Best Life Jackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) of 2019

Rafters on a trip on the Chilkat River in Alaska.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Rafters on a trip on the Chilkat River in Alaska. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

We aggregated outdoor media and customer reviews on the best kids, infants, and youth life jackets Here's our findings. 

We researched the best kids’ life jackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) available by reading hundreds of consumer and professional reviews, and narrowed the dozens of options for the unique gear requirements of different water sports — specifically for kids.



Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, fishing, swimming, packrafting, or whitewater rafting with your young one, the one thing that all parenting boaters can agree on (gear-wise, at least) is that personal safety for their children is paramount. No piece of equipment is more important to your child’s safety on the water than a PFD. We did the research for you, so you can spend less time pouring over websites, and more time out on the water with Junior. 

Choosing a boat for your PFD? See our story Should I Buy an Oru Folding Kayak? 


Mustang Survival Lil’ Legends - Infant, Child, Youth

Read why→

Stohlquist Youth Escape

Read why→


 

Jump ahead to . . .

 

The author wearing the NRS Vapor on the Tsirku River in Alaska.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

The author wearing the NRS Vapor on the Tsirku River in Alaska. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

BEST ALL-AROUND PFD FOR MOST PEOPLE: NRS Vapor

We chose the NRS Vapor as the Best All-Around PFD based on its low-profile design, the range of sizes, and the affordable price. This made the NRS Vapor the jack-of-all-trades PFD.

 

As a Type III PFD, the Vapor is rated for both whitewater and flatwater. While, once again, not a “lifesaving” device, as a PFD, it was more than enough flotation to keep a conscious swimmer’s head above water in a variety of circumstances.

 

The low profile is great for a whole host of activities — from kayaking to canoeing to rafting, this PFD proved its worth. I bought this PFD 7 years ago when I began my rafting career, and have used the NRS Vapor in all three of these activities.

 

The lash tab is placed up and to the side on the NRS Vapor.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

The lash tab is placed up and to the side on the NRS Vapor. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

While the NRS Vapor’s back panel does make it more difficult to sit comfortably in higher-backed seats (as in some kayaks), it’s all about the fit. If the PFD is sized and adjusted correctly to fit close to the chest, then issues with it “riding up” in a high-backed should be resolved. With two waist straps on either side, and adjustable shoulder straps, fitting this PFD to a wide range of body types is simpler than on other PFDs. I also have a large chest, and found that the NRS Vapor is one of the few non-women-specific PFDs that fits well.

Wide arm holes on the NRS Vapor provide ventilation and excellent range of motion for all activities. A bonus fleece-lined hand-warming pocket is the perfect touch for early- or late-season water adventures.

The extra-large front pocket on the NRS Vapor is great for storing everything from snacks to medical kits (we like this small waterproof one).

We like that the lash tab is placed up and to the side, which avoids an attached knife catching on your arms while paddling or rowing. A lash tab is an attachment point for a rescue knives and other accessories. When you get your PFD, get yourself a rescue knife. Along with a whistle and Waterproof Phone Case, these are essential watersport accessories you need to pick up before you take your PFD out on the water. More on why these items are almost as important as PFD later in this story.

Wide arm holes on the NRS Vapor provide ventilation and excellent range of motion.

Wide arm holes on the NRS Vapor provide ventilation and excellent range of motion.

The best thing about the NRS Vapor PFD is that it is priced on the affordable-end for a Type III PFD. It’s worth the price simply because it can span the test of activities — from canoeing on the lake to swimming a Class III rapid to fishing for brook trout. And, it comes in a range of sizes from S-XXL.

While we think the NRS Vapor will serve in almost all watersport activities, if you’re a paddler that spends the majority of the time in a high-backed seat (common for sit-on-top kayaks and canoe modular seats), you will be better served by a high-back PFD like Our Pick for Fishing.

The NRS Vapor is one of the best-rated PFDs by both outdoor media and customer reviews. It earned these ratings: Moosejaw (4.7/5), Backcountry (4.5/5), Amazon (4.5/5), NRS (4.6/5), Paddling (4.7/5), Trailspace (4/5), OutdoorPlay (4/5), , CKS (5/5), Walmart (4.8/5), Kayak Guru (#4/9, Best PFDs for 2019).


