How to Choose the Best Life Jacket for You

5-minute read + 24-minute video

Aqua Bound Ambassador Ken Whiting covers the essentials of how to choose the best life jacket for you, no matter what type of paddling you do:

Just like the seat belt in your vehicle, a life jacket isn’t something you really need—until you need it. It might even save your life one day.

Paddling is almost always a safe activity. But “with paddle sports, when things go wrong, things can go very wrong very quickly,” says Ken. “Accidents can happen in the most benign situations.”

Also known as PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices), life jackets are available in an array of styles, shapes, colors and technology. Here are the basic categories:

Categories of Life Jackets

Life jackets are categorized into types. Type 1 and Type 2 life jackets are designed to keep someone’s head above water, especially if they’re unconscious. These types distribute the flotation material at the front and behind the head.

Ken Whiting talks with samples of type 1 and 2 life jackets on-screen

Type 3 life jackets are the best type for paddlers, whether their boat of choice is a kayak, canoe, packraft or paddle board. The flotation material is distributed more evenly, so it’s more comfortable to wear. And this type allows plenty of freedom around the shoulders.

screen shot of Ken Whiting talking with a sample of type 3 life jacket on-screen

Type 3 PFDs won’t offer the same protection as Type 1 and 2 for someone who’s in the water unconscious, though, so consider this type as a swimming aid.

For the rest of this blog post, we’ll focus on Type 3 life jackets.

Inflatable Life Jackets

Type 3 PFDs come in two basic styles: standard and inflatable.

Inflatables operate with a CO2 canister that acts like an airbag in your vehicle. Most are designed to automatically inflate upon immersion. They also have a manual blow tube as a backup.

Inflatable life jackets have a couple of distinct advantages:

  • Super low-profile. These are essentially flat when uninflated, so they’re the most comfortable to wear. Some are vest-style and some are hip packs.
  • Cooler in warm environments, because you’re not wrapped in foam.

There are a couple disadvantage of this style, too:

  • It offers no protection until it’s inflated. You need to be aware enough to either handle the pull-cord or use the manual tube if something goes wrong with the auto-inflate.
  • Once inflated, it’s not designed to be comfortable but to keep you afloat. It’s difficult to swim or paddle in.
  • Manufacturers recommend replacing the CO2 cartridges annually, so there are maintenance expenses.

woman paddleboards wearing a hip pack inflatable PFD

This inflatable PFD is the lowest-profile of all—a simple waist pack (photo courtesy of Emily Hendricks)

Who’s a good candidate for an inflatable life jacket? Paddlers in hot conditions and on calm, sheltered waters with low risk of capsizing.

Standard Life Jackets

The top benefit of a standard Type 3 life jacket is that has “ready-to-go” safety. Other than securing it with the zipper and straps, there are no other steps to take. Here are other benefits:

  • As long as you treat your PFD reasonably well, there’s no maintenance. Don’t store it wet or in the sun and you’re good to go.
  • Many standard Type 3 life jackets come with extra features like zipped pockets and attachment points. You can keep items like lip balm, sunglasses and snacks handy and secure.
  • Because you have foam wrapped around you, standard PFDs keep you warm on cold days. (This is a disadvantage on hot days, however.)

The biggest disadvantage of a standard life jacket is its comfort level. Choose a paddling-specific PFD that fits you well, though, and you’ll be much happier than if you just grab the cheapest vest off the rack.

The best candidates for a standard paddling life jacket are those who paddle less sheltered, rough and big water. Also, those who like the option of the extra features.

How to Choose the Right Standard PFD

There aren’t many options for inflatable PFDs, but let’s cover a few suggestions to help you choose a standard Type 3 life jacket.

packrafter in rapids

Standard Type 3 PFDs are a great choice for river paddling (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)

(PRO TIP: Just because a PFD costs more doesn’t make it a better choice!)

Your two most important considerations are comfort and fit:

  • Comfort—If it’s not comfortable, you won’t want to wear it. Try on various brands and styles to see what you like best.
  • Fit—Choose one that fits your own body. Many PFDs are gender and size specific. You want yours to fit snugly, but comfortably. As you try on different models, adjust the straps to see what kind of fit they offer your body shape and size.

Next, you may want to opt for a model that’s made to accommodate high-backed seats in a kayak, if that’s the kind of boat you have. Some have thin foam in the back so it isn’t as bulky—another fine option for a high-backed seat.

Then, your personal preference comes into play for where it zips up, how many pockets there are and where they’re placed, etc.

Life Jackets for Kids

Kids’ PFDs come in three weight ranges. Be sure to buy one in the weight range for your child’s size NOW. Life jackets aren’t an item you want to buy big for them to grow into. Safety and proper fit are much more important!

a mother and son paddle a tandem kayak together

A good life jacket fit is key for all paddlers, no matter their size (photo courtesy of Blazin’ Paddles)

“When you buy a vehicle, there isn’t a ‘base model’ seat belt or a ‘luxury model’ seat belt. You get a seat belt that does its job,” says Ken. “If there’s a piece of paddling gear you want to invest some money in, it’s a life jacket. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a huge amount of money, but if you can budget for a comfortable, well-fitting life jacket, do it.”

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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