Stay Afloat: What to Look for in a PFD


Fuse /

Fuse /

Spring is slowly replacing the endless winter. As lakes, rivers, and ponds start to thaw out, get your own gear ready by investing in a new PFD. Here are some things to look for in a personal flotation device:

Part of the allure of Stand Up Paddleboarding is the simplicity of the sport, but the United States Coast Guard still requires all SUP users in non-surf, non-swim areas to have a PFD with them. Whitewater PFDs, which are designed for full mobility and are often pretty low profile, also add insulation for users who paddle in cold water. Another popular PFD for SUP users is inflatable. Look for a model that is Coast Guard approved and be sure to wear it correctly; these PFDs are generally rated as a V when stashed on the board, but are a III if worn around the waist. The belts inflate when a cord is pulled, which is simple, but can be a limiting factor is the wearer is incapable of pulling the cord or inflating the PFD manually. Be sure to test fire your inflatable PFD so you know how it works.

There are a number of PFD options for kayakers and canoeists. For kayaks with spray skirts, look for a low profile frame that will sit around your stomach without rubbing against the sprayskirt. Narrow straps are a must in salt water because they prevent neck chafing. If you to stash food, lip balm, sunscreen, or safety gear like a radio on your person, look for a PFD with pockets; some models even offer radio-shaped pockets. Another popular features is a knife lash, especially for whitewater paddlers. For sea kayakers who anticipate doing a lot of towing, there are vests with built in tow ropes, which can be really handy.

Jupiterimages / Creatas /

Jupiterimages / Creatas /

Inflatable PFDs are increasingly popular in the sailing community because of their low profile and the increased range of motion. These PFDs usually ride over the shoulders like backpack straps; some inflate automatically upon hitting the water, while others are manually inflated by pulling a cord. Neither model offers any insulation, making it essentially to layer appropriately when sailing in cold water. Another choice for sailors is a low profile PFD that fits snugly and is unlikely to snag on parts of the boat or its rigging. These generally zip on the side to create a tight fit. Some models of are not approved by the Coast Guard, so be sure to check the rating.

For fishing out of a boat, consider a traditional PFD with a mesh back that won’t rub against the back of the boat seat. While many fishing-specific PFDs come with multiple pockets for organizing and storing flies, floatant, etc., it’s possible to find a low profile whitewater PFD with plenty of pockets. Anglers in areas that require PFDs for spring and fall may opt for an inflatable PFD that’s worn like a belt and won’t impede on the wearer’s ability to cast. Some of these also come with pockets. As with Stand-Up Paddleboarders, be sure to dry fire the inflatable PFD before relying on it in the water.

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