In order to safely row outdoors, you’ll need a ‘PFD’ (personal flotation device). There’s a huge range on the market, so we’re going to do most of the leg (or arm in this case!) work for you.
We’re going to look at the best PFDs for rowers, highlighting the points you need to be aware of, what to consider when choosing your PFD and how much you will be looking to spend to get a good one.
The frank reality is that the PFD could literally be a lifesaver, so you don’t want to get a bad one. There’s a time and a place to economize, but safety equipment isn’t one of them. By the end of this article, you’ll understand a lot more about PFDs, their use cases, and which ones we recommend for a variety of budgets and intended uses.
So pay attention… this information could be a lifesaver!
Not all PFDs are the same, so here’s a quick overview of the different types. Whom they are for the best use case…
Standard PFDs are the garments that don’t require any kind of additional inflation. They vary in complexity and quality depending on the use case - for example, there are high-end devices designed for rough seas, all the way down to basic devices for still waters. They’re usually filled with a buoyant foam to enable flotation.
The ones in this list are designed to be used on still or slow-moving waters, where rescue is likely to be quick. If you are rowing on the open seas where rescue may take a long time, you’ll need something more advanced than these.
The standard PFD is a vest and as a rule, the cheaper the vest, the cheaper and less buoyant the materials are. This means they tend to be bigger and compromise the rowing technique more. This isn’t a huge issue unless you’re looking for the perfect technique. The upside of a standard PFD is they often contain more pockets so are perfect for longer expeditions - you can carry snacks, phones, sunglasses, etc!
The Stohlquist Edge is an ideal general-purpose PFD - suitable for still water, but capable of a lot more. It’s great for rowing because it is lightweight, but offers excellent buoyancy ratings. It also contains a lot of pockets for snacks, phone, and any other equipment you may need whilst on the water.
It’s towards the top of the mid-range pricing level, but it’s great value for such good quality, lightweight, and functional PFD. This is a PFD that can be taken to more extremes - it’ll be sufficiently safe for whitewater, so you can take it on more adventurous expeditions. You’ll pay more for this than the others, but it’s an excellent piece of equipment and is available in a wide range of sizes.
The Onyx universal paddle vest is a mid-priced PFD that will suit the generalist looking for a cheaper, yet safe option. It lacks the variety of pockets in the Stohlquist, but it’s significantly cheaper, still allows the full freedom of the upper body, and still has enough storage room for essentials.
It’s a compact vest design, has a breathable mesh, and retains the lightweight element of the best PFDs. It’s a zip-up front which is less fiddly than some clip models. There’s no upper user weight, suggesting there’s excellent buoyancy here.
Inflatable PFDs come in two types - gas-powered and self-inflatable. They’re absolutely safe, but once again they’re not a suitable solution for fast-moving rivers or rough seas. If you are going to use an inflatable PFD, make sure you’ve checked the gas cylinders and the air seals before use.
If there’s a serious risk of the device being punctured (think fast-moving rivers where sharp branches exist, or close to rocky shores) don’t use an inflatable PFD unless it’s a very high-quality one. If you’re just on still water without a risk of puncture though, the budget PFDs will suit you just fine.
Inflatable PFDs are a good entry point, where you don’t have to commit serious money without jeopardizing your safety on the water. They’re beginner/intermediate friendly and still allow you to row freely.
The NAXER is a good value, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin PFD. It’s a simple, self-inflating model that will take around 15 seconds to fully inflate/deflate with the compression tube design. It’ll support a bodyweight of up to 220LBS (100kg), so keep an eye out if you’re unsure of your weight.
It’s a vest design and the open arms allow for a full rowing stroke without much compromise. There’s a wide range of sizes available, meaning there’s a size available for everyone. The self-inflating model also means that these NAXER jackets are much cheaper than the other types of buoyancy aids, which helps if you’re price-sensitive.
The Rtizan is an interesting addition to the space because it offers additional wearer security with the inclusion of the leg loops. If you’re particularly worried that your PFD could slip off, this gives extra peace of mind. It’s a self-inflating device available in 2 sizes, (S-M and M-XL) which will cover wearers from 60-220 LBS (27-100KG).
It’s a suitable PFD for calm waters where recuse is likely to be fast. It has a breathable mesh for user comfort, an easy access inflation tube, and is available in a range of colors. It’s a budget PFD but will be suitable for basic use on safe waters with a low/no risk of puncture.
