How to Pick PFDs For The Whole Family: Part 1

One of our favorite hobbies is Canoeing, and as I’m sure you’ve seen in our gallery of past trips in 2011 and 2013 that we always wear a life vest.

Crazy right? Well, Kevin is a stickler for safety, so on our first every trip together he insisted I purchase a life vest over wearing the rentals. He wouldn’t let me in the boat otherwise!

Local Boating Laws

It’s always a good idea to know the local boating laws, for example when paddling in TN it’s only necessary to have a PFD (Personal Floatation Device) or life vest in the watercraft, it is recommended to wear one but not mandatory (minors MUST wear one at all times), but seriously what’s the point of having one if you won’t wear it!

What’s the Big Deal? I Know How to Swim!

Sure, you’re a great swimmer, but what about if you are injured or end up unconscious? Can you still swim then? That is what PFDs are for, to keep you safe in the event of an unforeseen accident.21_19A

Okay, You’ve Convinced Me, What is the Best Kind?

To quote the United States Coast Guard:

In terms of risk of drowning, the safest Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the one you’re willing to wear!

That would be why Kevin made me buy a life vest versus using one of the rentals from the outfitter we used. Who really wants to wear one of those bulky yellow/orange life vests that never fit right?

We personally use the Type III buoyant foam PFD. While the Type I is more buoyant, those are also the bulky yellow and orange ones that are meant for off shore use (emergency use of ocean vessels) and not comfortable to wear for any length of time participating in water sports. Statistics prove that even using a Type III has reduced drownings over the past thirty years (1,286 drownings in 1971 down to 423 drownings in 2006) despite an increase in recreational boating.

When you pick out a PFD you need to keep in mind what you’ll be doing, how much buoyancy you’ll need, how it fits, how to care for it, and how to check it for damage before and after each use.


types of PFDs

Courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.

The following table covers the different types of PFDs and the additional buoyancy they provide.

According to the United States Coast Guard, most adults only need an additional 7-12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. This range is affected by the wearers weight, body fat, lung size, clothing, and weather.

How to Fit A PFD

  • Your selected PFD should be the right size, check the label for the weight/size range
  • It should fit snuggly when fastened
  • It should be comfortable over clothing or on bare skin
  • It should not hinder range of movement
  • It should not ride-up the body when in the water, but if the wearer’s stomach is larger than the chest, ride-up may occur.

NOTE* PFDs may not act the same when in swift or rough water, and items in pockets may also affect how they work.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA


  • When you refuse to wear your PFDs you not only put your own life at risk but those with you, since they may risk their lives to save yours.
  • If you choose not to wear a PFD because of how it fits or looks, replace it with one that fits and you will want to wear! Today’s PFDs come in many colors and materials that look better due to a better fit, and won’t hinder movement so you can enjoy your time on the water.
  • Always make sure all the buckles and straps are secured and tightened when you wear your PFD for a better fit.
  • And in case you needed more convincing, 9 out of 10 drownings occur in inland waters, not out at sea, most within a few feet of safety and most of which owned PFDs, but weren’t wearing them!

Caring for Your PFD

Proper care of your PFD includes the following:

  • Do not alter your PFD, if it doesn’t fit, get one that does!
  • Don’t put heavy objects on your PFD or use it for a kneeling pad or boat fender. PFDs lose buoyancy when crushed.
  • Let your PFD drip dry in a well ventilated room (preferably after you hose it off of river/lake/salt water) so it doesn’t mildew.
  • Don’t leave your PFD on board for long periods when the boat is not in use.
  • Never use heat to dry your PFD.
  • If not sharing your PFD write your name on it.
  • If you have a Type IV PFD, practice throwing it (cushions work best thrown underhand)

Checking for Damage

  • Your PFD is required to be serviceable if it is to be used on your boat as one of the required PFDs (not a spare, but even spares should be serviceable)
  • Check your PFD before and after each use for rips, tears, and holes. All seams, fabric straps and hardware are in tact. There should be no signs of waterlogging, mildew odor, or shrinkage of the buoyant materials.
  • If your PFD uses bags of Kapok (a naturally buoyant material) gently squeeze the bag to check for air leaks. There should be no leaks. When Kapok gets wet, it can get stiff or waterlogged and lose some of its buoyancy.
  • Don’t forget to test each PFD at the start of each season. PFDs that are not in good shape should be cut up and thrown away (that way no one is at risk of salvaging unsafe PFDs).

What About Infants and Children?

Infants greater than 18 lbs should be wearing an Infant Type II life vest for the entire time the infant is on the boat. From what I’ve seen the Infant Type II PFDs go up 30 lbs, once that threshold is reached they should transfer to a Child Type II PFD.

An important piece of information to keep in mind:

The Coast Guard does not recommend taking infants onboard a recreational boat. The PFDs currently available for newborns up to 18 pounds may not provide a proper fit to perform as expected. Unless the parent is able to test their newborns out in a PFD, sized for infants, in a swimming pool, they will not know if that device will float their child with his/her head out of the water. You must be sure you know the PFD you have works for your infant. Otherwise we recommend the child not be exposed to any risk in a boat on the water.

The above paragraph is the main reason Kevin and I are having difficulty finding a proper PFD for Leelynn.24_22A

Now that you know to double-check your local boating laws, paddlesport regulations, and what to look for in a quality life vest and how to get one that suits your needs I hope you have get out there and have fun on the water while being safe!

Later this week we will discuss the merits of dog life jackets and what to look for in those.

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5 comments on “How to Pick PFDs For The Whole Family: Part 1

  1. Christine & Riley

    Will you be including the dogs in the next part? Dogs can succumb to tragedy in the water too, no mater how well they can swim.
    Thank you for posting this chart… we don’t spend as much time on the water as we used to, but this is a great reference.
    Christine & Riley recently posted…Chicky versus the Bumble Ball Dog ToyMy Profile

  2. Pingback: How to Pick PFDs For The Whole Family: Part 2 |

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