PFDs for kayaking and standup paddleboarding

March 18, 2015

Kayaking, canoeing and standup paddleboarding are among the most popular water-related activities enjoyed by Florida residents and visitors.

But each year the state of Florida ranks among the nation’s leaders in deaths attributed to drowning. And in many drowning cases, a personal flotation device – PFD for short – potentially could have prevented that outcome. PFDs provide extra buoyancy lift that enables a person to better float.

Florida statutes require those in kayaks and canoes, and on paddleboards in certain situations, to have on board a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I, II or III PFD. Children under the age of 6 must wear a PFD while under way. All PFDs must be in good condition.

Though many watersports participants believe they are competent enough swimmers, no one can predict when an emergency situation (rough water, sudden bad weather, etc.) may leave little or no time to put on a PFD. Putting on a PFD is much more difficult in the water.

Here’s a quick look at PFDs, and what kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders in particular should consider when purchasing one:

PFD basics

– Type I (Offshore Life Jacket): These are the best option for open, rough or remote waters, where rescue may be slow to arrive. Though Type I PFDs tend to be bulky, they provide the best buoyancy and typically come in highly visible colors. Type I PFDs turn most unconscious wearers into a face-up position in the water.

– Type II (Nearshore Buoyant Vest): These vests are a great option for inland or calm waters where rescue is likely to arrive quickly. Most are less bulky than Type I PFDs and more comfortable to wear, but they are not suited for prolong periods in rough water, and some unconscious wearers may not be turned into a face-up position.


A Type III PFD label.

– Type III (Flotation Aid): These vests are best for calm, inland waters where a fast rescue is likely. Because they are considered the most comfortable to wear, these PFDs are the top picks by kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders, and so there are many styles and colors to choose from. However, the wearer of a Type III PFD must tilt his or her head back to avoid going face-down in the water, and they are not built for extended survival in rough water. It is important to remember Type III PFDs are considered swim aids, not life jackets.

Before you go

– Check all PFDs for rips, tears or holes, then check buckles and straps for damage, and check the body for leaks in the buoyancy material. Do not use a damaged, waterlogged or mildew-covered PFD.

– Check the fit. Get in shallow water, then tilt your head back and relax the body. The PFD should hold your chin above the water. A person with stomach larger than their chest may experience “ride up,” where the PFD slips upward into an improper fit.

– Never alter a PFD.

PFDs for kayakers/canoeists

Kayakers and canoeists are required by Florida statutes to have a Coast Guard-approved PFD on board, though they are not required to wear them. Type III PFDs are the most common and Bill Jackson’s has a large selection suitable for kayak anglers and recreational paddlers.


An angler-specific PFD.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a PFD for kayaking and canoeing:

– Visibility and safety. High-visibility colors, such as yellow or orange, increase your chances of being spotted if you need to be rescued. Most vests come with some reflective tape, but more can be added. Many PFDs have pockets for signal whistles or cellphones.

– Freedom of movement. Many Type III PFDs are designed to allow the arms and shoulders to move easily. Some paddlers prefer vests that zip in the front, while others like clips on either side.

– Comfort. Most vests have vents for airflow between the pads. Kayakers who have upright seat backs may prefer a vest with a thinner pad on the back so they are not pitched forward. Still others prefer a half-pad in the back that sits above the seat back. There are even inflatable vest options.


A PFD for recreational paddlers.

 PFDs for standup paddleboarders

The rules regarding paddleboarders are evolving all the time, so it is a good idea to check the regulations at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

Paddleboarders are not required to have a PFD in a designated “swimming, surfing or bathing area.” Outside of those designated areas, however, standup paddleboarders must have a PFD for each person on board, though they are not required to wear them (children under 6 must wear them at all times). Along with the classic vest style there are inflatable options that can be worn around the waist.


An inflatable PFD that can be worn around the waist by a standup paddleboarder.

Bill Jackson’s has a full line of PFDs for adults and children to suit all your paddling needs.

By Rich Kenda