Personal flotation devices, also referred to as PFDs or life vests, are essential to several water activities. These activities can include boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and more. PDFs ensure safety for their users by preventing them from falling below the water’s surface. Knowing what kind of life vest you should use can be a bit tricky, so we’ve done our best to make the process easier for you.
Types of Personal Flotation Devices
There are several different kinds of flotation devices intended for singular person use. These devices can be categorized into “types.” Each of these flotation devices has differences and best uses.
Type I PFD
Type I PFD is an off-shore life jacket. These life jackets are made from foam and are made in the generic, commercial style. They provide users with the most buoyancy and are usually reversible and easy to use.
Type I devices are generally all-around effective, meaning they can be used in all waters.
A benefit from Type I personal flotation devices is that they are designed to be able to turn most unconscious users face-up when they’re in the water.
Type II PFD
This personal flotation device is categorized as a near-shore buoyancy vest. The Type II PFD is made from foam as well, and can also come in an inflatable style, which creates better buoyancy.
This type of vest is effective best in calm, inland water—that, or somewhere where a quick rescue is possible.
While this option is made to be able to turn some unconscious wearers face-up, it has been proven to be less effective than Type I PFDs.
Type III PFD
Type III PFDs are referred to as flotation aids. These flotation aids are made of foam and can be inflatable. They tend to be more comfortable as well as lightweight, which is better in terms of convenience.
Like Type II, the flotation aids are good for conscious wearers who are assuming their activities in calm, inland water. This device isn’t designed to reposition unconscious users, but those wearing them can easily position themselves face-up in the water.
Generally speaking, Type III PFDs offer the same minimum buoyancy as Type II. They often come in a variety of colors and are great for continuous wear.
Type IV PFD
The Type IV PFD is a throwable device. These devices are designed to be thrown to a conscious person struggling in the water. They can be held onto until rescue or help arrives.
These devices are not worn but instead, come in various shapes like rings and horseshoes that can be held onto. They work best when used in coordination with a life jacket that is worn.
Type V PFD
Any personal flotation device that is intended for special use falls under this category—the special use devices. These kinds of flotation devices have specific uses for specific activities and should only be used for such.
Any flotation device that falls into this section should contain instructions on its intended use on its labels.
Sizing and Fitting
Anyone using a PFD that is worn needs to make sure they’re getting the correct size. This is important, especially for children and infants.
A properly fitted wearable PFD will fit comfortably—not loose, but not too tight. A loose vest will not provide the best level of flotation and is in danger of slipping off. If a vest is too tight, movement and activities may be difficult. They generally come in the following size categories:
For each user, there are a few important things to remember when selecting the correct size PFD. The size of a wearable PFD should be based on the chest size for adults, but on weight for children.
When trying on a vest, make sure all the straps are loosened. Put the vest on, secure it closed, and then tighten all of the straps starting with the waist belt and working your way up to the shoulders.
A good test to perform is to pull the vest up from the shoulder straps. When you do this, if the vest pulls up around the head, it’s too big.
Once a vest is on and secure, it’s a good idea to try a few different movements to ensure you have full range for the activity you’re preparing for.
Standard Vs. Inflatable
Personal flotation devices are available in both standard and inflatable. Standard PFDs are ones you’ve probably seen most—the vests constructed of foam. However, inflatable vests are available as well, and you may find that they better suit your needs.
As previously mentioned, standard flotation devices are used more often and are mainly made from foam to create their buoyancy. Some activities you may have seen them used for include kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding.
Standard PFDs are very easy to use and require very little maintenance, and are ready to use at any point; all you have to do is put it on. Wearers can use them in a variety of activities and feel confident that they are doing their job.
Pros & Cons
- Little to no maintenance; these types of PFDs only needs to be kept clean, dry, and out of the sun when not being used—proper storage can help with this and make them last longer.
- A standard PFD can be used for several different activities and water sports.
- Most standard PFDs will come equipped with various pockets and storage. This is convenient for things like sunscreen and equipment.
- Standard PFDs work right away—no need to inflate or activate; they work right away.
- Standards PFDs can sometimes feel a bit bulky and uncomfortable; because of this, they can be a bit restrictive depending on the activities you are participating in.
- Users have found standard PFDs to be hot and heavy, which isn’t so comfortable on a hot summer day in the sun.
Inflatable PFDs are versatile, and unlike the standard PFD, they include regular vests as well as waist packs. Inflatable PFDs are included in Type IV PFDs, which we discussed are the throwable PFDs used in rescue situations.
Like standard PFDs, inflatables can be used for things like kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding. When uninflated, these PFDs are generally very slim and comfortable.
Inflatable PFDs can be manual or automatic. The manual kinds are inflated when you pull a cord. This cord activates its CO2 gas cartridge, which in turn inflates the vest.