Reviews for the NRS Vapor

  • Kayak Guru praised its lightweight and durability.
  • Amazon users employed the Vapor for a wide range of activities, and declared it perfect for everything from dragon boat racing to flatwater kayaking. (Barry Shoemaker, Amazon)
  • NRS users were impressed by its comfort, the extra large front pocket, the easy ability to put on and take off, and the side buckles which didn’t interfere with getting into and out of boats. As they all said, NRS has a hit! (Wisconsin Paddler, Brando, joepaddler, waterlover)
  • Walmart commenters were looking for a quality, versatile PFD at a reasonable price, and were more than satisfied with the Vapor. (Jason, Walmart)
 

Buy the NRS Vapor PFD

 

The Stohlquist Fisherman is our pick for best life jacket for fishing.

BEST PFD FOR FISHING: Stohlquist Fisherman

We chose the Stohlquist Fisherman as the Best Fishing PFD because of the price, the fishing-specific design, and the available sizes. The breathable mesh and fisherman-specific design allows for easy storage and access on the water for all of your essentials — lures, flies, leader, scissor clamps, you name it. It’s also designed for fishermen who use higher-backed seats than found in other water sports. But what really sold us on the Stohlquist is that it has the best fit and availability of sizes of any of the fishing specific vests we considered.

 

With 3 zipper pockets, 4 velcro pockets, lash tab, fly patch, multiple D-rings, pliers holder, retractable tool holder, and a rod holder loop, the Stohlquist gives you little reason to need to rummage in a deck bag for gear. The two front pockets (made of molded EVA) unzip and lower into a handy on-the-go work station (although there were a few complaints from fisherpeople about forearm contact with these pockets on the cast).

 

The many pockets on the Stohlquist Fisherman personal flotation device.

The high-backed mesh back panel on the Fisherman was designed for fisherpeople who have higher seats in their boats than other water sports may need, making it more comfortable to lean back and rest in between casts. The mesh on both the side- and back-panels allow for maximum airflow, as well. The front-zip entry makes it easy to put on/take off, while adjustable chest and waist straps make it easy to fit to different body types.

The Fisherman PFD was designed for fisherpeople of all sizes — it is available in S-XXL. With that much versatility, we found that this PFD was lauded more highly than other fishing specific vests that came in fewer sizes. Stohlquist named their design "Graded Sizing,” which takes into account not only the girth of the paddler, but the weight of the paddler, as well. For example, a size Small will have less foam, a smaller chassis (the size of the foam panels), and shorter straps than a size Medium will have. A size XX-Large has more foam, a bigger chassis, and longer straps than any other size of that type of PFD.

The reason the Graded Sizing on the Stohlquist Vest is so popular is because the design means a better fit for different body types. Rather than the average PFD, which could have the same size chassis on a size Small as it would on a size Large (with the only difference being the length of straps), Stohlquist designed their PFDs to increase ergonomically in size for maximum protection, comfort, and activity.

The Stohlquist Fisherman is one of the highest rated vests we considered earning these ratings from outdoor media and customer reviewers: Amazon (4.5/5), Adventure Junkies (Best for all around kayak fishing), Yakangler (4.7/5), Lifejacketadvisor (#1), FishingKayaksGuide (5/5).

The Stohlquist Fisherman personal flotation device in green.

Reviews for the Stohlquist Fisherman

  • REI reviewers raved over the tool-centric PFD. It made for the best on-the-go workspace, with tons of pockets and attachment points for fishing gear. (Bonus: there’s a hole in each pocket to thread tippet line through!) It did not ride up with high-back seats, and most agreed it was comfortable, albeit more functional than comfortable. (Mutt, Schrek)
  • Amazon users loved that the pockets were both useful and low-profile. They also appreciated that this PFD came in a variety of sizes, so fisherpeople of all shapes and sizes could fit it well. (Rory Hamilton)

  • Adventure Journal --

    • MOBILITY: Offers good shoulder mobility but leaves more to be desired ergonomically.
    • FEATURES: Open sides for ventilation, high back, adjustable shoulder and side straps, gear storage, anchor points, front-zip entry, padded neoprene shoulders. PROS: Comfortable, well-ventilated, plenty of gear storage
    • CONS: Drop-down platforms not ideally located
  • Outventurist --

    • Features: 5 stars
    • Comfort: 4 stars
    • Durability: 5 stars
    • Value: 4.5 stars

      • Features: 3 zipper pockets, 4 velcro pockets, lash tab, fly patch, multiple D-rings, pliers holder, retractable tool holder, rod holder loop
    • Best for: Anglers that are on a budget but still want excellent value.
  • Lifejacket Advisor --

    • It’ll keep you afloat, but will it hold all the tackle you need close to hand? Yes, definitely!
 

