Inflatable pfds?

One of our paddle club members is considering an inflatable pfd for sea kayaking mostly sheltered bays. He’s aware of the advantages of such a vest, but is wondering if there is a downside before he buys. I’ve done a forum search and found a little info, can anyone add to that with some personal experience?

If you’re talking about the SOSpenders brand, the advantages are freedom of movement, and then there’s always freedom of movement.

I can think of a few potential isadvantages. There are two models: one requiring user activation and one that activates when it (and the wearer) hits the water. The first will not save you if you do not/cannot activate it. The second would be a problem should you wish to immerse yourself as in a roll. Traditional pfds are always ready and extremely reliable.

Potential problem 2: I personally like the insulation/protection of a foam vest. They add a bit of warmth, and offer pretty good body armor for unexpected blows during surf landings, for example.

Potential problem 3: expensive.

Paddling specific vests have gotten so comfortable, I can’t imagine a convincing objection to them. I just bought my wife a Kokotat that’s even cut specifically for women.

Two, I suppose
1. It might not work when you need it.

2. For paddling, you’re pretty much stuck with the manual-inflation kind, which means that you have to be conscious and able to pull the cord when you need it.

I use a belt-pack inflatable most of the time on my surfski. It’s cooler and less restrictive than even a very good foam PFD (which I also use part of the time). I recognize that I’m giving up some safety margin for comfort. My thinking is that with both CO-2 and oral inflation options, the risk of failure is pretty low, and if I’m unconscious, my chances of survival are very poor even in a foam vest (if solo, which I usually am). I’d be less inclined to use the inflatable in waters where hypothermia was an issue and I was more heavily dressed.

speaking of which
"if I’m unconscious, my chances of survival are very poor even in a foam vest "

Can someone explain to me the different “type” of PFD and why all kayakers uses the type that doesn’t keep the face out of water when unconscious? There must be a good reason why we shy away from the more “fool proof” ones…?

This explains the basics:

Type I PFDs are bulkier and less comfortable than the Type IIIs most paddlers use. It’s a compromise, like lots of the safety decisions we make.

Biggest advantage…
I requested and recieved the manually inflated belt pack for X-Mas. The biggest advantage IMO is that I’m more likely to wear it. Our blistering summer weather normally makes me go without anything. At least now I’ll have “something” and that’s better than nothing.

Coast Guard Auxiliary class that I took
several years ago recommended against them for the reasons already listed. Do they have a rating?

Inflateable are type 5

– Last Updated: Jan-17-04 1:05 PM EST –

For purposes of satisfying regulations they must be worn (not just available), then they are legally (not functionally) equivalent to type 3

I might get one for the Blackburn or some other race if it was within the regs for the race. Otherwise I'll stick to what I wear now. When dumped in surf with my head (in its Cascade helmet) gently knocked against a sandbar on a point break, I would be very busy hanging on to my boat and paddle, dont want to think about pulling the cord.

Addition of further research:

Inflatables are usually type 5 and must be worn to meet regs. When inflated the kind sea kaykers would usually use give type 3 performance, (sospenders world class regular for example). Longer or bigger ones can give type 2 perfomance or type one (sospender world class long gives type 2).

Thanks everyone!
I’ll pass these great comments on. Mike (the member) is a certified canoe instructor, who finally saw the light and bought a 'yak.

He’ll appreciate the input.

SOSpenders experience
I have a SOSpenders PFD that can be inflated either automatically or manually. It inflated itself automatically on two occasions, both of which were non-emergencies: The first time I was wading my canoe past an obstruction in waist-deep water when the sensor got wet. FOOOSH!–quite a surprise. The second time, my brother was wearing it when he slipped on a clay riverbank while getting into the canoe and fell into 2-ft. deep water.

I now wear a foam PFD exclusively.

Inflatable PFD & Self Rescue
Has anyone tried to do a self rescue with an inflatable PFD inflated? I would think one would want floatation as soon as he/she hit the water. That’s a lot of bulk(space) to get on deck with.

Add that to the disadvantages list
I’ve never inflated mine. I’m basically dressed to swim–shorts and paddling shirt–and if I go into the water, that’s what I do. In colder water and heavier clothing, you might very well want to inflate it as soon as you hit the water. When you do, it’s going to be bulkier than a foam vest.

The stories above about accidental inflation explain why an auto-inflating vest would be a bad choice for paddling. Mine is manual-only. Basically, it’s there in case of injury or a lost or damaged kayak offshore.


Type 1 PFD or Offshore - Minimum 22 lbs.

Type 2 PFD or Nearshore - Minimum 15.5 lbs.

Type 3 PFD - Minimum 15.5 lbs.

My PFD has a rating of 35 lbs. and is made to keep an unconscious person face up in heavy seas.

Not as bulky as a foam vest. You don’t even know you have it on.

Go to any Commercial Offshore Immersion Suit sites and all you will find on PFD’s are inflatables.

Below is part of a post I had on another board a couple days ago:

If conditions warrant, I wear my lifevest which is a Helicopter vest I’ve had for a number of years and annually test it. Here is an excerpt on the vest. By the way, on off-shore oil rigs, commercial & fishing, they all use inflatables.

“The Helicopter Crew Vest is a 35 pound buoyancy vest encapsulated in a cover of 420 denier weave nylon. Designed for constant wear this vest is the standard of the industry. This vest meets FAA/TSO C13d and UK CAA/ARO 1349. The HV-35C comes standard with a water activated light and two 18 gram CO2 cylinders and is fully adjustable for waist/chest sizes up to 50”."

“apron” inflatable, years ago…

– Last Updated: Jan-08-04 3:26 PM EST –

...I worked for the US Fish & Wildlife in 1961 in Alaska, in boats or on rafts on Kachemak Bay near Homer. We were issued an inflatable PFD, which was a chestwide/above the waist inflatable, tied on with a neck loop & waist strings. Had a CO2 cartridge with ripcord. Never had to use it, and doubt it would have made much difference in those waters' temps. If I remember, the only alternative would have been the old cork Mae Wests, which would have made work impossible, I think. Are these inflatables still around?

inflatables are the way to go
in warm weather. I used my all the time when I was in south fla where the weather is warm and you would melt down with a foam life jacket. I know that some rangers tested their bounancy and found it would pull them to the top of the pool with full web gear on when they inflated them. I have friends in Ireland who are profesonial instructors and that is what they wear. Honestly the best thing about them is that is that you have unrestricted movement and you are wearing a life jacket in hot weather. I’ve seen so many people paddling with their jackets straped to the boat because its too warm to wear them. I have a stearns and love it in warm weather.

The best PFD
is the one that you WILL wear.

With that in mind, there is one potential serious drawback to an inflatable. It is essentially a big balloon and can rupture if punctured by anything sharp.

Yes, but

– Last Updated: Jan-17-04 1:46 PM EST –

divers have been using inflateable bouyancy compensators for years. these get used every dive, and mine was often fully inflated as I sat on the surface to talk with my buddies. They are constructed of a nylon cover which is smaller in dimension that the urethane bladder underneath would be if it were fully expanded. A nylon over urethane bladder system is really tough! I imagine inflateable pfds are similarly made. Most kayakers who have a non automatic inflateable pfd probably never actually "use" it so it should not be so vulnerable. Too much trouble to get back in the boat if it gets deployed.

I would certainly test a few times per year.

(edit) further research indicates the sospenders are one layer devices, not two layer like a compensator; I am less inclined towards it. No quarrel with those who love it, and I might use one if I wer in a hot place or racing.