Kayaking Life Jackets – Safety First

Kayaking is an awesome way to experience nature, get some exercise and even make new friends. It can also be a way to get hurt or worse if we do not think about safety. So in this article we are going to look at kayaking life jackets or vests, and how to choose the right one for you.

The 5 Basic Types

While the majority of us use the terms’ life jacket or life vest to encompass the entirety of PFD’s or Personal Flotation Devices. Those terms’ are not entirely accurate.

Actually the term PFD is broken down into 5 categories.

Type 1 – These are designed primarily for off shore, rough seas or open water. Think about commercial fishing boats or the coast guard when you think of these. They are designed with the thought that you are going to be in the water for longer periods of time.

Type 2 – These are designed with quick rescue in mind. Near shore, calm waters.

Type 3 – These are the most popular and ideal for folks like us. The kayakers, water skiing, fishing, etc. Similar to type 2, and designed based on quick rescue, and calmer waters. These are also designed based on the activities you will be doing.

Type 4 – Throwable PFD. These typically come in the shape of a ring or floatable cushion. I know that these were very common on my Grandpas boat when I was younger.

Type 5 – These are designed with special circumstances in mind. Such as full body for very cold water to insulate against hypothermia. These will have special classifications on their labels.

We are going to focus on Type 3, since these are the ones that are ideal for what we are doing.

What To Look Out For

When out shopping for your own PFD some key features to look out for are going to be.

  • Comfort
  • Storage
  • Entry Method
  • Durability
  • Buoyancy

Comfort is huge. You do not want to be in a kayak all day in a life jacket that is uncomfortable. I know this, cause I have experienced it myself. It does not make for a great adventure. You really need one that is going to allow you to move the way you need too. Another factor or feature within this is Ventilation. Some of these jackets can be hot, especially if you are out in the sun for hours.

Storage is something I never really thought much about. In my research though, I have discovered that most life jackets and vests come with pockets and d-rings for attaching goodies too. Some even come with a hydration bladder so you can carry drinkable water with you without the trash.

Entry method, meaning how you put it on. Some zip up the front, others slip over your head.

Durability is important. With the price of some of these things, you do not want to buy a new every week or year. Look at the material, zippers, buckles, etc.

Last but not least, Buoyancy. This is the factor that keeps your head above the water.

Standard vs Inflatable

The term Standard encompasses the most widely used life jackets and vests. They are found everywhere from Walmart, Amazon, sporting goods stores, etc. They range from the old fashion, over the head bright orange flotation devices to the more modern, fancy vests with pockets, buckles, tabs and fancy colors. They also vary in price from $10 and up. They are typically made out of nylon or neoprene and use foam as the primary float.

Pros of Standard PFDs

  • Low Maintenance
  • Inherently Buoyant
  • Versatile
  • Pockets
  • Any Price Point

Cons of Standard PFDs

  • Bulk
  • Hot

Inflatables are a relatively new item on the market compared to the standard models. They can be labeled as a Type 3 or a Type 5 depending on their design. Inflatables come in two styles, manual and automatic. Manual inflatables are just that. The wearer manually inflates the vest by pulling on a cord, which ten activates a C02 gas cartridge. The automatic model inflates when it is submerged in water.

Pros of Inflatables

  • Comfortable/Less Bulk
  • Cool

Cons of Inflatables

  • Not inherently Buoyant. They must be inflated and if you are injured or rendered unconscious, that could be a problem.
  • Requires Maintenance/Replacement of Cartridges
  • Not for Everyone, not necessarily good for all sports, where standard PFDs are interchangeable
  • Can be Pricey

Hybrid PFDs – These are a combo of standard and inflatable. You get the best of both worlds, but you are going to pay for it.

Get The Right Size

You want to make sure you get the right size. Adult Life Jackets and Vests are sized by your chest measurement not your weight. Now, if you are built like me and are a little larger in that area, it definitely makes a difference when you start shopping. Generally speaking, your larger department type stores are not going to carry gender specific jackets and vests. Most are going to be unisex and for a larger busted women, that is a challenge.

So, to get the right size, measure your chest at it’s broadest point. Then use that number along with the manufacturers size recommendations. Also, try them on. Let’s face it. How many one size fits all things really do?

Tips for getting the right fit

  • Wear the clothing you would normally wear when kayaking or eat least of similar material when shopping.
  • Try them on, tighten them up and mimic the movements you would be doing. Try paddling, twisting, sitting down on the floor if necessary.
  • Think about adjustments. The more straps, the more you can make.
  • Again, look for gender specific. Unisex may not fit as well. Ladies, remember we tend to have extra baggage and bumps. Just saying.

Test the fit

Once you have the PFD on, tighten everything up from the bottom to the shoulders, in that order. Then have someone pull up on the shoulder straps. The body of the PFD should not move. If it comes up around your chin, it’s not right. It should fit like a great pair of gloves, snug but comfortable. You do not want it slipping around causing chaffing.

Child sizing is a bit different. Just to touch on this a bit, children PFDs are sized by their weight. A typical guideline that I found in my research is this.

  • Infants – 8-30lbs
  • Child – 30-50lbs
  • Youth – 50-90lbs

Safety First!

No matter what water activity you are embarking on, safety should come first. I hope that the information that I have provided will help you make an informed decision about the right PDF for you. I would love to know how your journey is going and if you have anything to add to this, leave me a comment below.

Thanks for taking the time to read and spend some time with me.

Until next time!

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8 thoughts on “Kayaking Life Jackets – Safety First”

  1. Hey there!

    I love how you broke this article down to the basic categories, uses, and then things to look for when finding your own 🙂 Being someone who also spends a lot of time on the water fishing, I can appreciate the importance of lifejackets. No matter who you are, these things save lives!

    Keep on writing!!

  2. I have to admit, I grew up on a lake and was on the water almost every day and I had no idea there was this many options for life jackets.

    I need to buy a couple life jackets for this summer when I visit home.
    Us who grew up on the water admittedly are probably too lax with our safety.
    My wife who did not and does not know how to swim, is overly nervous about the water.
    I’m trying to find some jackets to bring for her and our son so she can relax and enjoy it more this summer when we go visit my parents.

    I’d probably just invest in a standard as we will only be taking there on vacation.
    Any links you can provide or suggestions on affordable models I can get?

    • Yes, I too grew on the water and had been very lax on safety till I got my kayak. I now wear mine everytime I go out. I will do my best to provide some links to some quality life jackets in the near future. Thank you for your interest and kind comment. Check back for those links and other useful information.

  3. The maximum I ever did has been rafting in Bali and to be honest it is all engineered and orchestrated by the raft leader. However, this feels great and natural. New Zealand is so high on my bucket list and this is what I definitely would like to be doing. When is the best time frame?
    Well done on this post. I love it

    • Mariella, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I would love to kayak in New Zealand or Bali. LOL Think I will stick with the USA for now. As far as time frame, anytime is a good time if you are prepared for it. I personally like warmer weather kayaking with lots of sunshine.

  4. I was just thinking about starting Kayaking and a came across this great site, thanks for the information on the life jackets that has made my job a lot easier.

    keep up the great work


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