Compare prices for the Stohlquist Fisherman PFD

 

Aaron Henry in the Astral GreenJacket PFD on the Klehini River in Haines, Alaska.

Aaron Henry in the Astral GreenJacket PFD on the Klehini River in Haines, Alaska.

BEST TYPE V PFD FOR RESCUE: Astral GreenJacket

We chose the Astral GreenJacket as the Best Rescue PFD among its competitors because of the consistently positive consumer feedback and outdoor media reviews. No other PFD was more highly praised (ever since its release in 2008) for its rescue features, comfortable design, durability, and earth-friendly materials.As a Type V PFD, the GreenJacket is designed with specific water-rescue intentions. What Type V PFDs have that others lack is a means of belay, and escape from that belay, if need be. A rope can be attached to the rescue ring as a belay for a rescue swimmer, but should the rope become an entanglement or caught on life-threatening debris, the swimmer only needs to pull the front release tab to unclasp the harness belt, which allows the rescue ring (and it’s attachment) to slip off, freeing the swimmer.

The Astral GreenJacket comes with:

  • a quick release harness belt and rescue ring, which is also able to attach a tow-rope for kayakers
  • reflective accents for extra visibility;
  • a clamshell front pocket with multiple compartments and rope storage pockets, which can also be used as an on-the-go workbench.
With 16.5 pounds of flotation weight, the bulkier Astral GreenJacket PFD is made for whitewater paddlers swimming through big water.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

With 16.5 pounds of flotation weight, the bulkier Astral GreenJacket PFD is made for whitewater paddlers swimming through big water. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

For those who are on the water more days than they can count, this PFD is worth both the extra bulk and the price. It's bulkier than other PFDs, but that's for a reason. With 16.5 lbs of flotation weight, this PFD is made for whitewater paddlers swimming through big water.

 

While keeping you afloat, the Astral GreenJacket’s design allows for big arm movements (think aggressive swimming or whitewater paddling) and comfort (bulky doesn’t equal constrictive) while you’re swimming through Class V rapids. The monetary upgrade is worth it when you consider the return on your investment: Astral has a lifetime guarantee on its products, so if it fails, it’s replaced!

 

With an overhead entry, the Astral GreenJacket can be considered more cumbersome to put on/take off than other PFDs, but has a generous amount of adjustability on the waist and chest. Take note, however, that this PFD does not have adjustable shoulder straps. Instead, Astral used a “techtonics” design to provide a “two-panel fit system designed to eliminate ride-up and provide maximum mobility.” The adjustable panels allow you to custom-fit the height of the panels, which is more effective in sizing than just adjusting shoulder straps.

 

The Astral GreenJacket PFD is designed to provide maximum mobility.   Photo courtesy Nicole Kalata in the Florida Everglades.

The Astral GreenJacket PFD is designed to provide maximum mobility. Photo courtesy Nicole Kalata in the Florida Everglades.

As a bonus, the GreenJacket is made with PVC-free, non-toxic Gaia foam, and as much recycled material as Astral can get their hands on. And, it has a fleece-lined hand-warming pocket, great for early- and late-season paddling adventures.

 

There were only a few downsides to this PFD, but they are worth mentioning: Besides being bulky, we came across numerous complaints that this PFD was not comfortable for ladies with large chests due to the round, prominent front panel. That being said, we also found numerous reviews from women saying that they’d forsake women-specific PFDs in favor of the GreenJacket.

 

Also, the rescue knife attachment point is on the front of the clamshell pocket, and easy to catch when rowing, paddling, or on a low-hanging tree branch (watch out for those!). And, of course, there’s the price. We recommend investing in this if you’re certain that you want a rescue-style PFD.

 

We interviewed Nicole Kalata, a raft guide shown in the photo of the GreenJacket below, “When I was in Colombia, one of my guides fell in love with it (and they can’t [buy] the Greenjacket down there). So I left it with him. :) He was super stoked. He had a crappy PFD and is the best white water kayaker I have even seen at 19… I knew it would be in good hands.”

 

The Astral GreenJacket earned these ratings from outdoor media and users: Backcountry.com (5.0), Amazon (4.5/5), Astral (4.8/5), Coloradokayak (4.5/5), Mtnweekly (4.5/5), Diverightinscuba (9.4/10).

The Astral GreenJacket has a generous amount of adjustability in the waist and chest.   Photo courtesy Keenan Sullivan on the Upper Tsirku River in Haines, Alaska  .

