Life Jacket (PFD) Use for Canoes and Kayaks

Your personal flotation device (PFD)—commonly called a life jacket—is the most important safety feature of your paddling experience. Don’t take it lightly!

life jacket canoes kayaks

The American Canoe Association estimates that almost 70% of paddler drownings (in canoes, kayaks and rafts) could be prevented simply by wearing a life jacket.

What Does the Law Say?

PFD laws vary state-by-state, so know the laws where you live and where you paddle. Where no state law exists, Federal law says anyone under age 13 must wear a PFD when on a recreational boat, and one PFD for each person over 13 must be in the boat.

Have a Safety-First Mindset

Capsizing can happen with startling swiftness. In high winds, white caps and currents there’s no telling where your PFD will end up when your boat is tipped if it’s been stowed under your seat.

If you’re wearing your PFD, keeping your head above water is no longer your main concern. Instead, you’re free to help any others who are with you, or try to salvage gear, or get yourself and your capsized boat to shore ASAP.

If you paddle in cold water, wearing your PFD is even more important, as you’ll also then deal with the potential of hypothermia.

Types of Life Jackets

Thankfully we don’t have to resort to the huge, bulky and uncomfortable life jackets of yesteryear. PFD technology and comfort have vastly improved.

There are PFDs for every budget and style. If you only paddle once or twice a year, you can certainly get by with a cheaper model if you don’t mind sacrificing style and comfort.

If you’re on the water often, it’ll be worth the investment to buy one that fits you well and allows your arms to move freely while paddling. Some come with secure pockets for stowing car keys, lip balm and other small gear items, which can be a nice feature.

Generally the softer the foam, the better the fit and the tougher the outer fabric the more you’ll pay. You’ll also get more comfort and durability.

Be sure whichever model you buy has this label on it: UL (United States) or ULC (Canada), which means it’s Coast Guard approved.

life jacket canoes kayaks
(Photo courtesy of the Marko family)

Your smaller children will need a PFD specially made for them, like the one in this photo. For female paddlers: many manufacturers make PFDs specific to women, so check those out to see if they’ll fit you better.

It may seem like a big investment—especially if you’re outfitting your whole family. But the peace of mind and protection wearing your PFD offers are, of course, priceless.

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