August 03, 2022 8 min read


White boat with two red life buoy

A personal flotation device, or PFD for short, is an essential piece of kit that all boats and personal watercraft should have on board. Their sole purpose is to help you stay afloat and save your life in the event of an emergency. 

When you think of personal flotation devices, your mind probably wanders to life jackets. And yes, these are a type of PFD, but there is also one that works in a slightly different way - the Type IV PFD. 

We’re going to get into what exactly is a Type IV PFD and the advantages of having one on board. If you’re new to the boating world and are unsure on what makes the Type IV different from the rest, then keep on reading!

What is a Type IV PFD?

In total, there are five types of PFDs, and each one serves a different purpose. The US Coast Guard bases the personal floatation devices on their flotation capabilities and how functional they are. 

The most common PFD is the life jacket, which is classed as a Type III PFD. A Type III PFD is a life jacket that is suitable for calm waters where there is a chance of a quick rescue. 

Type IVs, however, come in the form of a throwable flotation device. Its purpose isn’t to be worn like a Type III, but to be tossed to a person who is unable to swim or even drowning.

A throwable floatation device is usually made of materials that don’t absorb water, such as polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride. These materials provide the most buoyancy, which in turn keeps the person's head above water.

What Type IV PFDs are Approved?

Horseshoe buoy

Type IV PFDs don’t just come in a particular style, and there are a few different variations that we’ll get into now. The following three PFDs are US Coast Guard approved and are suitable to be used on large boats, docks, or at swimming pools.

Buoyant Cushion

One you may not have seen before is a buoyant cushion. A buoyant cushion resembles, well, a cushion and has a strap on either side for the wearer to hold onto. You can even place your arms through the straps, but this isn’t necessary in order for the PFD to work. 

The large surface area of buoyant cushions means you can place them under your chest and float on top of them. 

Ring Buoys

A ring buoy is the most common variation of a Type IV PFD. Although ‘ring buoy’ is their official name, you may also know them as flotation rings, life rings, or life buoys. 

If you’ve ever been to a swimming pool or dock, then you’ve most likely seen one. This throwable device is designed so the user can pull their head and arms through the center hole. Just like you would with a blow-up swim ring. 

Ring buoys are typically the bright orange color you see on most PFDs, but they do also come in white and red. The modernized ring buoys are now even kitted out with lights to improve visibility at night.

Horseshoe Buoys

The third variation of Type IV PFDs is the horseshoe buoy which, you guessed it, is shaped like a horseshoe. 

Horseshoe buoys are more often than not made from a closed-cell plastic core that is covered with a vinyl coating. They come in different color options, but the most common are red, yellow, white, and blue. 

How to Use a Type IV PFD

People snorkeling with a life buoy floating on the water

Type IV PFDs are fairly straightforward to use. Here is a step by step guide: 

  1. Throw the PFD overboard to the person struggling in the water.
  2. Inform the person in the water to grab the PFD and place it either over their head and arms (for a ring buoy), around their body (horseshoe buoy) or under their chest (buoyant cushion).
  3. Encourage the person to kick with their legs to propel themselves forward.
  4. If the PFD has a rope attached, which most do, you can also help to pull the person towards the boat for a faster rescue.

What is the Main Advantage of a Type IV PFD?

So, now that we’ve covered what a Type IV PFD is, let’s get into the advantages of these life saving devices.

Easy to Use

Type IV PFDs are extremely easy to use. Unlike their life jacket cousins, they’re simply thrown to the person in need, and they don’t have to be worn before the emergency situation occurs. 


Traditional life jackets can be bulky and sometimes uncomfortable to wear. The extra weight of a life jacket also requires a lot more effort to remain face-up when in the water.

Type IVs, however, are extremely lightweight and provide better mobility for the wearer once in the water.


Life buoy with ropes for towing

In our opinion, one of the best features of a Type IV PFD is the fact that they’re towable. If they don’t already come with an attached rope, you’ll find an attachment point where you can add one yourself.

This rope allows people on the boat to pull the person in the water to safety much quicker than a regular life jacket. It also means the people doing the pulling are at far less risk of falling overboard themselves. 


The Type IV is extremely versatile as it can be used in a range of different water conditions, from slow-flowing rivers to oceans and swimming pools. You can even use them as extra support for people already wearing another variation of PFD.

No Size Restrictions

Unlike life jackets, type IVs don’t have a size restriction. Life jackets require you to be a certain size for each individual jacket. If you’re too large for the jacket, it won’t be buoyant enough, and if you’re too small, you can end up falling out of it. 

Type IVs, however, can be worn by anyone, no matter their size or height.

Location Marker

The Type IV variation of PFD can also be used as a location marker. For example, if someone falls off overboard while the boat is running, it can be thrown into the water to act as a marker for where the person was last spotted.

This marker will then give rescuers and the boat operator a good idea of where to return to in an effort to find the person who fell overboard.

