An Online Introduction
As with paddles, there really isn’t such a thing as a “packraft PFD,” but some PFDs will tend to work better for packrafting than others. Good options for packrafters include those that are light, built from quality materials, and allow full range of motion.
Note that this article is focused on PFDs as they pertain to packrafts and packrafting. For more thorough general information about PFDs, look to the US Coast Guard and other trusted sources. REI has a good overview on PFD selection, fit, maintenance, etc. on their website.
PFDs – An Introduction
A PFD (personal flotation device) is a buoyant device intended to prevent the wearer from drowning.
Modern vest-style PFDs made out of cork and kapok (a down-like tropical wood fiber) began appearing around the mid-1800’s, and were worn by sailors until the development of inflatables during World War II. Around the 1960’s, closed-cell foam vests were introduced and the practice of wearing PFDs for recreational boating became well-established.
In the 1970s the US Coast Guard began issuing standards for PFDs, classifying them into one of five categories. Type I PFDs are designed for stormy ocean seas; they provide a generous 22 lbs of flotation and will turn an unconscious person face-up in the water, but they are too bulky and heavy to please most recreational boaters and are usually kept in storage on large vessels for emergencies. Type II PFDs are an older blocky “keyhole” style of that are rarely used today. Type IV PFDs are throwable rescue devices (like rings) and Type V is a catchall group of specialized gear approved by the US Coast Guard. Some packrafters with swiftwater rescue training may use Type V rescue vests. The vast majority of PFDs used today by recreational boaters, including packrafters, are Type III. Type III PFDs come in a variety of colors and styles, and prioritize comfort and range of motion.
Type III PFDs will not turn an unconscious swimmer face-up in the water and do not have quite as much flotation as a Type I vest (15.5 lbs minimum vs. 22 lbs minimum). But decades of boating safety data compiled by US Coast Guard and other groups show that Type III PFDs make boating much safer, both because of their benefits when worn and because they are more likely to be worn in the first place. The USCG has estimated that since the early 1970’s, the adoption of Type III PDFs has saved over 40,000 lives.
Why Wear a PFD?
Because their added weight and bulk, packrafters may be especially tempted to leave their PFD at home. With extremely few exceptions, this urge should be resisted.
Drowning is the single greatest safety risk to boaters, including packrafters. A 2016 State of Alaska study, for example, recorded an average of 15 non-occupational boating drownings in the state per year between 2000 and 2015. Contrast this with the much-feared risk of bear attacks, which kill roughly one person every two years.
There is a common misconception that PFDs are only necessary in rough, dangerous-looking water or rivers. But boaters can “go swimming” for a variety of reasons, including rapidly-changing weather, user error, or virtually unforeseeable circumstances (up to and including being breached on by a whale). Packrafts are prone to being blown around by high wind and, though tough, are still ultralight inflatable crafts susceptible to tears and deflation. A great deal of packrafting is done on remote mountain lakes and rivers, where cold water can severely impact your ability to self-rescue. Even on a calm lake, if you end up in the water unexpectedly you will be very happy to have a PFD.
There is no reason to be fearful of boating in general, or packrafting in particular. If proper safety precautions are taken, recreational boating (even in whitewater) is generally very safe. A PFD will not eliminate risk in the water and it is only one component of boat safety, but wearing one will vastly improve your chances of getting through an accident safely and soundly.
Aside from the water safety considerations, PFDs have a couple ancillary benefits for packrafters. The closed-cell foam that most PFDs are made from is a good insulator, and is similar to the foam used for sleeping pads. PFDs make great seats or pillows, and can be worn in cold weather for extra warmth.
Aesthetics are subjective, but there are many PFDs on the market now that look great and are worn by top outdoor athletes. Getting on the water without a PFD will tend to make a boater look inexperienced.
