Everyone knows that life jackets, well, save lives. But that doesn’t mean we always wear them. The Coast Guard reports that out of the 486 recreational boating deaths in 2016, most victims—83 percent—weren’t wearing life jackets. “A lot of people have a false sense of security,” says Mark Anderson, director of product development for Mustang Survival, a life-jacket and watersports-gear manufacturer. “They think, I swim well or It won’t happen to me. But when the shit hits the fan, it doesn’t take long to get into trouble.”
Here’s what you need to know before strapping on a PFD.
The Different Types of PFDs
The first thing to look for on a life vest or belt is a Coast Guard–approval stamp somewhere on the label. Any device sold in retail stores must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, but that’s not necessarily the case for online retailers. “There’s all sorts of things out there on Amazon,” says Anderson. “But who knows how they were tested or how well they’ll work.” The label will also list the PFD’s intended use. Most will have a type number; the five types range from the bulky keyhole life jackets on cruise ships to pool rings. Type 1 are the most buoyant and are designed for offshore conditions where rescues won’t happen fast. These PFDs will turn a person faceup, even if they’re unconscious. Type 2 devices are more recreationally focused. They’re less bulky but will still turn most people faceup (it depends on their weight). Most paddlers will want a type 3, because they’re less restrictive when you’re paddling. They’re designed to keep a swimmer upright but won’t turn them on their back. Pool rings and horseshoe buoys are examples of a type 4 PFD, and type 5 are specialty items, like the inflatable vests worn while working around water.
A new standard, developed by the U.S. Coast Guard along with Transport Canada, is just starting to show up. It looks to improve on the vague types with four icons, each with a number (50, 70, 100, and 150) describing the amount of flotation in newtons and a picture of a swimmer representing the distance from shore, the idea being: the farther from shore, the longer the rescue and the more flotation needed. Most paddlers will want a 70, which provides plenty of floatation without restricting movement. With either standard, paddling PFDs come in three different designs: inherent, made of foam; inflatable, which has a gas canister that inflates a bag to create buoyancy; and hybrid, which has a smaller amount of foam supplemented with inflation.
How to Choose the Right PFD for You
Deciding which type of PFD suits your needs depends on the kind of water you’ll be paddling and how much time you might spend swimming, says Anderson. The always-ready-to-float, inherent buoyancy of foam is invariably the safest, he says, and you should consider only foam PFDs if you prefer whitewater, surf, or exposed open water. However, wrapping around a good portion of the upper body, this style of floatation is hotter and more restrictive than inflatables. Foam PFDs come in a range of styles that all look similar but vary in cut and features. For instance, most of the foam on Astral’s YTV SE ($120) is placed low, leaving the shoulders unencumbered for easier paddling.
Stohlquists’ Betsea ($130) is a little bulkier but makes up for it with a bunch of pockets and fleece-lined hand warmers. When the chances of falling in are slim, the consequences of a swim are small, or when unhindered paddling is all important (think: for calm, warm, sheltered waters and racing), inflatable belts and vests are good options. Vests are more geared for sailors and fishermen, since they inhibit paddling motion. Paddlers generally stick to the belts, which have become more popular with the growth of stand-up paddleboarding, because their unobtrusive nature fits better with the surfing roots of that sport. Most belts require a user to manually deploy the airbag by pulling on a toggle and then pulling the inflated tube over the head. “It’s easy to do, but when you’re tossed into the water in poor conditions, it messes with you,” Anderson says. Mustang first released its Inflatable Belt Pack almost 20 years ago, launching this style of PFD, and it remains one of the most popular. MTI then tweaked the style and dropped the price by changing the shape of the airbag from a collar to a pillow in its 16g Belt Pack ($70).
Hybrid PFDs, like Mustang’s Khimera ($200), have about half the flotation of a typical foam PFD—just enough to keep a person on the surface. But pulling a handle inflates the air pouch, which more than doubles its buoyancy, making hybrids a nice option if you want the certainty of foam without the bulk. This is a new category in the PFD world, and the Khimera remains one of the only such flotation devices available in North America.
How to Wear a PFD
Not wearing a PFD properly is another problem Anderson sees regularly, especially when it comes to belt-style inflatables. Most are one size fits all, but many people wear them like fanny packs, with the buckle in the front and the pouch in the back. They’re actually designed to sit the opposite way, like money belts. Wear it backward and in an emergency you’ll have to spin it around before pulling the airbag over your head. “It works fine if it’s calm and you know what you’re doing, but if it’s rough, or you haven’t tried it before, it can be a real problem,” Anderson says.
For foam and hybrid PFDs, fit is the key. They often come in sizes relating to weight and chest circumference. Pick the appropriate one, then cinch it snug, usually with the straps that run around the vest. Test the fit by having someone pull up on the shoulders. If the vest slides up around your ears, it’s too big. It will do the same in the water, making it hard to swim.
How to Maintain It
Again, foam is the easy one here. If you paddle in salt water, a quick rinse after every use is a good habit, and always be sure to dry the PFD fully before putting it away, to prevent mold and mildew buildup. Store PFDs out of the sun, because UV degrades the fabric and the foam over time. And every now and then check for broken or cracked buckles or split seams.
With more parts, hybrids and inflatables need more attention. Anderson recommends visually inspecting the PFD at least once every season, especially the indicator near the air canister. If it’s red, it needs servicing. If it’s green, everything is ready to deploy, and there’s no need to test the system. He also advises manually inflating the airbag at least once a year—there’s a tube exactly for this so you don’t waste a canister of compressed air while practicing. Once the airbag is inflated, let it sit for an hour to make sure it isn’t leaking. (This is also a good time to practice putting the PFD on. Like with any piece of safety equipment, Anderson says, the more you practice with it, the more comfortable you’ll be in an emergency.) Deflate it by pushing on the deflation valve (on the tube you blew it up with), and pack it away.
Other Things to Know
You have to wear a PFD when whitewater paddling or windsurfing. Otherwise, the rules for carrying, wearing, and using PFDs vary by state. You can look them up here. A general rule is to follow Coast Guard regulations, which govern federal waters. The Coast Guard considers canoes, kayaks, and SUPs vessels, meaning when you’re on the water, you’re required to carry a whistle, a navigation light, and a PFD for every person on board. (SUPs in the surf zone, paddling close to shore and following the waves, are exempt.) In addition, kids have to wear a PFD at all times until they turn 14. The best thing to do is just wear a PFD anytime you’re in a boat. Yeah, you probably won’t need it. Sure, it messes with your tan. And yes, it’s hot. But better safe than sorry.