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How to Choose the Right PFD?

How to Choose the Right PFD?

Life Jackets vs Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

First off, let’s eliminate the confusion between Life Jackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs). A true life jacket is designed to turn an unconscious victim face up in the water. They have more buoyancy than a PFD, come in two sizes only and must be red, yellow or orange. They are bulkier and lack the comfort for long term recreational use.

On the other hand, PFD’s are designed with enough flotation to keep a conscious person’s head above the water and come in a wide range of approved types, sizes and colours. The primary reason for a PFD over a life jacket is to have a flotation device that is comfortable enough that you will wear them at all times while on the water.

If you are interested in more information on the classification of Life jackets and PFD’s you can go to the Transport Canada guidelines at this link: Life jackets and PFDs

Do You Need to Wear One?

Yes, you must at all times. If you want to know why and if you haven’t already done so, check out our post “Life Jackets and PFD’s, Do You Really Need To Wear Them?”.

Features to Consider

Because you must wear them whenever you are on the water, it is crucial that you choose a PFD that fits you, is comfortable to wear and suits the type of boating that you are doing. 

What Type of Craft Are You Paddling?

Kayak & PFD

The type of craft you will be paddling will make a difference in the style or type of PFD you will choose. If you are a kayaker intending to paddle with a spray skirt, you will need a PFD short enough in the torso to fit above the skirt so it doesn’t ride up around your head. Touring kayakers may prefer a full-torso style with pockets to carry some gear & snacks. White water kayakers may want a lower volume, lower body style to maximize mobility with less pockets and attachment straps to reduce the risk of hang ups.  Paddle boarders who are leashed to their boards may prefer an inflatable design.

Fit & Adjustability



The first step in choosing a PFD is determining what size to wear. It is your chest size, not your weight, which will determine your starting point in the selection process. (For children, it is their weight which will determine the size.) Sizes will vary from brand to brand and from style to style, so be prepared to try a few different ones.


Most adults only require about 3-5 kgs (7-12 lbs) of additional buoyancy to keep their head above water. Of course body type, weight, clothing, whether you are in salt or fresh water or are in frothy, aerated water such as in whitewater or surf will all affect how much you actually float. Government-approved PFDs meet the minimum required standards for buoyancy, but in some situations you might want to consider more than the minimum.

Trying Them On

PFD’s come in a variety of styles and sizes and are also designed for men and women. Try not to get caught up by style and colours. It is imperative that you find one that is not only comfortable but fits you snugly without riding up. If the PFD is properly fitted, everything fastened and adjustment straps snugged up, it should not be able to be pulled up over your head. Have someone grab the shoulder straps and try to lift it up.

Make sure it has enough adjustability to accommodate different layers of clothing and your spray deck. A PFD that fits nicely over a T-shirt may end up being to restrictive when put on over a spray deck and heavier layers. If your PFD is so constricting that you feel you can’t breath, you’re not going to wear it.

When trying a PFD on, loosen all the straps, then snug everything up to check for fit. Make sure you will have adequate room left for additional layers. Do the shoulder strap lift test to make sure it can’t be pulled over your head. Next, if you’re a kayaker, pull on a spray deck and sit in a boat, make sure the PFD is short enough and doesn’t get pushed up. Take some simulated strokes and make sure you have a full range of motion without any chafing under your arms or around your neck.


Government approved PFD’s come in many colours. There is certainly something there for everyone. However, lets face it, colour can play an important role in safety, not only if you find yourself in the water separated from your boat hoping for a rescue, but they can help other boaters spot you in your low riding kayak or canoe. Tempting as that cool looking black or camo one is, brighter is better.

Pockets and Attachment Points

Kokotat Centurion PFDMany PFD’s, especially touring ones, come with an assortment of pockets and attachment points where you can attach and carry things like whistles, knives, flares, radios, food items etc. For the touring and recreational kayaker these things are very useful and it is a very good idea to have flares and whistles on your PFD in the event you become separated from your boat. For whitewater paddlers less stuff attached to your PFD means less risk of entanglement.

Some PFD’s offer accessory pockets or hydration pockets which can be attached. These can be very useful to the touring paddler, but caution should be exercised for the whitewater paddler in regards to entanglement and compromising the buoyancy of your vest if you overload it with too much gear.

Rescue Attachments

If you plan to paddle in more challenging conditions, if you lead other paddlers or just want to be better prepared if a companion gets into trouble, you should consider a PFD with attachments for a towing belt or throw line. A combination towing line/throw bag is a far more useful item for kayakers than just carrying a regulation throw bag.  Some PFDs can be adapted to add these items later, if they don’t already come equipped,  but it’s something to consider before buying one.

Government Approval

Canadian manufactured and approved PFD’s must have a permanent label indicating their approval.  PFDs manufactured outside of Canada must be specifically tested, approved, and labelled for use in Canada.

Conventional vs Inflatable PFD’s

Mustang MIT 100Inflatable PFD’s provide another option to choose from. Some paddlers like them because of their reduced bulk and coolness in hot weather, but for them to work properly you must understand their operation, maintenance requirements and limitations. Inflatables come with a choice of inflation options including  automatic or manually inflated (you pull a cord) with a CO2 system.  Both of these system have a back up oral inflater as well.


  • If you’re a kayaker we recommend you avoid any of the auto inflate systems.  Some auto inflate PFD’s will inflate within seconds of hitting the water others require immersion. Either way, a fully inflated inflatable PFD will severely restrict you from being able to climb up onto your kayak for a reentry.  See our post for a real life story: Kayak Rescue Goes Right
  • Check which boating activities they are approved for. For example, under the Small Vessel Regulations, individuals less than 16 years of age or who weigh less than 36.3 kg (80 lbs.), and operators of personal watercraft are prohibited from wearing an inflatable PFD. Inflatables are also not approved for whitewater because of their inherent lack of buoyancy.
  • If you do decide to consider an inflatable, make sure you understand how to use it. An emergency is no time to experiment. You should practice inflating them orally while in the water. Inflation times are fairly quick, but if you are a weak swimmer struggling to stay afloat this could be a challenge and perhaps not a good option for you.  As well, you should practice reentries and determine what level of inflation, if any, you are going to be able to use in order to not be inhibited from reentering or getting back on your kayak.

Taking Care of Your PFD

Of course, you will never use your PFD as a seat cushion in your boat because you will be wearing it.  Also, don’t use it as a seat cushion on the beach or around camp as it will suffer from abrasion and compression, and you risk breaking fasteners. Keep your PFD clean by washing it by hand in warm water and a gentle soap. Hang to dry completely before storing it to reduce the chance of mildewing. Try to keep your PFD out of direct sunlight when you are not using it as UV rays will degrade the fabric over time.  Inspect it regularly to make sure your zippers and fasteners are not broken and functioning properly.

Inspecting and Maintaining Your Inflatable PFD

If you decide to choose an inflatable PFD, go to this link for instructions on how to inspect and maintain it. This is crucial, as an emergency is not a good time to hear the hiss of leaking air.  Inspecting Your Inflatable PFD


A PFD is a personal choice but it is probably the most important piece of gear you will end up purchasing, so take the time to make the right choice. Find one that is comfortable and you will be happy with so you will wear it.

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Safe Paddling!

Bruce Holland – You can also catch me at or

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