How to Choose a PFD for Kayaking: The Complete Buying Guide

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD), or Buoyancy Aid, is your lifeline on the water. It’s the one piece of gear that should keep your head above the water when things go wrong. Just like with brakes for your car, you don’t want to scrimp on this bit of gear just to come unstuck when you need it.

You never know when you’re going to fall in. Even if you’ve kayaked thousands of times before, sometimes all it can take is a momentary lapse or a slight change in conditions for you to find yourself floating around. The last thing you need at this point is to be fighting to stay above the surface of the water, finding air. A well fitted PFD with appropriate buoyancy will help to keep you safe and alive. 

PFD, Lifejacket, or Life Vest?

You will often hear PFDs referred to as lifejackets. This is a common misnomer, even among experienced paddlers. It’s true, there are areas of paddlesport where PFDs are more like life jackets; white water rafting and children’s PFDs are two examples. 

While lifejackets are designed to maintain an airway, even on an unconscious user, PFDs are designed simply to float. They will keep you upright in the water but only so long as you put yourself there first. 

U.S. Coast Guard PFD Classification

US manufactured PFDs and lifejackets are often registered with the USCG (United States Coastguard), who have five classifications that life jackets fall into.

Type I PFDs

These have the greatest inherent buoyancy and are designed for the roughest conditions. Arguably, these are the best life jackets, as they are designed to flip any unconscious user into a vertical, slightly laid back position which maintains the airway and gives the best chance for survival.

Type II PFDs

These are designed to flip most users over onto their back, but are designed for much calmer water than Type I life jackets. These will hold you in the vertical, slightly laid back position which maintains an airway. They are usually cheaper and less bulky than Type I. 

Type III PFDs

These are lower profile and used in calmer, more recreational water. These life jackets/PFDs will hold you in a vertical position but will not flip the user onto their back and rely on the consciousness of the user. Recreational kayaking PFDs generally fall into this classification.

Type IV PFDs

This is a floatation which is not worn by the user, but is external and thrown, such as pads or life rings. 

Type V PFDs

Type V floatation is activity-specific and approval is often restricted for certain uses and environments. These are stipulated on the label and it is not suitable for other environments. Technical white water buoyancy aids would be an example of a Type V PFD.

PFD Certifications in Europe

European PFDs are subject to either a CE (Conformité Européenne / European Conformity) or an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) but many have both. There are different levels of ISO mark depending on the levels of buoyancy in a PFD.

If you want to learn more about European certifications of PFDs, check out this article, for example.

Which Type of PFD Do I Need for Kayaking? 

For the majority of recreational kayakers, a Type III PFD is perfectly adequate to keep you safe. 

For those venturing into more technical environments, a Type V PFD may have the additional safety features and buoyancy to keep you safe. 

What Makes Us Float in a PFD? 

If you look a long way back in the annals of kayaking history, PFDs were made from slabs of cork, which not only didn’t conform to any sort of body shape but perished much quicker than the modern foam alternatives. These were abolished and the classic ribbed look came about; vertical lines of foam in a zip-up PFD. These were the industry standard until recently when it was realised they, too, weren’t quite the close fit, comfortable safety equipment we needed. 

Modern PFDs are filled with closed-cell, plastic-based foams which are designed to not soak up any water. These materials last longer and conform better to individual body shapes than the older models. Holding all of this in place is newer, more durable materials; usually either polyester for lightweight models, or a mixture of nylon and Cordura for PFDs designed for more intense environments. 

This combination of modern materials means that our PFDs last a lot longer than they used to, but to maintain them, they should be stored dry and out of direct sunlight, otherwise over time both elements perish and the integrity of the gear is weakened. 

PFD Sizing and Buoyancy

PFDs have different sizes and weight ranges and you must find the right PFD for you. It’s worth trying on a few PFDs before you buy anything so that you get a feel for what will give you the most movement and comfort. 

If you look at the label on your PFD, you might be shocked at how little actual floatation they offer. Even top-end PFDs only have around 16.5lbs buoyancy. As around 60% of the human body comprises water, and much of the rest is built up of fat and tissue, we’re relatively buoyant already, hence why swimming is such a popular pastime. As a result, a floatation rating of 15.5 lbs is adequate for an individual up to 300lbs (136 kg). 

For children weighing up to 100lbs (45kg), you need a PFD with 11lbs flotation, while 7lbs is adequate for most infants. 

As well as making sure you have the right levels of buoyancy in your PFD, it needs to fit comfortably over the top of all of your paddling kit. There’s no use trying on a PFD in a t-shirt if you’re going to be paddling in a drysuit and several layers of thermals. 

If you’re not sure whether it fits you properly, here’s a couple of pointers. 

  • You should be able to breathe. This may sound obvious, but remember that long paddling trips can be aerobically intensive and you may already be constricted with your layering, so don’t add something else into the mix which is going to make it harder to breathe.
  • It shouldn’t be too much of a fight to get on and off. They may seem a bit finicky at first, but after a few uses, it should be straightforward enough to put a PFD on, whatever the design. If you find it exceptionally difficult to put on or take off, it may be the wrong model or size for you.
  • Female-specific PFDs are a relatively new addition to many companies’ ranges. These PFDs have a female-specific cut to them. As with all kit, they vary in their sizes, shapes and cut and it’s worth either trying them on or reading reviews to make sure it will fit you comfortably. 
  • Once it’s on and fastened, put your arms up in the air and have someone tug upwards on the shoulder straps. The PFD should stay securely in place. If not, it’s likely to either come off in rough water or ride up and become intrusive if you’re swimming around. Make sure you try this if you’re not sure. This is also a good test before you get on the water to make sure you’ve tightened it appropriately.