Automatic inflatable vests will inflate on their own when they become submerged in water.
Pros & Cons
- Inflatable PFDs tend to be more comfortable to wear than standard PFDs. They are much smaller and slimmer and give you a wider range of motion.
- Since inflatable PFDs are smaller and lighter, they are also a lot cooler than standard PFDs. This tends to be better for hot, sunny days.
- Inflatable PFDs require much more maintenance than standards PFDs. Proper use is necessary, and you will have to replace the CO2 cartridge after every time you use one.
- Inflatable PFDs are not buoyant on their own—only when they are inflated. Therefore, users can’t just put them on and feel confident that they are protected. Needless to say, unconscious wearers won’t be able to activate their manual inflatable vests should something go wrong.
- These PFDs are not as versatile as standard PFDs. Since they’re inflated with air, they are not recommended for high-impact activities like whitewater rafting or high-intensity water sports.
A third option is available, and that is the hybrid PFD that combines both the standard foam and the inflatable feature. These PFDs are specialized and give you all the benefits of the standard form with the added bonus of comfort, compactness, and buoyancy.
However, these kinds of PFDs tend to be more expensive than the other two options.
Experts may recommend users look into PFDs that are designed specifically for the activity they’re participating in. This isn’t always a necessity, but sometimes it’s helpful to buy a PFD that will suit all your needs, rather than a generic one that will just be good enough.
Seasoned partakers of certain activities might also have preferences and know what they like. For example, someone who fishes frequently may have tried different PFDs and only need them for this one activity.
A few specific PFD categories you can find are listed below to give you an idea of what is available.
Fishing Life Vest
PFDs created specifically for fishing are made to be worn comfortably in a kayak or a canoe and often have wider cuts around the arms. These bigger cuts make it easier to paddle and give users a wider range of free movement.
Ease of movement is essential to fishing because fishermen need to be able to cast and reel.
PFDs made for fishing are also likely to offer multiple loops, pockets, or hangers for tools and equipment.
Kayaking and Canoeing
PFDs made for kayaking or canoeing, like fishing vests, tend to have wider cuts around the arm for better movement. This movement is needed for paddling.
These PFDs are usually Type III and use a thinner nylon backing for more comfort when sitting in a kayak.
Water Skiing and Water Tubing
Vest for more high-intensity activities like water skiing and water tubing are typically more snug fitting than those used for other activities. This is so they can be most effective through high-impact movements.
These vests also give wearers more room around the arms to allow freedom of movement through their activities. They’ll often have buckles and many straps that tighten to make sure they stay on.
Why Use a Personal Flotation Device?
This may seem like an obvious question to ask, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t think they need to wear a PFD. These devices are not just for those who can’t swim; any activities in open water can quickly become dangerous and even life-threatening. The presence of a PFD could save a life.
By flickr user “abkfenris” [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Personal flotation devices ensure that all members of an activity are safe at all times. Regardless of your strength and ability to swim, accidents happen. Should someone become injured or unconscious in a water environment, the PFD acts as a back-up to keep you above the water.
Whether you’re simply fishing on a lake or water skiing through rough waves in the ocean, a PFD should be used at all times. Additionally, many laws require the use of PFDs through water activities. If nothing else, one should be worn to avoid unpleasant interactions with law enforcement.
The Best Products
Now that you’re an expert on personal flotation devices, you can choose which one is best for you. We’ve reviewed a few of the top choices to try to make your selection process a little easier. Read on to see some of the best.
Extrasport Osprey Personal Flotation Device
The Extrasport Osprey personal flotation device is a foam, front-zip designed life vest that is made to be lightweight and comfortable. Its wide armholes give users free range of movement through all their water activities, and the extra pockets are great for storage—especially that needed for fishing.
The lower back of this vest is thinner to provide more comfort and movement within kayak and canoe settings. It also reduces vest ride up while paddling.
The straps on the shoulders and the straps are easily adjustable to fit each individual’s sizes.
This Type III PFD comes in one color but several sizes and is approved by the Coast Guard.
Pros & Cons
- Very comfortableGood for hot weather—not too warm wearing
- Coast Guard approved rating
- Good and accurate sizing
- Lots of extra pockets and storage
- Wide arms for easy movement in kayaking, fishing, etc.
- Not available in bright colors to be easily seen in emergencies
- Higher price point
- Small pockets limit storage options
Stearns Adult Watersport Classic Series Vest
The Stearns Watersport Classic Series Vest is a Coast Guard approved adult life jacket that features excellent security and bright, vibrant color options. Equipped with several buckles and straps, this life vest is made to stay in place through water activities like wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing.
