Gear Guide: PFDs for Paddlers

PFDs come in many shapes and sizes. 

PFDs come in many shapes and sizes. 

We are lucky to enjoy many days of sunshine and calm waters as paddlers in Southwest Florida, but being on the water is always unpredictable, and it is important to follow basic safety procedures when paddling. Florida requires that all children under the age of 6 wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD) when the vessel is underway. Each person over the age of 6 must have an approved PFD available.

There are so many options available on the PFD market that purchasing your own can feel overwhelming. We recommend visiting a knowledgeable retailer who can guide you through the process and help you try a few PFDs on for size and comfort before buying. But there are a few helpful things to know before you go. 

PFDs are divided into five categories – Types I, II, III, IV, and V. Type I PFDs are designed for offshore racing, or for boating alone in stormy conditions. They are not widely available to the public, and unless you have a serious paddling adventure planned, this is probably overkill. Type II is the standard orange PFD you’ve seen stowed on many boats. With a wrap-around waist cinch and a large head cushion, these are not the most comfortable choice for extended wear. However, they are affordable and are a great option for those who don’t plan to wear a PFD all day, but need to store one on board.  

Type III PFDs are cut like a vest, usually with three safety release buckles on the front. They are much more comfortable than Type II options, and are the best choice for children or older paddlers who are not strong swimmers. These are designed for more casual water-based recreation and are sold in a variety of styles and sizes.

Type IV PFDs are throwable devices, and are not acceptable under Florida law. Type V PFDs are an interesting option for more advanced paddlers who value comfort and do not want the weight or bulk of a stowed Type II or III PFD to hinder their speed and performance. For paddlers, there are many inflatable “fanny pack”-style models available. They are easy to wear and will not inflate unless the water sensor is activated. 

No matter which type you choose, make sure it fits snugly and comfortably. With a good PFD on board, you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are prepared for the unexpected.

Ocean Tribe Paddlers is a club hosted by Sanibel Sea School that helps the SWFL paddling community better explore, enjoy, and understand the ocean. Visit or follow us on Facebook to learn more.