Whether you call them lifevests, lifejackets or PFDs (personal flotation devices) — what is important is that you wear one while kayaking. We will call them PFDs for purposes of this blog post. Wearing a PFD will help keep you afloat when you end up in the water, either intentionally or not.
Even if you’re a good swimmer you should still wear a properly fitted and environment-appropriate PFD. Cold water, aerated water or situations where you might bump your head and become unconscious are all scenarios where a PFD can mean the difference between life and death.
In the US you are required by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to have an appropriate PFD close at hand while kayaking. The following are the basic USCG PFD rules:
- Have at least one USCG approved Type I, II, III or V PFD per person,
- PFD must be appropriately sized for intended wearer,
- Must be in good and serviceable condition, and
- Must be readily accessible, meaning you are able to put the PFD on quickly in an emergency.
While the law does not require you to ‘wear’ your PFD while kayaking, it is highly recommended you do so. This is especially true if you are paddling in rough water, cold water, are new to kayaking or not a great swimmer.
Type USCG certified Type III and V are the most common PFD types used in kayaking. They tend to be the most comfortable, best suited for sitting in a kayak and are relatively easy to swim in.
A Type III PFD is by far the most common type of kayak lifejacket. Type III come in a wide variety of styles and shapes, which are specifically designed to work well with different styles of kayaking. Some Type III are inflatable, which can be extremely comfortable and cool. But they may also require regular maintenance with CO cartridge replacement or not be suitable some types of kayaking. Best to read the details.
Type V are special use PFDs that also meet all the requirements of a Type III. In kayaking you will find many youth and swift-water rescue PFDs to be Type V.
While PFDs are all about keeping you afloat, you generally don’t need to worry about the buoyancy. The average person only needs 7-12 lbs of floatation to stay afloat, and USCG certified kayaking PFDs provide 15.5 to 22 lbs of floatation.
The real key to buying the right PFD is getting one that fits you properly and provides enough mobility to allow you to kayak with the least restriction. Adult PFD sizing is based on chest size, not weight. Measure the circumference of your chest at its broadest point to get your chest measurement. Use this number to determine your correct size, based on each PFD manufacture’s sizing recommendations.
Women might want to consider a women’s specific PFD, as they typically will fit a women’s body better than a unisex one. Contoured cups at the bust line and different PFD foam patterns help to make these PFD fit more appropriately to a women’s torso.
Type Of Kayaker
The type of kayaking you do will greatly point you in the direction of which PFD will best suit your needs. There are special use PFDs, like the NRS Chinook for kayak fishing, and some PFDs, like the Astral Ringo, that are well suited for most types of kayaking.
If you are a whitewater kayaker you might want to consider the Stohlquist Rocker or the Kokatat Maximus Centurion. These PFDs are extremely durable, are easy to swim in and allow for maximum mobility.
Once you’ve picked the right PFD for your needs and budget it is important to take care of that PFD, maximizing its useful life. Sun light, salt water and dirt are the main factors that will degrade a PFD. If you paddle in salt water it is best to rinse your PFD with fresh water after each use. Be sure to hang your PFD up to dry thoroughly after each use, and store it in a dry area away from sunlight. A favorite pastime of many kayakers is to use their PFD as a changing mat, keeping dirt off their feet, but this will greatly reduce the lifespan of your PFD.
Is it time for a new PFD?
Once you’ve owned a PFD for some time you might notice that the materials start to look a bit faded. The stitching starts to come undone, the foam begins to shift around and the padding starts to retain water. Once you notice these signs it is probably time to consider a new PFD for your kayaking adventures.
There is no generally accepted rule as to how long a PFD should last because there are so many factors that effect a PFD’s longevity. However, a well taken care of, high quality PFD should last about 5 years or 300 use days.
Bonus Safety Tip
The USCG also requires all kayakers to carry an efficient sound-producing device, such as a whistle or horn that is audible for at least one-half mile. Not only is this required, but a really good idea. A great option is to attach a loud whistle, like the Fox 40 Classic, to the zipper pull on your PFD. That way it is always readily accessible.