It is good to know the difference between the various types of flotation devices.  There are five categories of devices: offshore life vests (type I), nearshore buoyant vests (type II), flotation aids (type III), throwable devices (type IV), and special use devices (type V). They are not all created equal.

Type I and II devices can flip unconscious people onto their backs to ensure that their faces stay out of the water, allowing them to breathe. Their efficiency varies by type. Type III can help unconscious people stay afloat. In contrast, type IV is not a wearable device: it is meant to be thrown into the water to assist a struggling person. Type V devices can also help people stay afloat, provided they are conscious. They differ from type III vests as they are designed to have a less bulky, more comfortable fit, to allow for better movement during sporting activities such as kayaking and wakeboarding. They also include a variety of inflatable models that can easily be hidden under other garments.

Let’s walk through the differences between the different vests and see which is ideal for you.

5 different types of live vests

TYPE I: Offshore SOLAS

All commercial vessels must be equipped with SOLAS-type (Safety of Life at Sea) life vests.[i]  These are type I offshore flotation devices. They are the most efficient type of vest. Additionally, they can flip an unconscious person onto his or her back within seconds.  Lastly, they are usually equipped with a whistle and a light to help other vessels locate and assist those stranded at sea. The main disadvantage of these vests is that they are bulky and uncomfortable.

TYPE II: Standard flotation devices

Standard life vests are authorized for all types of vessels and uses, except commercial and offshore use.  They can turn an unconscious person onto his or her back but not as quickly or efficiently as the SOLAS. Also, they are designed to be worn in areas where the shoreline is in sight and in less rough water. Lastly, they are bulky and typically have a keyhole shape.

TYPE III: Small vessel vests

These vests are less bulky and more comfortable than the first two types. They are designed to be used in small vessels (less than 15 tons). These can typically hold about 12 passengers. Small vessel vests are considered flotation aids, so it is recommended that users know how to swim or at least how to tread water.

TYPE IV: Throwable flotation devices

These devices are mandatory on all vessels that are 16 feet long or more. They are meant to be thrown overboard by a bystander to assist a person who is in the water. Also, they come in different formats: the traditional life saver-shaped jacket, buoys and boards. Lastly, they can be attached to a rope to retrieve a person who is in the water.

TYPE V: Special use flotation devices


Vests in this category are designed for ultimate comfort and style. They are most often used for sporting events. They allow the most movement but the least buoyancy. Therefore, it is recommended to know how to swim when wearing these devices.


These special use devices include inflatable vests.  Please note that inflatable vests are not approved for users under 16 years of age.  These vests have several advantages: they are lightweight, comfortable, small and can easily be made inconspicuous. They can be deployed by pulling a string when needed, so they are also designed for users who are conscious.

Please note that some inflatable devices may fall into another category, as they are made to higher standards.  An example is the type of vest used in airplanes. When using an inflatable, always make sure to stay clear of debris that could damage the vest.


Flotation belts can be used in running water. They are meant to assist with flotation only. It is therefore recommended that users know how to swim.

What is best for you?

When deciding what type of vest to purchase, please take these tips into consideration. The ideal types of vests for children who are unable to swim are types I and II.  If you are going out to sea, make sure you are equipped with a SOLAS vest. For general use, small vessel vests are ideal.  If you plan to go embark on a boat that is longer than 16 feet, make sure there is a throwable onboard.  Or if you need movement and flexibility for your activity, you may want a special use vest.  Or if your job involves working around water, you may want an inflatable vest, but always ensure there is another type of vest available.

For more information, check out the following resources:,without%20a%20helmet%20and%20lifejacket!



Written by: Tara Grenier, M.Sc., CAT(C), Injury Prevention Professional at the Montreal General Hospital- McGill University Health Centre


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