What are the best types of PFDs for whitewater?

Determining the best PFD for you will rely on what kind of adventures you have planned. The US Coast Guard has established five PFD designation types to help boaters understand the level of PFD protection they need to be safe on the water. 

Type III and Type V PFDs are best for private Whitewater and River users.

US Coast Guard PFD Designations

US Coast Guard PFD Type Definitions

Type III

A Type III is generally a panel-construction vest that wraps flotation around all parts of the user's core, with ample straps and buckles to secure everything in place. There is no head-support float on most Type III PFDs, as it would get in the way during some aggressive swimming positions.

Type III vests intended for whitewater have a high level of buoyancy to keep you floating in aerated (rough) water. 

Our favorite Type III PFDs are:

Grand Canyon lifejackets

Type V

Some Type V PFDs (rescue vests) have a quick-release rescue belt that is integrated into the vest. This is a feature used in rescue situations as well as in pin extractions.

The rescue belt allows the person wearing it to be tethered to another rescuer on shore with a rope, it also allows the PFD wearer to safely release from that rope if needed. As is the case with a lot of river gear, if you do not have the proper knowledge to use your gear correctly, it becomes more of a danger than an asset to yourself and your paddling crew. 

If it weren’t for the rescue belt, a Type V PFD would become a Type III. Rescue Vests also tend to be burlier and have more storage/pockets.

Type V PFDs also include "custy" lifejackets, with head and neck support for those not comfortable swimming aggressively in whitewater.

Our favorite Type V PFDs are:

 NRS Zen Rescue PDF


Astral Green Jacket Rescue PFD

NRS Zen Rescue PFD
Astral Green Jacket Rescue PFD


CKS Pro Tip

Certain Type III PFDs, like the Astral Bluejacket or Astral Women's Layla, can be converted to a Type V by adding the optional accessory rescue belt

Rescue PFD Gore Canyon Safety

Ultimately the best PFD for you is going to come down to comfort and preference. The best PFD is the one you'll actually want to wear! CKS sells a variety of PFDs, including lifejackets for youth, canines and for flatwater SUPers

Originally posted November 2021.
Updated August 2023.

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