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How To Choose The Perfect Life Jacket

How To Choose The Perfect Life Jacket

When it comes to kayaking, your safety should always be your number one priority. You should be wearing a life jacket whenever you are out on a lake or river, with no exceptions. No matter how experienced you might be, you never know what is around the corner, so ensuring that you are wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) will help to increase your safety and keep you afloat should you fall into the water.

With so many options on the market, when it comes to choosing the right life jacket or Personal Floatation Device for your needs it can be confusing to know which one you should use. To help you choose the right PFD, we have put together an in-depth guide to the various styles available so you can make an educated decision.

What are the different types of life jackets available?

Although there are many different brands, styles, and shapes of Personal Floatation Devices for you to choose from, they will all fall under one of five set categories. These categories are designed to cover every type of activity on the water and have been created to provide you with a guide so you understand which is most suited to your needs.

Type One

Type one life jackets are typically designated for use in open waters and rough seas. These jackets are designed for maximum buoyancy and are typically used in open water where it might take some time for rescue services to reach you.

These are usually the go-to option for commercial outlets and not a typical choice for casual kayakers, who are more likely to be in populated areas. Type one PFD’s are designed to be comfortable to wear for a very long time and are usually created to ensure the wearer will remain afloat with their head out of the water, even if they are unconscious.

Type Two

Life jackets graded as type two are typically used in waters where quick rescue is possible. Designed for use in calm, in-land bodies of water, type two floatation devices are still a relatively bulky jacket but they are comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time.

Although these are not designed for use in rougher water, some type two jackets do have the ability to turn an unconscious wearer face-up should they fall into the water.

Type Three

Type three Personal Floatation Devices are usually the most popular choice for those looking to spend the day out kayaking. Again focusing on areas of in-land water or gentle rivers where the chances of immediate rescue are high, type three jackets are far more comfortable to wear when compared to type one and type two; but it is important to remember that they do not offer as much buoyancy and are not suitable for use in rough waters.

Due to them typically being worn by users who are participating in active sports such as kayaking or wakeboarding, these type three jackets are designed to allow for maximum physical activity and movement so will not restrict your arms while paddling.

Type Four

This is more a device to be thrown to someone in need rather than a jacket you would wear throughout your activities. Type four devices are designed to provide the person in need with additional support in the water and are usually either square, ring or horseshoe-shaped.

The use of a type four floatation device is for those people who can swim or are wearing a PFD and should not be used by either non-swimmers or young children.

Type Five

The type five category is typically reserved for PFD’s that are designed for a specific and unique use. These can include things such as sailboard harnesses, commercial use, floatation cots, and deck suits. Alongside keeping the wearer afloat they can also be designed to protect the body from other problems such as hypothermia.

Foam or inflatable, which life jacket should you choose?

Of course, when it comes to choosing which life jacket you should wear, alongside choosing the rating level of the PFD you will also have to choose whether you want yours to be made from foam (or similar material) or one that is inflatable.

Both of these have various pros and cons, which are outlined below:

Foam Life Jackets


One of the biggest benefits of a foam jacket is that they are incredibly low-maintenance and can last many years without needing many requirements from the owner. Typically, you will just need to keep them clean, dry, and stored in a dark place when not in use.

Equally the materials used, typically a foam inner, are very buoyant and are perfect for use in in-shore bodies of water. Due to their lightweight and the ability to be machined into any shape, they are perfect for activities such as kayaking and water skiing.

Another benefit of foam-based PFD’s is that because they are designed for use during water sports, they contain various pockets; allowing you to store sunscreen and other items you regularly need throughout the day.


Arguably the biggest negative aspect of a foam-based Personal Floatation Device is the fact that they can be a little bulky to wear all day. Although designed for use in various sports and activities some of them can actually be a little restrictive when trying to paddle – however trying on various types can help to solve this. There are some foam life jackets with tapered shoulders ideally suited for paddlers.

If you are planning on heading out on a hot summer’s day, then another negative point of a foam PFD is that they can get very warm when in use for a few hours.

Inflatable Life Jackets


Inflatable jackets are very popular thanks to them being able to be packed down into a very small size when un-inflated. Typically these jackets will come in two options, manual inflation or automatic inflation. Both of these provide the wearer with the same level of protection but most kayakers prefer the manual option as some of the automatic ones have a tendency to inflate when exposed to water in non-emergencies – which can happen regularly when paddling!

Another benefit of using inflatable PFD’s is that they cover less of the body so they are great to use on a hot day as they allow more sweat to evaporate, helping to keep you cool.


Depending on the type of inflatable device you use (manual or automatic), it is important to remember that they are not inherently buoyant so should the wearer be unconscious they will not work to keep the wearer’s head above water. Equally, inflatable jackets are not really suitable for those water sports which have high-impacts such as white water kayaking and water skiing.

Inflatable jackets also require more maintenance than their foam counterparts as it is vital that users regularly check the valves and ensure that any CO2 cartridges used during the inflation process are working. There is however manual inflation redundancy for automatic inflatable life jackets.

Choosing the right fit for your life jacket

Once you know the style and type of life jacket that you want to use while kayaking, it is important you get the right size for your use. For adults, they should choose a jacket which is based on their chest size (at the broadest point).

If you are unsure, then you should try some on before purchasing. It is always wise to wear the same clothes you do while kayaking when trying jackets on and the first thing you should do is to put it on with all of the straps loosened.

Once on, the first straps you should tighten are the waist and then work up to your shoulder straps. The jacket should fit closely to your body but still allow you to freely move your arms and not hinder your performance. Some users like to mimic the movements that they will be making to ensure there is no rubbing or chaffing while paddling with it on.

Fitting a Personal Floatation Device for a child is a little different, as you typically choose a jacket based on their weight rather than their chest size. Usually, these are based on three choices:

  • Infant: These are for children between 8-30 pounds
  • Child: These are for children between 30-50 pounds
  • Youth: These are for children between 50-90 pounds

If you are unsure whether a life jacket is suitable for you or for your child, then speak to the staff at the retailer and they will be able to help you find one that not only fits but is perfect for the activities you will be getting up to.

In the same way you would not get into a car without putting on a seatbelt, you should not get out on the water without wearing a life jacket. No matter your skill level, you never know what could happen, so wearing one should become a second habit any time you get into your kayak.

Kayak On!

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Kayak PFD


I was first introduced to kayaking as a teenager when I joined a competitive canoe club. It was instant love. But when I went off to school and then got a job, adult responsibilities got in the way. Now approaching retirement, I've rekindled my kayak romance. My husband and I love to throw the kayaks on the trailer and head out on adventures. Maybe you'll join us?!

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