Best life jacket for whitewater rafting

Best life jacket for whitewater rafting

Ellie Friedmann / Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is a necessary piece of safety equipment for any paddler or passenger. While nearly all PFDs have a similar general design, each boater looks for slightly different features to optimize their experience. This article will discuss the factors you need to consider to find the best PFD for your boating.

What is the Best PFD?

The best PFD is the vest that fits you well, maintains the clean line principle, and keeps you afloat. A comfortable PFD will make you want to wear all the time on the water. A vest that fulfills the clean line principle means that there are no hand-sized loops, unlocked carabiners, or loose harnesses that can serve as an entrapment hazard. Finally, an adult needs about 7-12 pounds of extra buoyancy to keep their head above water. In the United States, a boating PFD that meets the U.S. Coast Guard requirements will be a Type III or Type V specification and have a minimum of 15.5 lbs of flotation.

How do I Choose a PFD?

To find the best PFD for you, try on a few different styles that are designed for your activity. Measure your chest size and weight before you go so you can double check the limits on the inside of the PFD. Once on your body, make sure it sits low and tight on the chest and will not rise above your ears if you pull up on the shoulder straps. Many brands now make women-specific PFDs which are great options. If you are pear shaped, leg straps can be instrumental for keeping the PFD on your body if you go for a swim.

Best PFD for Rafting

The best PFD for rafting usually has good pockets for safety gear and will not get in the way if you need to clamber back into a boat. Rafters need to carry flip lines, whistles, and knives, and need a place to store them while maintaining quick access. First-timers, such as passengers on a Grand Canyon trip, need comfort and solid flotation such as the women’s Astral Layla.

Some other good options include:

  • The Kokatat Maximus. This PFD is one of the most versatile made. The front panel is suspended independently from the rest of the jacket allowing it to move with the paddler.
  • The NRS Ninja. A low-float and low profile vest that will get out of your way when paddling.
  • The Stohlquist Rocker. Almost all Stohlquist jackets have diagonal straps on the chest designed to fit the PFD better to your body and prevent it riding up.

If you need to beef things up a bit or raft big water, the NRS Rapid Rescuer may be for you, sporting 22 lbs. of flotation. Note that any rescue features are only useful if you have taken a swiftwater rescue course.

Best PFD for Inflatable Kayaking and Canoeing

Sometimes PFDs are hot or uncomfortable when leaning back against a seat. Most companies have developed cooler options by designing a mesh back or by rearranging flotation. While you still need a comfortable fit so you can get back in the boat, these are made for more relaxing paddles and explorations. The Astral V-Eight has this mesh back and is quite adjustable. The NRS Nora is a women’s-specific PFD with an extra-thin back good for both rafting and inflatable kayaking.

Best PFD for Whitewater Kayaking

There is a lot of thought that goes into designing a whitewater kayaking PFD. They need to be full of features while still letting a paddler retain full range of motion. They tend to be low-float PFDs with padded shoulders that are more comfortable for carrying boats during long put-ins and portages. Whitewater kayakers should consider brightly colored vests so that they show up against a confusing backdrop of whitewater if they swim. Two unisex options are the extremely popular Astral Greenjacket, as well as the Kokatat Maximus Centurion. The Maximus Centurion is my personal favorite, which has a removable belly pocket for safety gear.

Best PFD for Fishing

Fishing PFDs are specifically designed to organize a variety of gear while still providing adequate flotation for whitewater trips. They have layers of pockets and tabs, small loops for rods, or drop-down pocket tables to tie flies. The NRS Chinook is a popular choice and carries a women’s version as well. The Stohlquist Fisherman also provides a similar pocket geometry. Both have mesh backs for inflatable kayaking comfort while NRS offers a foam backed-model as well.

There are numerous brands and styles of PFDs out there, but luckily your best boating PFD can be sorted by your activity and level of adventure. Once you have found the right fit, you can then focus on the choosing the individual jacket bells and whistles. Safe and happy paddling!

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