PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

(Last update December, 2017)

Other than a kayak and paddle you will need a PFD and a “sound device” to meet federal and state laws.

PFD, life jacket, required gear, safety gear, required safety gear, kayak gear, kayak safety

Stohlquist Cruiser PFD

The first and foremost piece of safety gear for all boating is your PFD or Personal Flotation Device.  State and federal law requires a wearable (i.e., boat cushions don’t count) PFD for each person.  Many states require children to wear a PFD, the exact upper age for a “child” varies by state.  (It is 6 years of age in Florida but 10-13 in most other states.  Is that one reason why Florida has more boating fatalities than any other state?)

The American Canoe Association reports over 70% of paddling fatalities could have been prevented by wearing a PFD.  In 2007, 517 people drowned in boating accidents. Out of these 450 might have been saved if they had been wearing a life jacket – a shocking 80%!  So we say it – wear your PFD.  But we also know that most of you will NOT wear one all the time and the YakPak must confess that we do not either.  So, if you won’t wear it all the time, at least your PFD should always be within reach and easily accessible so you can put it on if the water or weather starts acting up.  Usually you can stash them right behind the seat or under the bungees immediately in front of or behind the cockpit.  

In this day of marketing-wins-all there are a plethora of designer colors in PFDs now. Please choose your LIFE jacket with an eye towards visibility, not just what matches your kayak or sun hat.  Lime green, pale blue, yellow, orange, and bright red are the colors most visible against dark blue/green/gray/brown water.

The USCG got rid of type codes in their PFD regulations in 2014 and replaced them with descriptions detailing what conditions they are not designed for or any limitations in their usage.  This was done, they say, to eliminate confusion and bring the US in line with Canadian and other country’s laws.  However, the process of settling on the descriptions, developing icons, and giving PFD manufacturers time to make and distribute them means all this is a multi-year process.  We have seen a few PFDs on the market this year without the type codes and more will follow.  While this is all sorted out the older Type Coded PFDs are still legal.

Here is the new rule from the Federal Register:
§ 175.15
(a) No person may use a recreational vessel unless —
(1) At least one wearable PFD is on board for each person;
(2) Each PFD is used in accordance with any requirements on the approval label; and
(3) Each PFD is used in accordance with any requirements in its owner’s manual, if the
approval label makes reference to such a manual.
(b) No person may use a recreational vessel 16 feet or more in length unless one throwable PFD is onboard in addition to the total number of wearable PFDs required in paragraph (a) of this section.
(a) Canoes and kayaks 16 feet or more in length are exempted from the requirements for carriage of the additional throwable PFD required under § 175.15(b).

(a) No person may use a recreational boat unless each wearable PFD required by § 175.15 is readily accessible.
(b) No person may use a recreational boat unless each throwable PFD required by § 175.15 is immediately available.

So – for canoes, kayaks and SUPS a wearable PFD is required for each person and it must be worn or readily accessible and canoe and kayaks over 16 feet are exempt from carrying a throwable device.

And remember, your PFD is your LIFE jacket, it is not a boat cushion or beach chair.  Using it as a kneeling pad or sit-upon will greatly shorten its life and since good, comfortable PFDs are expensive, we don’t recommend using it for anything other than what it was designed for – keeping you afloat when you need it most.

When fitting a PFD follow these steps:
1)    Loosen all the straps then put it on and zip it up.
2)    Buckle all the buckles – usually there is only one, below the zipper at your waist.
3)    Tighten the strap at the waist.
4)    Pull the 2-6 straps on the sides, alternating sides until the PFD fits your torso snugly                       but comfortably.
5)    Tighten down on the shoulder straps.  There should be no gap between your shoulders                and the straps or the PFD will ride up on your face in the water.
6)    Bend and stretch a bit to make sure you can move enough to paddle while still keeping                 the PFD snug around the torso.

Other things – the best PFD is the one you will wear.  Make sure you are comfortable wearing your PFD while paddling.  Test it out in shallow water or a swimming pool to make sure you know how to adjust it properly – in and out of the water.  If you use a back band or high seat back, there are PFD models with thinner foam or mesh on the lower back that you might find more comfortable while paddling.  Try to get a PFD with at least one pocket to carry extra safety items that you’ll want with you in an emergency or if the boat floats away leaving you stranded.  Knife, whistle, flare, light, VHF radio, etc.  There are now PFDs available specifically designed for a woman’s figure which may fit women (and smaller men) better.

PFD, life jacket, inflatable, required gear, safety gear, required safety gear, kayak gear, kayak safety

MTI Inflatable PFD

Inflatable PFD – If you decide to go with an inflatable PFD note that in order to satisfy U.S. Coast Guard regulations (and the regs of most states) it must be worn at all times and the CO2 cartridge must be showing GREEN.  Also, make sure you get one that allows for manual inflation.  The automatic type (as in they inflate automatically when submerged in water) may inflate while you are still in the boat or when you don’t want the extra support during re-entry.  Look for the kind with both CO2 cartridge inflation AND a mouth tube to blow it up.




Whistle, required gear, safety gear, required safety gear, kayak gear, kayak safety


A sound signaling device is also a U.S. Coast Guard requirement and a requirement in most states.  The best, simplest and least expensive is a whistle.  Get a pea-less plastic whistle and attach it to your PFD so it’s always available in case of an emergency.  3 blasts on the whistle is the recognized distress signal in U.S. inland waters, 5 blasts on the open ocean or non-US waters.







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