Life Jackets and PFDs: How to Choose

19059179_10211596904291832_6381725219174709833_n.jpg

Life Jackets and PFDs: How to Choose


At the end of the day, only you can pick the PFD for you. You know what kind of water you want to be on, your activity level, and your body type. Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, swimming, whitewater, packrafting, or more, there’s a life jacket or PFD for what you’re doing. PFDs are much like t-shirts — anyone can hand you a “good” tshirt, but only you can find your favorite-everyday-tee. Knowing how to fit your PFD makes it more likely that you’ll find a new favorite.

Here are 6 things to consider when choosing your life jacket or PFD.

What are you using a PFD for?

Are you a flatwater kayaker looking to get into whitewater? Are you a canoer who’s about to embark on a friend’s rafting trip down the Grand Canyon? Are you looking for something to wear on an inner tube down the lazy river? Take into consideration the highest level of activity that you might participate in. For example, if you’re a flatwater kayaker who wants to get into running rivers, look for a low-profile Type III PFD. You’ll have plenty of buoyancy to paddle the river, while maintaining enough mobility (and lack of bulk) to continue kayaking on flatwater. If you’re  looking to take your SUP out on the lake with your kids, then a budget-friendly Type I may be perfect for you.

Choose a PFD that allows the best range of motion for your body.

Choose a PFD that allows the best range of motion for your body.

How often will you be wearing a PFD?

If you’re going to be on the water more than a handful of times in a summer, it may be worth it to upgrade. For professional water guides, a PFD is like a second skin — it goes everywhere with you. It may be worth it to fork over $200+ for a piece of equipment that you will use daily. For the avid weekend warrior, a $100 PFD may be the perfect intersection of price point and performance.

Look at the design. Will you be wearing your PFD often? If that’s the case, choose one that allows for the best range of motion for your body type. Thinner shoulder straps may allow you more mobility, but may also be more uncomfortable for long stretches of time.

Are often cold or headed to cool waters? You may want to invest in Neoprene, which is more expensive but a useful comfort upgrade for most folks.

Consider the type of activities you’ll be doing when choosing a PFD .

Consider the type of activities you’ll be doing when choosing a PFD.

Are you a curvy person?

Ladies, design matters. As a well-endowed woman, the author can testify that not all PFDs are created equal.

Women’s PFDs are designed for a reason — fitting a PFD to your body correctly means we have to take the girls into account.

Women’s PFDs are built with breast cups, or at least curved in the right places. They are also (generally) more adjustable around the chest and shoulders than neutral or male-designed PFDs. It’s worth it.





Are you going fishing?

For those looking to spend more time casting than paddling, a fishing-specific life jacket may be a better option than a water-sport-specific PFD. These PFDs come with more pockets and attachment points than your average PFD, and are designed to keep your fishing gear out of the way while rowing or paddling.

Does your personal flotation device fit? Some women prefer a PFD specifically designed for women.   Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Does your personal flotation device fit? Some women prefer a PFD specifically designed for women. Photo courtesy Aaron Henry.

Do you see yourself becoming serious about water sports?

For those who are looking to step up their water game, a Type V (specialty use) is the best option. Rescue professionals, river guides, and those who spend a lot of time in bigger/more technical waters steer themselves towards Type V PFDs. Most Type V PFDs are designed for rescue scenarios.

Features of Type V PFDs:

  • equipped with a “safety release belt”

  • a ring in the back to attach a safety line

  • some even have a front attachment for a belay device



While more expensive and bulkier than other PFDs, you may want to consider looking into a Type V if your interests lie in bigger water.

Does your PFD fit?

This is so important in determining whether you’ll love or hate your new PFD that we dedicated a whole section to it. Read on for how to get those buckles and ties to work for you.

Read our Full Guide on Best Life Jackets and PFDs for details on which PFDs we recommend and why.


HOW TO PROPERLY FIT A PFD

It’s all well and good to own a PFD, but it’s pointless to wear one if it’s not fitted properly.

NRS released a video explaining how to fit a PFD so that it’s safe, comfortable and functional. Once you buy your PFD, test it at home using this process before taking it in the water:

  • Check the manufacturer’s sizing charts and/or recommendations. PFDs are sized by chest circumference, with most difference in sizes lying only with the lengths of straps.

Check the life jacket manufacturer’s sizing charts, as all companies are different.

Check the life jacket manufacturer’s sizing charts, as all companies are different.

  • Loosen all of the straps on the PFD before putting it on. Buckle, zip, or pull on your PFD. Then, work from the bottom up — tighten your lowest strap first, and work your way up to your shoulders. This way, you avoid strapping the PFD too high on your chest (which happens when you start from the neck, and work your way down). When purchasing a PFD, you want to make sure you have some extra length left on the straps for layering on colder days. If you don’t have room, you may need to size up. If the straps are too long, you may need a smaller size.

  • To test the fit, use the buddy system. With your arms raised, have a buddy tug the shoulder straps up, as if they were pulling you up and out of the water. (They might have to, one day!) If it slides up, tighten the torso straps again. If it continues to slide up, you may need to choose a different size. If a smaller size doesn’t cut it, you may need to look for a different PFD altogether.

  • The final test - pretend you’re on the water! Move your arms, grab a paddle and pretend you’re taking on your next rapid. Reach around and make sure you can adjust, twist your torso, and sit down comfortably. Better to take a few minutes and look like a dork than be uncomfortable for hours on the water!