Packrafting with an inflatable raft is a fun way to enhance your backcountry adventure by giving you the ability to travel over water, not just overland by foot. However, water-based travel introduces a new set of risks and the need for additional gear, including a personal flotation device (PFD), to mitigate the consequences of losing your boat, hypothermia, or loss of consciousness that can result when things go terribly wrong on the water.
Different people have different beliefs about the level of risk they’re likely to encounter or willing to tolerate when traveling by water in the backcountry. My goal in this post isn’t to preach to you about the need for PFDs for packrafting or to go into depth about the legal requirements (by state in the US) for water-based recreation.
Instead, I want to help you understand what to look for in a commercially available PFD, which ones that are appropriate for packrafting, and their pros and cons so you can make an informed selection about which is best suited for your needs.
Whitewater and Flatwater Risks
Why is it important to wear a PFD for packrafting on whitewater and flatwater? What risks does a PFD help mitigate and what are the best practices for use?
The number one reason to wear a PFD is to prevent drowning by holding your face above the water so you can breathe if you become incapacitated or unconscious. This can occur if you hit your head on a rock or other obstruction, your boat is punctured and deflates, you get pulled out of your boat due to a collision with an obstruction such as a sunken tree or rock, you fall out of your boat, you get swept away by the current when entering or existing your boat near shore, you become fatigued while awaiting rescue, you have a medical emergency in the water, etc. PFDs can also be used to mitigate hypothermia by insulating the parts of the body that they cover.
Since most of these incidents cannot be predicted, it’s important that you wear a PFD with sufficient buoyancy at all times when using your packraft. If you have a PFD that requires consciousness to put on or deploy, it’s not going to be very effective if you are unable to put it on or activate it. Most of boating related deaths that occur, occur because people were not wearing a PFD, even if they carried them with them on a boat
It should be noted that most PFDs are also designed to help you survive until a rescue can be effected. While they can certainly help you survive if you’re alone, it does raise the question of whether you should packraft alone and if so in what circumstances. I don’t plan to address this question here but, it’s an important aspect of your risk self-assessment that you should to consider when planning packrafting trips.
Commercially available PFDs are categorized based on a US Coast Guard rating scheme by type: Type I, II, III, IV or V. It’s a rather confusing classification scheme and the Coast Guard is in the process of revising it to make it easier to understand. That said, it’s still widely used by manufacturers and important for you to be familiar with so you can eliminate certain PFD types from consideration. For packrafting, you’re most likely to select a Type III or Type V PFDs. I provide examples further below.
- Type I PFDs (Off-Shore Life Jackets)
- Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. Abandon-ship life jacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire. While highly buoyant, they are bulky and difficult to use for outdoor recreation. However, they can turn an unconscious person upright in the water so they don’t drown.
- Type II PFDs (Near Shore Buoyant Vests)
- For general boating activities. Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue. Less bulky than Type I PFDs. May turn an unconscious person upright in the water, but not in all cases.
- Type III PFDs (Flotation Aids)
- For general boating where there is a good chance for fast rescue. Type III PFDs provide for greater freedom of movement when worn continuously. Wearer may have to turn themselves upright to keep their face out of the water. Commonly configured as like jackets or vests.
- Type IV (Throwable Devices)
- Life rings and seat cushions thrown by a rescuer. Not for rough water or unconscious victims. Wearer must orient themselves upright to keep their face out of the water.
- Type V PFDs (Special Use Devices)
- Hybrid PFDs designed for specific uses. For example, hybrid inflatable PFDs for SUP use, Canoe/Kayak Vests, Fishing Vests, Survival Suits. etc.
Packrafting combines backpacking and boating, which is likely to influence the type of PFD you get since you’re going to have carry it, in addition to the extra packrafting gear you need to pack for a trip. In addition to the risk and USCG classification considerations described above, there are quite a few variables to consider, which is why choosing the appropriate PFD for packrafting can be a difficult decision to make.
- Compactness – How easy is it to transport the PFD when backpacking? For example, a foam PFD may be bulkier than an inflatable PFD and require a large backpack or external attachment on the outside of your pack.
- Durability – How durable is the PFD in rough conditions? For example, would it remain usable if you attach it to the outside of your backpack and bushwack though dense foliage?
- Weight – How heavy is it? Does carrying it require other tradeoffs in gear or consumables?