Made from 200D Nylon, the lightweight foam vest is designed to be comfortable and soft. Additionally, its open-side feature makes it breathable and gives users great freedom in arm movement.
This vest is designed for adults weighing 90 pounds or more, so it shouldn’t be considered for small children or infants.
Pros & Cons
- Brightly colored, available in blue, red, and yellow; good for easy spotting in emergencies
- Several buckles for extra security
- Coast Guard approved
- Open side design for easy movement and comfort
- Not good for heavy-weight individuals
- Described as bulky
- Snug fit
OMOUBOI Adult Inflatable Swim Vest
The OMOUBOI inflatable swim vest for adults is a visually appealing and excellently designed PFD that uses inflation technology. Coming in various neon colors, this vest has great visibility and is good for in-water activities like snorkeling.
Using a conveniently placed mouthpiece, this vest can easily be inflated to the user’s needs. It inflates quickly and deflates quickly for multiple uses.
Also featured on this vest are adjustable waist and crotch straps. These straps ensure the vest won’t go anywhere during activities and deliver a secure fit. Additionally, a mesh bag comes with the vest to store wet apparel and store equipment.
Pros & Cons
- Vibrant colors are good for visibility and emergencies
- Fast inflation and deflation
- Comfortable for long use
- Affordable price
- Good fit
- No CO2 cartridges to replace
- Comes with storage bag
- Not usable by those over 200 pounds
ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest
The ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports life vest is made from soft, lightweight flotation foam that conforms to your body for the best fit. The vest is designed with vented channels that will keep users cool through paddling or any other activities. Mesh ventilation in the front and back adds to this cooling.
The vest boasts reflective material to increase visibility. Their open arm design gives users excellent range of movement for all activities and is specifically good for paddling. It features an expandable mesh pocket as well as an emergency whistle.
Adjustable shoulder straps ensure the best fit for all users.
Pros & Cons
- Available in various sizes and color options
- Reflective material boosts visibility.
- Cooling channels and mesh to keep users from getting too hot
- Soft, lightweight flotation foams conform to the body
- Comfortable wear
- Wide arm openings increase movability
- Adjustable shoulder straps
- Price varies by size and color
- No adjustable waist or side straps
NRS Clearwater Mesh Back Personal Flotation Device
The NRS Clearwater PFD is made for recreational use and has been redesigned with a new look that features reflective tape for increased visibility. Its foam flotation is concentrated in the front panels and high on the back to promote more natural sitting positions while in kayaks, boats, canoes, etc.
The vest is made with large arm openings for increased movement. These openings make it easier for users to paddle.
There are eight different adjustment points on this vest, which makes the fit highly customizable. Additionally, there are two large pockets on the front to store any needed equipment or items like sunscreen.
Available in three different colors, this vest is very customizable as well as functional.
Pros & Cons
- Coast Guard approved
- Reflective tape is good for visibility and emergency situations
- Naturally placed flotation foam for comfort
- Large arm openings
- Customizable fitting through various adjustment points
- Large pocket storage
- Multiple color options
- Attractive design
- True to size
- Slightly higher price point
Stohlquist Edge Personal Flotation Device
The Stohlquist Edge Personal Flotation Device is a foam PFD designed with everything in mind: safety, fit, comfort, and mobility. The PFD is designed to fit the body’s natural shape for the highest amount of security. This designed makes it comfortable and easy to wear.
The arm openings are large to increase mobility. With a front waist buckle and a zipper, the vest will stay in place and is adjustable in four different places.
The vest features a top-loading front pocket for easy access and extra storage. Additionally, there are 3M reflective accents that increase visibility safety.
Pros & Cons
- Natural shape for good, snug fit
- Front top-loading pocket
- Large arm openings
- Adjustable straps
- Higher price point
In deciding on a winner between the above-reviewed items, the choice was clear. The NRS Clearwater Mesh Back PFD is a highly rated and highly reliable life vest. A standard foam vest, this vest uses special placement in their flotation to promote natural sitting positions, instead of awkward positions that some vests force upon their wearers.
An attractive piece to wear, the vest has recently been redesigned to include a safety feature utilizing reflective tape for visibility.
Since the vest is comprised of foam flotation, it requires very little maintenance and can be used over and over without needing to replace CO2 cartridges or deflate.
Extra storage in the form of two large front pockets makes this vest convenient for anyone who needs to carry extra equipment or tools during their activities.
Additionally, this vest is highly customizable in terms of sizing. It features eight different adjustment points, so each wearer can get a snug fit in all the right places.
In terms of pricing, considering the quality of this product, its pricing is more than reasonable. This is a vest that will last and can be used several times. It will pay for itself in just one use.
Since this vest is so comfortable, well-fitted, fairly priced, and has a cool look, this vest comes out on top in this review.