Paddling 101: How To Choose A Lifejacket

It's the most basic rule of canoeing and kayaking, more important than knowing your paddle strokes or the difference between your boat's bow and stern: wear a lifejacket.

Even if you're a world-class swimmer you should always wear a portable flotation device (PFD). The statistics are grim: out of 459 people who drowned while boating last year, 82 percent were not wearing a PFD, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

While wearing a PFD is no guarantee for survival if your boat capsizes, wearing the right one drastically increases your odds of living to tell the tale.

With that in mind, we reached out to Eugene Buchanan, long-time editor-in-chief of the late, great Paddler magazine, and founder of Paddling Life, for advice on choosing your PFD.

1. Buy a Coast Guard-approved Type III PFD.

The U.S. Coast Guard classifies PFDs into five types, ranging from heavy-duty offshore lifejackets (Type I) to throwable devices like ring buoys (Type IV) and various special-use devices (Type V). Type III PFDs are what you're going to find at outdoor retailers like REI and EMS because they're best for river use and recreational paddling. Unlike Types I and II, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes that can be tailored to the activity.

(For a full rundown of the different types of PFD, click here.)

2. Get one that fits.

Don't get distracted by all the shapes and varieties; go first and foremost for a snug fit all around.

"Fit is the most important thing to consider," says Buchanan. "It should have good cinch straps on the side and shoulder—you don't want it floating off of you."

Don't rationalize buying a bigger one for the sake of comfort or range of motion: If it doesn't keep your mouth and nose above water in an emergency, it's not much help. Try on several if you have to, and you're bound to find a one that's the right size and doesn't squeeze too much.

Getting one with an adjustable waist buckle is also a good idea.

Fit is especially important for kids. Getting a PFD with leg straps and a floatation collar are good insurance for children under twelve, but should not be a substitute for getting the right size. For very young children, get one with a crotch strap and grab loop to make rescue easier.

(See also: How to Go Kayaking with Kids)

3. Consider what you're using it for.

• "Recreational kayakers who go out three to five times a year can get away with a rec-oriented jacket," says Buchanan. "You can go by price point."

A basic recreational jacket will have "fewer bells and whistles [like] tightening straps, pockets [and] other features"—and it will be cheaper.

At that level you have a couple other considerations: front zip or pull-over. The choice mainly comes down to preference.

A front-zip PFD is easier to put on and take off, but can be a bit more bulky and cumbersome for the active paddler. A zipper also has the potential to get gritted up with sand, so you might want to consider where you're using it.

One that pulls over is less bulky, allowing for greater range of motion, but can require more steps to put on and adjust.

As far as brands, Buchanan says "Kokatat makes some great ones, as does NRS. MTI Adventurewear also makes good PFDs for seniors and kids for rec use."

• If you're going on a rafting trip, you may want to consider a PFD with a wrap-around "horse collar" float for your neck. These are what commercial rafting trips use because they keep your head above water—especially important if you're knocked unconscious.

• If you're going whitewater kayaking, you ought to consider getting a "rescue lifejacket" with loops that allow for towing by another boat in case of rescue, and quick release buckles for ease of detachment.

"For the targeted whitewater market, Astral Buoyancy is a good brand," he said.

• "For a sea kayaker doing a 30-mile crossing," says Buchanan, "you're going to be more concerned with chafing." Comfort and range of motion become more important the longer you're going to be on the water and the more active your paddling.

• Although PFDs aren't in common use for stand-up paddling, says Buchanan, "some companies are making pretty innovative belt packs—if you fall in you can pull a cord and it inflates with a CO2 cartridge."