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How to Choose a PFD

Choosing the Right Life Jacket with NRS

All photos courtesy of NRS.

NRS Digital Content Manager Ashley Peel is a warm weather paddler with an expansive knowledge of all things water sports. Earlier this month, she dropped us a line with some expert advice on choosing a PFD. Check out the beta below.

If you’re old enough to have worn a life jacket 20 or 30 years ago, then you know how much personal flotation devices (PFDs) have changed over the decades.

My first time putting on a PFD was when I was eight or nine years old and went whitewater rafting for the first time down the Nantahala River in North Carolina. As I stepped into crunchy splashwear and borrowed booties, I tried not to think about how many other nine-year-olds had put their bare feet in the same damp neoprene. I buckled into the life jacket, which was big, bulky, and probably orange—dingy orange. When I stood up, my arms were forced slightly outward, and I felt like Randy in A Christmas Story, when his mom suited him up to go play in the snow.  Fast-forward 20 years.

When I open my gear closet, I own three different PFDs, each with its own purpose (other than keeping me alive), and I don’t mind putting on any of them. Today’s life jackets are comfortable and versatile, and when you find the right one, you’ll never dread putting it on. At NRS, we kind of live by the saying: “The best life jacket is the one you’ll wear.” And that’s 100% accurate.  

But how do you choose a life jacket that you’ll actually enjoy wearing? Well first, let’s clear up a popular myth about life jackets.  

Size Doesn’t Matter

When it comes to choosing a PFD, size isn’t really a factor. Obviously, you want the life jacket to fit you snugly, but just because you typically wear a size large t-shirt, doesn’t mean you need a large life jacket. And someone who weighs 250 pounds can essentially wear the same life jacket as someone who weighs 165 pounds. It’s not about the size of the life jacket but its flotation.  

Most adults need an additional 7-12 pounds of flotation to keep their heads above water. Muscle tissue is less buoyant than fatty tissue so, if you’re an ultra-fit athlete with a low body mass index (BMI) you may need all that additional flotation. If you’re like most of us, carrying an extra pound or two, you’re probably more toward the seven pounds of the flotation spectrum.

Most Type III life jackets from NRS have 15.5 pounds of flotation, which is the minimum amount of flotation required by the U.S. Coast Guard for Type III (recreational) PFDs. It may be the minimum, but it’s more than enough flotation for the average adult. If the two people mentioned above—the ultra-fit athlete and the average adult—wore the same jacket, the 250-pound swimmer may be more submerged than the 165-pound swimmer, but both swimmers would still have their head out of the water.

With that same scenario in mind, life jackets are sized in relation to chest circumference, not body weight. Put simply, all life jackets of the same design (for example, all NRS Ninjas) have the same amount of flotation and use the exact same sized foam paneling throughout the jacket. The only difference between the S/M Ninja and the XXL is the length of the straps on the side. A larger jacket will have longer straps to accommodate a bigger chest circumference.  

Any paddling life jacket will suffice in all paddling scenarios. Just because a jacket is designed for kayak fishing, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy its features on a paddleboard. The difference boils down to comfort—the jacket you love wearing on a raft might not be the most comfortable against a high-back kayak seat.

So, as your perusing the racks at your local paddle shop or browsing online, what should you look for and what should play into your decision?

Jacket Design: Mesh-Back vs. Flat Back vs. Minimalist  

Mesh-back jackets like the popular Chinook or the basic Clearwater or Zoya are designed to fit with high-back raft and kayak seats. By concentrating all of the back flotation up high, your lower back is free to rest against your seat. The mesh-back also adds ventilation for warm days on the water.  

One disadvantage of the mesh backs is that because the back flotation is concentrated in a smaller surface area, more foam is placed in the front panels, making the life jacket a little front-heavy. Remember, most NRS jackets have at least 15.5 pounds of flotation, no matter the design. Less surface area of a jacket equals a bulkier jacket.  


Then there is the more traditionally styled jacket with a full back that wraps around your torso. These styles, like the Siren and Ion, bring back bad memories of the bulky jackets from paddle days past, but foam technology and materials have drastically improved. Instead of feeling like Randy in The Christmas Story, these more traditional jackets feel like you’re on the receiving end of a perpetual hug.

