The PFD Quest

The major purchase for us, now that we have a boat and paddles & such, is a pair of PFD's. OK, ready to go get 'good' stuff and I don't see doing this mail-order (or on-line) due to "fit". Right now my inclination is simply to go to REI and get whatever they are "pushing" after trying on a few; their website shows quite a variety although (A) Who knows if they are all in stock at my local store (B) Gee, it would be nice to find two that are identical in features, cost and color but one men's and one women's.<br /> does have some resources, I see as a I nose around the website. There are "reviews", on almost sixty different models and 1 to 10 (or more) reviews per model -- but those don't cross-compare. There is the Gear Guide but what I found there was links to manufacturer's sites which again will only focus on that maker's lines and the positive features. Finally, there are a couple of "articles" on PFD's, reading them it's mostly "you need one and get a good one while you're at it". At least I know know what Class II means.

What I haven't seen is a drill-down to whether I should select a Jones ABC over a Smith 123 and why. Or what's the "point of diminishing returns" for cost -- I see a lot of sub-$100 units, am I OK with steering clear of one for double that? Seems like a dumb place to scrimp but where's the extra value?

what kind of waters
And what kind of boat are you using them with?

Ryan L.

Go for a pfd that is specifically made for paddling and depending what type of seat back and cockpit your boats have, what you choose will need to take those factors into consideration.

Be very careful to select a pfd that is able to breath. Some are simply too hot to wear for paddling.

The heavy duty 500 denier material generally costs more but it’s worth it.

I got extremely lucky and found a super rescue pfd for an unbelievable price.

Try 'em on
and get some expert advice while you’re at it.

Go to Annapolis Canoe and Kayak.

Trying pixels on for size here is a tough way to fit a pfd and unless the REI by you is staffed better than here in NY the advice isn’t going to be as insightful.

See you on the water,


The River Connection, Inc.

Hyde Park, NY

PFDs Are So Personal…
…that it’s hard to make a recommendation for someone else.

Any approved device will provide floatation, but it’s the comfort factor and features that determine what’s best for any individual. Fit is so subjective, depending on body type, cockpit design, and individual feeling of comfort - I, for example, prefer a tighter fit than others might like. I ended up, after trying on virtually every male paddling PFD Mountain Equipment Co-op had in stock, with a Kokatat MsFit - a woman’s PFD - because it fit far better than any other. I can really snug it down without aggravating a rib that’s prone to pressure. Just glad MEC had it in safety yellow, as well as puce…lol…

Features - do you need minimal pockets, or enough to to handle bulky gear like a VHF radio, flares, camera, etc.? Do you need one with a towline anchor point? And so on and on…

Go try 'em on, make sure it fits comfortably. If in doubt, get the least costly one that’ll do the job of keeping you afloat until you find your MsFit.

And above all, remember that no PFD is worth squat unless you are wearing it and have it properly adjusted.

Annapolis Canoe and Kayak
Whoa, cannot afford to buy a PFD there! I just googled and it’s far too close to Chart House restaurant so if I take my wife, gotta add the cost of lunch to the PFD’s.

Seriously, back to square one; go try them on, get what’s fits and has the features I feel like getting. Might as well grab sponges, whistles, various other items at the same time.

Pre-eat then shop
I’m sure they, like me, have some 2012 and older models that could use a good home on the water rather than in the store.

See you on the water,


The River Connection, Inc.

Hyde Park, NY

feedback on several makes
I’ll just throw out my personal experience – I started with a Lotus PFD which I liked except that the high front wasn’t great for me (very short torso). Then I got an MTI with a lower front but it felt bulky and awkward. Tried a Stohlquist next but found the same thing – hot and bulky and it rode up in the back. Both have ended up in the “friends and family” loaner livery. I tried on Kokatats a few times and liked them a lot but they were too costly to consider at that point.

Then I was in REI 4 years ago, not even looking for a PFD, and was attracted to one they had hanging (I admit I liked the burnt orange color). It was an Astral V-8. Put it on and was so impressed with the design, workmanship and comfort I dropped $100 on it then and there. It’s the only PFD I have worn since until I bought the second Astral last Fall.

Turns out that the folks who made the Lotus PFD’s (my first one) are involved with the Astral products. Even on the hottest days you are barely aware you are wearing the V-8 due to the ventilation ports built in to it and the streamlined cut. It’s a paddling design, with no flotation in the lower back that would be in the way of sitting in a kayak. The sole drawback is lousy pockets (one mesh pocket with a clip closure and a slip in top opening that would barely hold a tethered whistle.

Since then I have bought a more substantial Astral Camino (several places are selling them for around $80 now). It’s similar to the V-8 but has a bit more flotation and better pockets. I use it now in chillier waters and more challenging trips. But for sunny day trips on local streams and lakes I still prefer the V-8. Astral might be a good option if Kokatat is stretching the budget for you.

Fit, features
Unless you go for the few high-flotation models available, all type III PFDs have roughly the same amount of flotation.

