The ultimate PFD buying guide

Published: October 23, 2020

Photo by Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

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In the market for a new lifejacket or PFD? Just one look at the wall filled with colourful polyester in any sports store can be overwhelming. We asked the experts what to look for so you can get exactly what you need.

Basics

There are two types of wearable flotation devices, the lifejacket and the personal flotation device. In the water, a lifejacket will rotate you face up if you’re unconscious, while a PFD will just keep you floating. Either way, they need to be approved by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada to qualify as one of the devices onboard, and it should say so on the label. (Foreign visitors to Canada can bring their own devices if they are approved in their country.)

Fit

Whatever type you choose, “nothing matters more than getting the right fit,” says Kelly McDowell, the owner of the Complete Paddler in Toronto. “It’s essential for safety, and, if it’s comfortable, you’re more likely to wear it.”

To test a device, put it on, and cinch all the straps snug. There should still be some adjustment room in both directions to allow for more or less clothing. Then hook your thumbs under the shoulders, and pull up. If the jacket slides up to your chin, it’s too loose. In the water it will ride up and could make it hard to climb back into a boat, to swim, to see, or to even breath. “The right fit is surprisingly tight,” McDowell says. “You should be able to take a deep breath and have no extra room.”

Price

Next, consider price. Approved, one-size-fits-all PFDs sell for as little as $50, while the most expensive ones cost more than $300. Both float. The difference is about comfort and features. No matter what they are designed for, pricier jackets use multiple panels of supple foam, which help the jacket to conform to body shape, says Andrew Rork, the co-owner of Cottage Toys, which has three cottage-country locations. Less expensive ones tend to have large sheets of stiff foam. The quality of construction adds more to the cost, as will pockets, attachment points, hand warmers, and other bells and whistles.

All-around

BEST FOR: General use, extra jackets for guests, anyone over 90 pounds

A three- or four-buckle PFD will work for just about any adult in almost any situation. They dry quickly and are typically light and not too restrictive or cumbersome for paddling or waterskiing. On the downside, these are universal fit and often lack comfort, features, and streamlined design.

BUY THIS: Fluid Adult 3-buckle, Body Glove Method PFD

Child

BEST FOR: Kids from 20 to 90 pounds

To help get the right fit, manufacturers break down kids’ jackets into three or four weight categories: infant lifejackets from 20 to 30 pounds; child lifejackets from 30 to 60 pounds; and youth PFDs and lifejackets from 60 to 90 pounds. (Some companies break youth down further with small and large sizing.) Because children don’t have the curves of adults, getting the right fit can be more challenging. “That’s why leg straps are so important,” says Kelly McDowell. The strap helps keep the jacket from sliding up (and making it hard to swim, see, or breathe) or even from popping off.

BUY THIS: Stearns Nylon Kids PFD, Mustang Survival Rev Young Adult PFD

Baby

BEST FOR: Infants who weigh less than 20 pounds

While there’s no law against taking children under 20 pounds out on the water, none of the federal agencies approves flotation devices for infants under that weight. There are several companies, however, that still make jackets for them. Designed for babies up to 20 pounds, they have padding on the front of the body and behind the head, to ensure that the infants will float face up, and leg straps to keep the jacket on. Look for designs that have a grab handle to assist with lifting.

BUY THIS: Level Six Puffer PFD

Water sport

BEST FOR: Waterskiing, wakeboarding, personal watercraft

It’s not mandatory to wear a PFD during towed sports, as long as there is a lifejacket or PFD onboard the boat, but, because of the speed and the inherent risk of these sports, it’s highly recommended. Streamlined and form fitting, these jackets are made to not impede the dynamic movements of towed sports. Andrew Rork from Cottage Toys says these devices are a good option for a more comfortable general-use PFD, as well. More serious wakeboarders and waterskiers may want to upgrade to a competition jacket, which feels almost like clothing. These aren’t Coast Guard approved, so you’ll need an extra PFD in the boat, but they’re thinner and lighter and offer some protection from high-speed falls.

BUY THIS: O’Brien Traditional Vest

Paddling

BEST FOR: Canoeing, kayaking, SUP

To accommodate the arm movement and exertion of paddling, these PFDs have no foam on the shoulders and open sides for venting. Pockets and attachment points are common for stashing essentials and attaching whistles and knives. Manufacturers get extremely niche with designs for the specific needs for whitewater, expedition, and kayaking. Belt or fanny-pack-style inflatable PFDs are an option too. In an emergency, the user pulls a handle, releasing an air cartridge that fills the PFD. “They’re popular because they’re so low profile,” says McDowell. “But I don’t recommend them because they are not easy to put on once you’re in an emergency.” And if you bang your head on the way over, you won’t be able to pull that handle.

BUY THIS: MEC Fulcrum PFD, Kokatat Maximus Centurion

Boating

BEST FOR: Fishing, sailing, general boating

On a stable boat, wearing a lifejacket or a PFD can feel redundant. For these situations an inflatable PFD makes a lot of sense. Most are worn like a vest. Some deploy automatically when they hit the water, while others require user deployment. Either way, they’re a balance between the safety of always wearing something and the comfort of not wearing foam. The downsides? Manufacturers recommend that you test at least once a year (by manually inflating) and replace the cartridge every few years. Rearm kits start at $30.

BUY THIS: Onyx Automatic/Manual Inflatable

Dogs

BEST FOR: Canine best friends

Labs can swim for hours. French bulldogs could sink in seconds. Dog lifejackets are not Coast Guard approved, but they can save a dog’s life and give you peace of mind. Finding the right one for a pooch is pretty similar to shopping for kids: look for a snug fit, a low profile, easy-release buckles, and a handle for lifting.

BUY THIS: Ruffwear K-9 Float Coat

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