How To Buy a PFD

A PFD, or personal flotation device, is a padded vest that helps you stay afloat in the water. If the fact that a PFD might save your life one day doesn’t convince you to add one to your paddling kit then consider that most states require one by law and the ticket will probably be more expensive than the device. But safety should be your primary motivator when shopping—especially if you’re going to be paddling big water. This guide will help you learn how to choose the best PFD for your needs.

The US Coast Guard defines the laws for PFDs and to be legal they must feature a USCG approval number. State laws inform you of the type of PFD you have to wear while performing different water sports. Children under the age of 13 must wear one while in a watercraft. The primary categories you want to consider when buying a PFD online are Sizing, and Materials, and Rating.

Sizing: The size and fit of your PFD determine whether or not it will stay on when the water gets big and the going gets rough.

Chest measurements determine adult sizes, while weight determines the sizes of children’s’ devices. The PFD should fit close but not so tight that it constricts movement. PFDs designed specifically for women are available and may improve comfort for female users. These particular vests tend to have more room in the bust area, have longer torso options, and are more tailored for a woman’s body. Each PFD has a different design and foam placement to fit specific curves of the body.


Materials: PFDs are predominately made of nylon or Cordura outer shell with foam padding inserted between the shell walls. The foam is generally made of gaia, kapok, or PVC.

Gaia: Gaia is foam based on an organic nitrile compound. Being PVC, CFC, and halogen free makes it an eco-friendly material.  It is softer than PVC foam and combats heat and cold well. It is easy to clean and its low density keeps it light without faltering in performance.

Kapok: Kapok is a fluffy fiber surrounding the seeds of the kapok tree. Great aspects of this material are its water resistance and durability. It never loses its buoyancy and it is compostable.

PVC: PVC is the most commonly used in PFDs. Made of polyvinyl-chloride, it is resistant to oil, flames, and sunlight. When retiring a vest made of PVC, because it contains both oil and chlorine, it is not easily recycled.


Rating: The United States Coast Guard has put out an approval rating for different PFDs. The different types are significant to different devices.

Type I: Type I PFDs are best for any type of water. They are considered an “off-shore life jacket” and are best for when recue may take a while to arrive. These tend to leave the unconscious wearer face up and give the most reliable flotation. Because these are made for rough waters, they’re bulkier than Type II-IV.

Type II: Type II PFDs are considered “near-shore life jackets” and are used for everyday boating activities. These are mainly used on calm, inland bodies of water where rescue would be fast.

Type III: PFDs are considered “flotation aids.” Type III PFD typically outlines what sport it is intended. For instance, the PFD might say, “Best for Paddle Sports” on the label. These are mainly used on calm, inland bodies of water where rescue would be fast.

Type V: PFDs are considered “special use devices” and are specified on their labels and tell of limited use. These can not be used for everyday boating depending on the tag such as inflatable PFDs, deck suits, kayak vests, and rescue devices.