Choosing a Kayak Life Jacket (PFD)

There are a lot of things to consider when you are making a decision regarding your Kayak Life Jacket also known as PFD, Personal Flotation Device.  The most important criteria, of course, are going to be fit and comfort.  It is important that your PFD fits properly to ensure that when you are in the water it is not riding up and interfering with your breathing, vision and your ability to move in the water.  Comfort will be depend on how the PFD is cut and proportioned and the PFD’s material.  While fit is a function of not only the cut of the PFD but the shape of the paddler as well. 

Kayakers, whether the are flatwater or whitewater paddlers, are the most demanding of all the PFD users so manufacturers like Kokatat, Stohlquist and Astral have been leading the way to create performance PFD’s that have been focusing on fit and functionality in a variety of environments.  Kayaking PFD’s have a strong emphasis on cut to allow for greater mobility and they do so by minimizing the material in and around the shoulders and mid section.  Touring PFD’s will be equipped with an array of pockets, lash tabs and knife garages to effectively and efficiently carry equipment.  These PFD’s will generally cover more surface area on the paddler to keep the thickness of the jacket down.  White Water PFD’s will be a bit more compact, in that they will sit higher up on the paddlers torso covering less surface area to allow the paddler even more mobility through the midsection to lean forward/back and side/side.  Because the material is now condensed into a small area the flotation will be a bit thicker.  White Water PFD’s will generally have less and smaller pockets.  Note: It is okay to mix and match.  I use a white water PFD when I am touring because I prefer the fit and cut.

We are all different shapes and sizes.  Short or tall, Man on Women.  The good news is there are a wide variety of cuts and configurations for both Men and Women. One of the most common questions we get from perspective buyers is: “what is the difference between and Men’s and Women’s PFD”?   The difference is a women’s PFD will not only be scaled down a bit in sizing but there are also subtle differences like smaller arm holes that will keep the PFD from “riding up”.  Some smaller statured gentleman prefer ladies PFD’s for this reason.   That being said it is important to try your PFD on and adjust it properly to fit while you are sitting in your kayak.

To properly adjust and fit your PFD you need to follow a few simple steps.  One: Before you put the PFD on loosen all of the straps.  Tighten the straps on your shoulders, on the sides of the PFD and the strap around the bottom.  Once all of the straps are snug place your thumbs underneath the shoulders of the PFD and gently pull up.  If the PFD is able to slide up on your body more than an inch with little to no effort then continue to make strap adjustments.  If you are still unable to keep the PFD anchored on your person try a different one. Since there are so many body types and shapes out there you may find that it takes a couple of tries to find the right jacket for you.

What should you be comparing when choosing a Life Jacket (PFD)?


Pockets - Paddlers who are may be planning multi day adventures tend to gravitate towards PFD's with a lot of pockets allowing them to easlity access piece of gear like a compass, radio, GPS, signal Mirror, Granola Bar etc...Here are a couple examples of top selling PFD's that offer a lot in the way of storage.

Kokatat Poseidon

Kokatat Outfit Tour (his) Kokatat MSFit Tour (hers)

Astral Sea Wolf

High Back?:  How your boat is configured will also have an impact on which PFD will work best for you.  Does your boat have a back rest or a higher seat back that extends up past the rim of the cockpit?  If so, a high back PFD is a good option to prevent the sometimes uncomfortable fit and overlap that can occur between the PFD and the seat back itself,  If the back of the PFD is in contact with the seat back the PFD is also more apt to ride up, making for an uncomfortable day out on the water and a raw chin.

Men's and Women's High-Back PFD's

Materials: The exterior of the PFD is usually either rip stop nylon or cordura.  The rip stop nylon will help to keep the cost of the PFD down but is a bit more prone to fading and degrading overtime.  Cordura is material that is much more rugged, so it provides much more durability and color last.

The guts of the PFD is the flotation.  There are a couple different types of materials used here as well:

Gaia™: This foam is based on an organic nitrile compound. It is relatively eco-friendly thanks to being PVC- and halogen-free, plus it does not include CFCs. It is softer than PVC foam and effectively resists cold and heat. Gaia is easy to clean and resists most chemicals, petroleum products and humidity. Its low apparent density reduces weight without performance loss.

Kapok: This comes from the fluffy fiber surrounding the seeds of the kapok tree (also known as a ceiba tree). Kapok is resilient, very light and buoyant, but it is highly flammable. It resists water and is more durable than foam. Kapok fibers do not leach out over time or lose buoyancy. When retiring a kapok vest, the kapok fiber can often be recycled in your compost.

PVC: Polyvinyl-chloride foam is inexpensive, durable and widely used in PFDs. It is strong, and it is resistant to oil, chemicals, flames, sunlight and weathering. Because it contains both chlorine and oil, it is not readily recyclable.

Lastly  PFD's have been broken into a couple of categories, the way we view those categories here is:

Flat water Paddling:  Examples of this genre would be, fishing PFD's, High back PFD's, and Touring PFD's. These guys will offer a bit more in the way of coverage, ie they tend to cover more of your torso.  This allows the manufacturer to flatten of the flotation for a thinner PFD but the high amount of coverage can be a bit of a hindrance in more dynamic environments

Dynamic Paddling: These PFD's are purpose built to offer the most technical fit.T hey are preferred by whitewater paddlers, coastal paddlers and SUP'ers.  Often times these PFD's will have a more gracious cut through out the shoulders and be designed to sit relativity high up on the paddlers torso as to not impede movement forward and backward, side to side and rotation.  Because these PFD's often come in smaller packages the flotation tends to be a bit thicker which can be an issue for folks who are performing re-entries such as the paddle float rescue.

For those who are in leadership rolls or who have had the training to perform rescues either on flat-water, in whitewater or in the surf there are rescue specific Type V PFD's which are configured and reinforced for the stresses of those applications.

 If you have questions in regard to choosing your next PFD, please don’t hesitate to call us at (360) 297-4659  we are always happy to help.

Olympic Outdoor Center