What Is The Main Advantage Of A Type IV PFD?

All personal flotation devices are designed to achieve the same thing – help you stay afloat. It’s right there in the name. They are a must on every boat and for all on-the-water activities. But while most of you probably have a life jacket in mind when talking about PFDs, ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

All personal flotation devices are designed to achieve the same thing – help you stay afloat. It’s right there in the name.

They are a must on every boat and for all on-the-water activities. But while most of you probably have a life jacket in mind when talking about PFDs, there’s one type that doesn’t exactly fit that description – the Type IV PFD.

What makes it different, though? What is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD? Do you need one?

Here’s what you need to know! 

Key Takeaways on Type IV PFDs And Their Advantages

  • What are they; A Type IV PFD is a throwable flotation device, that cannot be worn, and is designed to be thrown to a person who is drowning or unable to swim to safety.
  • Key Benefits; The main advantages of a Type IV PFD are that they are easy to use, versatile, have no user size restrictions, can be towed with a rope, and may be used as a location marker.
  • What are the different types; There are three varieties of Type IV PDFs: Ring Buoys, Buoyant Cushions and Horseshoe Bouys.
  • Which vessel must have one; Although not mandatory on kayaks and canoes, US federal law requires a Type IV personal flotation device must be present onboard vessels longer than sixteen feet in length.
  • Rules and Regulations; By law, you are obligated to carry a US Coast Guard-approved Type IV PFD, which is located on an open deck area of the boat that is highly visible to everyone. Additionally, it must be brightly colored, be in a serviceable condition, and have enough buoyancy (at least 16.5 pounds) – so that it safely can keep an adult afloat.
  • How to use; Throw the PFD to the person in distress, tell them to grab hold of it tightly and place it under their chest. Instruct them to use their legs to propel themselves back towards the boat or shore – or if the device has a line or rope attached to it, use it to pull them to safety.
  • Maintenance; To take care of a Type IV PFD, don’t store it in direct sunlight, regularly inspect it for rips and tears, rinse if it’s been in saltwater, and let it dry before storing.

What Are The 5 Different Types Of PFDs? 

Type III PFDs at boating station

You can probably guess by the title that there are five different types of PFD. What you may not know, though, is that they are all designed to serve distinct purposes.

The US Coast Guard – which is generally in charge of certifying and regulating PFDs – splits up PFDs into groups based on the functionality and floatation capabilities, starting with the five different types:


  • Type I PDFs– Off-shore Life Jackets


  • Type II PDFs – Near-shore Buoyant Vests


  • Type III PDFs – Flotation Aids


  • Type IV PDFs – Throwable Devices 

Type V PDF

  • Type V PDFs – Special Use Devices

That’s not the only classification, though. 

The USCG also separates these personal flotation devices into two main categories:

  • Wearable Flotation Devices – Types I, II, III, and V, also known as life jackets, that are intended to be worn 
  • Throwable Flotation Devices – Type IV, intended to be thrown to the person in the water

That tells you a lot about how different Type IV PFDs are from the rest of the bunch, huh?

Types of Personal Flotation Device - A

What Are The Differences Between The Five Types Of Personal Flotation devices?

It mostly comes down to how and where they are used – and their buoyancy ratings, of course. 

  • A Type I PFD is an abandon-ship life jacket used off-shore or when water is rough, and help is far away. 
  • Type II PFDs are used for general boating and calmer excursions near the shore when there’s a good chance of quick rescue.
  • Type III PFDs are the go-to choice for recreational boating and on-the-water sports since they allow for movement – but they’re not enough for extended survival.
  • And Type V PFDs are special-use flotation devices optimized for specific activities – like swift water rescue or , for example – and usually require proper training before use.

What about Type IV, you ask?

Well, we’ve got the rest of this article to go over the ins and outs of throwable flotation devices – so, be patient. We’ll get to it in a moment. 

But first, here’s a quick comparison of different types of PFDs, their uses, and buoyancy ratings.



