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Choosing the Right Life Jacket, PFD for Kayaking

As with any water sport, safety is paramount, so don’t neglect it when you are kayaking. Any time you paddle out on the water, you should wear your personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket. Learn the types and how to choose.

Why wear a life jacket / PFD when kayaking?

A personal flotation device is an essential safety item to have in your kayaking arsenal. A PFD provides buoyancy to a swimmer, paddler, boater, jet skier, etc in case of an emergency. Life jackets are a type of PFD, but they aren’t the only ones.  The Coast Guard has 5 classifications for PFDs.

No matter what type of PFD you choose, the most important thing is that you WEAR it. Don’t just throw it in the bottom of your kayak and call it good. Don’t sling it over your shoulders and expect it to work. A well-fitted PFD should be appropriately secured and worn any time you are paddling out. By their very nature accidents and emergencies are not predictable, so you should not expect a warning, or advance notice, to don your life vest. Wear it at all times and you won’t be caught off guard.

What are the different types of PFDs?

Personal flotation devices fall under 5 different Coast Guard-approved types.

  • Type I - These are the most bulky and buoyant of the classifications. Type I are worn on commercial vessels and can handle rough, remote waters where rescue is not immediate. They are designed to turn unconscious people face up. They are not typically worn by recreational boaters, kayakers, and swimmers.
  • Type II - This classification is less bulky, less buoyant, and less expensive. It is intended for calmer waters and more rapid response times for rescue. They may or may not turn victims face up. Recreational kayakers don’t usually choose them because they aren’t particularly comfortable.
  • Type III - PDFs in the type III classification are most suitable for paddlers as they are buoyant and comfortable for continuous wear. Typically these PFDs are worn in calmer waters when rescue is usually quick. They don’t typically turn swimmers face up so wearers will need to be conscious enough to put themselves in that position and tilt their head back. 
  • Type IV - Flotation devices that are meant to be thrown (rather than worn) fall into this classification. Life preserver rings and buoyancy cushions are examples of this type. Kayakers are not required to carry these devices.
  • Type V - This last classification is for special-use devices. This means flotation options that are designed for specific uses like kayaking, skiing, windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding, etc. These devices are designed to be comfortable for long-term wear and provide freedom of movement for these specific activities. Many of these designs make use of inflation or a hybrid form of buoyant material and inflation.

How do you choose a PFD for kayaking?

Of course, having to wear a PFD all the time begs the question of comfort. You will be more likely to wear one if you choose the right one - comfortable, well-fitted, and suitable for the task. Most kayakers, paddlers, and swimmers will choose a Type III or Type V flotation device. 

Fit and comfort

The sizing of PFDs differs between adults and children. Adult PFDs will be measured by chest size (not weight) while children’s sizes will be determined by weight (not chest size). 

Your life jacket or vest should fit snugly but not uncomfortably tight. To test the fit of your device. Put it on and secure all buckles and snaps. Tighten all straps. Then hook your thumbs under the shoulder straps and pull up firmly (or have a friend do it). The PFD should stay in place and not slide up around your ears.

It is best to test your PFD or life jacket in the clothes that you will be wearing while paddling or at least something similar. Also, keep in mind the activity that you will be doing and consider a PFD that allows you to sit comfortably in your kayak. Most paddlers prefer a short vest or jacket.

Features

Another consideration when choosing a PFD is the features that might be helpful. PFDs and life jackets can come with all sorts of helpful McGuyver-esque options.

  • Pockets: It is always helpful to have a pocket to hold gear, phone, keys, etc. 
  • Color & reflective tape: If you look good, you are more likely to wear it, right? Of course, a fun color is stylish but it is also a safety issue that can improve visibility.
  • Tabs: Hook on a knife, whistle, or other accessories.
  • Ventilation: PFDs can get stifling if worn for long periods of time. If you spend a lot of time on the water in hot weather, look for options with good ventilation.

Standard or inflatable PFD

Recent advancements in PFD technology have added new players to the game. Some paddlers (both kayakers and SUPers) have embraced the inflatable option.

Standard PFD: 

These are the devices you might be accustomed to - jackets and vests. They are made of naturally buoyant material and generally wrap around your body. Standard PFDs are a great choice because they are low maintenance (just keep clean, dry, and out of the sun), inherently buoyant (they don’t need to be activated), versatile (they can be used for many different water activities), and with multiple features (they have more pockets, tabs, etc). However, they are bulky and hot so they are often discouraging for active water enthusiasts who know they SHOULD wear one but don’t really WANT to wear one.

Inflatable PFD:

These newer devices have a slim design that is comfortable to wear, especially for paddlers, anglers, and rowers. They can fit like a slim vest or just around your waist. They can inflate in two ways: manually or automatically. 

  • Automatic: The automatic design is more expensive but it includes a sensor that responds to certain conditions and automatically inflates. 
  • Manual: The manual option requires you to pull a cord which activates the cartridge and inflates the device. Because getting wet/submerged is a trigger for the automatic device, a manual option is usually the best choice if doing active water sports (where you are likely to get wet and might accidentally trip the auto inflate).

Inflatable PFDs are a popular choice for water sports that prioritize movement, like paddlers and anglers. They are slim, comfortable to wear for long periods of time, provide plenty of range of motion, and are much cooler than their traditional counterparts.

However, they are usually more expensive than standard options. They require regular maintenance to ensure they work properly and the cartridge needs to be replaced after each inflation. Also, they are not inherently buoyant so you must inflate them to get the benefit of buoyancy. So, they aren’t a great option if you are injured or unconscious and not able to activate the device. They are also not recommended for children or high-impact sports, like whitewater kayaking / rafting or skiing, so they have a more limited use.


Whichever PFD or life jacket you ultimately choose, just make sure it is one that you wear! That is the only one that can save your life. Happy paddling!

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