Updated: Nov 23, 2021
In this post, we will delve deeper into the different types of PFDs, why they are a necessity and our recommendations. You may have heard people complain that PFDs feel uncomfortable or limit their movement when paddling but it is mandatory to wear one or have one on your board in most places. AND the more you wear it the more normal it feels, like wearing your seatbelt in a car - feels weird without one now right?!
*This post contains affiliate links, for which we may receive a super small commission should you decide to buy a PFD. We will only ever recommend products we know, like and trust!
Let’s get into it…
What is a PFD?
PFD stands for personal flotation device. It enables you to stay buoyant in the water in the event you fall off your paddle board. It helps keep you afloat when the unexpected happens. Without a doubt, a PFD is one of the most important pieces of gear you should have when it comes to your safety. Here at Blue JellyFish SUP Adventures, we class it as an essential part of your equipment and require everyone to wear one while paddling with us. Transport Canada requires you to wear a life jacket or have one with you on board.
What is the difference between a life jacket and PFD?
Lifejackets and PFD’s are made for two completely different purposes. The activity you are participating in, decides on whether you will wear a lifejacket or PFD.
PFD’s are designed to give you a greater range of motion and to feel ‘less bulky’. They must allow unrestricted movement so you can swim but must not compromise on buoyancy. PFD’s are designed for all-day wear while doing active sports like paddle boarding, whitewater kayaking, kayak fishing and more.
Lifejackets are designed to save lives rather than to be comfortable for all-day wear. They are required to be aboard all licensed vessels and they are often stored in an easy to access place should they be needed in an emergency.
The location of the buoyant material is one of the defining characteristics of a personal flotation device versus a lifejacket. For example - Lifejackets can keep someone alive even when they’re unconscious because the buoyancy is primarily on the front. This automatically positions the head so it’s facing up toward the sky rather than down toward the water.
PFD’s have buoyant material on the front and the back, only just enough to keep you at the surface. When wearing a PFD, you are expected to be comfortable to self-rescue or be out with others who are capable of supporting you in the event of an emergency. PFD's require you to actively participate in your own rescue.
Personal flotation devices are designed for recreational activities (such as stand-up paddle boarding) that take place on or in the water, while lifejackets are typically found in situations where ending up in the water is an undesirable possibility.
What are the five different types of PFD’s?
There are five different types of PFD’s and it is important to know which one is the best option for you and the activity you will be doing.
Type I PFD's
A Type I PFD is high-coverage maximum flotation. They contain a minimum of 22 lbs of buoyancy mostly located on the front of the jacket. They are the safest jacket when rescue is far away.
Type I PFD's are used when boating alone or in stormy conditions in open, rough, or remote waters like where fishermen, rescue teams and other mostly industrial operations take place. We do not recommend this type of PFD for any paddling sports.
Type II PFD's
These PFD’s are also known as “offshore buoyant vests”.
Used predominantly by Ocean racers and adventurous sailors, these PFDs are designed and developed for environments where wearers find themselves in isolated or rough waters. They have a streamlined profile and self inflate upon hitting the water. We do not recommend these for paddling as you may fall in frequently.
Type III PFD's
Type III PFD’s or "inshore buoyant vests" are the most common choice for recreational water sports such as canoeing, kayaking, sailing, water skiing, fishing, and of course paddle boarding! They are best when immediate rescue such as self rescue or nearby help (your paddling partner) is available.
These PFDs are not suitable for extended survival in rough water like Type I or Type II. Their shoulder straps and profile design make them more comfortable than other types, and we believe a perfectly fitted type III should complement your activity and allow for movement.
Type IV PFD
A Type IV PFD is not worn but thrown. In pools, motorboats, or commercial vessels, they are often rings, horseshoe-shaped, or cushions with handles.
In a rescue situation, you would throw the PFD to aid a conscious swimmer, who would then pull themselves on top of the flotation and wrap their arms through the handles.
Type V PFD
Type V PFDs are special-use jackets. They are optimized for their activity such as kayak rescue vests, sailing harnesses or deck suits.
Commercial guest PFDs have a neck pillow to help keep the head above water, making those PFDs Type V. Many paddlers wear Type V vests with a quick-release tab attached to a line and ring meant for live-bait rescue.
What are the different PFD designs?
SHOP > Trident Foam Vest
PROS: This is a vest with floatation foam and is the most common type of PFD. They usually have a zippered front pocket and accessory attachment points. A big advantage is that they don’t need inflation. As long as you have it on, you’re set and good to go!
CONS: Some people find them bulky in the beginning but if correctly fitted (snug to your body) you will find it more comfortable and barely noticeable. We suggest practicing mounting your board from the water while wearing your PFD.
PROS: A PFD belt stays completely out of your way and is a lightweight non-restrictive alternative to a life vest. Best used when paddling with others close by that could assist in an emergency and additionally using a leash to keep you tethered to your board (in flat water only).