The Astral GreenJacket has a generous amount of adjustability in the waist and chest. Photo courtesy Keenan Sullivan on the Upper Tsirku River in Haines, Alaska .

Reviews for the Astral Greenjacket:

  • Mountain Weekly News was impressed by the quality of the quick release rescue harness (especially it’s 1200 lb rating!). They called it the best PFD on the market when it comes to whitewater, and even argued it’s the best for everything else.
  • CKS Blog called the Greenjacket low-profile, without sacrificing storage, safety, or protection. One reviewer said, “I will never buy a different PFD until Astral comes out with one even better. (Nick Wigston)
  • Astral reviewers raved over this PFD for “the durability, effectiveness, and great design features incorporated into the products,” from swimming every rapid of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to sailboat racing near Chesapeake Bay. (Astral, Nick)

Amazon reviewers were a bit thrown by the price, but agreed that it was worth it. Many reviewers were incredulous that anyone would buy another PFD for whitewater activities. One of the biggest gripes was the over-head entry, but those who used it found the hassle worth it. (Sarah Walker, Amazon)

 

Compare prices on the Astral Greenjacket

 

The Astral Layla is by far the most popular PFD for women, and our top pick for women.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

The Astral Layla is by far the most popular PFD for women, and our top pick for women. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

BEST PFD FOR WOMEN: Astral Layla

Out of all of the women’s PFDs that we researched, the Astral Layla was by far the most popular and the best lauded for its consideration of a woman’s shape. Astral themselves said it best in an interview with Outside: “Our founder introduced this style of PFD almost 20 years ago, and we’ve found that no other design conforms to a curvy woman’s body better. It uses a hinged princess seam (a multi-paneled sewing design to curve around more naturally, rather than a typical two-panel-sandwich design), boob cups, and super soft organic kapok [naturally buoyant fibrous tree] create a special fit that women crave.”

Originally created under the Lotus name, Astral re-branded, then re-released the Astral Layla PFD due to popular demand. Women water enthusiasts — from professional guides, to whitewater competitors, to everyday paddlers — rave about the princess panel design, which conforms to curvy bodies better than the traditional 2-panel PFDs by hugging the curves, with adjustable straps over top. This allows for even more adjustability, without having to play with too many straps.

Sarah Ammons likes that the side zipper on the Astral Layla makes for easy on and off.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Sarah Ammons likes that the side zipper on the Astral Layla makes for easy on and off. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Bonus: Although rated a Type III, the Layla was designed to be able to accommodate a quick-release rescue belt (sold separately) to become a rescue PFD (similar to the popular Astral GreenJacket). And, it’s made with PVC-free, non-toxic Gaia foam, and some additional recycled materials.

We interviewed raft guide Sarah Ammons who has worked the Astral Layla for the past two years: “Faves: zipper! Not a fan of anything pull over, so the half pull/side zip makes easy on & off.” She was also fond of the color (hers is purple, though the newest models are blue). However, Ammons had concerns about the adjustment system: “The left side is hard for me to adjust, mainly due to old climbing injuries that limit my mobility in my left arm, so tightening the left side is difficult since I have to somewhat reach behind myself.” She also would have preferred a different rescue knife placement. “If my rowing is quite on point then my biceps rub against the knife handle,” she told us. Nonetheless, she was pleased with the durability: “Owned for two seasons, still going strong.”

The Astral Layla earned these ratings: Amazon (4.8/5), Backcountry (5/5), NRS (3.7/5), REI (3/5), and Best Women’s PFD for 2019 from Outside Magazine.

The hinged princess seams of the Astral Layla make for an extremely comfortable fit for women.

The hinged princess seams of the Astral Layla make for an extremely comfortable fit for women.

Reviews for the Astral Layla:

  • Dirtbag Dreams called the Layla a low-profile PFD, perfectly designed for curvy women. They called out the design that allows for a rescue belt to be added to the Layla, and the buoyancy was top-notch. Note to the men - don’t let the ladies’ tag fool you! “I have a male friend who sails and loves this PFD.”
  • Outside Online was impressed by the princess-seam design that allows women to paddle without the hindrance of a bulky front, by sitting flush against the chest, rather than accentuating it. They pointed out that it is a longer torso (they’re working on a short-torso version!), and may be overkill for women with smaller chests.
  • Astral users have been digging this design since it’s conception, almost 20 years ago. Most women reviewers had spent significant time researching, and stopped their searching when they tried out the Layla, calling it “the obvious choice.” (Deborah Werter, Ryland, Shawn)

Backcountry reviewers echoed the time-tested venerability of the Layla, calling it “great for kayaking, rafting, boating, lazy floats, or teaching kids to swim for hours." (Lauren K)


Compare prices on the Astral Layla

 

The Stearns Adult Classic Life Jacket is our budget pick. Rafters on the Taiya River, Skagway, Alaska.

