Kayak Fishing Safety "Personal Flotation Device"

If there is one item that is essential in the sport of kayak fishing we have to take a look at the Personal Flotation Device or PFD*. Since most kayak anglers wear a "Type III" PFD that will be the focus. However, we will also look at "Type V" and a combination Type III and V. Further, we will look at the history, design, selection and testing that you can do yourself to make sure that your PFD performs properly.

*Although some New England states do not require a PFD to be used at all times of the year, We suggest to wear your PFD year round while kayak fishing. After all, a PFD will not work unless you wear one.

History of the PFD

A personal flotation device (also named PFD, life jacket, life preserver, Mae West, life vest, life saver, cork jacket, life belt) was traced back long ago to Norwegian seamen. The type of material used was wood or cork that was fastened together with rope. Not ideal protection, but at that time I am sure it was better then the alternative. The credit for the modern life jacket was given to Captain Ward from the UK in 1854. Ward was an inspector at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He created a cork vest and worn for weather protection and buoyancy.

In the 1940s, James F. Boyle, an American, came up with a design that was worn by many including World War II Allies. It was called the B-4 life preserver and nick named, "Mae West." The nickname was based on the famously buxom figure of Mae West, one of the most popular actresses of that period. The preserver was khaki color, made of cotton with inflatable rubber bladders.

After 1940 and up to the present, many designs of PFD's were created. With paddle sports becoming more popular through the years, improved products were made lighter and more comfortable.

Design and Selection

Most PFD's today are made of very durable, water resistant materials, like denier nylon for an outer shell. You can also find models with a neoprene shell or a combination of both. Foam is the popular choice for flotation. With adjustable straps and comfortable designs available, there is a PFD to fit all body types. Some manufacturers are designing PFD's with the fisherman in mind. I am not the one to carry lures on my PFD, hooks can damage a nylon shell or worse, but I do like using D rings to add a camera dry bag, VHF radio, fishing pliers, knife sheath, and more. I like to keep items that I use while fishing, on the PFD and that way It becomes a fishing tool as well and you will always want to wear it.

A type III PFD, (see pic to the left) used by most anglers, is designed for calm inland or close offshore water where there is a good chance of a fast rescue. Also very important to know is that a type III PFD is designed for "Conscious" paddlers. The minimum buoyancy is 15.5 pounds, but some designs have higher buoyancy (frequently 17 pounds). Some may ask, what will happen if I lose "Conscious"? Well, if your face down in water the results will not be good. All PFD's are not equal. There are some types of PFD's that are combination of Type III and Type V. For the areas I fish, mostly inshore, I choose a Type III that is a vest style and high back cut. If you are a kayak angler who cannot swim or not confident in performing a self rescue in deep water I would not recommend a Type III PFD for paddle fishing. Instead, take a look at Type V PFD's.

Type V PFD's are normally worn by wake boarders, water skiers, off shore kayaking and white water paddlers but some models can be used in kayak fishing. You can also find, in most boating stores, a Type III, Type V hybrid. (see pic below, right) Hybrids perform like a Type III but also has an air bladder that can work automatically by pulling a rip cord or blown up manually. This style of PFD offers maximum protection and will still offer freedom of movement. Type V PFD's are less bulky than pure inherently buoyant types, high flotation when inflated, good for continuous wear and good for weak or non swimmers. Most Type V PFD's will have a high flotation rating (26 lb. 8 oz for S/M, 27 lb. 6 oz. for L/XL). 

The idea is to find a PFD that will give you the protection that you need and freedom of arm movement to paddle. If your arms and under arms are not free you can chaff skin and develop skin irritation or worse. Rash Guards can help but it is better to get maximum freedom of arm movement while stroking. Maximum arm movement will also allow you to perform an effective self rescue. Try on the PFD you are interested in and test for movement. If you do choose to purchase, try it out on a short trip, and if you find the PFD uncomfortable, save that receipt and bring it back.

Most kayak anglers like to have high back seats for their SOT's. Some PFD's will have back padding that may get in the way of your kayak seat. If you are buying a PFD from a paddle store you may be able to find a SOT with a high back seat to test for comfort. If nothing is available and you still choose to buy, hold onto that receipt.

Another option that will come into play at night is reflective tape. Most PFD's will have reflective tape sewn in. If there is not enough you can always buy reflective tape and install.

It would be a good idea to add a light to your PFD. Some will activate with water contact and some will be manual. You can find lights in a variety of price ranges.

Saltwater is a killer on gear. Even though you may not get your PFD wet, salt air will have it's way. A good wash down with a hose will help keep your PFD in good condition. Let's not forget UV effects from the sun. If you have a UV spray like "303" or "Formula 2000" spray on a good amount and let dry. Inspect your PFD on a regular basis and check for wear. If you are showing fray on the nylon or flotation is sticking out, it is time for a new PFD.


PFD's are designed to fit snug. I wear XL shirts and jackets but wear a M/L PFD. A good test in a store would be to fit snug, raise your arms in the air and see if another person can slide it off. If it does come off make an adjustment. Another thing to keep in mind is when you are using your PFD with dry gear or bulky layers you may have to loosen to fit. Come summer time with a T-shirt on you may have to tighten again for proper fit.

Another way of testing would be to find that safe body of water and try it out. You may want to do this with your dry gear on during the early season while you are practicing self rescues. I like to take a free swim with my pfd and complete dry gear on. Take a swim in a shallow area and float test. You want to check for ballast. If you are wearing dry gear the clothing will have air pockets and keep your body up. Dead stick in the water and float around. This will give you an idea of how your PFD will perform in the event of an emergency.

State Regulations

Here is a list of PFD requirements per state and United States Coast Guard:

USCG- All recreational boats must carry one wearable PFD (Type I, II, III or Type V PFD) for each person aboard. A Type V PFD provides performance of either a Type I, II, or III PFD (as marked on its label) and must be used according to the label requirements. Any boat 16ft and longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one throw-able PFD (Type IV PFD).

MA - All persons on board a canoe or kayak from September 15 to May 15 must wear a USCG-approved Type I, II, or III PFD at all times.

RI - Each person riding on a PWC must wear a U.S. Coast Guard–approved Type I, II, or III personal flotation device.

CT- During the period from October 1st through May 30th, all persons on board a canoe or kayak shall wear type I, II, III, or V, U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device and no operator or paddler shall allow any person to be aboard who is not wearing such a device.

NH- All vessels must carry one wearable (Type I, Type II, Type III or Type V) USCG-approved life jacket (PFD) for each person on board. Type V PFDs must be worn to be acceptable.

VT- If your recreational boat is less than 16’ in length, or a canoe or kayak, for each person on board, there must be one U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, or III wearable P.F.D. on board.

ME- Watercraft less than 16 feet in length (including canoes & kayaks regardless of length) must carry a Type I, II, or II (wearable) PFD for each person on board in coastal or tidal waters within U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction and upon the inland waters of Maine.

I hope you all got something out of this article. I know I did. Be safe and have a great season.

See you on the water!

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