5 Types of PFDs (Personal Flotation Device)

What kind of life vest do you need for paddleboarding? Are they required?

When paddling a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, safety rules are not necessarily common knowledge. While these watercraft are not motor-powered, they are still considered vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard and must be accompanied by a personal flotation device (PFD) of some variety. The type of PFD you will need, however, can vary depending on what you’re paddling, where you’re paddling it, and your comfort level in and around the water.

When choosing a PFD, it’s important to note the different types, consider what activity you will be using it for, and, of course, check that the fit is appropriate for the wearer.

(That goes for pups too!)


The 5 types of PFDs

Type I

Offshore, all around life vest. This is the most buoyant PFD and offers the greatest amount of aid. This type is suitable for any and all water conditions and is recommended for rough and isolated areas, away from shore. In these instances, rescue may be delayed, so a type I PFD will be able to turn most unconscious individuals to the face-up position. These vests tend to be bulkier than most, but provide the greatest flotation.

Type II

Inland, near-shore life vest. This type of PFD is designed for general boating and water activities. It is recommended for calm, inland waters where the shore is nearby and there is a good chance of rescue if needed.

Type III

Inshore flotation aid. A type III PFD is suitable for calm, inland waters where the shore is in sight and rescue is close by if needed. These vests tend to offer more freedom and user mobility, while still providing safe flotation. They are commonly worn during general boating activities and watersports specified on the PFD’s label, such as kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, etc.

Type IV

Flotation device. This type is not a PFD to be worn, but a device to be thrown to someone conscious in the water. These are things such as life rings, buoyant cushions, and horseshoe buoys. They are often kept on boats in case of emergency.

Type V

Special-use PFDs. This is a type designed to be worn during activities described on the vest’s label. Some watersports have specially designed PFDs to provide better comfort during the activity, and will label them as such. A common example is a kayaking vest that has a higher back to avoid interfering with the backrest or spray skirt. Since their buoyancy varies, these vests will also classify their performance as either type I, II, or III.

When paddling your board or kayak around lakes and rivers, any type I - III will meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements. If you head out to rougher waters, however, a type I PFD is recommended.

Life Vests VS. Belt Packs

Image: Landfall Navigation

For paddleboarding specifically, life vests and jackets can sometimes feel restricting and limit movement when paddling. In this case, it is common to opt for a belt pack PFD instead. Belt packs sit only around the waist and leave your upper body free to paddle and move without interference. They are a great alternative to bulky vests, however, they are only to be used by confident swimmers on calm, inland waters. In order to inflate the pack, the user must be conscious and able to pull the activation tab, so it’s important that the wearer be comfortable in and around the water.

While belt packs are a great option for calm lakes, be sure to wear a proper life vest of type I or II when exploring rougher waters and oceans. Vests should also be worn when engaging in higher-risk activities, such as water skiing and wakeboarding. 

When choosing a PFD, be sure to check that the size and fit are right for you. It should be comfortably snug and have enough buoyancy to keep your chin above water.

So next time you hit the water, don’t forget a PFD! With many different styles and designs available, remember to choose the appropriate vest for your activity, and make sure it's comfortable. Stay safe and happy paddling!

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