Thin-back PFDs, like the Oso and Nora, are the best of both worlds. The back panel is so thin that it doesn’t interfere with high-back seats, but because there is more surface area to work with, the overall bulk of the life jacket is noticeably less than that of jackets like the Siren.

Lastly, super minimalist jackets, like the NRS Ninja, concentrate both the front and back foam panels in a really small package. On the one hand, the range of motion is unbeatable; it’s like wearing a muscle tank versus a long-sleeve tee. On the other hand, although the Ninja is a favorite among whitewater kayakers, paddlers who do more cross-body paddling may find that the foam panels cause more friction.

Entry Method: Front vs. Side

How you put the life jacket on is mostly comes down to personal preference, but there is a little science behind the difference.  

Zippers make life jackets bulkier. Why? Because the zipper displaces the foam, taking away surface area. People who tend to “hate” life jackets because of the bulk may opt for a side-entry jacket. I prefer the convenience of the front-entry zip and will gladly sacrifice a little bulk in order to avoid adjusting my buckles every time I take off my PFD.  

The Features

And lastly, how much “stuff” do you need when you’re on the water and what kind of “stuff” is it? The Chinook PFD is an extremely popular life jacket, not just because it’s comfortable, but because of all the pockets specifically designed to meet the kayak angler’s needs. The main pockets fit small tackle boxes, and there’s a spot for pliers and forceps, a retractable tool clip, and even a rod holder. But all those features can be used for other applications.  

You say rod holder, I say selfie stick. You say tackle boxes, I say camera, phone, and snacks. Just because a jacket is designed for a particular type of paddler doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect jacket for you even though you’ve never even held a fishing rod.  

Alternatively, a lot of us carry small dry bags for all of our essentials and don’t really need a lot of storage space on our jacket. Streamlined PFDs like the Oso, Clearwater, and Sayan offer one or two pockets to cover your absolute needs.

Other features to consider:

  • Lash tabs for attaching a knife or a strobe
  • Reflective accents for low-light visibility, which is essential for paddlers recreating offshore
  • Strap garages to neatly store the extra webbing on the shoulders when you’re all cinched up
  • Pockets sized precisely for safety equipment, like the VHF radio pockets on the Odyssey.

Odds & Ends

There are a few other deciding factors when choosing a PFD—and let’s be real—price is a big one. If all you want is a life-saving device that (hopefully) doesn’t feel like a piece of foam strapped around your torso, then look for jackets with minimal to no pockets, no lash tabs, no frills.  

If you’re still unconvinced that a traditional life jacket could ever be comfortable, consider an inflatable PFD, which delivers on-demand flotation but stays out of the way if you don’t need it. Inflatable PFDs are perfect for standup paddling, wade fishing, and other paddlesports where swift water, rocks, and other hazards aren’t likely. Unless you have an automatic inflatable PFD, which inflates upon submersion, you have to be conscious to enable the CO2 to inflate the PFD.   

Dogs & Kiddos  

We want to keep our kids and pups safe on the water, too. Children and youth PFDs—and even CFDs (Canine Flotation Devices)—are sized according to weight. The standard sizing for a ‘child’ PFD is up to 50 pounds. ‘Youth’ PFDs fit a kid in the 50-90 pound range. And children weighing more than 90 pounds should look for a low-profile adult PFD. When it comes to buying a PFD for your kid, forget the motto “he/she will grow into it” because until they grow into it, it won’t stay on their body and keep them safely afloat.

True story: the last time I bought a new PFD, I took a few out of stock from the NRS warehouse and tried them on at my desk. While I wore one, I sat down and started working. Three hours later, I had forgotten all about the life jacket and was still wearing it, sitting at my desk, far from any waterway. Trust me, there’s a life jacket out there that you won’t mind wearing, even on dry land.

Ashley Peel is the Digital Content Manager at NRS. An admittedly fair-weather paddler, she enjoys snowboarding in the winter and paddling when the sun is out and the water is warm(er).