Best way to 'swim' in a PFD?

I can swim pretty well - learned several strokes as a kid and been swimming recreationally all my life, but those PFDs fight me so bad - I feel like I need to take swimming lessons IN a PFD to figure out how to move around in the water in one.

Any tips?

Paddle-swim! Stretch yourself out in the water, arms ahead of you, paddle a shallow rotation like a low-angle paddle. You will be amazed at how fast you will move.

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So, what type of water are you swimming in & what PFD?

A well fitting PFD will lift you up & you won’t have the hydrodynamics of a recreational or competitive swimmer so you won’t be as fast but that’s not usually a concern when you are having an OBE.

Um… what type of water and PFD do you recommend?

I’m referring to the general difficulty of movement in water while wearing a PFD, the question really applies to ANY life vest, ski jacket, or type 3, for sailing, paddling or whatever, but especially a type 3 for the kayak. The water would be lake or river water - there’s no oceans in my area.

OBE? What’s OBE?

What Rival51 holds is true - a properly sized and fitted type-3 (what is standard for paddling and sailing) PFD should be easy to swim in. You won’t be doing strokes as if you are doing laps, but you an easily move around in the water as needed. A type I or type II PFD would be a pain in the butt to swim in. An an inflated inflatable may also be difficult to swim in. So, what PFD had you been using when you tried this and found it didn’t work for you? And what type of water (flat and calm, white water river, etc.) were you in?

If you do need to cover distances, the paddle swim is a good method to do it. here is an old video showing some ways to do it.


An OBE is an “Out of Boat Experience” i.e. a swim - usually involuntary.

Peter-Ca covers what I’d say about being in the water with a PFD. In my case, I’ve been known to forget that I have it on - until I try to get onto the back deck of the Arctic Tern. A high back deck & the flotation plus clamshell pocket on an Astral Blue Vest can get interesting.

To swim in a pfd, float on your back and scull with your hands. Not fast, but steady progress.

If you happen to still have a paddle after a capsize, float on your back and paddle, either forward or backward, both work well and it’s pretty fun too.

Amazing video! makes me want to bring a kayak paddle for my Laser sailboat!

New to kayaking, obviously, never would have thought to USE the paddle instead of trying to float, swim, and drag the paddle along. Do Canoeists know this secret too?

Thanks for the responses, and still reading further comments.

I can’t ever recall swimming in a pfd that I didn’t have a boat in my grip. Thus the stroke that worked was to go to the bow, wrap legs up around the boat, and do a back stroke.

As above, the basic trick is to get a properly fitting PFD that will stay in one place when you are in the water. Not a cheapo one like rentals. Figure 80 bucks plus new, but it is kind of like tires on a car. One place you do not want to skimp.

Correct. There is allot of bad advice here. Paddle swimming is totally exhausting, so unless you are very young and fit vorsicht!

Maintain composure and energy at all cost. Lay on your back and scull. Use the boat if possible. Push the boat (to shore) and hang on it, t maintain breath enegy. Get extremely conservative w OBE

Because PFD’s generally have more flotation in front than in back they are designed to resist you being on your stomach. They do not guarantee that if you are unconscious you will float face up, but they do assist you in being in that position.
So the backstroke is more useful especially if you have a paddle in one hand and a painter in the other hand. There is less foam in the back and sometimes none at all.
I am speaking of actively swimming. A sidestroke is essentially more of a backstroke than a crawl if you can do it. Your head is more out of the water.

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There is no one right way and the circumstances may render some techniques difficult or impossible. I have taken many swims in a PFD unintentionally but the majority have occurred on fast flowing rivers of in ocean beach break. In these instances, taking a long swim with a paddle only is not all that common, and when one does swim, often the swimmer has to hold onto not only a paddle but a boat as well. In that type of situation, using the paddle to assist swimming in not possible. Also, in shallower water, effective use of the paddle to swim is often not realistic.

On a river, sometimes the paddle is best tossed onto shore or into an eddy, especially if you are in a group in which multiple rescuers are coming behind. When swimming in current with a boat and paddle, I will usually try to secure the paddle in the boat whenever possible. When not, I will try to hold the paddle, and either the grab loop or painter on the boat in one hand and use the other for side stroke type arm strokes.

If you are swimming in current or in surf in which you are in danger of being swept onto rocks, you must stay upstream or outboard of the boat. In this type of scenario, you can generally only successfully maneuver yourself and boat laterally. I attach short painters to my whitewater canoes that allow me to free up a short length so that I can still hang onto the boat, but get far enough away from it to effectively kick with my legs. In this case, I am swimming in a side stroke position using one arm and both legs to propel myself.

