PFD's - Inflatable vs. Conventional

I am in the market for a new PFD before the kayaking season kicks off in the Northeast. I have a 13’6" recreational kayak and spend most of my time on lakes and rivers (nothing crazy). I’m looking for input on inflatable PFD’s (auto or manual inflating). I’ve never seen any in my local kayaking hangouts and I’m not sure if there is a reason for that. They do seem like they would work well, particularly for a large paddler (260 lbs) as the normal one barely keep me afloat. Thanks for the help.

You must wear the inflatable
for it to count as a PFD. For kayaks and canoes, you want either a manual or a hydrostatic automatic inflatable. The plain automatics will inflate with a minimum amount of contact with water so aren’t really suitable for kayaking.

They are comfortable, especially in hot weather and do work in an emergency. Hydrostatic inflatables are expensive, usually around $250 and up. You need to test a manual inflatable at least once a year so you’ll be spending $12 or so bucks annually on CO2 cartridges.

pros and cons
Here are some pros and cons on inflatables. There are basically three types, manual, and automatic with a pill that dissolves, and the latest type with a hydrostatic release. Regular PFD’s require little Maintenance and will always work when worn properly. Inflatables are great to wear in the hot weather if you are out working on the water for a long time.

Manual styles only require that the CO2 cartridge is seated properly and you have the ability to inflate it. The big question is what happens if you get into a situation where you are unconscious and cannot pull the inflation cord. Consider the medical and environmental conditions you may encounter such as hypothermia, heatstroke, insect stings, or being run over by a power boat that did not see you.

Automatic styles come in two basic types. One has a pill that dissolves and it must be replaced on a regular basis. It dissolves once it gets wet and the PFD inflates. These types of PFD’s require a lot of maintenance to ensure they will work properly and some styles may come equipped with and extra CO2 cartridge. If you are in a small boat you run the risk of being caught in the rain or wave conditions where you will be continually soaked and the pill will dissolve and the PFD will inflate when you least expect it and don’t need it. If it should inflate one when you are not wearing it could blow away with the wind much like a balloon or they could inflate in a space and trap someone in a small boat.

PFD’s equipped with a hydrostatic release will inflate due to water pressure and will not be affected by soaking rain or spray. They inflate due to water pressure, and will inflate when it is under 4” of water. Once the unit is triggered you must replace the release ($60) and the CO2.

If you were boarded by the state or USCG and the PFD was not in perfect working order they would see it as if you had no PFD at all. If you are having trouble finding a size and style you like at your local retail store check out other suppliers such as Stearns or Mustang as they make a large variety of styles and sizes for a wide range of applications. Personally I wear a inflatable for work and a kayak style vest when canoeing or kayaking.