Finding the Perfect PFD for Kayaks: Choosing Your Floatation Device
So far, we have covered the 12 best PFDs for kayaks. In our best-of list and our head-to-head comparison, we’ve touched on some of the things that you’ll want to look for in a life vest, but we need to explore those further. We’ll do just that in our buying guide below.
Do You Really Need a PFD Life Vest for Kayaking?
Let’s clear this one up immediately. If you are on the water, you need to be using a PFD. Whether you’re a strong swimmer or a novice, kayaking around a lake or visiting a river, you need to wear a personal floatation device. They are designed to help ensure that you stay buoyant in the water, and are essential in the case that you go overboard and must swim or tread water until you can be rescued. There should be absolutely no debate about the need for a PFD. If you’ll be on the water, you need to be wearing one.
Why Does Choice Matter?
Once upon a time, you had little choice when it came to PFDs. You could use a traditional life vest with a single cinch and buckle, or you could use a round life preserver. Neither was a very good option for kayakers (or anyone else for that matter). Today, things have changed considerably. You have a very wide range of options available to you, allowing you to find the ideal personal floatation device for your wants, needs, budget, and kayaking goals.
How Should a PFD Fit?
If you’re new to the world of kayaking or watersports in general, you might not understand how a personal floatation device should fit. If you look at any of the vests we listed at the beginning of this guide, or find any on the rack at an outdoor-activity retailer, you’ll find them listed with sizes similar to t-shirts – small, medium, large, extra-larger, XX-large, and so on. This is based on your chest circumference. When you try a PFD on, the fit should be snug, but not tight. It should be comfortable, and should not feel loose.
Not sure how to check the fit? Follow these simple steps:
- Loosen all straps and open the front closure (usually a zipper).
- Slide the PFD on.
- Tighten all the straps, beginning with the waist. You want it to be snug, but comfortable.
- Have someone pull up on the shoulder straps.
- If it moves higher than your nose, tighten the straps and repeat.
- If it still moves, you need a smaller size.
What Care and Maintenance Is Needed with PFDs?
All of the personal floatation devices we listed in our top 12 list are low maintenance. You simply need to:
- Keep them clean
- Store them somewhere dry when not in use
- Keep them out of direct sunlight when not in use
Note that this is in direct contrast to inflatable PFDs. We did not include any inflatable models in our list, nor do we recommend them, as they are not suitable for most types of kayaking.
Related: Best Touring Kayak
The Factors to Consider
As mentioned, personal floatation devices have changed a great deal in recent years. Today, you’ll find many different classes, may different styles, and numerous features. All of that is good news, but it can make it tough to choose the right flotation device for you. Below, we will discuss some of the most important factors that should influence your buying decision, whether you choose to buy one of the 12 best PFDs for kayaks from our list, or you go elsewhere to get yours.
It is important that any PFD you purchase complies with safety regulations as set forth by the governing body responsible in your area. In the US, that’s the US Coast Guard. All of the PFDs on our list are compliant with USCG rules and regulations for their type. If you choose to buy a PFD not on our list, make sure that it complies with safety rules and is certified by the Coast Guard. Never use a PFD that does not comply with safety rules.
You will find five different “types” of PFD on the market. Really, these are more like classes. They are as follows:
Type I – You will be unlikely to buy one of these, as they are not that widely available. They are designed specifically for situations where you will need buoyancy for a very long period, and where rescue might be a long time coming. They are also designed to roll unconscious people onto their backs. They are most commonly found on commercial watercraft.
Type II – Type II PFDs are less bulky than Type I and they are not designed for use in remote waters. They offer less buoyancy, but better range of motion. However, they usually lack comfort features and other benefits you will likely want.
Type III – Type III PFDs are the most commonly found when it comes to watersports and activities like kayaking. All of the floatation devices on our list are Type III. These are marked by greater comfort, greater flexibility, better range of movement, and the availability of features like pockets, but are still very buoyant.
