What is the Main Advantage of a Type IV PFD? (An Inside Look)

Personal flotation devices (PFD) play an essential role in watersport and watercraft safety. There are many different kinds of PFD’s available, and each has unique advantages. Most people think of life jackets when it comes to safety, but in this article, we will focus on the Type IV PFD.  So, what is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD?

It’s always advised to wear a life jacket when you are enjoying a day on the water, but other flotation devices can also be used. The Type IV PFD can be used by anyone, regardless of height or weight. It is not designed to be worn but rather thrown to someone in need, someone in the water in danger of drowning.

All of the different kinds of PFD’s can get really confusing.  This post aims to explain the main advantage of the Type IV PFD and the different types available. Read on to learn more about the Type IV PFD and how to use one.

What is a Type IV PFD?

A Type IV PFD is different from other flotation devices. The main difference is that a Type IV is not designed to be worn, like a life jacket. Instead, you throw it to a person in need.

If someone falls overboard and needs help, anyone can throw a Type IV PFD to them so they can float.  The person in the water grabs ahold of the PFD while they are in the water. It can also be used to supplement buoyancy to float while waiting to be rescued.

Boats greater than 16 feet in length are required to have a Coast Guard-approved Type IV throwable device.  A Type IV PFD is not required for kayaks or canoes, no matter the length.[1]

The main disadvantage of a Type IV PFD is that it is not for an unconscious or exhausted person.

What is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD?

Type IV PFD infographicPin

Even if everyone on board is wearing a life jacket, a Type IV PFD is a different kind of flotation device with specific advantages. Let’s talk about the advantages of a Type IV PFD next.

Towable / Pullable

Many Type IV PFD’s, like ring buoys, have a spot where you can attach a rope, even when it is stored on the boat and not in use. When you throw the PFD to someone in the water, the rope goes with it. Just remember to hold onto the rope when tossing the PFD.

The attached rope comes in very handy. You can pull on the rope and bring the person who is holding onto the PFD closer to the boat. This is very helpful when it comes to rescuing someone who went overboard.

The ability to pull on the rope (and victim) can eliminate the need for rescuers to jump in the water, swim to the victim, and swim back to the rescue vessel with the victim. The process of rescuing someone from the water is exhausting for a rescuer, so the ability to pull the victim through the water can be a huge benefit.

It can be used to mark a location

One benefit of a Type IV PFD is that it can mark the location where a person went overboard.  When someone ends up in the water, a person on the boat can throw the PFD to the location where the person went in the water or the general area.

The PFD can be used to mark the spot where the person went overboard or at least the last known area where the person went in the water. Marking the location is a good starting point for the boat operator or rescue team to look for the victim.

Although the PFD is a good starting point to mark the location where the passenger went in the water, waves or strong currents can quickly move the PFD around. Even so, it can still be helpful even if turbulent water carries the PFD. The boat operator can get a sense of the current to know which direction to look for the man (or woman) overboard. 

Marking the spot where are person went overboard can be very helpful in the rescue attempt.

Universal size

Since a Type IV, PFD is designed to grab onto and hold, anyone can use it, unlike a life jacket that needs to correctly fit each individual. This means the PFD can be used by people of all shapes and sizes, which is a considerable advantage when saving someone from drowning.

Don’t put all of your faith into one flotation device, though. The Type IV is an “in case of emergency” piece of equipment and is not a substitute for a properly fitting life jacket. Everyone needs to wear a life jacket, and in the event, someone does end up in the water, a Type IV device can be used to assist in the rescue.

Everyone on board should have a life jacket that fits them correctly. That means kids, adults, infants, etc. If your dog is on board, you might want to consider a life vest for your pooch as well.  A life vest is the first line of defense to keep someone afloat when they end up in the water unexpectedly.  A Type IV is a backup measure to assist in the rescue.


One of the main benefits of a Type IV PFD is that it can be thrown to the person in need. Unlike a life vest that needs to fit a person correctly, you can throw a Type IV to someone, and they can float on it.

The Type IV can be used in various applications, whether a person is wearing a life jacket or not, which makes it a versatile device and can be used by various people. You can even use a Type IV in other settings, like swimming pools or the beach.

Different kinds of Type IV devices

Ring Buoys

Ring buoys are probably the most common variety of Type IV PFD and are shaped like a doughnut.  You have probably seen these many times. You will find these on many watercraft, swimming pools, and docks. The latest versions often come equipped with lights that can be activated to help with night rescues.

Jim-Buoy GO-20 G-Series Life Ring with Web Straps - 20", Orange
  • G-style life ring with webbing straps; Rope color may vary
  • Solid closed-cell foam construction, soft and resilient to the touch
  • Unaffected by weather and temperature extremes
  • Double sunlight inhibitor protects the life ring

Buoyant cushion

These cushions are not shaped like a doughnut but are square-shaped and look like a seat cushion that you might sit on. Think of a cushion from a couch or chair, but they are not used as such.

