What Are The Advantages Of A Type IV PFD?


When talking about personal flotation devices, most people tend to think of life jackets or life vests. However, there are several other kinds of personal flotation devices available, one of which is the Type 4 PFD. Although some people may know of some of the advantages of such PFDs, others may ask what is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD and if they really need one. Below we discuss some of these advantages, along with some Coast Guard rules regarding the use of such PFDs. But first, what exactly is a Type IV PFD?

What Is a Type IV PFD?

A Type IV PFD is very different from all the other types of PFDs being used by boaters and water sports enthusiasts. First of all, a Type IV PFD is not designed to be worn by an individual, unlike life jackets. Instead, it is a throwable device that is intended to be thrown at the person in the water. The person in the water will then grab and hold onto the Type IV PFD to stay while waiting for rescue.

That said, there are certain restrictions as to the use of a Type IV PFD. For one, it is not generally recommended for use when boating in waters where there is a lot of water disturbance like waves and water currents or strong winds. This is because such elements, especially the waves, will cause the Type IV PFD to be tossed around in the water and even float away from the person in the water.

Also, Type IV PFDs are not to be thrown to unconscious individuals and non-swimmers in the water. Given their situation, they wouldn’t be able to grab the PFD, thus rendering it useless. However, it is prudent to err on the side of safety and have one on board along with other life jackets and life vests. The Coast Guard actually requires large ships and boats to carry one whenever they sail. Although Coast Guard requirements for boats under 16 feet do not state that a Type IV PFD is necessary, it is still recommended that such boats should carry as it can be used to help individuals who have gone overboard, even if they are wearing life jackets and life vests.

Kinds of a Type IV PFD

Type IV PFDs are available in three kinds. Some manufacturers may offer or sell other kinds of Type IV PFDs; however, the three below are the most common ones and are the ones approved for use by the Coast Guard.

  • Ring Buoys. Ring buoys are the most common kind of Type IV PFD available and can be seen in almost all boats. Sometimes, they can also be seen along docks or marinas or even in swimming pools. The modern versions of Type IV PFDs are often equipped with lights that can be activated, a feature that is very helpful when it comes to night rescues.
  • Buoyant Cushions. Unlike ring buoys, buoyant cushions are square-shaped and have no ‘donut’ holes. They pretty much look like a seat cushion for a sofa or a couch. A standout feature of buoyant cushions is that they have two straps where the person in the water can insert his or her arms so the PFD doesn’t float away. However, the person doesn’t need to insert their arms into the straps. They can simply place the PFD under their chest and float on top of it. They can also use their legs to paddle and propel themselves through the water.
  • Horseshoe Buoys. As the name suggests, these Type IV PFDs are shaped pretty much like a horseshoe. These are generally made with a cell plastic core which is covered with a vinyl-coated cover. Like buoyant cushions, horseshoe buoys are also available in a variety of colors, though it appears that white and yellow are the most common.

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Advantages of a Type IV PFD


Some may question the need for a Type IV PFD when everyone else in the boat is wearing a life jacket or life vest. However, it must be noted that a Type IV PFD is very different from other types of personal flotation devices. Below are some of the advantages of a Type IV PFD.

No Size Restrictions

One of the main advantages of a Type IV PFD is that it doesn’t have any size restrictions unlike life jackets and other types of PFDs. That said, everyone regardless of age, height, and weight will be able to use Type IV PFDs in times of need. This also means that the PFD doesn’t have any specialized design, unlike women’s life jackets which are design to accommodate a female’s body shape. The lack of sizing restrictions is mainly because Type IV PFDs are not meant to be worn, but rather serve as a floating device that users grab hold of or plop onto when they use it.

However, it should be noted that having a Type IV PFD (which can be used by anybody) on your boat does not mean that you can ignore having properly fitting life jackets. Even if you have several Type IV PFDs on your boat, you still need to have life jackets for all your passengers. This means have life jackets for kids and adults, and even life jackets for infants if you happen to be traveling with one. And if you have a dog on board, you may want to bring along a dedicated dog life jacket as well. Remember, Type IV PFDs should only be used as a back up to wearable PFDs and life jackets.

Location Marker

Another advantage of a Type IV PFD is that it can also be used as a location marker. People on the boat can immediately deploy the Type IV PFD following a ‘Man Overboard’ situation by throwing them in the exact location or the last known position where the victim fell or was last seen. This marker can then be used to assist the boat operator when circling and returning to the area of the incident to initiate a rescue.

There is the issue of Type IV PFDs being washed away by the current though, which can happen out in the open waters. This is especially true if there are strong currents or waves and wind present. However, Type IV PFDs can still prove to be useful during such situations. For instance, it can help the boat operator to determine the direction of the current, and if the victim was wearing a life jacket or other wearable PFDs then there is a possibility that he or she was also washed away in the direction of the current. This will help to at least narrow down the search area as opposed to randomly checking the areas surrounding the original location where the person fell.


Most Type IV PFDs, especially the ring buoy types, can be attached to a rope even when it is not in use. Thus, when it is thrown to the person on the water, the rope goes with it. With the rope, the people on the boat can tow the victim holding onto the Type IV PFD. This makes rescue easier, and it also eliminates the need for rescuers to jump into the water, swims towards the victim, and swim back to the boat with the victim which can be exhausting and strenuous for the rescuer (in which case both the victim and the rescuer are placed in a perilous situation).

Keep in mind though that not all Type IV PFDs have ropes or throw lines attached to them. The lines are often bought as a separate item, though some buoy manufacturers sell bought buoys and throw lines as a package.

Rules Regarding the Use of Type IV PFDs

  • Carrying a Coast Guard approved Type IV PFD is part of the Coast Guard requirements for boats longer than 16 feet in length. There is no specific requirement as to the kind of throwable device (e.g. ring buoy, horseshoe, or buoyant cushion) for as long as it is approved for use by the Coast Guard.
  • A Type IV PFD is not required on kayaks or canoes regardless of their length. However, Coast Guards may still require the use of other types of life jackets or PFDs suited to the said activity (kayak life jackets to be more specific) to ensure the safety of the paddler. Some paddlers carry buoyant cushions though, which they often use as a seat padding or knee cushion, but this isn’t recommended as the added height may affect the stability of the kayak or canoe and ruin the buoyant cushion.
  • Buoyant cushions are not to be used as a seat cushion since this will damage the said device and negatively impact its buoyancy.
  • Type IV PFDs should be out of their original packaging and readily available for use when needed.
  • The throwable device should be displayed in an area that makes it visible to everyone in the boat. It should not be kept under the boat seat, lockers, cockpit, or anywhere else where it is obscured from view.

Globo Surf Overview

So, what is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD? There are actually several of them. For one, they are throwable devices which when tied to a throw line can be used to pull the victim towards the boat and out of the water. Second, there are no size restrictions which means that a standard Type 4 PFD can be used by both children and adults. Lastly, since they are not worn, they can be used as a marker to mark the last known position of the person who fell overboard. Hopefully, these are more than enough reasons for you to consider bringing a Type IV PFD on your boat even though you already have life jackets for boating on board.

More Life Jacket Safety Guides:


  1. PFD Selection, Use, Wear, and Care
  2. Life Jacket Type