What Is The Difference Between A PFD And A Life Jacket?

What Is The Difference Between A PFD And A Life Jacket

In addition to experience, knowledge, and preparedness, a life jacket or PFD is one of the most important ways of preventing drowning. It is essential to understand that even the strongest or most experienced swimmer cannot fight fierce currents or debilitating cold waters.

On the other hand, a false sense of security can emerge from the environment you are kayaking or paddleboarding in, and you may mistakenly think that you’ll just swim to shore or hold on to your kayak in case of an accident. According to a research conducted by the Boat U.S. Foundation, 90% of drowning incidents occur in inland waters, involve boats under 20’ long, and most occur within a few feet of safety.

Sudden changes in weather and emergencies such as boat collisions, mechanical injuries, and heart attacks can hinder your ability to swim or paddle your kayak to safety. The conditions in kayaking can change in a flash, and your life jacket or PFD is your first line of defence. Moreover, saying that you’ll put on your life vest after your kayak capsizes is like saying you’ll put on your seat belt just before a crash.

Therefore, it’s vital to always wear your PFD or life vest even if you feel you’re in control of the situation.

Types of Life Vests and How They Work

Every inflatable life jacket is equipped with an inflator mechanism that is designed to activate C02 inflation. There are two main types of inflator mechanisms; automatic and manual inflation.

little girl

Automatic Inflate

An automatic life vest inflates when the in-built water-soluble bobbin comes in contact with H20 (water) triggering a chain reaction which releases a small spring-loaded pin that pierces the CO2 cylinder.

On the other hand, hydrostatic pressure inflation is a new type of automatic inflation whereby a hydrostatic pressure valve is only triggered when the PFD is immersed in a particular depth of water (the depth needed to activate the valve usually varies by manufacturer). However, in both case, the automatic life vest will still inflate even if the user is unable to activate the inflation mechanism in a timely manner. This is advantageous especially if the victim is knocked unconscious or incapacitated by cold water shock.

You won’t want to have the traditional auto-inflate life jacket on if you’re in the pouring rain, in a big breeze or when going under a wave. A hydrostatic PFD is a great option in this case because it requires you to be in the water to inflate, but won’t activate just by coming in contact with water. 

If you are looking for a USCG – UL1180 – approved automatic inflatable vest, then Mustang Survival DLX 38 will be a good choice. 

Mustang Survival DLX 38 Automatic Inflatable


Manual Inflate

Manual PFDs activate when you pull the yellow handle dangling at waist level (jerk tab) which punctures the CO2 cylinder. Therefore, the wearer chooses when to inflate the PFD (they have full control). This reduces the possibility of entrapment or unwanted inflation.

Manual PFDs require less service than automatic inflates and they may be a good option if you sail in an area with regular storms or rain showers. However, in order to activate the inflation mechanism, you must be conscious and capable of pulling the “jerk tab”. Manual inflate life jackets are not recommended for children under 16 years or people who don’t know how to swim.

ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx M-24 Manual Inflatable Vest

One of the best rated manual inflatable vests is Onyx M-24. You can check the details of this particular vest below:


Differences Between PFDs and Life Vests

pfd on displayA PFD and life jacket may seem the same, but they’re not.

Essentially, a PFD should be worn if you intend to go into the water. A life jacket should be worn if you do not. The reason I say this is that a PFD does not offer as much buoyancy as a life jacket, but it is designed to be worn for water based activities. It allows for more movement and is buoyant both front and back. It does not require inflation.

A life jacket, on the other hand, is worn in case of accidental immersion. It is capable of keeping you afloat and is designed to do so with your face above the water (a PFD doesn’t turn you onto your back the way a life jacket does). It is for accidental entry into the water, such as falling, becoming unconscious etc. Not to mention that this very life-saving element of the life vest makes it unsuitable if you are likely to deliberately enter the water.




So, the main differences between PFDs and life vests are that PFDs have limited turning-over capability and are less buoyant compared to life jackets. However, since most recreational boaters usually boat close to shore or in congested waters, the fact that they are less effective at turning an incapacitated/unconscious person from face down to face up and are less buoyant is less of a concern as with people who boat on open, rough waters and professional mariners or for emergency situations.

However, a life jacket is the best choice for a weak swimmer or a child because it gives them the best chance of survival in case they end up in the water suddenly and unexpectedly.PFDs were primarily designed for use in various recreational boating activities and are generally less bulky, more comfortable and smaller.

Another significant difference between PFDs and Lifejackets is that life jackets must be in yellow, orange or red whereas PFDs are approved in a wide range of colors.

pfd on display

The Bottom Line

You should always wear life jacket or PFD whenever you’re on the water, and you should choose one that fits comfortably and snugly. It should be worn securely because it can easily impede your swimming ability if it’s not worn correctly. Your PFD or life vest should always stay in place without riding up around your ears. However, the best life vests for kayaking are those that are designed specifically for paddling. PFDs that are designed specifically for kayaking has large armholes that give you the fullest range of upper body and arm motion while paddling. Most of them will also have various convenience features such as zipper pockets for carrying things like glasses, sunscreen and snacks.