Hybrid PDFs blend the security of high-buoyancy foam with the ability to ‘top up’ with a self-inflatable air tube. Their unique design means that they are slim in profile, which will help with rowing technique, and then should the need arise, you can boost their buoyancy within a few seconds.
They’re a great option for rowers thanks to the slim profile allowing greater range of movement to execute an effective rowing stroke, but they offer all the safety you need in the case of an emergency. They’re more suitable for areas where you have a slim chance of puncture because the foam means you’ve always got a buoyancy backup.
A hybrid PFD offers the versatility of the foam with the ability to top up. It’s a device suited to calmer waters with a lower risk of capsize. If you are particularly large with a large chest, the jacket element of it may not be the most comfortable so bear that in mind. Generally speaking, it’s a good mid-ability PFD option.
I’ll start here by stating clearly - this is NOT a budget PFD. This is a high-end, high-quality device that is suitable for use in all conditions. It’s very well made and buoyant, with the ability to add an additional 9kg of buoyancy with the manual inflation cell (sold separately). In case of extreme emergency, you can activate the cell for extra flotation.
It’s a slim profile hybrid PFD, so is excellent for rowing whether on flat or more challenging water. There’s plenty of pocket space and enough room to move your arms and upper body. Finally, the shoulder straps and side buckles are adjustable to allow you to achieve the most comfortable fit possible.
Inflatable suspenders tend to be smaller and thinner than other types of PFD. Although they are smaller, they are usually gas-powered and therefore super buoyant. This makes them more suitable for the choppier waters than the others in the list. Being so unobstructive they’re great for rowing because they allow almost a complete range of movement, so your technique is free from restriction.
With inflatable suspenders, you’ll notice they tend to be higher-end in terms of materials and cost - this is because of the puncture risk - they’re useless if they burst so they have to be made from high-end materials. You don’t really ever see them at the cheaper end of the market, so if you want the freedom and buoyancy of an inflatable suspender, be prepared to get your wallet out!
Inflatable suspenders are best suited to more advanced rowers who are going to explore more challenging waters. They’re also great for bigger rowers, who will enjoy the freedom of the design because they’re far more open and less restrictive than the vest type of PFD.
The Onyx is a mid-price inflatable suspender that suits most users. It is designed with comfort in mind - there’s a soft neoprene lining and it’s really lightweight, so you’ll be totally unaware of it during use. The inflation comes from a CO2 cartridge which can be manually or automatically activated.
Despite the apparently small strap, the Onyx is very buoyant - it has a max user weight of 264LB (120KG), which is a testament to its quality. The minimum user weight is 80LB (36.3KG) and the device will fit any chest size between 30” - 52” (76cm - 132cm). It weighs 1.5LB (0.7KG) and comes with its own carry case. It’s best suited to still and slow-moving waters.
This is a more premium PFD with a higher buoyancy rating and room for an additional CO2 canister. It’s there to be called on in more extreme circumstances than some of its counterparts. It shares the same free movement features as the Onyx so your rowing technique is unaffected.
Practically, it’s better suited to the bigger, heavier users. It has a buoyancy rating of 40LBS which will be enough for users well in excess of 300LBS (150KG). The sizing is also generous, with a 30-56” (76-142 cm) chest range. The device itself is an automatic inflation, meaning it will only inflate when submerged. You can also set it to a manual inflation should you wish. This isn’t a cheap PFD, but if you are looking for something higher-end, this is a great option.
An inflatable belt pack is the most unobtrusive and minimalist of all the PFDs, which is why they are so popular with water sports enthusiasts such as rowers, kayakers, SUP users, etc. They allow unlimited movement of the upper body, so don’t compromise the movement at all. Their simple structure means they’re often competitively priced as well - usually in the lower end of the mid-price range.
The inflatable belt pack will typically be activated by a pull cord - this will cause the CO2 canister in the belt to open, which will inflate the belt within seconds. In many cases, this can be topped up manually to offer more buoyancy. It’s important to check the integrity of the gas canister before each use.
Calm, open waters are the best place to use inflatable belt packs. Unlike a lot of vests, they don’t automatically raise your head out of the water if you’re knocked unconscious so don’t rely on them in water or in sports where there’s a chance of a head bump. Think open seas and lakes rather than rivers and rocky shorelines.
