How to choose the right PFD

We all know how important it is to wear a PFD when heading out on the water, but do we all know how to choose the right size?

We chatted with our friends at Stearns to get the inside scoop on how to select a properly fitting PFD for you and your family.

Snug as a bug in a rug

For kids, make sure the PFD fits your child’s weight. Also, make sure the PFD is comfortable and light so your child will wear it.

A staff member and visitor look inside a water net during a pond study program

Make sure your child tries on the PFD before you buy it.

It should fit snugly and not ride up over your child’s chin or ears. If there are more than 7.6 cm (3”) between your child’s shoulders and the device, it is too big and could do more harm than good.

Young visitor wearing PFD

When buying a PFD for children, look for these safety features:

  • a large collar for head support
  • waist ties or elastic gathers in front and back
  • a safety strap that goes between the legs to prevent the device from slipping over your child’s head
  • buckles on safety straps and reflective tape

Consider attaching a non-metallic pea-less whistle to the device.

Fitting for your PFD

For adults, your chest size—not your weight—will determine what size is right. Sizes vary by PFD brand and model, so check for the size info listed.

Group of paddlers standing by a canoe

A PFD should be snug and fit like a glove, yet allow you to move freely and not chafe.

Women should consider women-specific PFDs versus unisex styles, as they may offer a better fit. Each PFD will have a different design and foam placement to fit the contours of the body.

Stand up paddler in the water resting on board smiling

It doesn’t matter where the foam is located safety-wise, but comfort-wise you want it to fit — you guessed it — comfortably. The more straps it has, the more adjustments can be made to customize the fit.

Once you’ve selected the right size PFD, follow these fitting steps:

Staff member assisting visitor with lifejacket

  • loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip it up
  • start at the waist and tighten all the straps. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last. It should feel snug, but not uncomfortable
  • next, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulders. If it moves up past your nose or head, try tightening the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large
  • the right size may seem “thick,” but check your movements to make sure it is comfortable and will not chafe anywhere while moving or turning
  • if possible, test your PFD in a pool or shallow water to see how it works. It should not ride up or slip over your chin while floating

Don’t have your own PFD? Be Be PARKsmart

Thanks to partners like Stearns, campers can borrow a PFD at participating provincial parks, FREE of charge.

The PARKsmart PFD Lending Program is a water safety program that is carried out at 67 parks across the province.

PARKsmart poster. Image of PFD. Text: PARKsmart PFD Lending Program. Be safe around the water. Always wear a PFD! Ontarioparks.com/pfdlending. Partner logos


Ontario Parks thanks corporate partners like Stearns for their support.

Stearns® is a brand of The Coleman Company, Inc., an international leader in the design and manufacture of personal flotation devices and lifejackets. Together, Stearns and the Canadian Safe Boating Council are proud to promote safe and responsible boating throughout Canada.