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 you can get about PFDs is simply this: Be sure to wear one.
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.
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 may 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.
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, try tightening 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.
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.
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 vests are geared for rough, open 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 there is a likely chance of a fast rescue, 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.
Consider these features when deciding which PFD is right for you.
Tabs: Look at the number of tabs and their location on the front and back on the PFD. Tabs let you attach a knife, whistle (which is required in many areas), strobes or other accessories.
Pockets: Consider size and placement. Are there pockets to warm your hands or have easy access to your doodads? Is there 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 manufacturers offer PFDs with fishing features such as multiple tool hangers, loops for a rod and a drop-down pocket table for working with lures and flies.
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 water-logging, mildew odour 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.
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 the PFD lying in the sunshine for long periods.
Rinse with fresh water after use, especially after being in salt water.
Drip-dry before storing.
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.
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: If a person does not know how to swim, do they need a special PFD?
A: All people are naturally buoyant and Types I, II, III add 15.5 to 22 pounds of extra buoyancy. Type V adds 7.5 to 22 pounds of buoyancy. Most adults need only 7 to 12 pounds of extra buoyancy to stay afloat, so even a nonswimmer can float with a PFD.
Q: Can I use one PFD for various sports?
A: Yes, if it is a Type III. No, if it is a Type V. Type III PFDs are USCG-approved for various sports activities. Type V is 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 for wear and buoyancy. 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: No. Hypothermia is the loss of body heat that starts with shivering, hand numbness and loss of muscle coordination. It can cause a coma or even death, and it won't be avoided just by wearing a PFD. A wet or dry suit should be worn under a PFD in cold waters, but hypothermia is always a risk if you are in frigid water or exposed to cold weather.