Life Jackets: All You Need to Know

5-minute read

A life jacket is the most important safety device for canoeists and kayakers no matter the water environment and activity.

life jacket canoes kayaks

The American Canoe Association (ACA) gives us a startling statistic: “Where cause of death was known, 81% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. 83% of those were not wearing a life jacket.”

The ACA also estimates that almost 70% of paddling drownings (in canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and rafts) could be prevented simply by wearing a life jacket (also known as PFD or Personal Flotation Device).

While few paddlers love wearing one, no one wants to be part of the above statistics. Establish a mindset of safety-first and in no time it’ll simply be a habit.

Have a Safety-First Mindset

Maybe you think, “If I capsize, I’ll just grab my life jacket and put it on in the water.” But that mindset assumes the best-case scenario will always happen: calm, warm water on a calm warm day with no other issues.

  • A safety-first mindset understands there are some risks that make putting your life jacket on in the water more hazardous than you think:To put your life jacket on in the water requires the use of both hands. That means you’ll need to tread water with just your lower body while you accomplish this. This also means you won’t have an extra hand to keep your canoe or kayak (or paddle) with you.
  • If there’s any wind or current at all, your boat and life jacket could be many feet away from you before you’re back above the surface and ready to grab anything.
  • If you don’t have your own life jacket on, you’re not as ready to help others who may also now be in the water.
  • If the water temperature you’re paddling in is below 60º F/15º C, falling in can produce “cold shock” immediately. That severely impairs your ability to breathe and function. (In fact in these temperatures, it’s safest to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit along with your life jacket.)
kayak fisherman pulls in a fish, wearing a PFD
(Photo courtesy of Chris Funk)
So a safety-first mindset thinks, “I’m probably not going to end up in the water, but I’ll wear my life jacket anyway because unexpected things happen.”

What Does the Law Say?

PFD laws vary state-by-state in the US, so you need to 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 there must be one PFD for each person over 13 in the boat.

In Canada the regulations are similar in that there must be a PFD for each person on board. They must be either worn or within easy reach.

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.

Life jackets are available 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 a little style and comfort.

If you’re on the water often, it’s well worth investing in one that fits you well and is designed for paddling. You’ll have plenty of freedom in the shoulders and some models are cut higher in the back to allow for a kayak seat. Secure pockets for stowing car keys, lip balm and other small gear items are a nice feature to look for.
example of types of PFDs
These NRS life jackets are examples of those made for general use (left), kayak fishing (middle) and long-distance paddling (right)
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.

If you’d like to go very low-profile, consider an inflatable life vest or belt model. These are lightweight and stay relatively flat until you need it. They inflate using C02, either upon impact on the water or with a pull cord. The C02 canister needs to be recharged or replaced once it’s been used, but depending on the water environment you paddle on, this style could be a great choice.
vest and belt style inflatable PFDs
These are an example of inflatable life vests and belts
Be sure whichever model you buy has this label on it: UL (United States) or ULC (Canada), which means it’s Coast Guard approved.

How to Fit a Life Jacket Properly

Life jackets are sized by weight range. Unless said otherwise, they’re designed for a man’s body or described as universal. Many manufacturers make female-specific PFDs too, designed to fit a woman’s body better than a universal fit model.

Children’s life jackets usually include a strap that goes between the legs as an additional safety measure. And for the smallest children, there will be an additional piece to support the head.

life jacket canoes kayaks
(Photo courtesy of the Marko family)
No matter who’s wearing it, a life jacket needs to fit snuggly when all the straps are adjusted. We recommend you try several on before buying. Brands and models fit different body shapes differently and you want yours to be as comfortable as possible.

Happy paddling!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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