Minimum Buoyancy Rating



Type I PFD

Off-shore life jackets for all waters, used on commercial vessels

22 pounds

(100 Newton)

11 pounds

(50 Newton)


Near-shore life vests for general boating activities in calm waters

15.5 pounds

(70 Newton)

11 pounds

(50 Newton)


Flotation aids for general boating and specialized activities

15.5 pounds

(70 Newton)

11 pounds

(50 Newton)


Throwable flotation devices, designed to be thrown in the water

Ring Buoy

16.5 pounds

(75 Newton)

Buoyant Cushion

18 pounds

(80 Newton)

Type V PFD

Special-use devices, designed for specific activities and conditions

15.5 – 22 pounds

(70 – 100 Newton)

11 – 15.5 pounds

(50 – 70 Newton)

A Closer Look: What Is A Type IV PFD? 

Orange buoy on railing by the sea

Let’s start with what a Type IV PFD is NOT – a life jacket.

Unlike the Type III PFD that’s made to be worn by paddlers and other water sports enthusiasts – often going under the name “life jacket” – this type of PFD can’t be worn at all.

That’s right; this type of personal flotation device isn’t designed to be worn by boaters.

What is a Type IV PFD, then?

It’s the fourth level of the USCG’s classification of PFDs – a throwable floatation device.

The primary purpose of a Type IV PFD is to be thrown, from the shore or boat, to a person in the water that’s drowning or is unable to swim to safety – the person in distress then grasps and holds onto the flotation device. 

They provide life-saving extra buoyancy to adults, children – or even pets – during emergency situations, helping to ensure the victim’s head remains above water and they stay afloat until help arrives.  

Type IV devices are typically made of inherently buoyant materials that do not absorb water, such as polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, and often fitted with a tow-line to allow the victim to be pulled or towed to safety. 

What Are The Different Varieties Of Type IV PFDs?

To make matters a bit more confusing, there’s more than one type of this throwable flotation device. 

The most common one would be a ring-type PFD – think those orange ones you’d see at local marinas or on larger boats. But they’re also available in other shapes, like horseshoe-shaped and square ones. 

With that said, the three most common – and USCG-approved – kinds of Type IV PFDs are:

Ring Buoys

Ring Buoys

Chances are you’ve seen one of these donut-shaped floatation devices many times before; they’re often found around lakes, on large ships, harbors and even in swimming pools They’re the most common Type IV device, and go by many names; flotation rings, life buoys, life rings, ring buoys – just to name a few. They’re designed for the user to grab onto the side or pull their head and arms through it. Modern-day versions usually feature integrated lights that can improve visibility during night rescues

Buoyant Cushions

Buoyant Cushions

These square-shaped Type IV PFDs resemble your average seat cushion, hence the name. These cushion-like PFDs boast a large surface area and a set of straps to put your arms in when using the device. Even without using the straps, buoyant cushions can still be placed under the chest, allowing the person to float on top of them. Be sure not to use it as an actual cushion, though; sitting on it could degrade the foam. 

Horseshoe Buoys

Horseshoe Buoys

This kind of Type IV flotation device is shaped like a horseshoe – but I’m sure you could guess that by the name. These are usually made from a closed-cell plastic core paired with a vinyl-coated cover. Horseshoe buoys are available in various colors, but white, yellow, red, and blue seem to be the most common. 

