Every time you get onto your paddleboard or put in for a day on the river, it’s imperative to wear a life jacket—otherwise known as a personal flotation device (PFD) or life vest—that was developed specifically for your activity and the type of water you’ll be in.
The logic is simple: you can’t put on a PFD if you’re unconscious, so wear it every time as a prevention method. Once you commit to always wearing a PFD, make sure to choose the right one for you.
The U.S. Coast Guard has developed specific classifications of PFDs, organized by different types. These various jackets include throwable PFDs, inflatable models, and versions designed for offshore use. But the most common PFD used in inland waters is the Type III Flotation Aid PFD. This is your go-to PFD for paddling, canoeing, fishing, stand up paddleboarding, and any other sport on the water that requires mobility, as it gives you the most freedom to move around.
PFDs are designed with comfort in mind, as the wearer will most likely be in them for hours at a time. It’s important to note that Type III PFDs were developed for quick rescues. While with other types, you would automatically be turned to float on your back as you await rescue, Type IIIs would keep you more vertical in the water, which isn’t ideal for waiting hours for rescue.
A Type III inflatable PFD is a unique product that fits into a fanny-pack-style case and fits around your neck like a horse collar. Once the jacket is over your head, the PFD is inflated by triggering an attached CO2 cartridge, just like the ones found in airplanes.
If someone tries to tell you that they don’t wear a life vest because they’re too clunky or restrictive, they clearly haven’t done their homework. PFDs made for active watersports are designed specifically to eliminate chafing, allow for movement, and last through several seasons.
When choosing a PFD, look for a snug fit around the entire torso section. It shouldn’t be so tight that it affects your movement or ability to draw a deep breath, but it also shouldn’t ride up. Choose one based on your chest size, not your weight, and once it’s on, have someone yank the shoulder straps upward. If it rides up, find a new one. You’ll be much less likely to wear a vest that’s uncomfortable.
Several PFD options are specially designed to fit women’s bodies. Because women’s torsos are typically shorter than men’s, these jackets are shorter as well, keeping the PFD from uncomfortably riding up while it’s in use.
Find a life vest that uses straps to give you a unique fit that contours specifically to your body. These straps give you the freedom to wear either minimal clothing on a hot summer day or layers of insulated clothing when the water and air both have a chill. To fit your PFD, start from the bottom and tighten the straps as you go up, keeping comfort in mind as you try it on.
If you can, give your life vest a test run in a body of water. Jump in, relax, and notice if the jacket stays snug to your torso, rides up, or is otherwise uncomfortable. The best way to test if the PFD is a good fit for your kayak is to simply try it out when you get home.
Life vests have different builds and use different materials depending on the conditions and sports they’ll be used in. For example, Astral Buoyancy’s V-Eight is cut low for ultimate breathability and range of motion. With wide armholes and little coverage on your neck and chest, this type of jacket is an ideal piece of kayaking equipment for hot days on the water.
If you’ll be on the water for long periods and need to bring specific supplies, some PFDs, such as the Kokatat Bahia, offer several pockets for everything from electronics to pliers.
Some PFDs offer a high-back design that’s built with mesh on the lower half of the jacket and with foam higher up. If you’re riding in a recreational kayak with a tall seat back, you may want to go for a PFD with a mesh back, such as Stohlquist’s Men’s Trekker and Women’s Cruiser.
A Few Considerations
You’ll come across several other options to choose from when looking for a vest. Be sure to choose a brightly colored PFD to help rescuers spot you, and you may even opt for a jacket that has reflectors or reflective tape used in its construction. Also, make note of any tabs on the jacket, which you can use to attach lights, whistles, knives, or any other accessories you may need when on the water.
If you’re buying a PFD for your kids, there are a few things to remember. Choose your child’s jacket based on his or her weight, not chest size (the opposite of adult sizing). Typically, PFDs are grouped into weight ranges, such as 30-50 pounds. For the smallest children, make sure the jacket has a crotch strap to ensure that the PFD doesn’t slip off over the head. These jackets also have grab handles so kids can easily be lifted out of the water.
A Note on Buoyancy
A typical adult needs only about 11 pounds of extra buoyancy to stay afloat. A Type III foam PFD will give its user a minimum added buoyancy of 15.5 pounds, meaning that these jackets hold even the largest people up. Inflatable hybrid PFDs offer even higher buoyancy—around 22 pounds—which is rated as superior.
The bottom line is that a PFD should be comfortable enough so that you wear it every time you’re on the water. Nine out of 10 drownings occur in inland waters, often only feet away from safety. The majority of the time, these victims owned life jackets, but they were left behind the day of the accident.
With thanks to Longfellow’s WHALE* Tales, “Don’t just pack it—wear your jacket.” And if you choose the right one, you’ll be much more likely to follow this sage old advice.
*Water Habits Are Learned Early
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