Type I and II life vests

Can anybody recommend models of PFD that purport to keep an unconscious paddler’s head above water? I am open to foam vests, inflatables (but must be automatic inflaters, with their concomitant disadvantages for paddlers), and hybrids. I know that Type III are more comfortable for paddling, but they don’t make any claim to support the unconscious. So I’m looking for Type I and Type II vests that are tolerably uncomfortable for paddling.




These types of automatic inflatables are Type V, with Type II performance. They will definitely keep an unconscious person’s face clear of the water.

I would hesitate to recommend this type of vest for kayaking, however, for two reasons.

  1. I haven’t tried it, but I have serious doubts I could remount a kayak wearing an inflated Type V. What makes them so good at keeping your face clear of the water also makes them extremely cumbersome. These vests are intended to keep a passive swimmer afloat until they’re rescued. They’re really not appropriate, in my opinion, for a swimmer who needs to actively rescue himself.

  2. Once you go in the water once, the vest will discharge and inflate. After a capsize, a kayaker needs to get back on the kayak and keep paddling. If you deflate the vest once you’re back on the kayak, you will no longer have a working PFD. It can only be activated by blowing it up with the inflation tube.

    These vests are best for yachting, where going in the water is a rare, and major emergency. When crew goes in the water, the yacht rescues them, and then that crewmember can safely change into another vest, or recharge their vest with another CO2 cartridge. Since a kayaker has to rescue himself, and can’t recharge or swap their vest after every capsize, I think automatic inflatables have limited usefulness in paddlesports.

why? (NM)

I am thinking that
if the conditions were gnarly enough to put you in the first time and you self rescued…while you change the cartridge (assuming you brought a spare), its not the best idea to be unprotected while you change the cartridge. On mine the vest has to be deflated to do that.

Rafting outfits often supply PFDs to
customers that have a buoyant collar behind the head, and will support the head out of the water during a swim.

Walt Blackadar used to wear a Type I “Mae West.” I don’t know if he was wearing it when he was plastered against a tree while running the South Fork of the Payette.

If a person has a medical condition that might render them unconscious, or too weak to keep one’s head against the water, I question whether that person should be on the water. At least they should be limiting themselves to water activities where their need for a Type I is minimized. I have paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, and that is one reason I don’t run really difficult whitewater anymore.


We like the MTI Canyon a lot for rough water.

Type V
I think Rafting vests with the head pillow are Type V, not Type II, so they aren’t necessarily going to turn an unconscious person face up.

I think rafting companies are more
concerned with actual results. On a turbulent river, type II horse collars are not going to keep a person’s head out of the water as well as the typical rafting pfds with support collars.

some more info
Thanks, all, for the information so far. Here are answers to a few questions: The application is calm water (let’s say regular wind-driven waves up to 1.5 feet), quite near civilization – if you consider northern Manhattan civilized. The main risk is of unconsciousness followed by a capsize, not of a capsize caused by conditions. And it is acceptable for the first capsize to be the end of paddling for that day; self-rescue is desirable but not mandatory; if necessary, the paddler can walk home or take a cab or be carried.

I am trying to weigh the disadvantages of a high-flotation foam vest (very hot, funny-looking) and the disadvantages of an inflatable Type V/II (inflating when not wanted (from splash, say), not inflating when wanted, not immediately reusable, expensive). Also, I guess I need to look into the legality of relying exclusively on a Type V, and into exactly what the V/II label means.

Any experience with these high-flotation vests in hot weather? Any knowledge of how often an automatic inflater fails to inflate? The crucial point is to keep the paddler’s head out of the water, while they are unconscious, during the 30 to 120 seconds it might take for someone to get to them. I am listening to all other considerations, too.


The inflatable vests are very comfortable in warm weather - just make sure you get one that doesn’t rub the wearer the wrong way when paddling.

If the inflation of the device means the end of that paddler’s day on the water (because of a medical issue) then I think an automatic inflatable might not be a bad idea.

The auto-inflatables I’ve used have a water soluble pellet inside the vest, which disintegrates when wet. When it disintegrates, the spring loaded plunger is able to puncture the CO2 canister. With this sort of vest I believe non-inflation is a very remote risk. Accidental inflation can be a problem, as the pellet absorbs moisture from the air over time. But by replacing the pellet regularly (just a dollar or so), the chances of accidental inflation are pretty small.

I’ve not used them for kayaking, but I’ve used them sailing in all conditions, getting drenched by spray, pouring rain, etc. The only times they’ve inflated is when my 2-year-old son pulled the trigger once, and while one was sitting on the porch with a pellet that hadn’t been replaced in a while.

Oh, and about the law . . .
Regarding the legality of Type V inflatables - The Coast Guard says that a Type V inflatable satisfies the PFD carriage requirement, but only if the Type V is actually worn. (For conventional vests, the requirement is only that there is a PFD on board for every passenger.)

Thank you all for your thoughts, and especially to Nate for describing your experience. We are considering all these possibilities.


Either automatic inflatables

– Last Updated: Jul-04-11 1:37 PM EST –

or anything with foam collar - there is plenty of the latter kind, mostly in boating stores, not kayaking stores.

Why automatic CO2 cartridge and not manually activated cartridge that you open by pulling a cord (yes, manually activated CARTRIDGE, not inflated by mouth)- because you said "unconsciousness followed by a capsize, not of a capsize caused by conditions".

Why inflatable with foam collar - because PFD without a collar might not cut it, for unconscious person - it keeps head above the water, but your face may get planted in water at some moments.

Look for be mesh-back PFDs with collar - not sure if there are any, regular PFDs exist in mesh-back version. Mesh is good in warm weather.

Either kind will not be same comfortable as a proper kayaking PFD,