Closed-cell foam vs. Inflatable PFDs
In addition to closed-cell foam (ie, “inherently buoyant”) PFDs, the US Coast Guard has also approved a number of Class V inflatable PFDs. Inflatable PFDs are worn in a deflated state. Some vests use chemical or mechanical triggers that activate when the vest is submerged in water, while others require that the user pull a cord. When the vest is triggered, a canister of compressed CO2 inflates the vest. Some vests can also be inflated by breathing into a one-way tube, in case the primary trigger fails.
Inflatable PFDs may be attractive to packrafters because they are less bulky than a conventional foam PFD, they provide a large amount of flotation when inflated, and some find them less obtrusive to wear when deflated. However they generally do not weigh less than a foam vest, and also come with considerable downsides:
- Inflatable PFDs must be carefully maintained in order to remain operable. The CO2 canister and trigger must be regularly inspected and both may need scheduled replacements. The inflation chamber must be periodically tested for leaks and then protected from damage during a trip.
- Inflatable PFDs with automatic triggers may inflate by accident due to contact with water, such as when a boater enters a wave train.
- Replacement CO2 canisters must be carried so that the jacket can be deflated and then re-armed after an inflation (accidental or otherwise).
- The TSA allows small C02 canisters to be checked in baggage, but they cannot be carried on and may present problems during international travel or with certain airlines.
- Inflatables are generally $50 to $100 more expensive than a foam PFD.
An inflatable PFD may be a reasonable choice for some flatwater trips where bulk is extremely detrimental–for example, perhaps a fly-in fishing trip where there is a volume limitation on a small plane. But because of their much greater reliability and limited downsides, most packrafters will be better-served with a foam PFD.
The ideal packrafting PFD
Any correctly-fitted, US Coast Guard-approved PFD in working condition will keep you safe in a spill. In fact, a $15 “Walmart special” PFD will likely have the exact same amount of flotation rating as a $200 boutique sea kayaking vest. That said, some PFDs will offer significant advantages over those casually plucked from the bargain bin.
Weight and bulk: Most PFD makers don’t put much emphasis on weight, since the farthest most people carry their PFDs is from the boat launch parking lot to the water. Many high-end PFDs are covered in extra pockets and superfluous features that add weight. But packrafters may be carrying their PFDs for dozens of miles, often on a backpack, so weight and bulk can be significant factors in life jacket selection. PFDs geared toward whitewater kayaking tend to be more streamlined than those geared toward sea kayaking.
Durability: Of course, light weight isn’t the only goal. Packrafting trips often include bushwacking, scrambling over rocks, and other backcountry roughing-up. Often, PFDs are packed on the outside of a backpack where they have minimal protection from the elements. PFDs built with slightly heavier, better-quality materials will tend to outlast a cheap, light vest. This is especially important if your PFD needs to pass inspections (such as on the Grand Canyon), because even a small tear can keep your PFD from passing.
Range of Motion: Obviously, your PFD shouldn’t inhibit your range of motion when you’re paddling. But also keep in mind that many packrafting trips include jumping out of your boat to drag it across shallows, carrying your boat on a portage, or even swimming. A good packrafting PFD should not inhibit your movement under any of those conditions.
Back height: Packraft seats tend to hit between the lower and middle back. PFDs that sit low on your back will likely be pushed up by the packraft seat and feel awkward.
Packing your PFD
The standard rule for packing an overnight pack is to concentrate heavy items next to your back and put lighter items farther out on the back, and on the top and bottom. Because a PFD is likely to be the lightest item you have per its volume, the most efficient weight-distribution strategy is usually to strap it to the top or outside of the pack. Use the PFD’s buckles to attach it securely around the pack or to the pack’s side straps. If you plan on hiking through a rough environment, you may want to protect your PFD by slipping it inside a pack cover or a nylon bag.
Written May 2017
If you've enjoyed this introductory article series and would like to learn more, check out The Packraft Handbook, by Luc Mehl. At over 400 pages and featuring illustrations by the amazing Sarah Glaser, the Packraft Handbook is a much more comprehensive source of info about gear, technique, safety, and more.
Coming May 2021