Whitewater Life Jackets

Whitewater Life Jackets Selection Criteria

A life jacket is a piece of whitewater rafting gear that hopefully never gets used but always worn. Even if you are an experienced rafter or swimmer, a flotation device will give you an extra margin of safety and can be the difference between life and death. The terms personal flotation device (PFD), life jacket, and life vest can be used interchangeably.

Whitewater Life Jacket Fit and Comfort

A PFD’s fit and comfort is the most important selection criteria. You need to ensure it will properly stay on and not interfere with your breathing, vision, or ability to move in the water. You also want to ensure it is comfortable so that you’ll keep it on 100% of the time. Size the PFD based on your chest size to ensure proper fit. Ensure there are multiple adjustment points to customize it to your body and tighten them from the waist up. Here are a few tips to ensure proper PFD fit and comfort:
  • Have someone pull on the PFD shoulders. It should not move past your nose or head.
  • You should still be able to breathe freely, move freely, and not chafe while paddling.
  • Try on a PFD while wearing your rafting clothes
  • Ensure large armholes to allow for active movement
  • Choose the correct back cut for your rafting seats (low, high, mesh, etc.)

Whitewater PFD Safety Features

Besides having adequate flotation to keep you above the water, there are other safety features that can be incorporated into a PFD. If you are in a leadership role, in challenging water or want a more technical PFD you should consider incorporating these features into your PFD selection:
  • Bright colours ensure you are more visible
  • Reflective tape will add visibility in low-light environments
  • Pockets, tabs, and other attachment points to secure accessories:
  • Knife
  • Whistle
  • Strobes
  • If needed, there are rescue specific type V PFD’s for technical waters and personal

Life Jacket Flotation Level

The US Coast Guard (USCG) has made classifications for the type of PFD needed per activity and the minimum amount of flotation they provide. The USCG specifies a minimum of 15.5 lbs of flotation in an adult PFD. Increasing the flotation force will cause the PFD to be bulkier, you will pop to the surface faster, and you will float higher in the water. Keep in mind that there are numerous factors that can affect flotation, like body fat, muscle, clothing, rough or calm water, etc. When you are in the water, you should be able to float, tilt your head back, and have your chin above the water for breathing. Here are general guidelines for the amount of flotation needed:
  • Keep an adults head above the water
    • 7-12 lbs
  • Active swimmer
    • 16-18 lbs
  • Non Swimmer
    • 22-27 lbs

US Coast Guard (USCG) Classifications

Depending on your location, by law, you need to wear a USCG Class III life jacket. Due to comfort and function, rafters typically have a Class III or IV PFD. A brief summary of the difference between classifications can be seen below:
  • Class I PFD: Off-Shore Life Jacket Best for open waters (ocean or sea) when rescue may be slow in coming.
  • Class II PFD: Near Shore Buoyant Vest Best for calm inland waters when rescue has a good chance of being rescued fast.
  • Class III PFD: Flotation Aid Best for general boating and rafting to allow for greater freedom of movement with a good chance of being rescued fast.
  • Class IV: Throwable Device Life rings and seat cushions thrown by a rescuer in calm water to a conscious victim.
  • Class V: Special Use Device Meant for specific activities (kayaking, rafting, windsurfing, etc.) and needs to be worn at all times.

Note for Children’s PFDs

Typically, these are sized based on weight. You need to ensure a snug fit and that it won’t come off. Some children PFDs will come with leg straps to prevent them riding up and going over the child’s head. To test, simply pick them up by the shoulder straps and ensure the child’s chin and ears do not slide through.

Rafting Spot Whitewater Life Jacket Recommendations

NRS Oso pfd
# of Pockets2
# of Lash Tabs1
Flotation Force16.5lbs

Why RaftingSpot Likes It:

This life jacket has a medium profile and is ideal for rafters and kayakers. It has a thin-back, seven adjustable tightness points, and is well ventilated to keep you comfortable on the river.

Link to product’s website

nrs vapor pfd
# of Pockets1
# of Lash Tabs1
Flotation Force16.5lbs

Why RaftingSpot Likes It:

High end performance with a budget in mind. This lifejacket was designed to be comfortable for all day use, but ensures to keep the consumer safe with 16.5lbs of flotation force and a pocket and lash tab for accessories.

Link to product’s website

nrs big water v pfd
# of Pockets0
# of Lash Tabs0
Flotation Force25lbs

Why RaftingSpot Likes It:

Meant for high water rafting as it has options for leg straps and flotation collars along with its 25lbs of flotation force to keep you above the water.

Link to product’s website