Lifejackets / PFD's

Lifejackets / PFD's

We have posted many lifejackets on a separate page titled "Lifejacket Sale & Closeout", so before trying to purchase anything from this section, check there first to see if what you want is listed. The link to that page is to your left in the menu, just under the regular Lifejacket link for this page. There are a number of lifejackets that we are either discontinuing, are overstocked on, or we have older styles of ones we will continue to carry.

We carry lifejackets (a.k.a. "pfd's") from MTI, NRS, Stohlquist, and a few from the now defunct Safegard. We can special-order other models from these companies as well with a few extra days delivery time. This section was updated October, 2012.

Before you buy a lifejacket - or "pfd" - you need to be clear not only on what type of boat you'll be piloting, but also how much whitewater, if any, you are going to run.

There is much confusion about the numbered designations of lifejackets, specifically a lot of would-be paddlers thinking a "type V" (that's a roman numeral "5") vest is for class V whitewater and a type III for class III rivers, etc. Although paddlers of inflatable boats generally use type V's for harder rivers, this is only coincidence and not what the Coast Guard had in mind. If, for example, you tried to use a type IV floatation device for a class IV river, you would find yourself at the bottom of the river in quick order. That's because a type IV device is a throw cushion! The Coast Guard came up with these category designations for floatation devices decades ago. So let's quickly review the types, and then go on to the details of what might be practical for your purposes. Use the following as a rough guide only-

A watersports Type I jacket is usually a high-floatation "May West" model, tending to have straps that move around and which often do a poor job of securing the bulbous jacket very well to your bod. That's bothersome enough in whitewater. It is even worse if it's an old fashioned kapok-filled model (where the kapok, a raw cotton-like substance that grows in coconut type tree pods, is sealed in easily punctured vinyl pouches inside the vest), because anyone using the May West for a cushion can unknowingly pop one or more pouches. Next time this vest is in the water, any punctured pouch will suck up water like a shopvac, and you will sink like a stone. All this said, most newer type I's have closed cell foam inserts and somewhat better systems for the cinch straps. If you work at really tightening the waist strap these improved May West's could be used for moderate whitewater though they are not ideal. Their bulk makes them uncomfortable and they tend to ride up in swims. (scroll down to continue reading)

MTI Canyon Type V Lifejacket, Youth

MTI's type V Canyon youth life vest also comes in adult sizes. This is one...

MTI Canyon Type V Lifevest

These are the brand new version of the Canyon from MTI. We won't be...

MTI Headwater High Floatation Rafting Vest

Small/XS and XL/XXL sizes only - see text

MTI Junior Type III Youth Life Jacket

MTI Junior kid's type III kayak lifejacket. Along with the two type V...

MTI Nami Type III Lady's Lifejacket

SOLD OUT but we now recommend the MTI PFDiva

Call for price
MTI PFDiva Type III Women's Kayak Lifejacket

MTI's PFDiva Women's type III kayak lifejacket has been one of the best...

MTI Play Type III kayak lifevest

The MTI Play is available in XS/Small (31 to 36" chest, with 16 pounds...

New MTI Java Type III Kayak Vest

The Java Lifevest is now in stock. Ever since MTI quit making their...

NRS Big Water Type V Lifevest

Big Water Type V universal adult size lifevest, in the red/blue two tone...

Safegard Youth Type V lifejacket

Made in USA. Safegard Youth type V lifevest If you are shopping for a...


A Type II "jacket" is nothing more than a horseshoe collar, and these should be only used by good swimmers on flat water. It's worth noting that a few type II's are also loaded with kapok. Inflatable lifejackets fall in between type II and type III and may be designated either way depending on the whims of the Coast Guard and whether there is a backside to the vest. Type II's are often used by canoe liveries, but it's easy to misuse one.

Common type III pfd's are what many of you will end up with. These are canoe/kayak/waterski vests with floatation ratings (in the adult sizes anyway) of 15.5 to 19 pounds, which is okay for easy rivers, ocean use, or for hardshell river kayakers who rely on their boat's own buoyancy for floatation. There are some oddball vests like the MTI Big Buoy & Patriot that have much higher floatation in the range of the type V's, but because they lack the collar or type V test requirements, are rated at type III.

Type IV floatation devices are the afforementioned throw cushions and other non-worn floats - not a lifejacket at all. This group can include the familiar O-ring lifesavers that cartoon characters toss around.

A Type five (or "V") jacket usually has at least as much floatation as a Type I, and more than any of the other categories. Type V's are specialized vests that almost always have a floatation collar if they are intended for river use. There are oddball inflatable, spelunking, and special military lifejackets that may also be rated type V but you won't see them on paddling websites. NRS's Astral vest and one or two other kayak jackets are exceptions to the "high floatation" rule, though we are not sure how these got the type V Coast Guard stamp as they are configured. And if you show up wearing one like this at Lee's Ferry for a Canyon raft trip, you may have problems.

The purpose of the type V's floatation collar is a) to protect your un-helmeted noggin from rocks, assuming your are floating on your back as you should be when you fall from a raft, and b) to float said noggin should you be rendered unconscious. It would be hard to find actual examples where "b" really saved someone's life though. However, there is grim video footage of the opposite seeming to happen to a swimmer in Idaho back in the 90's. He was wearing what appeared to be an Extrasport HiFloat (no collar) and may have been knocked unconscious. He did not survive.

The buoyancy rating, which is the downward force in pounds that it takes to submerge a jacket, is usually a minimum of 22 pounds on a type V, though most range closer to the 25 - 28 pound range regardless of what the Coast Guard labeling may state. Some like the basic Stearns type V are barely 22 pounds though in the small/medium size. Also, a few jackets may have dual type III/V ratings just to confuse us.

If your paddling includes moderate or advanced whitewater, or heavy seas, and you are not a hardshell boater, the clear choice is a type V. We hear one question over and over again: "If I'm paddling an inflatable kayak, shouldn't I wear a type III kayaker's vest?" Well, that depends. Any of you who paddle only mild water shouldn't wear anything bulky, so a comfy type 3 is the only real choice. However, if you are a whitewater inflatable kayaker who paddles medium or high flows, then you need a type V, or one of the Patriot/Big Buoy style vests with a type III rating but type V floatation. If you wear a normal type III and swim rapids at higher flows, you will be underwater most of the time. Hardshell kayakers wear type III's on rivers because they plan on staying in their boats, not swimming. When your inflatable upsets, you won't have that option. If you are one of those rare people whose sole category of paddling involves tiny low-flow class II and III streams, then a type III vest could be considered, assuming you aren't overly heavy.