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PFD's for Paddle Sports

September 11, 2015
PFD's for Paddle Sports

In Australia, and in most locations around the world, you are required by law to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times while operating a recreational water vessel such as a canoe or kayak.

A PFD is designed to help you to float, should you capsize your vessel, and keep you afloat until either help comes, or you manage to right your vessel and get back to shore.

A brief history

The Norwegians were possibly the first people to purpose build flotation devices from naturally buoyant materials to help them float while they were hunting and fishing. But it wasn’t until the 1850s that the first PFD resembling what we now often call a life jacket was developed. The jacket was made from cork, and provided some buoyancy to the user, however they were unlikely to account for the different body types of those wearing the jacket.

In 1928, Peter Markus invented the first inflatable life preserver, which was affectionately referred to as the Mae West, by members of the Navy and the Air Force. They drew a connection between the shape of someone wearing the life preserver and the voluptuous figure of the actress Mae West.

Types of personal flotation devices

Today, there are three main types of PFDs that are designed to specific regulations in Australia. The type of PFD you need to wear will mostly be determined by how far you plan to paddle from the shore.

Regulations vary from state to state, so make sure you know the laws and follow them out on the water, or could find yourself facing a hefty fine, or worse. The current safety standard to look out for on your new PFD is AS 4758. The older standards, AS 1512-1996, AS 1499-1996 or AS 2260-1996 are still okay to use as long as the device is in good nick.

It’s important to note that only Type 1 PFDs are considered life jackets in Australia; that is, designed to keep even an unconscious person upright in the water, their head supported by the buoyant collar.

Type 1, Level 100, 150 or 275 – Boat users must use this type of PFD, but they are not compulsory for paddlers.

Type 2, Level 50 – The most common type of PFD used by kayakers and canoers. Sometimes referred to as a Buoyancy Aid because while they help you float, they are not designed to preserve the life of an unconscious person in the water.

They do not have a buoyant collar, making them more comfortable and less bulky than type 1 PFDs and are ideal for paddling because they fit snugly like a vest allowing good clearance for paddling.

Type 3, Level 50s – The most lightweight type of PFD, provides the least amount of buoyancy, but is still rated suitable for use by kayakers and canoers who are paddling near shore and on inland or enclosed waters.

Choosing the right PFD for you

Making sure your PFD fits correctly is extremely important. It also needs to be comfy, and allow enough movement for you to paddle comfortably and efficiently. Most PFDs that are designed specifically for canoeing, kayaking and rafting feature front and back flotation pads, with minimal buoyancy down the sides to allow the arms to work freely.

There are three main styles of PFD:

Over the head: Level 2 or 3 PFDs are sometimes zip-free, and come in the form of a simple vest that is pulled over the head and can be fastened using straps or buckles.

Front Zip: Level 1, 2, and 3 PFDs are available in the classic jacket style, entered via a zip at the front and secured using a series of straps and buckles.

Side Zip: Level 2 and 3 PFDs are also available in the side zip option that allows easy entry from the side, keeping the front clear of zips which can sometimes get in the way of your paddle.

A good test is to fasten your PFD and then use your thumbs to tug upward at the shoulder straps. It should stay secured around your waist and chest. If it slides up to your chin, it’s either too big, or needs to be fastened tighter.

Try moving your arms, checking for clearance for when you’re paddling. The length of your vest can have an impact also. Some people have shorter torsos than others, and your legs can force your jacket into a poor position.

The main thing is to try a bunch of options before you settle on one. Everyone’s body is different, so make sure you try a few different brands and styles before you buy.


Regulation requires that your PFD is maintained to a high standard. There are some easy ways to make sure that your PFD remains in top condition and continues to perform for as long as possible.

  • Look closely at your PFD after each use checking for signs of wear and tear. Check that all the buckles and zips work smoothly.

  • If you are paddling in the sea, make sure you always rinse your PFD with fresh water to remove any salt that can build up in the zips and linings causing them to wear over time.

  • Make sure you allow your PFD to dry out between uses so that mould doesn’t build up in the lining.

Get out here and enjoy canoeing and kayaking with the peace of mind that if something goes wrong, you came prepared.

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