The entire Boating Beast team loves boating, and we love to share that passion with everyone who’s excited about stepping into the very exciting world of water sports — but sometimes, it’s best not to lead with optimism. As cool as boating is, it’s also occasionally dangerous, and especially as an inexperienced boater, you may not see the danger coming.
To have fun boating — that is, to spend time with a boat (or a paddle board, for that matter), the water, and perhaps your friends or family, too, in any recreational capacity — you have to put safety first.
Even if you’re an adrenaline junkie, let’s acknowledge that boating comes with just enough risk to make it exciting for you even if you do absolutely everything right. If you don’t, the risk that any given boating trip could be your last increases exponentially.
Placing your safety, and that of everyone else you may go boating with, at the center of your adventure requires you to familiarize yourself with, and practice, a wide variety of different skills. No matter what kind of boating you are engaging in, though, one thing will always stay the same.
If you’re in the US, and many other developed nations, you’ll legally be required to have one personal flotation device onboard for every single person — and in many cases, wearing that personal flotation device the entire time is an excellent idea, even if it’s not legally mandatory.
Think that’s overkill? It isn’t.
If you’re just here to figure out what kind of personal flotation device is best for you and your loved-ones, and how to make sure the PFD fits correctly, you can skip this part.
- What’s a PFD?
- Types of Personal Flotation Devices (Coast Guard Classifications)
- PFD Styles & Their Pros and Cons
- Factors to Consider While Choosing Your PFD
- PFD Design: What Else Should You Keep in Mind?
- How to Make Sure Your Personal Flotation Device Fits Properly
- Personal Flotation Devices for Children
- In Conclusion
Why Wear a PFD?
- It can take mere seconds to drown.
- An average of 11 Americans die from drowning every single day, and that includes drowning fatalities related to boating.
- Many boating-related drowning fatalities can be prevented — by wearing a correctly-fitting PFD of the right type. The US Coast Guard has reported, as an example, that 86 percent of people who died from drowning while boating were not wearing a personal flotation device.
- Boating fatalities have been on the rise in the United States. The year 2020 saw a 25 percent rise in boating-related deaths (not all of which are drownings, but most of which are).
- The most common types of watercraft to be involved in fatal or other serious boating accidents include open motorboats, cabin motorboats, kayaks, and pontoons.
- On a multi-person vessel, operators should always take a boating safety course before transporting others; 77 percent of fatal accidents occurred in cases where this had not happened.
- Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly, fully half of fatal boating accidents don’t just occur close to shore, but also on vessels where personal flotation devices are onboard, but not being worn.
The lesson here? Do not just go to great lengths to make sure you choose the right PFD. Once you have that perfect personal flotation device, also commit to wearing it; no matter how annoying it may be. Wearing your PFD could one day save your life.
With those shameless but unquestionably warranted scare tactics out of the way, we can acknowledge that choosing a good personal flotation device is challenging. There are so many different types and styles to choose from, after all, and not all are suitable for every situation.
This guide serves to make the process of choosing a PFD a little easier for you — so that you can stay safe on the water and have the time of your life while you’re boating, kayaking and paddle boarding!
What’s a PFD?
PFD stands for “personal flotation device”. This term exists because “life jacket” or “life vest” just doesn’t cover all the options out there, and traditional life jackets aren’t necessarily the best choice for every water sport.
The term “personal flotation device” covers any product that is designed to keep the wearer, user, or recipient buoyant in an emergency situation, thereby going a long way toward saving them from drowning.
When you are deciding what kind of personal flotation device is right for you (and perhaps other members of your household, such as children and even pets), there are two basic ways to begin looking at your options.
Examine the styles and features of a PFD, and the way in which the manufacturer refers to them, but also consult the US Coast Guard’s recreational boating PFD selection, which is currently divided into four distinct types.
Types of Personal Flotation Devices (Coast Guard Classifications)
The US Coast Guard divides personal flotation devices into types based on the purpose they can serve in the water. Understanding this classification is helpful as you decide what kind of PFD would best serve your needs.
Type I PFDs are also called off-shore life jackets — and these personal flotation devices often feature a large collar situated just behind the wearer’s neck, which serves to naturally cause their face to stay out of the water, even while they are unconscious.
Type I PFDs should be used on open waters such as oceans or rough seas, especially in cases where emergency response teams may not be able to arrive on-site quickly. Type I PFDs can again be subdivided into several categories. Some of them are inherently buoyant, while other off-shore life jackets are inflatable, for example.
