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Life Jackets

Civilians call them life jackets; the Coast Guard calls them Personal Flotation Devices, or PFDs. However you refer to them, they should be worn at all times while on the water, and should probably be the first piece of equipment you buy as you start to get serious about paddle sports.

Things to Consider

    Types PFDs receive their classifications from the Coast Guard. Most paddlers wear Type III, which is a catch-all category for hybrid vests created for a particular activity; they provide good flotation and offer freedom of movement. For the record, Type I and II vests are generic--those big, bulky orange horse collars they give you when you rent a Sunfish; Type IV and V include life rings, buoyant cushions, work vests, and other important personal flotation items.

    Sizes Most PFDs come in infant, youth, and adult sizes. Within the adult category, some manufacturers offer sizes from XXS to XXL, while others size their vests based on weight. Most PFDs have adjustable straps for a customized fit.

    Fit How your PFD fits could make the difference between a good and bad paddling experience. A properly fitted PFD shouldn’t slip off when a rapid or a person pulls on it, but it also shouldn’t restrict your movements. When trying on PFDs, wear appropriate clothes and pretend to stroke--a few minutes of embarrassment is worth many weekends of comfort.

    Buoyancy Ratings The Coast Guard rates PFDs by a technical measurement called "pounds of flotation." Type III PFDs offer at least 15 pounds of flotation, which is more than adequate. The average adult can feel safe with between seven and 12 pounds of flotation, depending on body fat and other personal factors. Higher flotation PFDs are also available.

    Options PFDs used for paddling should have lash tabs that can accommodate safety knives, emergency lights, and other hand-held equipment. Small mesh pockets are also useful for whistles or lip balms. Choose a bright color, which will make you easy to spot in the event of an emergency.

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