Rules & Regulations Regarding The Use Of Type IV PFDs 

Life buoy on rail sea background

Here are a few other rules you’ll need to follow:

  • The law doesn’t specify the kind of throwable (Type IV) PFD you need to carry – it can be a buoyant cushion, a ring buoy, or a horseshoe buoy – but you’ll need to make sure that it’s US Coast Guard-approved.
  • It needs to be readily accessible and kept on an open deck area, visible to everyone.
  • Type IV PFDs must be brightly colored to ensure high visibility in emergencies; international distress orange is the recommended color choice.
  • A Type IV PFD must have a buoyancy rating of at least 16.5 pounds; that should be enough to keep an average adult’s head above water. 
  • A Type IV PFD should never be considered or used as a replacement for a life jacket. I repeat, always wear a life jacket!
  • Do not use buoyant cushions as a seat cushion; this could damage your PFD and negatively impact its buoyancy.
  • You need to have a grab line attached to the PFD and secured at four different points to make it easier for the person in the water to grab it. The length of the grab-line should be at least four times the PFD’s diameter.
  • The PFD is required to be in serviceable condition, meaning no rips, tears, or signs of mildew and waterlogging. 
Life Ring Inspection

Which Vessels Must Have One Type IV Throwable PFD On Board?

The first thing I want you to know when it comes to the rules and regulations regarding Type IV PFDs is this:

Not all personal watercraft are required to carry a Type IV PFD onboard. For instance, it’s not mandatory on kayaks and canoes. 

Now, you might be wondering, what vessels must have them on board, then?

Carrying a Type IV PFD is part of the US Coast Guard’s requirements for boats longer than 16 feet. If your vessel measures 16 feet – or more – in length, you will need to add at least one PFD to your boating equipment.

What if your kayak is longer than 16 feet, though?

In most states, non-motorized watercraft – including kayaks and canoes – are still not required to keep a Type IV PFD on board.

Think about it: 

Onboard space is limited enough as is; adding a Type IV PFD wouldn’t make much sense. Even more so, there’s the risk of it getting stuck in the kayak’s cockpit or deck rigging – which would render it useless in the event of a capsize. 

A Type III PFD paired with a throw bag makes for a more kayak-friendly alternative.

What Is The Main Advantage Of A Type IV PFD? 

Drowning Man with Life Ring

Okay, now that I’ve covered everything you need to know about throwable flotation devices, I’d say it’s time we get back to the original question, which would be:

What are the main advantages of a Type IV PFD?

I know that some of you might be questioning their usefulness, given that you’ll be wearing a life jacket, anyway. And I get that.

But – there’s always a “but” – I’d like you to remember that we’re talking about two very different types of personal flotation devices here. Having one doesn’t automatically exclude the other.

And to prove my point, I’ll go over some of the most important advantages of a Type IV PFD below. 

Versatile & Easy To Use

First and foremost, Type IV throwable PFDs are generally extremely easy to use – which should count as an advantage in and of itself. Think about it:

Emergencies require fast actions. You – and the person in the water – should both be able to react as fast as possible to ensure everything goes well and that everyone remains safe.

And unlike other types of PFDs that require you to put them on and fit them properly, a Type IV PFD can quickly be thrown to someone in the water. All they need to do is grab hold of the flotation device; it’s that easy.

Plus, there’s the element of versatility to a Type IV PFD. 

After all this type of PFD can be thrown, meaning it can be used for various applications and can save a person’s life – whether they’re wearing a life jacket or not. Moreover, it can be used in swimming pools, rivers, and lakes, harbors – you name it. 

Universal Size

Think of an average life jacket; there’s always the additional requirement of ensuring the correct size and fit. Otherwise, the PFD won’t be able to provide adequate buoyancy and keep a person afloat.

That’s never an issue with a Type IV PFD, though.

Since it’s designed to be thrown in the water for the person to grab onto and hold, rather than to be worn by them, there’s no need to worry about sizing. There aren’t any size restrictions; the fit is universal.

Anyone can use a throwable PFD, regardless of age, weight, shape, or size.  

I’m not saying you can ditch your trusty life jacket and put all your faith into a Type IV PFD, though.

Your life jacket should be your first line of defense. As for the Type IV PFDs, they should be a backup measure – an in-case-of-emergency piece of boating equipment – used to assist in the rescue. 