The nice thing about a buoyant cushion is that there is a fair amount of surface area to plop your body on so you can just float.  Or, by putting the flotation device under your chest, you have your arms and legs free to paddle your way through the water. 

If swimming is not an option, one unique feature of buoyant cushions is that they have straps that are attached. The straps are excellent for a person in the water to put their arms through so they don’t lose hold of the cushion. That is one less thing to worry about when you require rescue.

Bradley Type IV Boat Cushion USCG Approved Throwable Flotation Device; Coast Guard Approved Throw Preserver with Foam Cushion; throwable Boat Cushion Safety Device (red Color)
  • USCG Approved Safety: The Bradley Type IV Boat Cushion is a trusted throwable type IV...
  • Dual-Purpose Design: Serve as comfortable onboard seating and a reliable emergency...
  • Durability: Crafted from robust nylon outer and closed-cell PU inner. At approx 16...
  • Extensive testing ensures adherence to strict USCG criteria, delivering unmatched...
  • For All Boaters: From experienced sailors to recreational enthusiasts, this is an...

Horseshoe Buoys

Yep, you guessed it; this kind of Type IV PFD is shaped like a horseshoe. These are made from a closed-cell plastic core with a vinyl-coated nylon cover. Most horseshoe buoys are bright yellow, so they stand out, but are available in other colors.

Rules for using a Type IV PFD

  • The US Coast Guard requires that all boats longer than 16 feet carry a Type IV (throwable) PFD onboard. The exact kind is not specified (ring buoy, buoyant cushion, horseshoe buoy), but you need to have one that is a USCG approved if your boat is over 16 feet long.
  • Kayaks and canoes are not required to carry a Type IV no matter how long they are. But you probably need a life jacket, and you should check the local regulations about that. Some folks will take a buoyant cushion with them in a kayak to use as a pad to sit on.  This is not recommended because sitting on a buoyant cushion can diminish the integrity of the product.  There isn’t a lot of room on a kayak, to begin with, so adding a buoyant cushion to the mix takes up valuable storage space, whereas a life jacket is easy to wear.
  • A Type IV PFD needs to be ready to use.  Don’t keep it in the original packaging (hoping to return it if you don’t use it).  When you need it most, it needs to ready.
  • The throwable device needs to be visible and accessible, so it is easy to throw in an emergency. Don’t keep the device tucked under the bow of your boat or buried beneath a seat. That defeats the purpose. You never know when you will need to throw a flotation device at someone, so it needs to be ready to go.

Paddling with a Type IV PFD

We mentioned earlier that some Type IV PFD’s have straps or attachments on them, making it easier to hang onto the device. This doesn’t mean you should strap it on your front or back like a backpack when you are paddling a kayak.

It’s okay to carry a throwable device on your kayak if you have room for it, but it’s not meant to be a replacement for a life vest.  Some people will keep a throwable device as a seat cushion on a kayak, which is not a great idea because it takes up space and is not easy to get to if you need to use it. 

Also, if you have a Type IV PFD on your kayak or canoe, don’t tie it to the side of your boat. If you need to deploy the device, you will have to untie it first, defeating the purpose.

If it’s appropriate to have a throwable device on your kayak, then by all means, do so.

How to choose a Type IV PFD

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are looking for a throwable device.

  • Choose a device that is United States Coast Guard approved
  • Pick a bright color, which is easy to see in turbulent water
  • Buy a device that will be easy to deploy if you need it, not just the cheapest one you can find
  • Don’t choose one just because it’s “pretty”

Remember you are buying a flotation device, and someone’s life may depend on the unit you purchase.

Caring for a Type IV PFD

Some throwable devices can get expensive, so you want to make sure it lasts a long time.  Here are a few simple steps you can take to help extend your Type IV PFD life.

  • Check for holes or tears that will impact the integrity and usability of the device
  • Clean it with fresh water and dry it off after using it and before you store it away
  • Don’t store it in direct sunlight

Conclusion – What is the main advantage of a Type IV PFD?

Main Advantage of a Throwable PFD - White Ring BuoyPin

We covered a lot in this article, and hopefully, you have a better understanding of Type IV PFD’s. The main advantage is they are a throwable flotation device that can be used in a “man overboard” situation. 

It is critical to be prepared for a situation when someone ends up in the water unexpectedly. A few seconds can make all the difference in the world. Having a throwable flotation device can save somebody’s life.

Remember that a Type IV PFD is not a replacement for a life jacket, but it can be an excellent supplement for someone who accidentally ends up in the water.

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.