- Reliability – Will the PFD “work” 100% of the time?
- Passive Use – Will the PFD work if you’re unconscious or incapacitated? Does the PFD require extra steps to inflate or put on when needed for use or do you wear it it a read-to-use state?
- Assisted Rescue – Does the PFD rely on rescue assistance from others or is it sufficient if you’re alone and need to be self-reliant?
- Comfort – Is the PFD comfortable to wear at all times or is it cumbersome for your intended activity?
- Multi-function – Can you use the PFD for multiple purposes, such as sleeping pad, seat cushioning, or seat insulation in a packraft with an uninsulated floor? Does it help enable other activities, such as fishing?
Type III and Type V PFDs
Type III and Type V PFDs are the best alternatives for packrafters because they are comfortable enough to be worn all day and don’t interfere with paddling.
Type III PFDs
Type III PFDs filled with foam flotation, such as the MTI Adventurewear Journey PFD, the Astral V-Eight PFD, and the Stohlquit Ebb PFD, are all suitable for packrafting because they’re lightweight (under 1 pounds 6 ounces each), they’re comfortable enough for all day use, highly adjustable for a snug fit, and don’t interfere with a paddling motion. The MTI Journey is best suited for flatwater use in packrafts without a spray skirt or a backrest, where the foam back panel helps provide postural support. With mesh backs, the Astral V-Eight, and Stohlquist Ebb are good for whitewater use when a spray skirt is used, because their high cut backs don’t interfere with the fit of the spray skirt around your torso.
Foam-filled PFDs also have other benefits. When worn, they’re always fully buoyant, regardless of whether you’re conscious or unconscious, and they’re covered with durable fabrics in case you need to strap them to the exterior of your pack. They can also be used as insulated sit pads or part of a sleeping pad insulation system in a pinch.
Type V Inflatable PFDs
There are a wide range of Type V PFDs available, but the most suitable for packrafting use (although controversial) are inflatable PFDs primarily designed for standup paddle board use. The light weight and compactness of inflatable PFDs makes them a very attractive option for packrafting use. They’re comfortable, can be worn all day, don’t interfere with paddling or sprayskirt use, and have a small footprint when packed away inside your backpack.
Once inflated, manually or automatically, these PFDs typically provide Type III “performance”, although their USCG rating remains a Type V. This is particularly true of yoke style inflatables which wrap around your neck and shoulders when deflated and can keep your head above the water even if you are unconscious. Waist-strap style inflatable PFDs are not recommended, because once inflated, you need to position the PFD over your shoulders. This can be difficult if you are incapacitated or if an obstruction blocks your movement.
Inflating PFDs come in several variations but they basically work the same way. A gas-tight bladder is enclosed with a durable shell. The shell remains compressed until the PFD is inflated. The bladder can be inflated manually using an inflation tube or using a CO2 cartridge which is triggered when it comes in contact with water. The PFD is worn at all times by the user
However, it is important to carefully consider the reliability of the inflation mechanism when considering a yoke style inflatable PFD. Some models require manual inflation while others are automatic and triggered when the inflatable vest comes into contact with water. The problem with manual inflation is that you may not be conscious when the PFD is needed, rendering it useless. While this is a usually non-starter for whitewater use, you may decide that it is an acceptable risk for flatwater packrafting. It’s a judgement call that you need to make.
Automatically triggered inflatable PFDs also have pros and cons which may not be readily apparent. Most vests come with an inflation tube that you can use to manually inflate the vest if the automatic mechanism fails. However, many automatic mechanisms are triggered when they become wet, something that will happen frequently in a packraft whether you’re ready for PFD deployment or not. Cold weather can affect the amount of buoyancy achieved by inflation, inflatable PFDs do not provide any insulating protection against hypothermia when you’re immersed in water, and the automatic mechanism much be properly rearmed and tested between uses which may be difficult or impossible if you are in the backcountry.
When all of the variables associated with inflatable vests are examined carefully, it’s not surprising that many packrafters opt for low tech foam-filled Type III PFD over inflatable models. While bulkier, foam PFDs are extremely reliable when worn and can save your day when things go terribly wrong during your packraft adventures. But the type of PFD you do choose should be based on the environmental conditions you expect to encounter, the rescue experience of your party, whether you plan to paddle whitewater or flatwater, and your risk tolerance. Consider these variables carefully.