BEST BUDGET LIFE JACKET: Stearns Adult Classic Life Jacket

We chose the Stearns Adult Classic as our Best Budget Life Jacket because of the price and weight. This life jacket comes highly recommended by those who used it across a wide gamut of sports - from motorized water activities to calmer paddlesports. We also like that it comes in a child’s version as well (more on that in our upcoming kids’ PFD guide). It’s hard to beat a life-saving flotation device that costs as much as a burger and beer and weighs less than a pound!

 

The Stearns Adult Classic is a Type II life jacket, which means that it is meant for flatwater near-shore, or where rescue will be quick. However, this is not a life jacket meant for offshore fishing or whitewater.

 

The Stearns Adult Classic was lauded as a great life jacket for canoeing, flatwater kayaking, tubing, and fishing for those who want to stay under budget. We also think it is a good choice for people getting into watersports. This Sterns is also the perfect, affordable back-up PFD; loan to friends, wear for river clean up days, pull from under your car seat when you left your primary PFD hanging on the drying line.

 

The Stearns Adult Classic Life Jacket in red.

It has 15.5 lbs of flotation weight, which is more than enough to keep your head above water in calm waters.

 

With a front buckle system, this life jacket is easy to put on/take off, with adjustable side straps to fit most body types.

 

The one drawback of the Adult Classic is that it is bulky and not designed for particularly active sports. Those who used it for paddling sports complained that it could be cumbersome, but did not impede activity too greatly.

 

The overall reaction towards this life jacket placed it at the best value for a floatation device, especially for those who are just beginning to play with water sports, or who are looking for a little added security during lower-risk water activities (i.e., canoeing across a calm lake).

 

The Stearns Adult Classic Life Jacket in yellow.

The Stearns Adult Classic is a favorite affordable PFD lauded by outdoor media and customers alike. It earned these ratings: Amazon (4.3/5), Lifejacketpro (Best Cheap LJ), , Wirecutter (Budget Pick).

Reviews for the Stearns Adult Classic

  • Wirecutter called this a spartan life jacket at a budget price. It may be streamlined, but entirely reliable.
  • The Gear Hunt said that the cost to value for this life jacket was a no brainer, but the reasonable price made it all the better. They praised the quality, easy design, breathability and functionality.
  • Amazon reviewers, looking for a bargain on their safety gear, found their match here. It made even the most nervous swimmer feel comfortable. Many warned that the fit might be too loose for very slender boaters, and it becomes cumbersome if worn during very active boating. (SurvivingLotus, Sparts227, Sam H., Jessica)

Buy the Stearns Adult Classic Life Jacket

 

The author wearing the NRS Vapor PFD on the Klehini River, Haines, Alaska.

The author wearing the NRS Vapor PFD on the Klehini River, Haines, Alaska.

Besides a PFD, what accessories do I need for kayaking, rafting, and other watersports?

Rescue Knife

A rescue knife is handy in daily situations and indispensable in emergency situations. In most cases, you’ll be using it to cut sandwiches. But there’s a minor risk in watersports of entrapment in throw rope, fishing line, or wood debris. It’s such an essential piece of gear that most PFDs have a lash tab to attach your knife. We like the NRS Pilot Rescue Knife because of its low-profile, attaches to lash tabs on PFDs for quick release in emergencies, is relatively inexpensive. Bonus: bottle opener!

Whistle

Any old whistle will do, but I like to attach mine with thick rubber band so it stretches to my mouth when I need it, but stays out of the way when I don't! Choose a bright color.

Carabiners

Only use locking carabiners. Never choose non-lockers (they can catch on ropes in an emergency and attach you to things you don't want to be attached to). Bonus if you can find a toothless carabiner! We like the reasonably priced Omega Pacific Locking Carabiner.

The NRS Vapor on a whitewater rafting trip.

Waterproof Phone case

We like the Pelican Micro Case 1040 because it is a watersport-specific hard-backed protective phone case. It floats (so you can still find your dry and functioning phone, even if it goes overboard). Plus, the Pelican case keeps phones safe when they're jostled around or dropped (not a guarantee on the Zip Pouch below).

