PFDs: How to choose the right size

Don’t trust the size label on a wearable PFD

We all know to try on off-the-rack clothing to check the fit. Those “Small, Medium, and Large” tags are helpful, but often misleading, too. If you want a perfect fit, go to a tailor; otherwise, you’ve got to try on the garment. It’s best to think of wearable PFDs like they are clothing, which is why I will always prefer to call them “life jackets.”

For our purposes, “life jacket,” “PFD,” and “device” should be understood to mean “wearable PFD.”

Be aware, however, that the new labeling system categorizes PFDs into two groups: wearable PFDs and throwable PFDs. “Throwable PFD” means a PFD that is intended to be thrown to a person in the water. Under the old labeling system, a PFD marked as “Type IV” or “Type V with Type IV performance” is considered a throwable PFD.

Because humans come in all shapes and sizes, there is no one-size-fits-all PFD, and it’s necessary to check the fit of each device on its user before engaging in activities on the water. When fitting the device, adjust every strap; buckle every buckle and zip every zipper.

Never assume a device will fit because of its labeling, even if you’ve worn a different device of the same size in the past. The cut could be different, or you may have “grown” since then.

“One-size-fits-most” labels are a handy way for manufacturers to dodge paying big settlements when someone’s corpse is found floating somewhere. “Well, did she try it on?” will be the second question asked by investigators.

The right fit

Once you’ve got the device on, give it a good hard tug in the directions it could shift in an impact: up and down the trunk of the body, left and right around the torso. The device should not shift much; if it does, it needs to be tightened, or replaced with something smaller.

If a life jacket is uncomfortable or too tight, choose a larger one. You are less likely to wear a life jacket that’s uncomfortable, so invest in something that you can wear all day.

Try out new PFDs in the water. Learn what to expect from them before there is trouble.

Be careful when fitting PFDs to children. Never buy an oversized device to account for the growth of a child from season to season. People in oversized life jackets have drowned. But remember that if the device is too small, the child is less likely to fasten it correctly.

Make checking snaps and zippers an instinctual part of supervising activities on the water.

Where to find the size label

A PFD’s size is expressed as a measure of weight (mass). Sometimes, a chest measurement and height are also given. Look for size labeling behind the neck of the wearer or sewn inside the device.

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About Will Martin 55 Articles
Will Martin is an adventure writer based in New Orleans, LA. He pens fiction and nonfiction stories at, and is a staff writer at Louisiana Sportsman. He can be reached at

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