Choosing the right personal flotation device

By Justin Walker February 4, 2015
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You’ve got your watercraft and your paddle, now it’s time to get in the water, right? No. Before you even go near the water, you need to sort out the most important item on any paddler’s shopping list: safety gear.

Personal flotation device

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) should be the first thing you buy – and it’s crucially important to ensure that the PFD you buy complies with the Australian Standard 4758 (AS4758).

This standard covers four safety ‘levels’ for PFDs and was introduced in 2010 to bring Australian marine safety standards into line with international regulations. Before 2010, the PFD rating system was broken into three ‘types’.

So, even if your PFD is manufactured before 2010, as long as its type grade correlates with one of AS4758’s levels, it is still safe to use.

These ratings will be clearly marked on the PFD’s tags, so check carefully before purchase.

For open ocean paddlers, a Level 150 or Level 100 PFD is the recommended device (although it is also the bulkiest); for coastal cruising and inland waterways, you can use PFDs rates from Level 150 to Level 50, and also opt for a Level 50 Special Purpose PFD – this will have been designed for one specific marine activity, such as sea kayaking.

(For an extensive read on all things PFD ratings, see the Australian Canoeing website, at

PFD fit is essential

Correct sizing (and fit) is essential with a PFD. Sizing is governed by chest size for adults (children go by weight) and most brands will offer female-specific models as well, so there’s a PFD for everyone out there.

In terms of fit, the PFD should be snug on the wearer’s body without impeding their natural paddle stroke or movement in the craft – and it shouldn’t ride up the torso. Look for high levels of adjustability; the more straps and buckles the PFD has, the easier it is to adjust to your body shape.

And remember: there’s no universal sizing – most brands will size their PFDs slightly differently. Make sure you try as many on as you can before making that final purchase.

A PFD should last you years if properly cared for. A regular check-over – inspect buckles, webbing and straps frequently – should be combined with a dunking in fresh water – and then a thorough drying – after every paddle.

By keeping the PFD in top operating condition, you’re saving money on having to buy a replacement and ensuring your major safety device won’t fail you when it is needed most.

PFD ratings explained

AS4758 is the Australian standard regulation, in place since 2010. Previous to this standard coming in, PFDs were rated by ‘type’. This table correlates the two ratings systems.

Type ratings

Type 1: 
Designed to keep the wearer in a ‘face-up’ floating position. Available in two variants: fixed buoyancy and manually inflated.

Type 2:
Less buoyant than Type 1 (may not rotate wearer to face-up floating position). Used mainly for kayaking, canoeing and other personal watercraft.

Type 3:
Similar buoyancy to Type 2 and manufactured in wider range of colours. It is also available as an in-built feature on wet suits.

Levels |as4578

Level 150:
Similar to inflatable PFD Type 1. Suitable for offshore use.

Level 100:
Similar to PFD Type 1. Minimum requirement for offshore use.

Level 50:
Similar to PFD Type 2

Level 50s
(Special Purpose); replaces PFD Type 3