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.