MEC in Charleston Park, Ontario, Canada

How to choose a PFD

No swimmer can float unaided indefinitely. So logic, and the law, makes a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) essential equipment. Choosing the one that’s right for you will make paddling more comfortable and add to your safety on the water.

Fit

No other feature is as important as a good fit. It’s key, not just for comfort when paddling, but it ensures you’ll float properly in the water if you happen to end up there.

  • To check the fit, loosen all the adjustment straps, put the PFD on, then tighten the straps so it’s comfortably snug around your chest. Pull up on the shoulder straps to. This simulates the upward pull that occurs when you’re floating. If your PFD rides up over your chin and ears it can be awkward or dangerous in the water. If it rides up, it needs more adjusting, or is likely too big for you.
  • To check for comfort, sit or kneel in a paddling position and go through the motions of a paddling stroke. Ensure you have a full range of motion, that you can breathe easily, and that there is no chafing under your arms.

Buoyancy

PFDs achieve flotation by displacing water. The more volume they displace, the more buoyancy they provide. Buoyancy is measured in kilograms (the weight of water displaced). Approved PFDs meet minimum buoyancy standards, but in some cases you might want more than the minimum. Bubbly or frothy water isn’t very dense, so you’ll sink deeper. Fresh water is also less dense than salt water, so you’ll float lower in lakes than in the ocean.

The design of a PFD affects how it will float you. Positioning the flotation foam low on the body ensures it is submerged to provide lift. Foam that rides above the waterline when you swim is not contributing to floating you, although some padding on the tops of the shoulders is nice when you’re portaging.

Canadian-government approved

In Canada, each person in a canoe or kayak must have a Canadian-government approved PFD of appropriate size. They must have a permanent label indicating their approval, and PFDs manufactured outside of Canada must be specifically tested, approved, and labelled for use here.

Whitewater, touring and paddleboarding

Touring PFDs are often full-torso styles, with pockets to hold your equipment. Whitewater styles are often lower volume, lower-body styles with few pockets that could catch on branches or rocks.

Stand up paddleboards (SUPs) are considered nautical vessels like kayaks or canoes. So, when you ride one in Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard requires that you have a PFD with you. Many people choose an inflatable style that fits over your shoulders or goes around your waist. They are slim enough that they don’t interfere with your stroke or get in the way when you switch your paddle from side to side.

Inflatable PFDs

You actively deploy this style, either by pulling a tab to activate the CO2 cartridge, or by blowing through the inflation tubes. Both those actions are difficult to do in high waves or in whitewater, so inflatable PFDs are not approved for whitewater paddling. The CO2 cartridge has to be replaced once it’s been used and the inflation mechanism needs to be inspected periodically to make sure it’s not corroded. The advantages of inflatable PFDs is that they’re low profile and cool to wear in hot weather.

Care and maintenance

Don’t sit on your PFD, as it will get abraded and compressed. Clean it by hand with warm water and a gentle soap. Dry it completely before storing it to reduce the chance of  mold or mildew. And store it out of direct sunlight – UV rays degrade fabrics and foam, making them more brittle and less durable over time.