These work as general principles, but different disciplines require different types of PFDs, and even within each sub-section of kayaking, not all PFDs look even vaguely alike. 

PFD Models for Different Activities

Depending on what kind of kayaking you are doing, there are different models of PFDs. Let’s see how these models differ.

Recreational PFDs

Recreational PFDs, designed for use in calm, sheltered water, are usually lightweight and relatively low profile. To maximise functionality, they often have a zip or buckle to fasten them, allowing for easy access. Some recreational PFDs have small pockets on them, but by keeping things basic, they also keep the cost down. 

Kokatat Naidad Recreational PFD. <https://kokatat.com/naiad-lifevest-lvhnai>

Once you get into the more technical disciplines of kayaking, PFDs become a bit more sport specific. 

Sea Kayaking PFDs

Sea kayaking (and high-end touring) PFDs are ergonomically designed to make sure you remain comfortable and have enough freedom to paddle for long days on the water without anything impeding your movement. The foam usually has some shape to it, rather than simply being slabs, so that it fits snugly to your body and has a ‘wrap-around’ feel to it. Robust buckles make these PFDs highly adjustable and ensure a snug and secure fit, keeping the PFD attached to you even in rough conditions.

As with recreational PFDs, these often have zips and buckles to make them incredibly accessible, but these zips tend to be more robust to make sure the PFD stays secure in every environment. These PFDs usually have plenty of accessible pockets on them as well as a section designed for a hydration bladder. Reflective panels or strips are often included for rescue or night paddling. 

Palm Kaikoura sea kayaking PFD. <https://palmequipmenteurope.com/product/kaikoura-0>

Fishing PFDs

Fishing PFDs, similar to sea kayaking PFDs, are usually jam-packed with pockets for the enormous amount of equipment you need access to at all times. Large pockets, designed for tackle boxes, as well as smaller pockets for tools and other accessories, are commonplace, and some also include rod holders and attachments for strobes and a knife. 

These PFDs are designed to be non-intrusive and fairly low profile. Many of them also include mesh strips or panels on them, to keep you cool throughout long days on the water. Those designed for going slightly further afield also include reflective strips. 

The flotation on these PFDs is often similar to recreational PFDs which makes them versatile and they often fit a wide range of users.

NRS Chinook Fishing PFD. <https://www.nrs.com/product/40009.04/nrs-chinook-fishing-pfd>

Whitewater PFDs

Whitewater PFDs focus on maximum paddler manoeuvrability as well as a need for rescue equipment. The fit is often focused around the waist and needs to be high enough that the paddler isn’t inhibited in leaning forwards and twisting to make moves, but also low enough that their arms remain free to move comfortably. Because of this, whitewater PFDs can seem incredibly bulky and are often not desirable for any other discipline. 

Like sea kayaking PFDs, they have enormous amounts of adjustment and are designed to stay firmly attached even in the roughest situations. For comfort and sometimes added protection, they have a wrap-around feel to them. This is also essential for rescue situations. 

Technical whitewater PFDs come with a quick-release ‘rescue harness’, designed for attaching the user to a rope in certain rescue scenarios. The pressure from this must be dispersed around the PFD to avoid causing rib injuries. 

Whitewater PFDs will usually have one or two pockets for storing rescue gear and these should be easily accessible. 

Astral Green Jacket, whitewater PFD. <https://www.astraldesigns.com/shop/life-jackets/pfds/greenjacket>

Paddleboarding PFDs

Paddleboarding PFDs are the exception to the inflatable rule, but then again so are paddleboards. They’re the one sport you will often see people not wearing anything which is obviously a PFD, and that’s because you usually have your board to hold on to like a surfer. If you fall in, simply grab your board and climb back on. 

However, paddleboards are being used in more technical and demanding environments than ever before and whitewater paddleboarding has become increasingly popular. If you plan to take your paddleboard onto raging rivers, have a look at the whitewater PFD section above, and consider one of those. 

If you are using your paddleboard on open water, it’s still a good idea to have a PFD on hand in case your board goes off on an adventure of its own. Waist mounted, inflatable PFDs are an emergency option. They are not automatically deployed, like many inflatable lifejackets, but rely on a toggle being pulled. Once activated, a full-size lifejacket is inflated, which you can place around your neck and fit as shown in aeroplane safety talks. These are perfect for users out at sea or in remote situations.

Palm Glide Waist-band PFD. <https://palmequipmenteurope.com/product/glide-1>

Kids’ PFDs

Kids’ PFDs are often designed to make kayaking and the wearing of safety gear as fun and comfortable as possible. These often have a similar look to lifejackets and are designed to spin children face up in the water if they float, while also allowing them to swim around comfortably. 

They will often have a handle on them for lifting the young person out of the water, as well as many adjustable straps which mean it is usable for a few years, rather than them growing out of it immediately. Many come with crotch straps, which are an extra way to prevent the PFD from riding up and making sure it stays secure. 

Peak UK Kidz Zip. <https://www.peakuk.com/pfd?product_id=503>

So what’s the best PFD?

The best PFD is the one you’re going to wear. This guide should give you enough information to decide on the features, fit and floatation you need, but at the end of the day, if you’re not wearing it, it won’t be keeping you afloat.

Moose started his paddling life on the ponds and rivers in the south east of England. He has slowly worked his way north and has spent the last few years working his way through all things Scottish. As well as being a very experienced and knowledgeable coach and guide across Scotland and the rest of the UK, he spent a summer in Norway and a month in Nepal; apparently they weren’t bad.

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