What is the main advantage of Type IV PFD?

When you are out on the water, your safety is of utmost importance. Hence, this is why personal floatation devices, also known as PFDs, are important on all boats and kayaks. 

There are five different types of PFD available in the market which are designed to serve different purposes. One of them is Type IV PFD which is designed to be tossed to someone in the water to keep them afloat. With this being said, what is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD?

Type IV PFD is designed to be used by everyone including children, men, women, and elders of any size, height, and weight. This PFD is meant to be thrown to someone who fell overboard to keep them from drowning in water.


Source: https://hsseworld.com/personal-flotation-devices-pfds/

What is a Type IV PFD?

A type IV PFD is a very different PFD compared to all other PFDs used by kayakers and water sports enthusiasts. Most importantly, a Type IV PFD is not designed to be worn by boaters, unlike other PFDs. Instead, it is a throwable device and is meant to be thrown at someone drowning in water. The person in the water is then supposed to grab and hold onto the Type IV PFD in order to stay afloat and wait for rescue.

  •   A type IV PFD is also known as a throwable floatation device
  •   On commercial boats and swimming pools, a Type IV PFD is also known as a circular flotation ring
  •   Any boat that is longer than 16 feet should carry at least one Type IV PFD

A Type IV PFD should be on boats every time. However, there are certain restrictions. Firstly, it is not usually recommended to use when boating in waters where there is a lot of water disturbance like water currents, waves, or strong winds. This is because under such conditions, a Type IV PFD is likely to be tossed around and even float away from the person drowning in the water.

Kinds of Throwable PFDs (Type IV)

The Type IV PFD is available in three different kinds. You may find some manufacturers selling other kinds of Type IV PFDs as well. But we are mentioning here the ones that are approved by the U.S. Coastal Guards and are the most common ones.

Ring Buoys

Ring Buoys

Ring Buoys are the most common category of Type IV PFDs. You can see ring buoys on most boats, at docks, marinas and even in swimming pools. The modern versions of Type IV PFDs are often equipped with lightings that can be activated at night. This proves to be a really useful feature, especially during night rescues.

Horseshoe Buoys


These are generally made up of a cell plastic core that is covered with a vinyl-coated cover. These PFDs are available in a variety of colors but white, yellow, and blue are the most common ones as they are easy to spot.

Buoyant Cushions

Buoyant Cushions

Buoyant cushions are square-shaped cushion PFDs and have no “donut” holes like ring buoys. They pretty much look like a seat cushion for a couch or a sofa. The most impressive feature of buoyant cushions is that they have two straps where the onboard person can simply insert their arms so that the device won’t float away.

However, it is not necessary for the person to put their arms in the straps. They can simply adjust the PFD under their chest and float on top of it. They can also use their legs to paddle and propel them through the water.

What is the Main Advantage of a Type IV PFD?


Some people may still question the importance of Type IV PFD when everyone on the boat is wearing a life jacket or vest. However, it must be observed that a Type IV PFD has very different functionalities than other personal flotation devices. Here are some of the main advantages of a Type IV PFD

No Size Restrictions / Universal Size

The best thing about a Type IV PFD is that everyone on the boat can use it when needed, regardless of age, height, and weight. It does not have any size restrictions unlike other life vests and PFDs. The lack of sizing restriction is mainly because this PFD is designed to be a floating device to grab and hold onto rather than a wearable device.

However, note that having a Type IV PFD with you on the boat does not mean that you should ignore wearing proper life jackets. Everyone on the boat needs to wear the required standard PFD as instructed by the USCG. A Type IV PFD is meant to serve in emergency situations when someone falls in the water or in case some other incident happens in the water.

Location Indicator

Another impressive feature of a Type IV PFD is that it can be used as a location marker. People on the boat can quickly throw the Type IV PFD to the victim’s exact location or at a place where the victim was last seen. This location indicator can then be used by the operator in maneuvering through the area of the incident to initiate a rescue.

However, there is a problem of this indicator being washed by the current which happens in the open water. This situation is particularly common where there are strong waves or currents and wind. 

Nevertheless, Type IV PFDs can still prove to be useful under such circumstances. For example, it can help the boat operator to figure out the direction of the current, and if the victim was wearing a wearable PFD or lifejacket, then there is a chance that the person onboard has also swept away in the direction of the current. This will ultimately help in narrowing down the search area as opposed to randomly inspecting the surrounding area of the original location where the victim fell.

Tow and Tug

Type IV PFDs, especially the ring buoy kind, can be easily fastened to a rope even when it’s not in use. Hence, when it is thrown to a drowning person in the water, the rope goes with it. With this rope, the people on the boat can tow the victim holding onto the Type IV PFD.

It is much easier to rescue this way, as the rescuer does not have to jump off the boat, swim to the victim, and then swim back again to the boat with the victim.