Type IV – Type IV PFDs are not designed to be worn. They are things like life preservers – devices made to be thrown to people who are in the water.
Type V – These are the least buoyant PFDs, and are generally considered “special purpose” devices by the US Coast Guard. Note that there are some Type V PFDs that are intended for kayaking.
When it comes to choosing your color, you generally only have a few options. Most PFDs are brightly colored (with a couple of exceptions, as seen in our list). This is for a good reason. If you are in the water, a brightly colored PFD will help rescuers see you. This is particularly true in low light situations, such as dusk and dawn, when visibility is poor.
This does not mean that you’re required to choose a brightly colored PFD. There are darker options on the market that work well. Just make sure that any PFD you choose, whether brightly colored or dark, is made with reflective materials that boost visibility.
The type of kayaking you will be doing will certainly play a role in the type of PFD you choose. For instance, if you’re paddling out on a lake for simple recreation and a bit of relaxation, you will not need a fully articulated PFD. In fact, you could make use of just about any of the options on our list quite easily.
In comparison, if you were going to go whitewater kayaking, you would want a PFD that offered as much freedom of movement as possible without sacrificing buoyancy. You would also want to look for additional features, like mesh sides and backing, and mesh pocket lining.
As a general rule, the more active your kayaking activity will be, the more freedom of movement and flexibility you’ll want. The less active your kayaking is, the less flexibility will play a role in your decision.
Tabs and rings provide attachment points for additional accessories. For instance, some ocean kayakers attach strobes to their tabs or rings so that they can be seen at night in a rescue situation. Not all PFDs have tabs or rings, and others may have only one or two. Know whether you’ll want to attach accessories to your vest, what those accessories are, and then choose a vest that fits your needs.
Ventilation is an important consideration when it comes to comfort and even safety. You’ll be directly exposed to the sun while out on the water. That can be quite hot. Ventilation allows air to move under and around the PFD, cooling your body and wicking sweat away. This makes for a more comfortable kayaking experience, and it can also help avoid dangerous overheating situations.
When choosing a PFD, pay attention to the entry method – the way you get into the vest. Generally, there are two types of closure – zippers and buckles. Some vest zip on the front. Others zip from the side. Some require you to slide them on over your head and then adjust the straps for tightness. Find a PFD that is easy to get on and off, and that you are comfortable with.
Durability is determined by the type and strength of the shell’s material. All of the PFDs we listed are made from at least 200 D nylon, or they’re constructed from neoprene, which is another highly durable material. Look for floatation devices that offer good durability and resistance to tearing.
Buoyancy is more than just a concept – it is something that can be measured and rated. Look for PFDs that offer the right amount of force to keep your body above the water. When it comes to Type III PFDs, the minimum buoyancy measure is 15.5 pounds. The average adult needs somewhere between 7 and 12 pounds to stay afloat. Type I and Type II PFDs have even higher buoyancy ratings, but they are not as comfortable and are less easy to move in.
Finally, you need to consider the storage options available with the PFD. A handful of those we listed do not have any sort of storage, but many did. When it comes to kayaking, storage may not be necessary. After all, you should have several options on the kayak itself. However, there are benefits to having pockets on your vest.
When choosing a PFD, determine not just the number of pockets, but the closure type and whether the pocket is watertight. Most of the vests we covered have zippered pockets with mesh backing, meaning they are not watertight. This is good storage for items that cannot be damaged by submersion in water. With the rise in waterproof smartphones, even your cell might be fine in this type of storage. However, a couple of the vests we listed do have electronics pockets – watertight pockets located in the center of the vest capable of keeping sensitive devices dry. Note that some PFDs have pockets that do not close – an elastic edge helps keep them shut, but they are not fully secure.
In the End
Ultimately, PFDs for kayaks have evolved a lot from what they once were. Today’s options are more comfortable, more flexible, and more buoyant than ever before. Whether you want something basic, or a PFD with lots of features, you will find something that suits your budget, your needs, and your kayaking type.