Can Be Towed

It’s a good idea to keep a rope attached to your Type IV PFD at all times – even when it’s not in use. That way, when you throw it to the person that fell overboard, the rope goes with the PFD, allowing you to pull them closer to the boat.

It’s a much safer approach to rescue than having someone else jump into the water, potentially risking their own life, too. You’re avoiding the whole swim back and forth method, which can be tiring – and not to mention dangerous.

It’s worth noting that not all throwable PFDs have a rope attached to them by default. It might be something you’ll have to purchase separately.

Location Marker

Another advantage of a throwable flotation device is that you can use it as a location indicator – as in, to mark the exact spot where the person went overboard – this can make all the difference in a rescue situation.

As you can imagine, pinpointing the location where someone was last seen can be pretty tricky on a moving boat. A Type IV PFD can be incredibly helpful under such circumstances and will, at the very least, help the boat operator or search & rescue teams narrow it down to the general area of where to start the search.

Sure, it might get swept away in strong water currents – especially in open waters. Then again, that could tell you where the victim might’ve been carried by those same currents, too. 

How To Use A Type IV PFD 

Hands hold a life buoy

We’ve already established that unlike other PFD, a Type IV is not meant to be worn while boating. Instead, it is designed to be thrown to the person that has gone overboard or is struggling to swim.

This type of PFD is reserved for overboard situations only; that would be the number one thing you need to remember here. Of course, there’s more to it – but the good news is that throwable flotation devices are simple to use:

  • Throw the PFD to the person that went overboard and is struggling to swim.
  • Say to the person in distress; 1) Grab the device 2) Lock their hand together 3) Place it under their chest
  • Once the person has a secure grip on the PFD, instruct them to use their legs to propel themselves towards the boat.
  • If the throwable device has a line or rope attached to it, use it to help the person by pulling them closer; it makes rescue faster.
  • If it’s a buoyant cushion with side straps, the person in the water should try to slip their arms through the straps to ensure a better grip and balance.
Search & Rescue: How to Properly Throw a Ring Buoy

See, it’s that simple.

Granted, things probably won’t go as smoothly as one-two-three in an emergency, but it’s good to know that there’s nothing overly complicated about using a Type IV PFD.

Throw it in the water immediately – and go from there.

There are a few things I’d like to add; these mostly count as advice and safety precautions:

  • DO use a Type IV PFD in calm waters.
  • DO use it in areas with heavy boat traffic. 
  • DON’T use a throwable flotation device on unconscious or exhausted individuals that might not be able to grab onto it. 

Maintenance Tips: How To Care For A Type IV PFD

Lifebuoy in the sea

The good thing about throwable PFDs is that they’re generally inexpensive and tend to last a very long time – with a bit of maintenance, that is. And that brings me to my next point:

How do you care for a Type IV PFD?

Caring for a Type IV PFD is simple, but there are a few rules you’ll have to follow to keep it in top shape year in and year out.

Here are the four crucial tips for Type IV PFD care and maintenance:

  • Don’t store it in direct sunlight. Prolonged exposure to UV rays – and high temperatures – could cause your Type IV PFD to deteriorate faster.
  • Inspect the PFD for rips, holes, and tears regularly and replace it as needed. The outer shell could develop holes and tears with time, and the inner part, usually made of polyurethane foam, might shrink and deform as a result. Identify the issues in time and replace your Type IV PFD.
  • If it’s been in saltwater, be sure to rinse it thoroughly. You’d do that for your kayak or wetsuit – well, hopefully – so, why should the PFD get different treatment?
  • Allow it to dry before storing it. You want to prevent water-logging, as it could not only lead to discoloration and degradation but the build-up of mildew and odor, too.

What Is The Main Advantage Of A Type IV PFD: Summary

Type IV PFDs are designed to be tossed or thrown to someone in need. They are cheap, easy to use and do not require a person to wear them like they would with a life vest, but instead can be used by anyone who finds themselves overboard; regardless of sex, age, height, or weight.- they can even be used by dogs

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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