Life jackets for paddlers

Jim Greenhalgh

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A life jacket, or personal flotation device, is the most important personal safety device for boaters, and all mariners should wear one while on the water. This is especially important for paddlers, whose small vessels put them close to the water with a greater risk of immediate capsize.

During a capsize, paddlers don’t have time to don a life jacket. They go immediately into the water, where they can become separated from their boat. With so many comfortable and practical life jacket options available for paddle sports, paddlers have little reason not to wear one on the water.

U.S. Coast Guard requirements

Paddlers of kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards are required to carry a USCG-approved wearable life jacket for each person aboard in accordance with 33 CFR 175. There are two exceptions in 33 CFR 175.17: (a) canoes and kayaks 16 feet and longer are exempted from the carriage requirement of a throwable PFD (cushions, life rings, etc.) as required of other vessels 16 feet and longer, and; (b) racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes, and racing kayaks are exempted from the carriage of any PFD.

All boat operators must use the PFD in accordance with the approval label and owner’s manual. Regardless of the requirements, all boaters should always wear a life jacket while on the water. A study of the 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics reveals that of the 184 reported fatalities involving human-powered vessels, around 80% of them were not wearing life jackets.

What’s the best life jacket?

Paddlers have many different types of life jackets to choose from, and all have advantages and disadvantages. Keep in mind that the best life jacket for you is the one you will wear.

Photo of paddler wearing an inherently buoyant PFD designed for women. With a high-cut back, it fits better on baddle craft with high seatbacks.
This paddler wears an inherently buoyant PFD designed specifically for women. With a high-cut back, it fits better on paddle craft with high seatbacks.

Inherently buoyant life jackets

The most popular life jackets for paddlers today are inherently buoyant Type III or V, now classified as Level 70. Life jackets designed specifically for paddlers are cut to provide room for movement around the arms and shoulders. Some are cut to fit kayak seats, and most have storage pockets, lash tabs, and D-rings to attach VHF radios, knives, safety gear, and the like. Others for use in whitewater paddling have integrated rescue lines.

Type III or V PFDs designed for paddling have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy for adults (less for youth and children). While many life jackets still feature the older labeling system, more recent models approved under the new labeling system are classified as Level 70. This equates to the amount of buoyancy measured in Newtons (70), which is the same as the minimum 15.5 pounds of buoyancy required of Type III or V PFDs. Life jackets labeled with either system will be acceptable for years to come.

These types of life jackets are comfortable, have storage pockets, are warmer in chilly weather, and offer protection for your ribcage. They also have more room to attach a hydration pack. On the other hand, they have the lowest USCG-approved buoyancy rating, cannot right an unconscious person, and shouldn’t be used for extended survival in rough water as the wearer will be overcome by waves. They should be used in near-shore protected waters or where fast rescue is possible.

Beware of unapproved PFDs. Life jackets in the Level 50 range are marketed to the paddle racing community, which operates under the PFD exemption of 33 CFR 175.17(b). These life jackets are not U.S. Coast Guard-approved.

Inflatable life jackets

For many reasons, some paddlers prefer not to wear a jacket-type PFD. Thankfully, they have several inflatable life jacket options to choose from. Inflatable PFDs are authorized for use only by persons 16 years of age and older. They have a CO2 cartridge inflation system and come with manual or automatic triggering mechanisms or both. Manual models require you to pull a handle to inflate the unit while automatics inflate when immersed in water.

Photo of belt model inflatable life jacket popular with stand-up paddleboarders
Belt model inflatable PFDs are popular for use with stand-up paddleboards.

Automatic inflatables come in two types: One inflates when a dissolving trigger is exposed to water, and the other, a hydrostatic model, inflates with water pressure below a pre-set depth, usually 4 inches or more. Manual inflatables are the most popular for paddlers, especially on kayaks and SUPs where you’re more likely to get wet. Since dissolving trigger automatics could unintentionally inflate when wet, hydrostatic inflatables are probably a better choice for paddlers.

On the downside, all inflatables require more maintenance, lack storage space, aren’t recommended for non-swimmers, and won’t float unless inflated. They also aren’t approved for whitewater paddling or other high-speed impact sports. On the plus side, inflatables are more comfortable, have higher buoyancy, can right an unconscious person, and are better for extended survival in rough water. Some offshore models have more than 35 pounds (150 Newtons) of buoyancy when inflated. Inflatables come in suspender-type and belt designs, and all are required to have an oral inflation tube as a backup. Belt models are popular with SUP paddlers.