Type II personal flotation devices are also called near-shore buoyant vests. These life vests have many of the same features as type I PFDs, but are slightly less bulky and aren’t designed to have the potential to be worn quite as long. Near-shore buoyant vests are, therefore, mainly intended to be worn on calmer waters, and fairly close to the shore — or in other words, in situations where wearers can reasonably expect to be rescued fairly rapidly if the need were to arise.
Type III PFDs, also called flotation aids, are also very often referred to as life vests. They have little in common with the heavy-duty life jackets you’ll find in types I and II, though, and paddlers or people engaging in any kind of active water sport can continuously wear them with a much greater degree of ease. Some of these personal flotation devices are inherently buoyant, while others need to be inflated for them to perform their function. Some fall into a hybrid category.
If you’re looking for a personal flotation device to wear while you are kayaking, fishing, stand up paddle boarding, water skiing, or canoeing, there is a good chance that you will end up choosing a type III PFD to keep safe. Some type III personal flotation devices are marketed and sold as being “general purpose” PFDs, while others are designed with a specific water sport in mind.
Type V PFDs are also referred to as special use devices. These personal flotation devices are, as the name already suggests, designed to be worn during specific water sports activities, and approved for use as such. A very wide variety of Type V PFDs can be found on the market, but each of them is applicable only in a very particular situation.
Examples include man-overboard rescue devices (also called crew-overboard rescue devices) to be used after someone goes overboard, deck suits, work vests to be worn on commercial vessels, kayak or canoe vests, and hybrid/inflatable personal flotation devices. It is important to note that some type V personal flotation devices are only approved as safe (and legal) when they are actively being worn.
The take home message? The world of personal flotation devices is more complex than you could ever have imagined before becoming an avid boater, and quite fascinating. If you are a recreational boater, and especially if you are operating a small vessel to practice water sports, however, you likely won’t need to become intimately familiar with all of these options. Most boaters will want a type III or type V PFD to keep them safe while they are paddling.
With that in mind, the next section will entirely be devoted to choosing a type III or type personal flotation device.
PFD Styles & Their Pros and Cons
Safety is your top priority, and you are committed to getting a well-fitting personal flotation device that’s been approved for the water sport you’re going to engage in — but, as a responsible boater, your comfort and agility still matter, too. Most paddlers will be able to choose from a wide selection of type III and type V PFDs. Which one might be right for you?
Full-Coverage Life Vests
Full-coverage life vests that fall into type III cover your entire torso. They snugly fit around your upper body, providing small openings for your arms to fit through and zipping up all the way to your neck. In addition to a zip, these vests buckle up to prevent them from becoming loose.
Who are full-coverage life vests great for? Full-coverage life vests are the PFDs of choice for folks who are into high-impact water sports. That includes jet skiing and wakeboarding, for example. These vests don’t just have the potential to keep you alive if you find yourself in trouble, but they can also protect you from impact. Some models are additionally designed to keep the wearer warm or cool, depending on the climate conditions.
Standard Life Vests
These handy multi-purpose life vests will not cover your entire torso, focusing on the chest area. They have larger arm openings and do not zip all the way up to the neck. This kind of type III personal flotation device is best for people who will be paddling or fishing, as they allow for a greater range of motion.
Low-Profile Life Vests
Low-profile life bests cover an even smaller area of your body when compared to standard life vests, and essentially consist of a back and front with straps to keep the PFD in place. This kind of personal flotation device has one strong advantage — it is designed with your comfort and range of motion in mind, so after a few uses, you’ll be able to adapt to wearing it continually without being too bothered by its presence.
On the downside, low-profile life vests are also the least effective. They can best be described as “type III lite”, as they just barely meet the requirements for this classification. Low-profile vests are only buoyant in a few key areas and are best for excellent swimmers exploring very safe waters close to the shore.
Inflatable Belt PFDs
Inflatable belts are special flotation devices — that is, type V — that will serve the same purpose as a type III PFD under the right circumstances. As the name suggests, the user wears this type of PFD as a belt (or a fanny pack), making inflatable belts extremely comfortable. This type of personal flotation device will never get in your way while you’re paddle boarding or fishing (or SUP fishing, of course), and won’t make you sweat, either.
If that sounds great so far, that’s because it can be. Inflatable belts do have serious disadvantages, however. Using them correctly takes a lot of practice, and that’s not just limited to inflating them (which is fairly easy) but also remaining buoyant. To remain functional, inflatable belts need maintenance, which includes arming them after each use. Only the best swimmers should even consider inflatable belts, which are not suitable for children.
