Finding the right PFD for you
A personal floatation device, or PFD, is arguably the most important piece of gear for any paddler. Choosing gear of the utmost importance can be challenging when faced with the myriad of options offered by different manufacturers and models. This guide is designed to assist the paddler, regardless of paddling sport, in finding a PFD, that will not only be of optimal performance for the intended use, but also fit comfortably.
Safety first- always. The first thing to consider when shopping for a PFD is the USCG buoyancy rating for the intended activity. For recreational paddling on lakes, oceans, and rivers, it is required in many areas to have a USCG Type III, a minimum 15.5lbs of floatation for adults or 11lbs for kids, or USCG Type V, which denotes a “special use” vest and includes rescue specific, high floatation, inflatable PFD, and commercial customer PFDs. Type V’s can have between 15.5-22lbs floatation for adults and 11-15.5 for kids. As the USCG is in the process of moving away from PFD “type” categorization and towards “intended use” categorization, further elaboration on the types is not necessary. For now, all that is necessary for the inquiring paddler to know is she/he needs a type III, unless he/she requires additional floatation or a specialty vest, such as a rescue specific PFD, in which case a type V will be needed. Type I and II vests are not recommended for moving water use. Type IV devices are throwable type devices and may be required as backup flotation on permitted river trips for boats 16 feet or longer.
Fit and Sizing
Adult PFDs are sized by chest measurement and can vary by manufacturer and model. Each manufacturer has a size chart listed on their website.
One of the most important criteria for finding the right PFD is comfort- a PFD is only useful if it is worn at the time of need, and people are more likely to wear her/his vest if it fits comfortably. Of course, everybody is different and certain models will fit certain body types better than other, thus the best way to find the perfect size and fit for the individual is to physically try on each prospective vest.
When trying on a PFD, loosen all of the straps to their limit, then adjust all of the straps (starting with the lowest and moving up to the highest) so that the vest sits in the desired position as well as fits snugly. The vest should be comfortably snug. If the straps are tightened to maximum capacity and is still does not fit snugly, then it is too large. Obviously, if your vest is loosened to its maximum capacity and fits snugly, or there is no room to adjust for potential layering gear, then the vest is too small. The perfect fit will leave ample room for layering gear as well as being able to wear the vest with minimal clothing. To ensure the vest fits properly, one should fix her/his thumbs under the shoulder straps and push upward- if the vest rides up significantly, then it is too loose. If it remains in place, it fits correctly.
A women’s specific PFD has shorter panels (as women tend to be shorter through the torso than men), offer more room through the chest, and typically come in more feminine colors and designs. Female paddlers do not necessarily need to limit their selection to a women’s specific vest, and often times find that the unisex vests fit well, however, women’s specific vest tend to fit better and offer more comfort for a curvy, feminine figure. The Astral Layla is an excellent women’s specific vest offering the optimum comfort for the curvy lady paddler.
Kids PFDs are sized by weight and are categorized as:
- Infant: < 30 lbs.
- Child: 30-50 lbs.
- Youth: 50-90lbs.
Beyond weight, it is very important to ensure the vest is a snug fit on your child and will not slip off while in the water. To do you, pull on the shoulder straps while the PFD is on the child. As with adult fitting, it should remain in place and not ride up or slide off over the head. For kids in the “infant” and “child” category, it is highly advisable that the PFD have a leg strap to ensure that the vest will not slide off over the head, as well as head supporting collars. The Stohlquist Nemo is a great example of such a vest.
PFDs by Activity
After the determination of the USCG type necessary to be on the water, the next step is to find a design that will maximize utility for the intended activity.
Whitewater Kayak / Raft / SUP
Whether paddling a kayak or SUP, rowing a raft, ect., these activities require freedom of mobility through the shoulders. To accommodate this freedom of motion, whitewater paddlers should look for a vest with an unrestrictive cut and a low-profile. Other things to consider are: multiple straps for adjustment to ensure a great fit, attachment points for securing knives, watches, and other objects, and a pocket for storing items that should be quickly and easily accessible. The Stohlquist Rocker and the Astral Blue Jacket are great examples of such vests.
Low-profile vests for freestyle kayaking or SUP river surfing should be mentioned. Paddlers in this category typically prefer vests that are as low-profile and lightweight as possible. To accommodate these desires, one can forego extra features and look for a stripped-down minimalist vest. The Astral YTV and the NRS Ninja are superb options for this category.
A paddler might prefer a high-floatation PFD if she/he desires a faster resurface time than that of a regular type III vest. These vests are great for paddling big water or for paddlers with high muscle density and are equipped with approximately 20-22lbs of floatation, whereas, a regular type III generally has about 16.5lbs floatation. High-float vests have larger panels and tend to be more bulky, thus many paddlers opt out of the high floatation for the sake of comfort and range of motion. The NRS Big Water Guide and the Stohlquist Kahuna are great high-float options.
As a paddler advances into high-class whitewater, a rescue specific Type V vest should be taken into consideration. 4CRS highly recommends taking a swiftwater rescue course prior to purchasing to learn how to properly use a rescue vest. Type V’s are equipped with tow tethers, quick release belts, tie-ins, and with webbing and sewing that meets climbing grade standards for belays and live-bait rescues. To name a few, the Stohlquist Descent and the Astral Green Jacket are excellent options for the swiftwater rescue technician or advanced level paddlers.
Recreation and Fishing Kayak / SUP / Canoeing
Recreational/fishing kayak paddlers in this category should look for a vest with large armholes to accommodate the shoulder range of motion when paddling. A mesh backing (such as the Stohlquist Fisherman), or diminished back panels (featured on the Astral Linda or Ronny) are to be desired, not only to keep the vest from interfering with a seat back, but also to orient the paddler in a face-up position in the water in case of an unconscious swim. Pockets in a variety of shapes and sizes are a necessity for the angler, and a vest such as the Astral Ronny Fisher or the aforementioned Stohlquist Fisherman offer spacious storage space. If the paddler finds her/himself in a lake with motorized traffic, bright colors and reflective tape on a vest helps with visibility.
Flatwater recreational stand up paddleboarding requires a low-profile vest as to not interfere with paddle movements with spacious armholes for full range of shoulder movement. A few great options are the Astral YTV, the NRS Ninja, and the Astral Norge or Abba. If preferred the SUPer is planning on paddling on lakes with motorized traffic, brightly colored vests and reflective tapes aides with visibility. In cases where the SUPer does not wish to wear a vest (whether it be the SUP yogi or those concerned about comfort or vanity) an inflatable PFD, such as the Astral Airbelt or the NRS Zephyr, is a viable option.
Finding the right PFD for you is paramount for your own safety. Find a PFD of the correct type that fits comfortably enough to wear properly and snug for extended periods of time is the most important aspect of purchasing a vest. Beyond type and fit, look for something that is designed with the kind of use you have in mind, with the features you want (like pockets, thin backs, low-cut or rescue hardware) and in the colors and price point that are attractive to you.