The floating on your back type of thing with your nose and toes up works if the current or surf is propelling you in a safe direction. If you are alone and not going anywhere, you are pretty soon going to have to try something else. Also, if current is taking you directly toward something bad, like a strainer, or you are in a long continuous rapid in which you must get into an eddy, back floating is not going to be effective.

If you are in a situation in which you must actively escape the current, you are generally best off turning onto your stomach and using a crawl-type stroke to propel yourself. One whitewater open boater, swift water rescue instructor holds the T grip of his paddle in the crook between one thumb and index finger and swims trailing the shaft and blade. Sometimes it is easier to exit the current and enter and eddy by rolling over and over to the side to make lateral progress as you approach the eddy.

Best way to learn how to swim with a PFD is probably to take a swift water rescue course.

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PFD’s are designed to keep you on your back with your face out of the water (ie. breathing is considered desirable).

Thus, the best stroke to use is elementary backstroke if you are trying to make progress. Breaststroke is just “ok” due to the tremendous amount of resistance of the PFD and the angled profile it puts you in.

The swim/paddle technique can work for short distances. Over any appreciable distance, it can be quite tiring. If done, do not over-exert the pressure on the paddle and you can make considerable progress. It can be done on the front or back with equal success.

For now, elementary backstroke is the best recommendation.


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Well, sidestroke is a slower endurance stroke compared to backstroke, and I think would be easier to do in a pfd. It’s the stroke I was taught and used to do a mile swim for some certification way back when, sculling occasionally to take a break while still moving. You can switch sides as well. I always found the backstroke tired me out.

Pblanc makes a lot of good points above re moving water which is a completely different situation, so water condition is key.

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Elementary backstroke and backstroke are two different things. Which are you discussing? Elementary back requires less energy than sidestroke and keeps you facing the air. In an ocean current, it allows you to slow your progress, and control your direction. If on a river, you end up moving feet first in a current, which has it’s own risks and is not recommended. In moving water, freestyle (head-up) or breaststroke are preferred. I have a sea kayak bias and my advice tends to lean that direction.

Save the sidestroke for working situations, where it excels. Need to help another swimmer, move a boat, drag an object, sidestroke rocks.

I often use a paddle while lying on my back as well. I do this routinely (most often using a rescue tube in the pool where I work) and it can be done without excessive effort. In the ocean, I’ve only done this to practice the skill and have not had occasion to use it in an emergency situation.

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I grapely appreciate all the replies, sounds like my solution is to practice getting around in the pfd using sidestroke and breaststroke - I don’t like backstrokes because I cant see where I’m going. But I am Definitely going to play with paddle-swimming some - all things when it warms up this Spring, I’ll try to stay dry till March. Thanks to everyone for posting!

I recently had the good fortune to take a high level state sponsored 4-day course to be certified as a swift water/flood rescue technician for SAR. We were provided with specially designed rescue PFDs and dry suits, although some students had their own. The PFDs are not cheap by any means. We learned and demonstrated defensive swimming (the float feet first method while doing a kind of modified elementary backstroke, with hands recovering out of the water paddling) in a facility flowing with Class 3 white water at 100K g/m, and also rescue power swimming in the current and froth to retrieve a victim. The rescue PFDs are easy to swim in and do not seem to restrict movement in any way. One of those will be my next PFD purchase.

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A lot depends on how good a swimmer you are and what strokes are the most efficient for you personally. When I was young I learned to swim very long distances using the side stroke, so that is what I usually use for a long swim in ocean conditions, it keeps your head slightly out of the water and you can view what’s in front of you and what’s behind you. The folks suggesting back stroke is the most efficient might have different experiences but I find swimming in currents and big waves you don’t see where you are going or how the water is foaming, or streaking or if there are rocks and other hazaards ahead and when a big wave breaks on you, you get full force up your mouth and nostrils. On your side you can roll on belly and body surf the big breaking waves. If the s__t really has hit the fan you can roll on your belly and swim a crawl stroke as hard as you can go. If wind is not an issue I sometimes throw the paddle about 10 yards and swim to it and throw it again, but often useful to hang onto the paddle and mostly use use one arm and leg , and use the paddle like a boat prow. YMMV.

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Yes the back stroke generally works best with a PFD and most are designed that way. Or so said my swim instructors many years ago.

That said I agree with Seadart. Have done more than my share of ocean swimming and while back stroke is the most efficient by far you get more disoriented and whatever extra speed you get you lose by swimming in circles because you don’t see where you’re going. At least in my personal experience this has happened even if I have a landmark behind me because you have to actually pick your head up to look behind you and see it.

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