CONS: You must be conscious and able to manually activate the flotation. If in a panic or medical emergency in is improbable that you will be able to manage the steps to quickly activate the flotation. With some, the flotation would be around your waist and not your chest/head which seems counter to the whole keeping your head above water to save your life situation…. what do you think?
PROS: They can have either an automatic or manual inflation. People prefer automatic inflation but I'm sure we aren't the only ones who have fallen into the water and it hasn’t been an emergency!
CONS: If it's automatic, you don’t want to fall in and waste your CO2 cartridges!
Which is better: automatic inflation or manual inflation?
It is all up to personal preference whether you prefer automatic inflation or manual inflation. We want to summarize the pros and cons of each.
Pro - There is less to go wrong because it doesn't rely on an inflation mechanism which makes it more reliable for personal use.
Con - If you were to lose consciousness before entering the water you wouldn't be able to inflate and save yourself.
Pro - You don’t have to do as much! It auto-inflates when it is submerged in water or a cord is pulled. The CO2 cartridge is then activated and is dissolved by the water. It is especially useful for children, non-strong swimmers or people who panic easily.
Con - They take a lot of maintenance. It’s important to keep checking your CO2 cartridge and making sure it is all in working order. There is always the potential of it not working correctly.
Do I need to wear a PFD when I stand up paddle board?
Yes, Yes, and YES! Regardless of the fact it is proven that PFD’s save lives, it is law preettyyyyy much everywhere. According to Transport Canada, all paddle boarders must have a Canadian-approved lifejacket or PFD on board which is available for immediate use. Also, the Substitute Safety Equipment provisions in section 4 of the Small Vessel Regulations do not allow leashes in place of lifejackets and PFDs.
Within Provincial and National Parks, it is also required to abide by the Transport Canada regulations. Read more about Paddle Board Safety in Canada’s National Parks.
When paddling with us, we require all our guests to wear one - SAFETY FIRST!
What should I think about when buying a PFD for paddle boarding?
Comfort - Let’s be honest, if something is uncomfortable or doesn't fit correctly you are going to have a miserable experience on your board and not want to wear one again. Your PFD should conform snuggly to your body while allowing you to paddle, swim and move freely. Contrary to what many think, a snug (not tight) PFD is much more comfortable than a lose one.
Size - We all have different body types and that is what makes us so unique. Flotation is relative to body weight, so you do need one rated for your weight. Your PFD shouldn't be so lose as to be able to slide up to your ears nor so tight that it prevents you from taking a deep breath. If you choose to wear a PFD belt then it should be able to close easily and not feel too loose or too snug when worn at the front.
Style - Firstly you have to ask yourself, are you going to wear a PFD belt, a harness or a life vest? All options are acceptable for paddling boarding. At Blue Jellyfish SUP, we always use foam lifevest style PFD’s. The only exception is on serious training days when we have a training partner nearby, in which case we may wear a waist belt.
Ease of use - It needs to be simple, easy and effective. You don't want something super complicated. If it is an inflatable PFD, you shouldn’t feel like you have to sit an exam to be able to use it correctly. A simple zip, or shoulder straps and buckles do the job as long as they are fully functional.
How do I maintain my PFD?
It is important to carefully maintain your PFD. Buying quality equipment doesn't come cheap so let’s look into what you need to do to make sure it remains functional over a long life span.
Hose it down after every use, especially when paddling in saltwater.
Always hang it up to dry fully to prevent mould growth, but not in direct sunlight (UV is hard on the material).
Take care of any zippers, velcro, front pockets, and inflatable bladders by ensuring they are debris-free, dry fully and lubricated as necessary.
If you have automatic inflation make sure your CO2 cartridge is filled.
Look out for any tears or rips and repair as needed.
When storing PFD’s for the winter, always make sure they are dry and clean, then store them in a dry place away from direct heat or UV.
Do not modify the operational mechanisms on your PFD.
I’m a beginner, what is a great option for me?
We believe that foam life vests are the best choice for those just getting started with paddle boarding. Our reason for this is if anything were to happen and you do end up in the water, you are guaranteed to keep afloat with your head above the water. These style PFD’s are also the most affordable and easiest to maintain.
The best PFD’s for SUP (in our opinion) - brands and designs we love!
Our final thoughts...
Hopefully, this post has been helpful in guiding you to making the best PFD purchase. PFDs are a safety necessity and a Transport Canada requirement - think of them as your emergency prevention when out on the water.
You’ve learned about the different types of PFD’s, the questions you need to ask yourself before purchasing, as well as the brands we love and recommend.
As always if you have any questions or want to discuss paddling safety further then please reach out and we will do our best to help guide you in your decision making process.
Be sure to stay up to date with us on our Facebook page or Instagram and check out our other blog all about ‘What to wear when paddle boarding’ where you will find lots of other useful stand up paddling information.
See you on the water...