Styles & Intended Uses

Styles & Intended Uses

Life jackets and PFDs are designated by four basic design types: 

  • Inherent 
  • Inflatable
  • Hybrid
  • Special Purpose.


Inherent designed life jackets are constructed with materials that are inherently buoyant to provide floatation. The flotation materials may be encased in fabric in one or more sections. 


  • Floats immediately without any action by the wearer.
  • Suitable for weak or non-swimmers
  • Adjustable fit for children and adult versions
  • Some fit snugly to the body and allow for a wide range of motion for watersport activities or paddling.
  • Offered in a range of performance levels to match the activity and environment of use.
  • Low to moderate price and low maintenance.
  • Can help keep the wearer warm in and out of the water on cool days.


  • Can be too warm on hot days for constant wear unless designed with ventilation - for example: mesh panels or cutouts
  • Higher performance levels require more foam to meet testing standards for buoyancy and turning, which may make the device bulkier.


Inflatable life jackets inflate, usually using a compressed gas canister to provide flotation. 

How inflation can work:

  • Automatically –when submerged in water, it inflates without any action required by the wearer. (Manual and oral inflation methods are available as well.)
  • Manually –will NOT inflate unless the wearer pulls a toggle. (Oral inflation method is available as well.)
  • Oral inflation through a tube –available on automatic and manual inflatable life jackets. The oral inflation tube can be used to inflate the PFD without discharging the gas canister or as an emergency backup should the gas chamber be empty or fail. 


  • Not as bulky as an inherent life jacket.
  • Vest and belt pack design options 
  • Thin, flat, and has very little bulk (before inflation)
  • Can be more comfortable for constant wear 
  • Cooler when worn in warm climates


  • May NOT be the best choice for weak or non-swimmers.
  • Not for use by children.
  • Not suitable for use for all activities such as towed watersports or on personal watercraft.
  • More regular inspections and maintenance are required.  
  • Inflation to full buoyancy may be delayed (particularly in cold temperatures.)
  • Expensive at the time of purchase and throughout the lifetime of use.


Hybrid life jackets combines inherent buoyant material (usually foam) with an inflatable chamber.


  • Built-in inherent floatation ensures a minimum level of immediate buoyancy without any inflation.
  • A combination of flotation chambers allows the wearer to adjust to the activity or situation, providing performance when needed.
  • Supplemental inflation can be provided through gas canisters or the oral tube, depending on the design.


  • Wearer must understand how to use the inflatable and performance characteristics before using it. 
  • May not offer sufficient buoyancy for all wearers and situations until inflated.

Special Purpose:

Special purpose life jackets are for a specific application and, in many instances, must be WORN to meet Coast Guard life jacket carriage requirements. In addition, some devices may require extra actions by the user or special training.

Some examples are, 

  • Life jackets for commercial use
  • Life jackets for whitewater use
  • Float coat style PFDs
  • Inflatable belt pack styles of life jackets
  • Manually inflating styles of life jackets


  • Manufactured with unique or modified features to achieve proper protection and buoyancy for specific situations or activities.


  • U.S. Coast Guard approved ONLY for specific situations or activities
  • May endanger the wear if worn outside the manufacturer’s intended design parameters or Coast Guard approval.
  • May require special action by the user such as:
    • secondary donning (e.g., belt pack that once inflated needs to be placed overhead)
    • manual inflation (by pulling on a toggle)

In certain situations, or activities, special or altered features on a life jacket may be necessary to make it possible to wear safely and to achieve the amount of protection required if needed. These life jackets will bear a label that indicates what restrictions or limitations apply and their performance type. It is important to note that life jackets designed in this fashion may be required to be worn as a condition of the life jacket’s approval. If this is the case, there will be a clearly written statement on the label and in the manufacturer’s instructions.

Inherently buoyant life jacket

Inflatable life jacket

Hybrid life jacket

Special purpose life jacket
(like float coats)