Zip Pouch

A plastic phone zip pouch pinches closed, so it can keep your phone dry with no risk of kicking it open (a minor risk with a hard-backed protective case). We like the Sea to Summit Zip Pouch because it is a low-profile phone protector that's much sturdier than a ziplock bag. This model has survived my 2-week long sea kayaking trips. It can also fit in most PFD pockets. But if you think your phone may get jostled, dropped, or tossed overboard, go for the floating hardback phone case by Pelican instead.

Waterproof Medical Kit

I usually make my own in a 3 or 5L drybag (we like this Sea to Summit drybag, which it has a clear window to tell what items are inside). My river buddy brings the Waterproof Ultralight Medical Kit on the river and it's worked well to treat the minor injuries that happen on the water.

 
 

Coast Guard regulations require every person in a boat to have access to a flotation device. The author on a trip on Summit Lake in Fraser, BC.

Coast Guard regulations require every person in a boat to have access to a flotation device. The author on a trip on Summit Lake in Fraser, BC.

Life Jacket vs. PFD: What’s the difference?

There are dozens of ways to get out on the water, but they all require one essential piece of safety equipment - a flotation device.

There are too many stories of injury, tragedy, and catastrophe around water sports and participants not wearing PFDs. Growing up in a whitewater boating town, I heard too many first-hand stories from my father (a member of the volunteer fire department who assists Search and Rescue on river emergencies) about victims who weren’t wearing life jackets when they flipped in a rapid, or weren’t cinched in properly and slipped out of their flotation devices once they hit the water.

A PFD has saved my life more than once. When my knee caught between two rocks in the Arkansas River, it took me more than a minute to free myself. Without that PFD, I would have struggled to keep my body near the surface as the river tried to sweep me downstream. I’ve been caught in Class IV recirculating holes before, and without a PFD, may not have come out back of them.

Coast Guard regulations require every person in a boat to wear (if a child) or have access to (if an adult) a flotation device. Look for our Kids PFD article, coming soon. While motorized boats have a different set of rules, for this guide we focused on the human-powered water sports.

A boater wearing a Type I PFD on the Chilkat River, Haines, Alaska.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

A boater wearing a Type I PFD on the Chilkat River, Haines, Alaska. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Coast Guard regulations state a minimum inherent buoyancy for different classifications of flotation devices.  

There are two names for what we ordinarily associate with flotation devices, with a few key differences: personal flotation devices (PFDs) and life jackets (aka life vests or life preservers).

A life jacket is designed to do just what it sounds like — save your life. During an emergency situation, a life jacket’s main design is to keep the swimmer’s head above water, conscious or not. These flotation devices require a different rating than a PFD, and generally have a thick collar, or a head “cushion” to keep you afloat.


A PFD is also designed to do just what the name suggests — keep you afloat, but not necessarily to “save your life.” PFDs are designed to allow for more activity while wearing them — you wouldn’t want to feel constricted in your movement as you’re paddling through Class IV rapids! These flotation devices are rated to provide extra buoyancy to lift a swimmer to the surface, but lack the neck and head support that a life jacket provides.

PFDs work in conjunction with other safety equipment like the proper use of a rescue knife to keep boaters safe.

To learn more about other Must Have accessories you should get with your PFDs, skip ahead to What Accessories do I need to go Boating?

 

Type I (right) and Type V (left) PFDs on the Klehini River, Haines, Alaska.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Type I (right) and Type V (left) PFDs on the Klehini River, Haines, Alaska. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

What are the 5 different types of Coast Guard Approved PFDs and Life Jackets?

Type I

Offshore life jacket (foam; not inflatable, which is less trustworthy)

Type II

Near-shore vest

Type III

Flotation aid

Type IV

Throwable device

Type V

Special purpose


Water sports that take place on flatwater (i.e., kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing) require a less aggressive type of PFD. These activities typically use a Type I, II, or III PFD. Whitewater sports, on the contrary, require a more “active” type — Type III and Type V PFDs are designed to have enough buoyancy to get you floating in moving water, without restricting your activity. The minimum rating you should wear on moving water (i.e., rivers) is a Type III PFD.

For example, for a Type 5 PFD, they should be used specifically for the intention printed on the label by the Coast Guard. There are Type 5's specific for whitewater, and there are those designing for sailing. This summary provides a great explanation of the types.


 
 

The author guides trips in Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

The author guides trips in Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Author’s Expertise

Since the blistering-hot Colorado summer of 2014, I’ve been obsessed with water. I started on the rapids of the Arkansas River, then moved up to Alaska to raft glacially-braided rivers in 2016. After two years, I managed our hiking and rafting program based out of Skagway, Alaska, and guided the rivers surrounding Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon. We paddled with Boy Scouts through high-walled canyons, and rowed through heavy headwinds through braided, silty channels.

