PFD’s or Personal Flotation Devices; life vests; life jackets – whatever you want to call them – save lives! Even if you’re going paddling you need one. As a matter of fact, a life jacket should be the first thing you buy if you spend any time on the water. Never leave home without it (them).

Each year, kayakers, boaters, canoeists needlessly drown. Why? Because in most cases they aren’t wearing a PFD and strong currents, cold water, big waves and injuries take their toll and even a great swimmer can feel exhausted and helpless in these cases. Every time you go out without a life vest, you’re betting against your own life and eventually the house will win.

The only PFD’s offered for sale in the U.S. – with the exception of a few “buoyancy aids” and “swim floats” – are those approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. And in most boater’s opinion, they are the only ones worth purchasing. However, not all Coast Guard Approved PFD’s are equal. Some are intended for river-rescue team members, some are intended for blue-water sailors and some – well – they’re designed to sell cheap.

You should probably steer clear of these and stick with the only two real choices for adult kayakers and canoeists. Get a short, form-fitting foam panel vest for river-running and general recreational paddling. Every boating catalog will have plenty of examples. Keep in mind though that they should have a tag that identifies them as Type III PFD’s. Vests intended for rescue personnel, big-water boaters, and rafters may carry a Type V label, but these special-purpose PFDs aren’t a good choice for most recreational paddlers.

Some foam vests have narrow panels and some have wide but truthfully this doesn’t matter. What matters is fit; a worthy vest will be comfortable enough to wear all day. So you can wear it over a wetsuit or a t-shirt, it should be adjustable and it should stay put when you’re in the water. It should also allow you to float on your back with your legs extended and face up.

The only real way to figure out if a vest fits you is to try it on. If possible, go paddling for a couple of hours and then jump into the water. Check for issues:

  • Does it chafe as you paddle?
  • Does it ride up when you’re in the drink which in turn leaves your head low in the water?
  • Does it make you fight to stay face up?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then it’s not the right vest for you.

When you purchase a vest, make sure that you can return it if it doesn’t fit. They will probably look at you like you’re crazy because they won’t be able to sell it again but there really isn’t another way to test it.

The second choice is for inland boaters and sea kayakers who paddle flatwater rivers and big lakes: the Coast Guard Approved Inflatable PFD. Although they aren’t a good choice for whitewater paddlers, they make complete sense for long, open water crossings. They are extremely buoyant; some have twice the buoyancy of foam Type III vests. One benefit is that many of these will automatically turn an unconscious paddler face up in the water. If you ever find yourself outside of your boat without hope of a fast rescue, you’ll be glad you have one. Keep in mind that inflatables do not provide hypothermia protection so always dress accordingly.

It’s true that PFD’s aren’t cheap and finding the right fit isn’t easy but don’t you think you’re worth it?

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