least effective flotation device and it is not recommended as the only means of safety.

However, many canoers rely on the boat cushion-style PFD to pass the "one PFD per person" requirements and laws. It's true that they are convenient because they double as a seat cushion (or knee cushion for solo canoes) while paddling, but it is too easy to become separated from your PFD when it's needed the most.

  • Wearable PFDs should be worn while in a canoe, though it's not required for anyone over the age of 13. 
  • If you rely on a throwable, do not tie it to the canoe or make it difficult to get to in an emergency.
  • If you're canoeing on any open or rough water where help is not immediately available, wear a Type III PFD.

While canoers can argue for or against the usefulness of Type IV PFDs, kayakers will find these completely useless. Any kayaker - whether recreational, whitewater, sea kayak, or sit-on-top - should be wearing a Type III PFD every time they hit the water. 

  • Seat cushions will raise you up too high from the seat and negatively impact your stability.
  • Kayak seats are designed for comfort (they often form-fit your buttocks) and a 3-inch thick seat cushion is both unnecessary and uncomfortable.
  • Throwables can easily get trapped in the kayak's cockpit if you tip and be hard to get. They can also get caught in your deck rigging if you choose to store it on top of the kayak.

For any type of paddling (including stand up paddleboarding, or SUP), you will find that a properly fitting Type III PFD is actually really comfortable. You will also be prepared if (and when) your boat tips over.

Investing in a good life jacket will make your paddling more enjoyable. It also gives you the peace of mind knowing that you can just sit back and float should anything go wrong. It's really the smart move.