Fit is the most important. Don’t be afraid to sit on the floor(or in a boat) and make paddling motions when you’re trying them on.

Low-profile vests tend to allow more mobility, but the tradeoff is the extra thickness.

There are vests made specifically for use with high-back kayak seats.

Features: things like pockets & tow belts may be important to you.

I try them on and if they fit good and
feel comfortable that is my criteria except I want a pocket or two.

I also want one that is light

Jack L

Consider these

– Last Updated: May-01-13 12:59 PM EST –

My wife and I were in the same position recently...I can personally recommend The Stohlquist fit me best and is ventilated with a nice pouch and pocket up front and nice durable materials. It is easy to paddle with and I am very happy with it. The other PFD I liked a lot was the Kokotat Ms. Fit (which Men and Women can wear despite the name). It is also very well made, has lots of pockets and it was available at REI (in case that is important to you!). I got the Stohlquist at a local paddling store. You do have to try them on...the Stohlquist fit me perfectly but my wife preferred another...body size/shape and you seating set up will all make a difference.

I couldn’t choose one so got a used one
After several weeks of shopping for kayaks, roof racks, kayak attachments, then in the store paddles and a few small accessories, I just couldn’t face shopping for PFDs after trying on a few that I didn’t like the feel of. So I gave up and got a ratty $10 used rental PFD. Eventually I may get back my motivation to do more shopping, and hopefully by then I’ll have more of an idea of what I want in a PFD other than comfort and flotation (both of which I get just fine from the $10 used one I got.) So, if your shop sells their used rental gear, that would be a quick option to get you into the water until you find the right PFD. But if you don’t want to go that route, my suggestion would be to go to REI to determine what size and style you want, then go to their website and find any in that size and style that weren’t in the store, order them as “ship to store”, then when they arrive you can try them all on and return all but your favorite right there at the store.

Thanks, good input and I see few more below too have chimed in; I see the before-recommended Annapolis Canoe & Kayak sells Astral.

Something tells me that in case the store is not familiar with my kayak, I could simply take measurements from the seat pan up the back, maybe that will help. And both of us are short-torso despite a large height difference.

I also started with a Lotus , after the
horse collars from K-mart, but now use the Astral V-8. As comfy as a PFD can get for me.

Regarding fit
When you are in the water you will be sinking down and your vest will be floating up. Depending on the shape of your body, it is very likely the PFD will not ride in the same place is it does when you are sitting in the boat.

I have one PFD that is really a fishing vest, very comfortable when it’s 95 and 100% humidity, but when i’m in the water it’s up in my face. Not compatible with doing a cowboy scramble. I only use it when canoing on shallow streams. I also have an Astral V8 for sea kayaking.

To fit test you need to have someone tug up on the shoulderstraps to see if it stays where you want it or is it going to float up in your face. If you got to cinch it down tight to keep it in place then wear it that way while dry paddling. If your waist is larger than your chest this is not the most comfortable thing you’ve worn.

At the first opportunity, get in the water with your vest and see what happens.

It’s been mentioned but I’d emphasize, you want the back flotation to be clear of your kayak seat, which most any kayak vest should do. Boating vests will kill your kidneys in a kayak.

I got a rocker at a terrific discount.
It’s a Brumby.

No, seriously, my new Rocker is a very thoughtfully designed pfd, but when the anti-ride-up features are engaged, it is rather tight around my chest. Given that my 15 year old Lotus Sherman does the same job with more comfort, I think the Rocker will sit around as a spare until the Sherman finally starts to deteriorate.

Rocker’s probably got half a pound more flotation, but I’ve gotten fat enough in old age that I don’t need it.

REI usually carries a decent selection of PFDs but as others have said you may not always find staff that is very knowledgeable about fitting a PFD.

My first PFD was a Kokatat Bahia PFD from REI, when I was just starting out kayaking. Nice vest but never really fit me right. I think it was the only vest they had that fit my chest and the salesman said it was fine. The vest would ride up on me and to have it close to a fitting tight enough would have to wear it very high and way to tight to be comfortable. I would just wear it unzipped, which was useless.

My main PFD now, after tying tons at a kayak show with the PFD reps fitting me, is a Stohlquist Rocker. Having the reps fit me made a big difference – they were honest with what fit and what didn’t. When you try on the right one and have the right help you know what feels great. This PFD fits me perfect with no ride up and barely even know it is on – just took a while to find it.

Ninja or Rocker
I tried on a bunch this winter and got it down to:

If you canoe, get a NRS Ninja

If you Kayak, get a Stohlquist Rocker

Give those a try. I bet you’ll like one

I agree with everyone above me
I had a regular pfd from dicks for over a year. It was bulky and didn’t fit well. I later on got a rocker, and it fits so well I forget I have it on. I was at a convention and tried every type there one by one. For me the rocker was the best fit.

They sold me my Kokatat Msfit. It’s not just for women.