Factors to Consider While Choosing Your PFD
After reading about your basic options, you may now have a better idea as to what personal flotation device you may choose — but please hold off on shopping for your brand new PFD just a little longer, because there is more to consider.
Should You Choose an Inherently Buoyant or Inflatable PFD?
“Standard” — or, to stick to the technical jargon, inherently buoyant — personal flotation devices are made with a special foam that will always provide buoyancy when the wearer needs it, without having to take any additional steps to make the personal flotation device work. They are more bulky, which makes standard life vests a popular choice for paddlers in colder climates, and can also provide some protection if the wearer is engaging in high-impact water sports.
Inflatable PFDs are worn in their deflated state. This makes them more comfortable for the wearer, especially in hotter climate conditions. It also offers a wider range of motion. Basically, these vests function as typical vests unless and until the wearer inflates them.
The main Downside is that they require the wearer to activate them, by pulling on a cord. For this mechanism to work, an inflatable is armed using a CO2 canister. If the PFD is never deployed, it will still have to be rearmed at least once a year, and users also need to keep an eye out for signs of rust. It is also good to know that inflatable life vests primarily provide buoyancy in the chest area. Therefore, while they keep the wearer afloat, they also make it harder to swim to safety.
The riskier the water sport, the more sense it makes to choose a standard life vest that will always be buoyant and does not require much maintenance.
Should You Choose a PFD with Neoprene?
Neoprene is a unique material that adds to the wearer’s buoyancy as well as helping them to preserve heat in cooler weather conditions — not only when you’re in trouble, but as a matter of course. This material is also incredibly stretchy, and many people find neoprene life vests to be very comfortable.
PFD Design: What Else Should You Keep in Mind?
- Some personal flotation devices have mesh backs. These are great for kayakers, as they allow for the wearer to be comfortably seated in a kayak. Thin back life vests feature more material on the back, though it is still very thin. These life vests are another good option for kayakers.
- Also keep the kind of closure your personal flotation device has in mind. Some are pull-over. This adds to the wearer’s range of motion, but because the design also makes it nearly impossible to don the vest while in the water, these PFDs have to be worn at all times to be considered appropriate. Other PFDs feature front zips with buckles, or zips on the sides. These are slightly more restrictive but will not (legally) have to be worn at all times. Continuous wear is still highly recommended, though!
- If you’re only looking for a PFD for one particular water sport, keep in mind that specialized personal flotation devices geared to the types of movements you will make, and other things you may need, are on the market. Exploring these PFDs is always a good idea.
- If you’re female, it is usually best to shop for a personal flotation device specifically designed with women’s bodies in mind. If you’re pregnant, it’s important to note that no specialized maternity PFDs have been put on the market as of yet. You still have options, but will always need to make sure the PFD meets your needs, with an adjustable fit.
How to Make Sure Your Personal Flotation Device Fits Properly
Personal flotation devices can be found for sale online as well as in brick and mortar stores — and while online shopping can be a good choice, that’s only true if you can return the PFD if it doesn’t fit right. When in doubt, head for a well-stocked physical store that offers a wide variety of personal flotation devices, and ask an expert salesperson to help you assess the fit.
A personal flotation device that fits properly:
- Has a snug fit. In the case of a belt, it should not be able to slip off while you’re active out on the water. Life vests should not worm their way up your face when you sit down, and the space around the arm openings should be snug, too.
- Isn’t too tight. If getting your PFD zipped is a true nightmare, and you feel like you can barely breathe while you are wearing it, you need a larger personal flotation device.
- Can withstand a few tugs without riding up — have someone test this for you before you buy!
- Is the right size. Every PFD will fit slightly differently, which has more to do with body type than with size, but the personal flotation device you buy should also be consistent with your size and weight. (Don’t worry; this won’t affect the PFD’s potential for buoyancy at all!)
Personal Flotation Devices for Children
Children’s personal flotation devices are categorized according to the weight of the child. Kids grow quickly, and while parents may be used to buying slightly oversized clothes that they can grow into over time, a PFD should always fit correctly.
The smallest boaters will need a life vest that is fitted with a strap between the legs to keep the flotation device in place. Older children will not need this feature, but in either case, do the tug test and make sure that the personal flotation device does not move out of place when subjected to a little upward force.
This guide to choosing a personal flotation device should get you a lot closer to making your final decision — but, believe it or not, there’s even more to learn about PFDs. Learning about the ins and outs of personal flotation devices may not be the most exciting part of boating, but because it may well save your life one day, ensuring that you get the right PFD and know how to use it properly is well worth it!