Your Complete Guide to Selecting a Lifejacket or PFD

a complete guide to selecting your lifejacket or PFD

What’s the Difference Between a Lifejacket and Personal Flotation Device (PFD)?

In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into lifejackets, PFDs, and what factors to consider when selecting the right lifejacket or personal flotation device for you. 

As important as it is to enjoy your time on the water, it’s equally important to follow essential boating safety practices. One of the best ways to protect yourself while boating is to wear a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD).  

According to a joint recreational boating surveillance report by the Canadian Red Cross and Transport Canada, a properly-worn lifejacket or PFD is the most important piece of boating safety equipment in the prevention of accidental drowning. 

The report found that only 12% of boating immersion victims wore a personal flotation device and 4% of them wore it incorrectly.

So, what exactly is a personal flotation device or PFD? And how does it differ from a lifejacket or life vest? 

Lifejacket vs. PFD: What’s the Difference?

Lifejackets and PFDs are often confused with each other by both new and experienced boaters alike. Since they perform the same function of helping people stay afloat in water, many use the names PFD and lifejacket interchangeably. 

Despite their shared purpose and similar appearances, there are some key differences between the two:

  • Lifejackets are more heavily padded at the front and generally bulkier than a PFD.
  • All lifejackets approved by Transport Canada provide thermal protection, but only some PFDs offer thermal protection.
  • A PFD feels lighter and more comfortable to wear than a lifejacket.
  • A lifejacket is self-righting. It is designed to always flip your body face up when immersed in water, while a PFD will simply keep you afloat.
  • PFDs come in a wide array of colours, sizes, and styles. On the other hand, Canadian-approved lifejackets are only available in limited colours and sizes. 

What are the Different Types of Lifejackets?


Lifejackets offer the highest level of protection and flotation for boaters. To maximize visibility in the water, lifejackets approved in Canada only come in three bright colours: yellow, red, and orange. 

From the most to the least amount of protection, here are the three types of lifejackets approved in Canada: 

  • Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Lifejackets
      • When it comes to safety and performance, SOLAS lifejackets are the gold standard in lifejackets. 
      • These types of lifejackets pass the highest standards, offer the most buoyancy, and can be worn on any vessel. 
      • SOLAS lifejackets are capable of instantly self-righting. Regardless of whether a person is conscious or not, the lifejacket will turn them on their back and keep their head above water, to help them breathe.
      • These keyhole-style lifejackets are available to boaters in two sizes: for adults (who weigh over 32 kg or 70 lbs) or for children (who weigh less than 32 kg or 70 lbs). 
  • Standard Type Lifejackets 
      • In terms of protection, a standard type lifejacket follows closely behind the SOLAS lifejacket. 
      • These types of lifejackets can be worn on any vessel except for SOLAS vessels. 
      • Similar to the SOLAS lifejacket, a standard type lifejacket is also self-righting and can turn a person, conscious or not, over onto their back.
      • The standard type of lifejacket comes in the keyhole style with one size for adults (who weigh more than 40 kg or 90 lbs) and another size for children (who weigh less than 40 kg or 90 lbs). 
  • Small Vessel Lifejackets 
    • This is the third and last type of Canadian-approved lifejacket. 
    • As its name suggests, these lifejackets can be used on small vessels. 
    • The small vessel lifejacket is designed to turn your body face up, albeit more slowly than the other two types of lifejackets.
    • Canadian boaters can choose between two styles (keyhole or vest) and three sizes based on weight: over 41 kg (90lbs), less than 18 kg (40 lbs), and in between. 

What Types of PFDs Are Available?


Unlike lifejackets, approved PFDs come in a wide variety of colours, sizes, and styles. Canadian boaters who prefer to wear a PFD enjoy the luxury of selecting a personal flotation device with features specifically designed for their chosen water-related activity. 

It’s important to distinguish between an inflatable PFD and a standard PFD. Inflatable PFDs, which manually, orally, or automatically inflate when immersed in water, are prohibited for certain uses under Transport Canada’s Safe Boating Guide and are best used by competent swimmers.

Canadians are not permitted to use inflatable PFDs under the following circumstances: 

  • The person is younger than 16 years or weighs less than 36.3 kg (80 lbs). 
  • The person intends to operate or be a passenger on a personal watercraft. 
  • The person intends to participate in white-water paddling activities. 

How To Choose the Right Lifejacket or Personal Flotation Device for You

When worn correctly, a lifejacket or PFD offers protection against drowning in the event your boat capsizes, or you find yourself unexpectedly immersed in cold water. Here are a few factors to consider when selecting a lifejacket or PFD that is most suitable for you and your needs: 

  • Is it a Canadian-approved lifejacket or PFD? 
    • The lifejacket or PFD should have a label stating that it was approved by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 
  • Are you a strong swimmer? 
    • If you don’t know how to swim, it’s best to avoid inflatable PFDs altogether. In the event that inflation fails, it might be difficult for you to orally inflate the device using the backup inflation tube. 
    • Canadians who aren’t as confident in their swimming abilities would benefit more from the maximum flotation, high visibility, and self-righting design of an inherently buoyant lifejacket. 
  • Which water-related activity would you like to participate in? 
    • There are Canadian-approved PFDs for all kinds of water-related activities. 
  • How important is comfort to you? 
    • PFDs tend to be more comfortable and lightweight than lifejackets. If you expect to wear the device for a long time, a PFD might be the best fit for you. 
  • What is the weather like? 
    • While Canadian boaters may not be able to control the marine weather, they can certainly prepare for the cold by opting for a lifejacket or PFD with thermal protection. 
  • How does the lifejacket or PFD fit you? 
    • All lifejackets and PFDs should feel snug. If it rides up while you’re in the water, it’s most likely too large for you. 
  • Is the PFD or lifejacket for a child? 
    • To ensure that the lifejacket is not too big for the child, check to see if it rides up when you lift the device around their shoulders. If there is more than 7.6 cm (3”) between their shoulders and the lifejacket, they probably need a smaller size. 
    • A PFD or lifejacket with safety features such as a whistle, handle, safety strap between the legs, and more padding around the collar would be most suitable for a child. 

Van Isle Marina – Your Safety Matters to Us 

Canadian boaters are legally required to have at least one Canadian-approved lifejacket or PFD per person on board their vessel. However, it’s always a good idea to wear your lifejacket rather than just have it on hand. 

Whether you’re a new or experienced boater, one of the best ways to ensure a safe and enjoyable boating experience is to invest in a good Canadian-approved lifejacket or PFD. 

If you want help in finding the right one, the friendly and knowledgeable staff at Van Isle Marina would be happy to help you. Our full-service marina, located in Sidney, BC, offers numerous amenities including a marine store that carries a wide variety of boating equipment. Feel free to contact our friendly staff to find out more about our marina services and amenities.