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A personal flotation device or PFD for short is an essential accessory when you are on the water. Most bodies of water will require a PFD to be worn or attached to your craft in case of an emergency.  A flotation device in any water sport helps you regain composure and control in times of urgency. Before purchasing a PFD you must become knowledgeable about the 5 different types and classifications for both river and flatwater padding. They are as follows: 

Type 1

  • The most basic type of PFD commonly used on commercial crafts that are over 12ft, 
  • Used in all types of water conditions including remote and rough waters 
  • The added foam and fabric can be bulky but helps trap body heat in cold waters
  • Allows you to keep your head above the water to regain control and view your surroundings

Type 2

  • Used for inshore waters or calmer areas of water
  • Not used for rougher waters or inexperienced swimmers
  • Requires you to tread water to keep your head above the water for visibility
  • Worn when immediate rescues happen quickly

Type 3

  • These vests have less foam which provide less flotation capability than Type 1 PFD 
  • Used only by very experienced swimmers 
  • Designed to float you vertically with your face about the water 
  • Commonly used in boating because its lightweight and has maximum flotation

Type 4

  • Known as throwable PFDs and include devices such as a seat cushion or ring buoy 
  • Not usually worn and not used for inexperienced swimmers, small children, or unconscious people
  • Donut-shaped flotation device typically seen on ferries or ships

Type 5

  • This type of PFD is lightweight and compact which allows you to move easier
  • Contains a CO2 cartridge that when pierced released,  gas inflates the device
  • Can be either activated once submerged underwater or by yanking a pull-tab
  • Also features a blow tube as a backup method


When on the river, you will need a PFD that maximizes movement but also has lots of buoyancy in the water. A type 1 low profile vest is the most common due to its maneuverability. This type of flotation device is designed to keep you afloat face up if you were to be knocked unconscious in the water. Which is why the front of the vest is larger than the back and also why it is the most common for whitewater SUPing. 

Check out types of low profile vests here: https://www.outdoorgearlab.com/topics/paddling/best-pfd


If you are an experienced swimmer, a waist/belt PFD is going to the least obstructive type of flotation device. This is a type 5 PFD and is a universal fit for paddlers of all shapes and sizes. Weighing only 1.1 lbs and adjusting from 27” to 50” it is a great alternative to traditional PFDs. Not recommended for children or inexperienced swimmers.

Check out the types of waist PFDs here: https://www.riverboundsports.com/paddling-safety-gear/


A PFD that is best for ocean paddling is going to be a Type 1 flotation vest. This type of vest does not require you to be conscious to activate in the water. This is going to be the most basic and affordable type of PFD and comes in all sizes. Finding a vest that has thinner foam will make it easier when trying to get back on your board from the water. Recommended for beginner paddlers who are looking for secure flotation. 

Check out types of PFD vests here: https://www.gilisports.com/blogs/sup-expert-advice/best-life-jackets-for-paddle-boarding

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