Personally, I’ve paddle-guided Class IV with clients who had never seen a rapid (much less boated through one) and rowed a raft of twelve cruise ship passengers alongside the historic Chilkoot Trail.

I’ve also trained guides who had never held an oar before how to navigate rivers, rescue swimmers, set up boats, and row through tricky and potentially hazardous situations — including Stellar sea lions blocking our channel, and 100+ foot spruce trees gliding down the river alongside the boat.

As a volunteer with local fire departments in both Alaska and Maine, I’ve trained and participated in swiftwater and lake-based rescues. I have maintained a Swiftwater Rescue Level IV certification throughout my river-guiding career, building haul systems to rescue boats, and plucking swimmers out of numerous rapids.

This spring, I bought my own boat (with the help of two other water nerds), and have continued to teach others the joys of water navigation throughout the West while I heal from a shoulder surgery. Even a busted wing can’t keep me off the water!

 

Whitewater rafters wearing NRS PFDs on the Colorado River.

How We Researched

To ensure that we were reviewing only the best for water-loving adventurers, we researched the most popular Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), and sorted the top contenders into our five groups (Best for All-Around, Best Budget Life Jacket, Best for Fishing, Best for Women, and Best for Rescue). The five winners were popular and well-reviewed across different platforms, from third parties such as Outside Magazine, Paddling Magazine, Adventure Junkies, Outside Pursuits, and Wirecutter.

In addition, each of these PFDs were thoroughly reviewed and highly recommended by everyday users on platforms such as REI, Backcountry.com, Colorado Kayak Supply, Northwest River Supply, and Amazon. From these latter sites, we verified reviews against FakeSpot, a site which flags falsified or tampered reviews, to verify authenticity.

Whitewater rafters on the shores of the Arkansas River, Salida, Colorado.

After review of outdoor media, real-life customer feedback, our own expertise, and comments from professional boaters who make their living on the water, we narrowed a list of 19 promising PFDs down to our top five winners.

 

To be considered for each of these categories, we measured each PFD against standardized criteria: the PFDs had to be affordable, durable, comfortable, adjustable, and Coast Guard approved.

 

From there, we narrowed our criteria to our specific categories — for example, with our women’s pick, we ran the PFDs through a list of features valued more highly by women paddlers: breast dimensions, hip dimensions, arm mobility while still having an adjustable fit to the chest, etc.

 




Every PFD we reviewed had to be Coast Guard approved.   Photo courtesy Matt McDonald.

Every PFD we reviewed had to be Coast Guard approved. Photo courtesy Matt McDonald.

Criteria we used to find the best PFDs

There is a large set of features to consider when it comes to a piece of gear designed to save your life — or, at the very least, to keep you afloat. We narrowed our selection criteria down to these 8 most important:



Price

While we think that a life-saving device is not an area to skimp, we weighed the expense versus the durability of each PFDs features to select the best options. We also included our Best Budget Life Jacket, with this specific consideration.



Coast Guard Rating & Flotation Weight

While every PFD we reviewed had to be Coast Guard approved, we also took the flotation weight (or the amount of buoyancy added) into account. In general, the more flotation weight, the better. But flotation devices with higher flotation weights tend to be bulkier, losing the mobility benefits of a slimmer PFD for certain activities.


Adjustability

The PFDs we researched were designed for both flatwater and whitewater.   Photo courtesy Stephanie Hawney in Fonce, Columbia.

The PFDs we researched were designed for both flatwater and whitewater. Photo courtesy Stephanie Hawney in Fonce, Columbia.

This was a no-brainer, but arguably the most important point. Adjustability in a PFD allows for one piece of equipment to fit a wide array of body shapes and sizes. Adjustability allows for life-saving, close-fitting PFDs, which are the only useful and functional kinds of PFDs. We looked for PFDs with multiple adjustable straps and other features (see our Best Women’s PFD for couture princess panels!) to allow for a greater range of consumer fits.

Comfort

Whether you’re out on the water for an hour or for a week, comfort is non-negotiable. We looked for PFDs with great fit, comfortable material (i.e., fleece liners, neoprene, padded straps, breast cups, etc.), and adjustability.



Design (Flatwater vs Whitewater)

With as many water sports as there are available, it’s hard to take into account every activity. However, we researched PFDs designed for both flatwater (think canoeing or row-boating) and whitewater (think rafting or kayaking).