This is a functional and effective inflatable life belt that won’t break the bank. It relies on a cord-activated CO2 inflation system (canister sold separately) that can be topped up manually via an air tube. It’s made from a hard-wearing and puncture-resistant nylon and polyurethane mixture. When the belt is activated it can remain floating for an impressive 48 hours.
Being so small, the belt is very comfortable and suitable for almost all users. It weighs 0.39KG (slightly less than 1LB) and the dimensions are 70 x 10cm (27.56" x 3.94"). It’ll allow you to basically forget you’re even wearing it and carry on as normal. The belt comes with an attached whistle to help rescuers locate you, should you need it. For those looking for a simple inflatable life belt, this is a good option.
The Onyx M-16 is the inflatable belt pack for the person looking for something a little higher end. It’s hard-wearing, coast guard-approved, and inflates instantly upon activation. As with many other inflatable belts, it’s a CO2 canister inflation (providing 17LBS buoyancy) that can be topped up to 26.5LBS with a manual inflation tube.
The belt can be worn around the waist or chest. It’s expandable from 30” to 52” (76cm - 132cm) and is made from 200-denier nylon, so it’s essentially rip and puncture proof. These are the little details that increase the cost, but dramatically increase the functionality and reliability. As with all belts, the minimalist design means it’s rower friendly, but only use it in open water because it won’t automatically keep your head out of the water in case of emergency.
A PFD is a comfort garment in many ways - it’s designed for long-term use and allows you a level of movement freedom that a life jacket doesn’t. You can row, kayak, snorkel, etc in a PFD, but doing these in a lifejacket is a much more challenging prospect.
A lifejacket is designed to offer a safety level above and beyond a PFD. It is there to literally save your life in the case of an emergency because it will stay afloat indefinitely. A lifejacket will also help to keep your head out of the water even if you fall unconscious and are face down in the water.
A lifejacket is a much bigger device that doesn’t consider user comfort or movement particularly - it is a lifesaving device first and foremost, designed for use in dangerous water.
PFDs are more suited to sports because they are designed to allow the wearer to move more freely. They offer plenty of buoyancy, but they’re not designed for use in the choppiest waters, nor will they be able to keep your head out of the water should you lose consciousness.
There is a wide range of PFDs, so make the choice based on your needs and use case.
PFDs come in a range of shapes, styles, and sizes so make sure you pick the one that will fit you best. The sizing is more important with the vest styles - this type has to close comfortably. The belts or suspenders tend to be a lot more forgiving because they have an ‘open’ nature to them.
As long as the belts, zips, and straps are able to close securely without restricting movement you’re ok. Likewise, no PFD should be able to slip off when it’s on, so make sure that can’t happen.
Beyond fit, styling, and use cases the next thing you may want to consider are features. They largely come under two groups…
Comfort, making the PFD nicer to wear. This could include…
Functionality, making the PFD a practical device as well as a safety one…
If you are intending to use your PFD for longer days out on the water, you’ll want to consider a device that has as many of these features as possible.
The United State Coast Guard approves certain types of PFD (check the label to see if it has USCG approval). Not all PFDs will have it, but it’s a barometer of the quality of the manufacturer if it does have them.
For further information you can look at the official USCG rules and regulations for recreational boats here.
All children under the age of 13 need to wear a USCG approved PFD according to US Federal law.
All rented boats should provide a USCG approved PFD to users as well.
Rowing shells, as well as racing canoes and kayaks, have a PFD exemption while rowing on water designated "navigable" by the United States Coast Guard. All other bodies of water are under state jurisdiction. The exemption is only for those bodies of water that (by loose definition) have, had or may have, commercial traffic.
Despite this exemption for elite rowers in waters considered ‘safer’, the advice is to still carry an easily accessible PFD for every user of the rowing boat, even if they’re not wearing it.
For your own rowing, you don’t need to wear a USCG approved PFD, but ask yourself if it’s a risk worth taking? The approval from the USCG is a benchmark of quality and safety, and my thinking is that there’s certain things you don’t want to economize on, and personal safety is one of those things.
PFDs will vary wildly in price, with budget devices coming in at around $25, with a full life jacket potentially costing several hundred bucks.
Your costs will depend on what you’re looking for and the activities you intend to take part in on the water. As a general rule, I’d suggest the more dangerous the water you’re going to go into, the more I’d want to spend on my personal safety.