How to Choose the Right Lifejacket (so You’ll Actually Wear It)

How to Choose the Right Lifejacket (so You’ll Actually Wear It)
Photo: Klara_Steffkova, Shutterstock

One of the things I realised when I got my first kayak was that I was also going to need to buy my own PFD, or personal flotation device. When you rent a boat, the staff usually hands you a lifejacket, and you try to ignore how awkward it is while you try to have fun on your boat. But now that you get to buy your own, you can consider your options.

Why you need a personal flotation device

The Coast Guard recommends that every recreational vessel contain a PFD for each person aboard — and yes, this includes paddle boards. Other laws and regulations might also apply: For example, in a state park, you’ll need to follow park rules. In general, children and non-swimmers should wear a PFD whenever they’re out on the water; adults who can swim don’t have to wear one, but you should still have one on board.

PFD’s made for adults don’t always fit children, so plan ahead. Even before I had my own boat, I owned several child-size, Coast Guard-approved lifejackets. That way, I could take my toddler son out on a family canoe trip without worrying about whether the rental place would have one in his size. Kid PFD’s are also great to use in swimming pools.

PFDs come in different styles

Legally, PFDs are required to carry big, clear labels saying what kind they are and who they are for. Kids’ lifejackets will be labelled as such, with appropriate weights: Infant PFDs go up to 30 pounds (13kg), child PFDs are for 30 to 50 pounds (13-23 kg), and youth PFDs are for 50 to 90 pounds (23-40 kg). Above that, they can start wearing adult models.

This Coast Guard pamphlet discusses the features of different types of PFDs. There are ones cut for kayaking with plenty of room to move your shoulders. There are hunting PFDs with mesh and camo, and ones that will keep you warm in cold water. There are PFDs that will inflate automatically, and others that will inflate when you pull a string.

Consider which kind you need

The minimalist styles are appealing if you don’t want to wear a whole lifejacket but also think it’s silly to just have a PFD on your boat (which it is — the Coast Guard notes in their pamphlet that in most boating fatalities in calm water, the person who died had a lifejacket on board). But you have to be honest with yourself about whether they actually make sense for you.

I have one of these, a belt style that manually inflates. In an emergency, I would have to pull the cord, and a CO2 cartridge would puff up a yellow bag inside. This bag, when inflated, would sit like a bib in front of my chest, and I would attach a strap on the bib around my neck. That’s a lot to do in an emergency, so this style is only recommended for people who are already good swimmers and who don’t expect to be taken by surprise (for example, knocked off a boat). Then again, who does?

I also have a paddling style vest, and it’s definitely the better choice for most situations. If I fell out of my boat and couldn’t get back in, it would keep me afloat so I wouldn’t have to spend all my energy treading water, and it might even help a bit to keep me warm.

Children’s PFDs have a few extra features beyond adult versions: they have a strap that goes between the legs so a kid can’t slip out of their vest, and they have a handle on the top so you can pull a kid out of the water if needed. Many kids’ models, and some adult models, include a head pillow that could help to keep you face up if you’re floating for a long time, or even if you’re unconscious.

There’s more to water safety than just wearing a PFD, but wearing a well-chosen and well-fitted PFD gets you off to a good start. As the Coast Guard points out, the best PFD is the one you will wear.

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