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How to choose your PFD

Whether you're kayaking down whitewater rapids or canoeing around your local swimming hole, you need a personal flotation device. It's not just a good idea — it's the law! Federal regulations require every boat on the water to have on board at least 1 wearable, US Coast Guard approved PFD per person. This includes canoes and kayaks. If you're smart, though, you won't just have one on your boat, you'll have one on your body. Many states have laws requiring the wearing of PFDs in certain situations. It's your duty to know what those laws are. In the event of capsizing, having a PFD on board won't save you, but wearing it might. By the way, every vest that Lake George Kayak sells is USCG approved, so you can buy with confidence.

  1. Select a PFD based on its intended end use.

  2. Check with each state regarding their specific laws regarding the wearing of PFDs.

  3. Fit is crucial. Make sure your PFD is the right size.

  4. Proper maintenance ensures better buoyancy.

Types of PFDs

PFDs are broken down into 5 categories, based upon their intended use. Manufacturers must meet certain requirements in order to obtain USCG approval within these categories. If you are paddling, you will probably want a Type III, as they are considerably more comfortable and less bulky than their counterparts.

Type I
This offshore PFD is recommended for rough, open water. It's the "Mae West" life jacket that's found aboard ships at sea. Although it will turn most unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, it is extremely bulky, and not at all comfortable for paddling.

Type II
Designed for use near shore, where the chances of a quick rescue are likely, this is the standard bright orange "horse collar" that fits around your neck. It will turn most but not all unconscious wearers to a face-up position. This style of PFD is a bit cumbersome for paddling.

Type III
PFDs rated Type III are the most comfortable for paddling. Designed for inland water where rescue will be quick, these vests require the wearer to place himself in a face-up position in the water. The streamlined fit and large armholes offer maximum freedom of movement. Jackets in this category range from vests and pullovers to a combination of the two, with the best choice being a matter of personal comfort and preference.

Type IV
Buoyant cushions and rings that can be thrown to a swimmer fall into this category. They are intended for use in calm water with a lot of boat traffic, where help is always available. For paddling, they are best used in conjunction with a wearable PFD, as they are not USCG approved for canoe and kayak use.

Type V
These highly specialized vests are designed for specific activities such as sailing, water-skiing and paddling. They must be worn according to the instructions on the label, or they are not considered USCG approved.



The average adult needs about 7 to 12 extra pounds of flotation to keep his head out of water. In order to meet USCG requirements, Type Type III vests must offer 15 lbs. 6 oz. of flotation. Standard children's vests must provide 11 lbs., while small-child and infant vests must provide at least 7 lbs. Many PFDs exceed these requirements.


For a PFD to work properly, it must fit properly. Wearing one that doesn't fit is almost as bad not wearing one at all. If it's too large, it won't hold your head above water. If it's too small, it will be uncomfortable and you probably won't wear it anyway. When you're trying PFDs on, wear clothes you'd wear while paddling. The following steps can help you find a PFD that fits.

  • Choose a PFD based on your chest measurements.

  • Loosen all the straps, put it on and zip it up.

  • Tighten all straps, beginning with the waist-belt. Make sure the jacket is snug, but not uncomfortable. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last.

  • Now, have someone push up on the bottom of the vest or pull up on the shoulders. Does the vest easily slide up your chest? If it rides up past your nose or head, it's too large or not adjusted correctly. If retightening the straps doesn't help, try a smaller vest.

  • Once you have a vest that fits, try some paddling moves with it on. Does it bind or chafe anywhere? If so, try another brand. If it feels good, you're ready to hit the water.

Women's PFDs are a relatively new invention. They feature princess seams and/or panels that are contoured to fit the female shape. If you're having trouble fitting into a standard life vest, check these out.

Children should always wear PFDs. Some states require it by law. PFDs for infants usually have flotation collars to keep heads out of the water. They also have crotch straps that help keep the vest snugly in place. Weight ranges can help you choose which size to buy. Don't buy a vest for your child to grow into. It might not stay on in the water. Follow the adult sizing guidelines when trying them on.

If your canine likes to canoe or kayak, consider a PFD designed for dogs. Built to fit comfortably around Rover's chest and middle, a PFD can help your dog stay afloat in rough water. Look for grab loops that make it easy to pull Rover out of the drink.

Other Considerations

Some PFDs are made with ribs of foam, while others have panels. Some are pullovers while some zip up the front. The style you choose is largely a matter of personal preference. If possible, try on a few of each to determine what's most comfortable for you.

Most Type III PFDs are "shorties," meaning they are waist-length. Originally, these were designed for use with spray skirts, but over time, many paddlers found them more comfortable than the longer "skirted" vests. If you paddle a kayak or decked canoe, buy a shorty. Otherwise, buy whatever feels best to you.

If you want to keep small essentials such as lip balm or sunscreen close at hand, consider a PFD with pockets. Look for zippers and hook-and-loop closures for security. Mesh pockets drain quickly when wet.

Maintenance Tips

If you treat it right, your PFD will last for many years to come. Follow these tips to extend the life of your vest.

  • Don't use your PFD as a cushion or bumper. It will compress the foam and decrease buoyancy.

  • Rinse your PFD thoroughly after each use, especially after contact with salt water. Let it dry out before storing.

  • Don't store your PFD in the sun. UV rays can damage the nylon fabric.

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