Kayakers wearing personal flotation devices (PFDS).

Photo: Klara_Steffkova (Shutterstock)

One of the things I realized when I got my first kayak was that I also had to buy my own PFD or personal flotation device. Usually when you rent a boat the staff will give you a life jacket and you will try to ignore how uncomfortable it is while trying to have fun on your boat. But now that you can buy your own, it’s time to consider your options.

Why you need a personal swimming device

The Coast Guard recommends that every pleasure craft contain a PFD for every person on board – and yes, that includes paddle boards. Other laws and regulations may apply: For example, in a state park, you must obey park rules. In general, children and non-swimmers should wear a PFD when on the water; Adults who can swim don’t need to wear one, but should still have one on board.

Adult PFDs don’t always suit children, so plan ahead. Even before I had my own boat, I owned several child-sized life jackets that were approved by the Coast Guard. That way I was able to take my young son on a family canoe trip without having to worry about the rental shop having one his size. Child PFDs are too ideal for swimming pools.

PFDs come in different styles

PFDs are required by law to wear large, clear labels that state what type they are and for whom they are intended. Children’s life jackets are marked as weighted: PFDs for infants up to 30 pounds, PFDs for children from 30 to 50 pounds, and PFDs for teenagers from 50 to 90 pounds. In addition, they can begin to wear adult models.

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This Coast Guard brochure discusses the properties of different types of PFDs. There are models that are suitable for kayaking and that have plenty of room to move your shoulders. There are hunting PFDs with mesh and camouflage patterns, and those designed to keep you warm in cold water. There are PFDs that inflate automatically and others that inflate when you pull on a string.

Think about which variety you need

The minimalist styles are appealing if you don’t want to wear a full life jacket but also find it silly to have just one PFD on your boat (which it is – the Coast Guard notes in their brochure that with most boat deaths in calm water, the deceased had a life jacket on board). But you have to be honest with yourself whether they really make sense to you.

I have one of these, a belt style that is manually inflated. In an emergency, I would have to pull the cord and a CO2 cartridge would inflate a yellow sack inside. This bag would sit in front of my chest like a bib when inflated, and I would attach a strap to the bib around my neck. This is a lot to do in an emergency, so this style is only recommended for people who are already good swimmers and don’t expect to be caught by surprise (e.g., being knocked off the boat). But who’s doing it again?

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

PFDs for children have a few additional features beyond the adult versions: they have a strap that runs between their legs to keep a child from sliding out of their vest, and they have a top handle to keep a child out of the water can pull if needed. Many child models and some adult models have a pillow that can help keep your face up when you hover for a long time or even pass out.

Water safety is more than just wearing a PFD, but wearing a well-chosen and well-fitting PFD will get you off to a great start. As a coast guard mention, that, the best PFD is the one you will carry.