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Personal Flotation Devices: Types, Rules and Regulations

December 10, 2021

The purpose of lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs) is to keep you afloat in the event of an incident on the water. They should be kept close by and preferably worn at all times while boating. According to the Canadian Red Cross, wearing a lifejacket could eliminate up to 90% of all drownings that occur while boating.

In order to make boating safer for all Canadians, the government now legally requires vessels to have an appropriately-sized lifejacket or PFD for each person on board. Find out which types of lifejackets and PFDs are approved in Canada and other rules and regulations governing their use in this article from the experts at Drive a Boat Canada.

Types of lifejackets and PFDs

The terms “lifejacket” and “PFD” are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to different types of devices. Here are the differences between lifejackets and PFDs.


Lifejackets are designed to turn the wearer face up in the water so that they can breathe, even if they are unconscious. Most lifejackets are keyhole style, meaning that the floating parts are concentrated around the neck and chest, with only straps in the back. They are extremely buoyant and only come in red, orange and yellow for the sake of visibility.

There are three types of Canadian-approved lifejackets:

  • Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) lifejackets are approved for all types of vessels. They are designed to meet very high standards of performance and are available in both foam and inflatable models.
  • Standard lifejackets are approved for all vessels except SOLAS vessels (which are governed by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea).
  • Small vessel lifejackets are approved for small vessels only. They are less buoyant than standard lifejackets. They are still designed to turn the wearer face up, but may do so more slowly than the types listed above. They come in both vest and keyhole styles.


Personal flotation devices are designed for recreational rather than commercial boating and are made to keep the wearer afloat. They tend to be more comfortable and less bulky than lifejackets, but provide less buoyancy and are limited in their ability to turn the wearer face up. They are available in a wide variety of styles and colours.

There are models of PFDs that are designed for specific activities, such as fishing and paddleboarding. When buying a PFD, make sure to choose a model that is appropriate for the activity you’re planning to use it for.

Inflatable vs. foam

Some flotation devices are made of foam and are inherently buoyant. Others are inflatable—they either inflate automatically when they hit the water or can be manually or orally inflated by the wearer. Many devices are equipped with multiple inflation methods in case one ends up being faulty. Most use a carbon dioxide cartridge to inflate.

Note that inflatable flotation devices are prohibited for children under 16 years of age.

Flotation devices for children

There are lifejackets and PFDs that are designed specifically for children. The appropriate size is determined based on the child’s weight. The device should be a snug but comfortable fit. If it rides up over the child’s head, it is too big.

Children’s flotation devices should have a large collar to support their head and a safety strap that goes between their legs to prevent the device from slipping off.

Note that in Canada, there are no approved flotation devices for children under 20 pounds. Transport Canada recommends waiting until children are over 20 pounds before taking them boating.

Rules and regulations

The lifejackets and PFDs used while boating in Canada must be approved by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard or Fisheries and Oceans Canada. While there is no expiry date for flotation devices, they are no longer considered approved if they are ripped, worn, repaired or altered.

Flotation devices are an integral part of the required safety equipment on a boat. There must be an appropriately-sized lifejacket or PFD for every person on board a vessel, and they must be worn or within reach at all times.

Recommendations for care and maintenance

Just like boat maintenance, it’s important to care for your lifejackets and PFDs properly in order to keep them in optimal working condition. They should be stored in a dry, well-ventilated area that is readily accessible. When wet, they should be air-dried out of direct sunlight. Do not use direct heat to dry the devices, as it could damage them.

Flotation devices should never be used as knee pads, seat cushions or fenders for the boat. Devices made of foam may be compressed by this type of use, losing their buoyancy and voiding their approval status.

Learn to boat safely with Drive a Boat Canada!

By law, flotation devices are essential lifesaving equipment to have on board while boating. There are several different types of lifejackets and PFDs, so it’s important to select devices that are appropriate for the wearer’s age and size and for the type of boating activity planned.

Learn more about boating safety with Drive a Boat Canada’s online boating course. Prospective boaters are required to take a course and pass an exam in order to obtain their boating licence, which allows them to operate a boat on Canadian waters. Get your pleasure craft operator card now so that you’ll be ready to hit the water next season!