Some paddlers have concerns about wearing manual inflatables in case they go into the water unconscious and can’t pull the triggering handle. However, a typical inherently buoyant Type III/V (70 N) paddle jacket won’t right an unconscious person, thus the result will likely be the same. Regardless of what type of life jacket you wear, this is another good reason for always paddling with others where fast rescue is possible.

Photo of kayaker wearing a manual/automatic inflable life jacket.
A manual/automatic inflatable PFD can be kept in manual mode while paddling.

Hybrid inflatables

Another option for paddlers, hybrid PFDs have both inherently buoyant material as well as a manual or automatic inflatable chamber. Adult models are required to have a minimum of 7.5 pounds of buoyancy in inherently buoyant material, and when the inflatable chamber is filled, the PFD is required to provide a minimum of 22 pounds (100 Newtons) of buoyancy. Hybrid PFDs carry the same advantages and disadvantages of both inherently buoyant and inflatable PFDs, and some hybrid models are approved for use by youth and children.

Selecting a PFD

Before selecting a personal flotation device, paddlers should determine their specific needs based on the type of boat and the type of paddling they plan to do. Choose one that’s comfortable, fits both you and the boat, and is right for the water conditions you expect to encounter. Most importantly, make sure it’s USCG-approved. Read the approval label and owner’s manual, and use the life jacket as intended.

Rigging a personal life jacket

Paddlers usually select a life jacket that fits the type of paddling they do and allows them to carry needed safety gear on their person. The following photos are a couple of my newer PFDs.

Photo of Type III touring model life jacket
Type III touring model

In this photo, the inherently buoyant PFD, a Type III touring model, delivers 16.5 pounds of buoyancy and has storage pockets, lash tabs and D-rings to carry important items. You want to be seen, so wear a brightly colored PFD for safety. On my PFD, I mount a waterproof, floatable marine VHF near my ear where I can monitor it. I usually tune it to a working channel with a paddling group, while also maintaining a watch on channel 16 by activating the dual watch key. I also have a whistle, the required sound-producing device, tied to the shoulder strap and in a pocket under the radio. Many paddlers mount a 1.5- to 2-liter hydration pack to the back of the PFD with the mouthpiece fixed near the mouth. This allows you to take a drink while paddling, which is especially important when paddling upwind in a breeze. When you stop to take a drink, you lose too much hard-earned forward progress.

Carrying a knife could help you cut away an entanglement of rigging or fishing line. Fortunately, in 27 years of paddling, I have only needed it once: to cut away a fishing line from an entangled sea bird. I also carry energy bars, sunscreen, a signal mirror, and occasionally a camera and GPS. Some paddlers carry a PLB (personal locator beacon), cellphone, strobes, or other safety gear on their PFD.

In the unlikely event that a capsize separates me from my boat, I have my PFD with drinking water, VHF radio, and other safety equipment with me—not on a runaway boat. You must be careful to not overload your PFD to render it unsafe, but a great deal of in-water rescue practice with the above type of rig has shown no buoyancy or safety issues.

Photo of type V offshore manual inflatable life jacket
Type V offshore manual inflatable PFD

In this photo, the Type V offshore manual inflatable PFD has an integrated safety harness, so the wearer can tether themselves to a boat if needed. It delivers 35 pounds of buoyancy when inflated. Items such as a radio, knife, hydration, or other gear need to be attached to the belt or back straps. Do not mount anything on or around the inflation chamber as it will immediately inflate with enough force to cause damage or personal injury when triggered. Some units come with small pockets, but storage space is generally limited on inflatable PFDs.

Regardless of what PFD you select, get one that will fit your paddling style and that you’ll wear all the time while on the water. Rig your PFD with items important to you and your survival. I recommend always considering the worst-case scenario: If you capsize and become separated from your boat, what items would you want to have with you? Consider items that help you call for help and assure your survival until help arrives.

Are you using the proper PFD for your paddle craft, and is it in good and serviceable condition? Find out for sure by requesting a vessel safety check from America’s Boating Club. Yes, our vessel examiners examine paddle craft, and you will also learn other important information on safe paddling.

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