How to Pick Your PFD

Lots of shapes and styles to choose from

by Stohlquist WaterWare

PFDPersonal flotation devices, also known as PFDs, come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and prices. How do you make any sense of all the models that are available? The easiest starting point will be identifying your paddling style. Paddling styles are roughly divided into three categories: Recreational, Touring, and Whitewater. Along with these categories there are many PFDs designed specifically for children and individual activities such as fishing, SUP, or rescue applications.

Recreational PFDs are made for the entry level paddler, but can be used for more advanced boating applications as well. Many recreational canoes & kayaks have high-back seats; which is why many recreational PFDs offer mesh back panels and high back flotation that sits comfortably above the seat backs found in today’s recreational boats. Along with the more common mesh back designs, are newer thinner foam backed PFDs. These PFDs use thin foam back panels to elevate interference issues with higher seats, and provide a back panel that will work with almost any seat style.

Touring kayaks have relatively lower seat backs than found on recreational boats.  PFDs suitable for this type of boat will have flotation foam evenly distributed over the whole torso. Touring PFDs usually feature lots of pockets, even ones for VHF radios. Reflective tape is sewn onto the back and front to enhance visibility, while lash tabs are designed to hold a knife or a safety strobe on your upper back. Some Touring PFDs will accept a tow harness for helping assist other paddlers during long excursions.

Whitewater PFDs are minimalist, but extremely durable. Their wedge shape allows unhindered movement, and most are designed to be as low-profile as possible. They are designed to take the abuses of high-volume, fast moving rivers. Some whitewater PFDs are also rescue compatible (Type-V). A quick-release rescue belt and a rated shoulder harness may come standard on some models. Whitewater PFDs usually have fewer pockets than touring models.

PFD-WomanSUP specific PFDs are probably the newest addition to the “classic” PFD styles being offered. SUP PFDs can be broken down into two groups, inflatable PFDs and inherently buoyant (foam) PFDs. Inflatable PFDs offer greater comfort, and are typically seen in a belt pack style configuration. These styles may look very similar, but be sure to look at the shape and size of the inflatable bladders, and how difficult they may be to secure in the water. Inflatable PFDs are typically not advised for weaker swimmers. Inherently buoyant, or foam, PFDs designed for SUP are very similar to whitewater vests since they offer very high mobility and a small footprint. These PFDs are recommended for weak swimmers or while SUPing in moving waters.


Chest size, not weight, is used to determine PFD sizing for adults. (Infant, Child, and Youth PFD sizes are based on weight.) A PFD should fit snuggly, yet allow you to move freely and not chafe while paddling and playing. To get the best feel and fit, it is best to wear the clothes you will be paddling in when trying on a PFD. This will help in finding the right size and freedom of movement needed.

Women may want to consider a women’s specific PFD versus a unisex or men’s style. Women’s specific PFDs offer a better fit thanks to contoured cups for women’s bust lines, smaller chassis designs, and styles made for smaller body types.

Look for adjustment points such as shoulders, sides, and waist straps. More points of adjustment allow you to customize the fit. Furthermore, features like Graded Sizing and the cross-chest cinch harness found on Stohlquist PFDs, help to create a better fitting, comfortable, and more secure PFD.

Comfort and fit are critical to your PFD. If it fits well, then you will use it and be safer on the water.


• Chose the correct size PFD based on your chest size.

• Loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip/buckle it up.

• Buckle the waist belt & tighten all the straps. It should feel snug but not uncomfortable.

• Next, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulder straps. If the PFD moves up past your nose or head, try tightening the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large.

• Check your movements to make sure it is comfortable and will not chafe anywhere while paddling. It is best to sit in your kayak/canoe at home or one at the store. This will best simulate how it actually feels while sitting and paddling.

• It is always best to test your PFD in a pool or in shallow, calm water to see how it works before using it in a situation where you may depend on it. It should not ride-up or slip over your chin while floating.