Picking a Personal Flotation Device That Fits You

Picking a Personal Flotation Device That Fits You

by Janet Burnett Cowie

Gear Essentials: Part 2

Personal flotation devices are required on board your vessel by the U.S. Coast Guard. More than that, PFDs are a crucial piece of safety equipment. The most effective PFD is one you’re actually willing to wear. Understanding your intended use, choosing the right style, and finding a good fit are paramount in picking the perfect PFD.

At Zoar Outdoor, we are all about whitewater, so our selection of type III and V PFDs at The Outfitters Shop and our Paddling School reflect that. The Coast Guard categorizes PFDs based on the level of assistance that they will provide to someone floating in the water and rate them from Type I to Type V. At Zoar, we use Type III flotation for our instruction, and sell Type III and V in The Outfitters Shop. With all those options for river users though, how do you know which is right for you?

Having a good grip on your paddle sports ambitions is a great place to start. Are you just starting out? Do you require maximum mobility for rad freestyle moves? Do you need a towbelt for swiftwater rescue? Whatever your goal finding the right style and fit is important.

For most river use the Type III PFDs would work well since they are designed "for general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others.” While Type I and II PFDs are mainly for floating a person and tend to be bulkier, Type III PFDs are designed so that wearing them will complement your boating activities. (Wondering about Type IV? That’s actually throwable flotation, like rings and cushions, so it’s not a type we’ll be focusing on here.) 

If you're looking to use a PFD with a spray skirt, purchase one that is cut a bit higher on the waist. Watch out for many department store varieties as they are often cut more for stand up activities like water skiing, and may not fit well with river gear. The Stohlquist Edge and Rocker are the two kinds we use in our paddling school, and a great place to start for river paddling. For kids, we use the Stohlquist Drifter Youth. If you’re mostly using your PFD with a recreational kayak, some PFDs now offer mesh backs that work well with the higher kayak seats. Check out the Stohlquist Fisherman for a fishing PFD with a similar high back.


For those of you who love throwing tricks in your play boat, try on a PFD like the NRS Ninja or Astral YTV. The wider arm holes and low profiles on these give you maximum mobility as you paddle. They also come with minimal pockets, so they have little bulk in front and allow you to really lean forward in your boat. 

If you plan to do swift water rescue training or paddle on steep creeks, a Type V PFD may be better suited for you. Apart from the higher, snugger cut that makes them ideal for river boating, the Type V PFDs for whitewater usually include a quick release harness. This harness, along with the proper training and practice, enables the user to perform advanced rescue techniques and is a must for some advanced swift water rescue maneuvers. The Astral Green Jacket is the classic rescue PFD, and the Stohlquist Descent, with its Wrapture contoured foam, is a great choice as well.

Another thing to consider when trying on PFDs is your body type. Are you tall or short? And more importantly what is the length of your torso? Some PFDs will fit your body type better than others. This is where it is important to try many on to see what works best for you. You don’t want to end up with an uncomfortably long PFD that cuts into you when you’re sitting, or a short one that doesn’t fit properly or provide enough flotation. Several manufacturers are now also making women's specific PFDs. These PFDs have specially designed tops with more flexibility and contouring for a better fit. For an example of these, check out the Astral Layla.

Lastly, don’t forget to consider accessories including pockets for snacks, sunscreen, and pin kits; knife tab location; and warming pockets!

Bottom line - fit is most important. Try as many as possible. Don’t settle on one that doesn’t work just right for you. Get a PFD that fits so you’ll wear it, and a color that you love, so you’ll look good too!

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