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PFDs: How to Choose

PFDs

A personal flotation device—also known as a PFD, life jacket or life vest—gives you more buoyancy to help stay afloat. The most important advice about PFDs is simply this: Be sure to wear one.

Most states require boaters to have a PFD that is U.S. Coast Guard approved, the proper size for the wearer, in good condition and readily accessible. Laws vary by state, but the USCG recommends anyone operating a human-powered watercraft wear a PFD while in a vessel.

Shop REI's selection of PFDs.

PFD Sizing and Fitting

PFD Sizing and Fitting

PFDs for Adults

Sizing: For adults, your chest size—not your weight—will determine what size is right. (For children, their weight will determine the size.) Sizes vary by PFD brand and model, so check the REI.com product page to find the right size for you.

A PFD should be snug and fit like a glove, yet allow you to move freely and not chafe while paddling and playing. To get the best feel and fit, wear your paddling clothes while paddling when trying on a PFD.

Women should consider women-specific PFDs versus unisex styles. Women's PFDs typically offer a better fit thanks to princess seams, contoured cups for larger bust lines and styles made for longer torsos.

Each PFD will have a different design and foam placement to fit the contours of the body. Foam placement has more to do with comfort than safety. The more straps a PFD has, the more adjustments can be made to customize its fit.

Fitting: Once you've selected a size, follow these fitting steps.

  • Loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip it up.
  • Start at the waist and tighten all the straps. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last. It should feel snug but not uncomfortable.
  • Next, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulders. If it moves up past your nose or head, tighten the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large.
  • Check your movements to make sure it is comfortable and will not chafe you while paddling. Do this in your own kayak or canoe at home, or in a floor model if at an REI store. This will stimulate how it feels while sitting.
  • If possible, test your PFD in a pool or shallow water to see how it works. It should not ride up or slip over your chin while floating.

PFDs for Children

There are important fit differences between an adult PFD and a child's PFD. For details, see the REI Expert Advice article, PFDs for Children: How to Choose.

PFDs for Dogs

PFDs for Dogs

While many dogs are good swimmers, others lack confidence in the water or they may tire or panic away from shore. Dog PFDs are not USCG certified, but they can still be a lifesaver and help your pet to enjoy the water.

Considerations:

  • It should fit snugly so your dog cannot twist, step or swim out of it.
  • A low-profile style will have less potential of catching a snag.
  • Look for one with easy-release buckles.
  • A handle for lifting your pooch out of the water is also helpful.

Shop REI's selection of dog PFDs.

Types of PFDs

There are 5 categories of PFDs, but most paddlers should use a Type III or V USCG-approved PFD.

Type I: Offshore Life Jackets. These are geared for rough or remote waters where rescue may take a while. Though bulky, they have the most buoyancy, a bright color and can turn most unconscious people face up in the water.

Type II: Near-shore Vests. Calm inland waters, where a fast rescue is likely, is the intent of these PFDs. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position but not all of them. They are bulky, but less so than Type I.

Type III: Flotation Aids. These are suitable for most padders where there is a chance for a quick rescue. They offer freedom of movement and the most comfort for continuous wear. Type IIIs are designed so wearers can put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water.

Type IV: Throwable Devices. Cushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and provide backup to a PFD. They are not for nonswimmers, rough waters or the unconscious. The USCG does not require these for canoes or kayaks.

Type V: Special-use Devices. These are specialized PFDs for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be used for the activity specified on the label. Varieties include kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests and deck suits.

Buoyancy

Buoyancy is the force (in pounds) required to keep a person's head and chin afloat above water. Most adults need just an extra 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to stay afloat. Additionally, your weight, body fat, lung size, clothing and whether the water is rough or calm are all factors to staying on top of the water. In general, the more physically fit you are, the more lift you need.

To check buoyancy of your current PFD, tilt your head back and relax your body. Your chin should be above water and your breathing should be easy. If your mouth is not above the water, you need a PFD with more buoyancy. It should not ride up or go over your head. However, if your stomach is larger than your chest, ride-up may occur. Remember, it will be different bouncing around in swift water than it will be in calm waters.

The USCG requires the following minimum buoyancy:

Type of PFD Min. Adult Buoyancy (lbs.)
Type I 22.0
Type II 15.5
Type III 15.5
Type IV
Ring Buoys & Cushions
16.5 & 18.0
Type V
Hybrids & Special Use
7.5 (deflated) - 22.0 (fully inflated) & 15.5-22.0

What to Compare

Styling

Contoured foam panels have largely replaced the bulky foam ribs of older PFDs. These PFDs can be pullover, side-entry or have a zipper up the front. They function the same, so your choice depends on personal preference.

To allow good freedom of movement, look for a deep neck, large armholes and narrow shoulder straps. Most PFDs are waist length or low-profile, designed for kayakers sitting with a high seat back, but they are comfortable for other paddling sports, too.

Flotation Materials

There are several types of PFD flotation materials. Base your choice on cost, environmental consciousness and performance.