This swim back and forth method becomes very infeasible in open water conditions. Plus, the rescuer unnecessarily has to put himself in a very dangerous situation.

However, know that not all Type IV PFDs come with a rope attached to them. You will have to buy the rope separately if your PFD package does not include a rope.

Guidelines Regarding the Use of Type IV PFDs

  • Having a Coast Guard Type IV PFD is one of the most important requirements of USCG for boats longer than 16 feet in length. There is no particular restriction on the kind of throwable device (such as ring buoy, horseshoe buoy, or buoyant cushion) as long as it is approved for use by the USCG.
  • Type IV PFDs must be out of their packaging and be readily accessible for use in case of an emergency. It is even better if a rope is already attached to the Type IV PFD for a quick rescue.
  • A Type IV PFD is not mandatory on a kayak or canoe regardless of its length. However, the U.S. Coast Guard typically demands the use of other types of PFDs or life jackets suitable for the activity you will be doing in the water. For instance, if you are kayaking, you may be required by the USCG to use a kayak life jacket to ensure your safety on the water.
  • The throwable PFD should be placed at a place in the boat where it is visible to every person on board. It should not be kept hidden under the boat seat, cockpit, lockers, or anywhere else where it is obscured from eyesight.
  • Some paddlers carry buoyant cushions with them on the kayak, which they usually use as a knee cushion or seat padding but this is not recommended by the USCG as the added height may affect the stability of the kayak or canoe and will ultimately ruin the buoyant cushion.

Selecting and Caring for a Type IV PFD

One of the best things about Type IV PFD is that it is low-priced and lasts for a very long time. So, do not think about saving money and using any alternative floatation device like your stadium cushion instead of a Type IV PFD.

Selecting a Type IV PFD

  • Pick a Type IV PFD that is approved by the U.S. coast guard.
  • Select a bright colored PFD as it is easier to spot in emergency situations
  • Buoyant rings are normally 16.5 pounds while the boat cushions are normally 18 pounds. An average person requires 7-12 pounds of buoyancy to stay afloat in the water.

Caring for a Type IV PFD

  •       Rinse it with fresh water after every use
  •       Allow it to dry completely. It is best to keep it in sunlight for some time.
  •       Check for any holes or other damages in the PFD

Type IV PFD and Paddle Sports

boy in a kayak

A Type IV PFD is the least efficient floatation device when it comes to paddling especially if it is your only means of safety.

However, many boaters and canoers rely on the boat cushion-styled PFD to pass the “One PFD per person” requirement. It’s true that they are very convenient and can serve the dual purpose of being used as a seat/knee cushion while paddling and also as a floatation device. But unfortunately, it is also very easy to get detached from such a floatation device when it is needed the most.

  • Wearable PFDs should be worn in a kayak/canoe, however, it is not mandatory for individuals over 13 years of age.
  • If you depend on a Type IV PFD in your kayak/canoe, make sure the rope is not tied to your kayak because it would be hard to untie it quickly in case of an emergency.
  • If you are kayaking in rough and deep waters, you will need to wear a Type III to ensure your safety.

While canoers argue for or against the usability of Type IV PFDs.  On the other hand, most kayakers find a Type IV PFD very useless since they will be wearing a Type III PFD every time they hit the open water. Because

  • A type IV PFD used as a seat cushion can raise you up above the seat too high and will negatively impact your stability.
  • Generally, kayak seats are designed to be comfortable and fit for an average person’s body size. Thus, a 3-inch thick cushion is both unnecessary and uncomfortable.
  • This throwable PFD can also get easily stuck in the kayak’s cockpit and will be hard to get in emergency cases
  • It can also get caught in the duck rigging of the kayak if you choose to store it on top of the kayak.

For any type of paddling, you will realize that a Type III PFD is more comfortable and handier in every aspect. As you will be prepared at all times if and when a mishap occurs. It also gives you the peace of mind that you can just sit back and float should anything go wrong.


What is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD? Firstly, it is a throwable device which when tied to a rope can be used to pull a victim toward the boat and out of the water. Second, there are no size restrictions on Type IV PFD, everyone from children to adults of different weights, heights, and sizes can use it. Lastly, since this floatation device is not wearable, it can be used as a location indicator to mark the initial position or the last position of the victim who fell overboard.

Moreover, investing in a good floatation device will make your whole experience in the water more enjoyable. Hopefully, these are more than enough reasons for you to invest and bring in a Type IV PFD along with your life jackets. After all, your safety in the water is of prime importance. This type of PFD is not that expensive anyway so you should not hesitate a lot before buying it.

Remember, that a Type IV PFD is not a replacement or a substitute for wearable life jackets especially for children under 13 years.

Michael Holding

Michael is an outdoor adventurer and a kayaking enthusiast who loves to share his experiences with others. He is the Chief Editor at XgearHub.

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