Novice and Professional Appeal

Everyone has to start somewhere, but some of us have been doing this for way too long. We researched PFDs with novices in mind, and looked for features that would appeal to someone just getting into watersports — low price and low profile. On the other hand, we wanted to take professional and old-timers into consideration, and researched PFDs meant for the experienced paddler — i.e., whitewater and rescue PFDs.



All of the PFDs we researched had to be durable and comfortable. Golden Playpark in Golden, Colorado.

Durability


A PFD that wears out quickly isn’t worth much. We researched PFDs with hardy materials — neoprene, 200+ denier, reinforced straps — to make sure that what we chose could stand the test of time (and tumbles!).


Sizes

We all have different body types and body weights. We researched PFDs that provide a wide array of available sizes to accommodate all of our water enthusiasts, no matter what size or shape.


 

Rafters wearing various PFDs on a whitewater rafting trip.

How We Picked from the Contenders


From the plethora of PFDs on the market, it was a challenge to whittle our selections down to these five winners. We were looking for PFDs that could withstand the rigors of a multitude of disciplines — from flatwater pursuits to fishing to whitewater — while reaching both novice and professional consumers, and without breaking the bank.

As we researched, we narrowed our criteria to meet five main themes: all-around, budget, fishing, women’s, and rescue.

Our winners met all of our basic criteria. Then, we judged each PDF relative to its own specific criteria. For example, for the Best Fishing PFD, it needed to meet fishing-specific needs like sufficient pockets, lash tab, a fly patch, multiple D-rings, and tool and rod holders -- all without impeding activity. For the Best Type V PFD for Rescue, we looked for safety and flotation features, coupled with multi-day comfort. Our Overall Best PFD had to have versatility across multiple disciplines, be adjustable and comfortable, and be available at a reasonable price.

 
 

To prolong the life of your PFD, inspect it annually and wash it at the end of each season.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry on Tsirku River, Haines, Alaska.

To prolong the life of your PFD, inspect it annually and wash it at the end of each season. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry on Tsirku River, Haines, Alaska.

Care and Maintenance

PFDs do not have an official life expectancy, but should be inspected annually (at least) for wear and tear that will render them unsafe. Washing your PFD at the end of every season is a great way to maximize the life of your PFD. The easiest way is to mix a bucket of warm water and dish soap, and dunk your life jacket into the bucket repeatedly. Once the PFD is saturated, rinse it in a bucket of cold, clean water and air dry. This will minimize the potential for mold or mildew to grow from river gunk, and (hopefully!) get rid of most of the river funk for the off-season.

Zippers and rescue knife attachment points are generally the first parts of a PFD to fail.

 

However, during your annual inspection, keep an eye out for these 8 potential problems:

The author wearing the NRS Vapor PFD on a packrafting trip in Nahku Bay, Dyea, Alaska.

The author wearing the NRS Vapor PFD on a packrafting trip in Nahku Bay, Dyea, Alaska.

  • Frayed, ripped, or severed straps
  • Ripped material
  • Exposed foam filling
  • Damaged buckles
  • Severely worn spots
  • Sun fading
  • Compression of foam
  • Loss of flexibility/crumbling foam
 

Here’s what the Coast Guard has to say about care and maintenance, but here’s a quick summary:

Sarah (left) wearing the Astral Layla PFD, and Josette (right) wearing the NRS Vapor on the Taiya River, Dyea, Alaska.

Sarah (left) wearing the Astral Layla PFD, and Josette (right) wearing the NRS Vapor on the Taiya River, Dyea, Alaska.

  1. Don’t alter your PFD.
  2. PFDS lose buoyancy when you place heavy objects on them (including you). Don’t sit or kneel on them.
  3. Dry your PFD thoroughly, storing somewhere well-ventilated and out of the sun
  4. Don’t store your PFD in your boat for long periods when you’re not using them
  5. Avoid drying on direct heat sources like on top of radiators or heaters
  6. Write your name on your PFD
  7. You’re legally to have a PFD in good shape on board of your boat. Test your PFD at the beginning of every boating season. Check for tears, rips, and holes. Seams, straps, and hardware can fail, so check those areas, too. Waterlogging, mildew (check the smell), or shrinkage of the buoyant materials is also a bad sign. make sure it is in good condition.
  8. If you have a PFD with kapok (a naturally buoyant material found in our Women’s Pick), squeeze to check for air leaks. If there is a leak, your PFD is no good and should be cut up and thrown away.”