Rules and Regulations for Type IV PFDs

Captain cockpit with two life buoy on the front

The type IV PFD comes with some rules and regulations and not all water crafts are required to have one on board.

Vessels 16 Foot or Longer Must Have One

The federal law requires all boats over 16 feet in length to have life jackets for every person on board and at least one Type IV PFD. 

The law doesn’t, however, specify which type, so the variation you choose is completely up to you. Although a boat under 16 feet doesn’t require a type IV, we highly recommended having one on board just in case.

Kayaks and Canoes Are Not Required to Carry One

For all the kayakers, canoers, and SUPers out there, a Type IV PFD isn’t required. Let’s face it, personal non-motorized watercraft such as these have very little room to begin with, so the state laws only require a life jacket to be worn by all parties on the vessel. 

They Must Be US Coastguard Approved and Accessible

Not all PFDs are US Coastguard approved, so before purchasing one, it’s best to double-check. 

The PFD should also be accessible to anyone who needs it. That means it needs to be visible and not hidden away under seats, lockers, or in the cockpit.

It Must Be a Bright Color

A bright-colored PFD is far easier to see in an emergency, so that’s why the international distress orange is widely used for PFDs of all types.

It Must Have a Buoyancy of 16.5 Pounds

16.5 pounds of buoyancy is the recommended size for adults as it ensures their head remains above the water at all times. 

It Is Not a Replacement for a Life Jacket

Type IV PFDs shouldn’t be a complete replacement for a life jacket. They should only be used in emergency overboard situations, and the federal law requires all personal watercraft to carry a life jacket that fits each and every person on the vessel.

Dos and Don’ts of Type IV PFDS

Life buoy with a line on the water

DO Use It When There is Boat Traffic

Using a Type IV PFD is ideal when there is heavy boat traffic. The closer you are to other boats, the more likely you are to be rescued.

DO Use It In Calm Waters

PFDs work best in calm waters, and this is no exception for the Type IV. The sole purpose of a personal floatation device is to keep the person afloat, and the absence of waves of choppy waters allows the type IV to do just that. 

DO Use It In Conjunction With Other PFDs

Even if the person or people in the water are wearing other personal flotation devices, it doesn’t hurt to give them a helping hand back to the boat

DON’T Use It In Bad Weather

Depending on how bad the weather is, the waves, wind, and water currents could end up dragging the PFD away from the person in need.

DON’T Use It On Unconscious People

As type IVs need to be grabbed onto, throwing it out to an unconscious person is practically useless.

How to Care for a Type IV PFD

Life buoy and a life jacket hang on a wood after rinse

Don’t Place It in Sunlight

Exposure to the sun and high temperatures can deteriorate your type IV PFD extremely quickly. 

The best solution to keep your PFD out of the sun is to purchase a ring housing. Ring housings protect it against all the outdoor elements and also give it a permanent and well-known location on board.

Rinse With Fresh Water

Saltwater can encourage the growth of mold and mildew, so it’s best to rinse the PFD with freshwater regularly. Even if it hasn’t been in direct contact with the water, sea spray can be just as bad. 

Always Check It Before and After Every Outing

Holes in your PFD can cause the inner polyurethane foam to shrink or deform, which in turn lowers the effectiveness, so take the time to regularly check over your PFD to ensure it’s in its best working condition. 

Dry It Before Storing

Make sure the PFD is completely dry before storing it away, as water logging can degrade the materials over time.


🏆 What is a PFD type IV?

A Type IV PFD is a throwable flotation device that is tossed into the water to help a person who is drowning or unable to swim. 

Type IV PFDs come in three variations: a ring buoy, a buoyant cushion, and a horseshoe buoy. 

The ring buoy is the most popular of the three and resembles an inflatable swimming ring. A buoyant cushion looks fairly similar to a seat cushion and is placed under the chest of the person in need. Finally, the horseshoe buoy can be wrapped around the wearer to keep their head above water. 

Type IV PFDs should be used in conjunction with a life vest and should never be the only PFD variation on board. 

👍 What is the greatest disadvantage of a type IV personal flotation device?

The greatest disadvantage of a Type IV PFD is the fact that it can’t be used on unconscious people. If someone falls unconscious falling off the boat or for any other reason, they wouldn’t be able to grab the PFD like they need to. 

Wearing a life jacket, however, keeps an unconscious person's head above water which will ultimately save their life. 

🏝️ Which vessels also must have one type IV PFD on board?

Any vessel over 16 feet in length must have fitted life jackets for every passenger on board, as well as at least one Type IV PFD. 

Non-motorized personal watercraft like canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards aren’t required to have a Type IV PFD, but they must have a fitted life jacket for each passenger. 

❓ What is the best time to wear a PFD?

A PFD should be worn before the boat starts up its engine. Accidents can happen at any point on the journey, and it is important to be prepared for them. 

You should make it a habit to securely fasten your PFD before setting off on the water.

Jay Regan
Jay Regan

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