Life Jacket 101: What You Need to Know about the New PFD Classification System

On a warm, calm afternoon Lake Tahoe is a paddler’s dream. On days like that a foam PFD seems like overkill. But it’s a big lake. When the wind blows the waves get big and the water’s cold. Fall in and it won’t take long to get into trouble. On days like that, Julie Munger wouldn’t launch a boat or SUP without wearing a foam-filled PFD. “No one should be on the water, anywhere, without some kind of floatation on their body,” says Munger, the owner and founder of Sierra Rescue International; she’s been teaching water rescue skills for 25 years. “We see a lot of people paddling with a PFD attached to their board or in their boat. This is better than not having one at all, but it won’t do you any good if you get separated from your boat.”

As the saying goes, the best PFD is the one you’ll wear. But deciding what kind of floatation – inflatable, foam or hybrid PFD, and just how much floatation you need – is a little trickier to prescribe. This is the conundrum of staying safe on the water in an age of so many choices. Blame Mustang Survival for some of the confusion. Until 2000 paddlers had two choices, wear a foam PFD or don’t. Twenty years ago the Vancouver, B.C.-based lifejacket and survival gear manufacturer introduced one of the first inflatable PFDs. Inside the fanny pack like device was a compressed air cartridge and a key-hole style PFD. In an emergency the paddler pulled a cord, piercing the canister and inflating the PFD. They then just had to pull the key hole over their head.

Example of a low-profile, waist-pack style inflatable PFD

Why the waist-pack PFDs are meant to be worn on the front.

The low-profile design was perfect for those calm flatwater days, when a foam PFD feels hot, restricting and cumbersome. They are particularly popular with SUP paddlers and the adoption of inflatable PFDs mirrored the rise of the sport. From the original belt manufacturers like Mustang diversified into different inflatable designs and hybrids that mixed foam and inflatable technology.

One of Mustang’s hybrid foam-inflatable life jackets.

Confusing things further is new PFD regulations developed in a collaboration between Transport Canada and the United States Coast Guard. It replaces the “Type System” that categorizes PFDs from I through V depending on their design and intended use, with a Performance System that takes into account the amount of floatation, construction and length of time for rescue.

The change brought the two certifying bodies in line. Developed with input from manufacturers it should also make it easier to pick the right floatation for the situation and encourage new designs, says Mark Anderson, director of product development for Mustang Survival.

“The new system is simpler and less prescriptive,” he says.

The two systems will coexist for a few years. Most paddlers will want Type II or III PFDs with the old system. These designs won’t turn an unconscious paddler face up in the water, but they won’t restrict paddling efficiency either.

In the new Performance system that corresponds to Level 50 or 70. The rating is a combination of a number showing the amount of floatation in Newtons and a graphic representing water conditions and distance from shore. The idea being, the longer a rescue could take the more floatation and support a swimmer will want. For instance, the description for a Level 50, the least floaty rating, reads: “swim skills expected of the user; not recommended for weak or none swimmers; close to shore and immediate assistance; no turning ability.” The graphic is a person in the calm water, a dock nearby and a hand reaching out to help. In comparison, a Level 150 shows a person lying on their back in waves and is recommended for “offshore waters with waves; turning ability.”

With either classification system err to more floatation in waves or current, bigger bodies of water and more remote locations.

A more difficult question these days is the choice between foam and inflatable. Both can qualify for any of the levels and types paddlers would wear. When deciding when to wear one over the other Munger breaks it down by the water. “Use foam any time there is any current,” she says. That means waves and moving water.

Inflatables are best reserved for calm, flatwater conditions, agrees Anderson. They require the user to manually deploy them by pulling on a toggle and then pulling them over the head. That’s not going to happen if the swimmer is unconscious, hands are too cold to manipulate the handle, the water’s too rough to pull the inflatable over the head or a bunch of other easy to imagine scenarios.

“Inflatables are easy to use in calm conditions, but when you’re tossed into the water unexpectedly, in shitty conditions, it messes with you,” Anderson says.


The newest category of PFD aims to bridge the middle ground. Hybrid PFDs combine a small amount of inherent floatation with the option to top it up with a built-in inflatable system. The Mustang Khimera, for instance, has 7.5 pounds of foam floatation. Deploying the inflation bladder adds another 12.5 pounds. It looks and feel like a foam PFD; it’s just lower profile.

The flip side of all this goes back to the saying that the PFD you’ll wear is the best one to carry. In other words, it’s better to wear an inflatable in rough conditions if you wouldn’t wear anything otherwise.

“A lot of people have a false sense of security,” says Anderson. “They think ‘I swim well’ or ‘it won’t happen to me.’ But when the shit hits the fan it doesn’t take long for to get into trouble. Our stance is that you are safest when wearing something”

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