Gaia™: This foam is based on an organic nitrile compound. It is relatively eco-friendly thanks to being PVC- and halogen-free, plus it does not include CFCs. It is softer than PVC foam and effectively resists cold and heat. Gaia is easy to clean and resists most chemicals, petroleum products and humidity. Its low apparent density reduces weight without performance loss.

Kapok: This comes from the fluffy fiber surrounding the seeds of the kapok tree (also known as a ceiba tree). Kapok is resilient, very light and buoyant, but it is highly flammable. It resists water and is more durable than foam. Kapok fibers do not leach out over time or lose buoyancy. When retiring a kapok vest, the kapok fiber can often be recycled in your compost.

PVC: Polyvinyl-chloride foam is inexpensive, durable and widely used in PFDs. It is strong, and it is resistant to oil, chemicals, flames, sunlight and weathering. Because it contains both chlorine and oil, it is not readily recyclable.

Inflatable PFDs

Inflatable PFD

This newer subcategory of PFDs includes vests and waist packs. Both are suitable for most paddlers—they are considered Type III PFDs—but waist packs are especially popular with stand-up paddleboarders (SUP). When uninflated (such as the vest shown at right), an inflatable PFD offers a slim profile for an unencumbered paddling stroke.

Inflatable PFDs provide on-demand inflation that uses pressurized CO2 gas. You activate the CO2 cartridge by a pull cord, plus most models have a breathing tube for additional inflation.

Shop REI's selection of inflatable PFDs.

Features

Consider these features when deciding which PFD is right for you.

Tabs: Tabs let you attach a knife, whistle, strobes or other accessories. Look at the number of tabs and their location on the front and back on the PFD.

Pockets: Consider size and placement. Are there pockets to warm your hands or have easy access to small items? Do you want a pocket for a hydration unit?

Color: A bright color improves visibility.

Reflective tape: This adds visibility in low-light conditions.

Ventilation: Where will you be paddling? Do you need a little or a lot?

Fishing features: Some PFDs have multiple tool hangers, loops for a rod and a drop-down pocket table for working with lures and flies.

PFD Care

Before using:

  • Do not alter a PFD to make it fit. Get one that fits. An altered life jacket is not USCG approved.
  • Check your PFD for rips, tears and holes. Check that seams, straps and hardware are in good shape. Yank on the straps to make sure they are secure.
  • Check that there is no waterlogging, mildew odor or shrinkage. These are indications of buoyancy loss.
  • Faded material may indicate loss of strength.
  • Write your name on the jacket so not to mix it up with someone else's.
  • Test it in shallow water.

During use:

  • Don't use a PFD as a cushion, kneeling pad or boat bumper. It will lose buoyancy.
  • Do not put heavy items in the pockets.
  • Be careful to not put objects in the pockets that could puncture.
  • Don't leave a PFD lying in the sunshine for long periods.
  • Rinse with fresh water after use, especially after being in salt water.
  • Drip-dry before storing.

After use:

  • Don't use harsh detergents or dry clean a PFD.
  • Drying it in a dryer or direct heat can destroy its buoyancy.
  • Don't store it in sunlight—UV rays can damage the fabric.
  • Store in a cool, dry, dark place where there is good ventilation.
  • Older foam PFDs may lose buoyancy and need to be replaced.
  • Get rid of old PFDs by cutting them up and properly disposing so a person who finds one does not try to use the faulty PFD.

PFD FAQs

Q: How long does a PFD last?

A: There is no standard time limit, though proper care will make it last longer. Waterlogged materials, mildew odor or buoyancy shrinkage indicate the need for replacement.

Q: What is a hybrid PFD?

A: A hybrid vest contains some internal buoyancy (foam) and is inflatable to provide additional flotation. This high-end PFD is most often used by play-boaters looking for a lighter, less bulky design.

Q: Does a person who cannot swim need a special PFD?

A: All people are naturally buoyant and Types I, II, III add 15.5 to 22 lbs. of extra buoyancy (Type V adds 7.5 to 22 lbs.). Most adults need only 7 to 12 lbs. of extra buoyancy to stay afloat, so even nonswimmers can float with a PFD.

Q: Can I use one PFD for various sports?

A: Yes, but only Type III PFDs are USCG-approved for various sports activities. Type V PFDs, for example, are USCG-approved only for a specific water sport.

Q: Can I just have the PFD near me and ready to put on instead of wearing it all the time?

A: Situations can change rapidly. It is far better to wear it at all times to enhance your safety rather than risk being unprepared and sorry.

Q: How often should a PFD be tested?

A: At least once a year. If waterlogged, faded or leaky, a PFD should be discarded properly so someone else does not use a retired model.

Q: Will a PFD protect me from hypothermia?

A: Hypothermia won't be avoided just by wearing a PFD. A wet or dry suit should be worn under a PFD in chilly waters, but hypothermia is always a risk if you are in frigid water or exposed to cold weather.

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