When Should You Discard A PFD? The 7 Signs To Look Out For

by Jason | Last Updated:   October 8th, 2022
When Should You Discard A PFD? The 7 Signs To Look Out For

As we all know, PFDs are an essential part of staying safe while you’re paddling. But when should you discard a PFD (Personal Floatation Device)? Do they last forever? And what causes wear over time?

Unfortunately, PFDs aren’t a one-time purchase if you don’t look after them correctly, so it’s vital you understand when you need to discard them and buy a new one.

So, in this article, I’ve set out to explain everything you need to know about the types of PFDs available, when to get rid of them, how to look after them, and how to choose a new one.

If this sounds like what you’ve been looking for, don’t go anywhere because I’m about to break it down.

Let’s get started:

The Two Main Types Of Life Jacket

I guess the first thing we should talk about is the different styles of life jackets available to you and how they work.

And there are two for you to choose from:

Foam-Filled PFD

When you think about PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) for kayaking, the first one that will come to your mind is the classic foam-filled version. 

These PFDs are made using a closed-cell foam that traps and contains air, and it’s this process that gives the life jacket its buoyancy.

One of the great things about foam-filled PFDs is they are naturally buoyant, unlike inflatable PFDs. This makes foam PFDs excellent for children and adults due to their low maintenance and ease of use.

Do Foam Life Jackets Expire?

Typically, if you look after your foam life jackets, they don’t tend to expire, which is a good thing. That being said, you should regularly check your foam life jacket to ensure it’s working to the best of its ability.

But I’ll be talking about the tests further down in this article!

Inflatable PFD

Thanks to their compact designs, people have recently started moving towards inflatable PFDs. Not only that, but they are easier to move in and can feel more comfortable when you’re wearing them for a long time.

The thing that stands out above standard foam PFDs is they use a carbon dioxide cartridge to fill the vest when you’re in the water. And this can be done manually or automatically, but this depends on the inflatable PFD you have.

As you can imagine, it’s the CO2 cartridges that provide the buoyancy for the PFD, but that also means you’ll have to change the gas cartridge now and again.

How Often Should You Replace The CO2 Cylinder In A PFD?

Unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed time to replace your CO2 cylinder. You also need to think about how many times it’s been used. But most people say you should change it every year, no matter how many times it’s been used.

The CO2 cylinders don’t contain an infinite amount of air, and you don’t want to find out that it’s empty while you’re in the water.

Lastly, you should always check the shelf life of the gas cylinder; you don’t want to use a cartridge past the expiration date while you’re paddling.

How Long Does A PFD Last?

When Should You Discard A PFD

If you look after your PFD correctly, you should be able to get ten years out of it. Some people claim that they’ve used their personal flotation device for longer than that, but it’s not really recommended.

But, there are a few reasons you might need to discard and replace your PFD early, and you must understand when this needs to be done.

So, in this section, I will explain when you need to replace your PFD, what wears them down, how to test their buoyancy, and much more.

Sound good?

Great, let’s take a look:

When Should A Life Jacket Be Discarded And Replaced?

As I mentioned, there will be a few reasons that signify when you should discard a PFD and replace it with a new one.

And you must follow these guidelines. PFDs aren’t worn for fun; they are used to keep you alive when you fall in the water.

Some people run these checks before every kayaking trip; others do it once a year. But the important thing is that you actually do run these checks.

So, when should you discard a PFD?

Well, here’re the top 7 signs that show it’s time to discard your personal flotation device and get a new one:

1. If The Vest Material Is Fading Or Discolored

The material on your PFD is usually made with synthetic materials that UV rays can damage.  Over time the material can slowly start to fade in color and weaken, leading to significant issues in the long run. 

If you see that the color of the PFD is starting to fade, it’s suffered UV damage, and it’s time to get a new one; it’s no longer usable.

2. When The Straps Are Starting To Fray

When you’ve been putting your PFD through heavy use, the strap material on the PFD might start to fray. Make sure you check the straps regularly for any damage; the last thing you want is for the material to snap.

3. If The PFDs Foam Is Torn Or Compressed

One of the essential parts of a PFD is the foam inside it. It’s the part that helps you float and can potentially save your life. 

The problem is: 

If the foam gets torn or compressed, the PFD will lose its effectiveness and is no longer buoyant.

Usually, this only happens when the PFD has been incorrectly stored or not dried correctly. If your PFD suffers from torn or compressed foam, you need to replace it.  

4. When The PFD Doesn’t Fit Anymore

If you’ve lost or gained weight and the PFD doesn’t fit you anymore, you will need to find a new one. If you’re too large for the PFD, it will struggle to keep you afloat. And if it’s too small, you might slip out of the device.

If this is the case, make sure you get yourself a new one. You might not need to discard it if it’s in good condition, but you will need a new one.

5. If The PFD Is Absorbing Too Much Water

PFD uses a closed-cell foam that isn’t meant to absorb water. If your PFD starts absorbing water, it’s going to mess with its buoyancy.

The problem is:

Over time, you’re going to be using the PFD a lot, and it’s going to get wet a lot, which can cause the device to lose its waterproofing. If you start to feel that water is absorbing in the PFD, it’s time to get a new one.

6. If The Strap Connectors Are Broken

It’s not just the straps of the PFD that can wear down over time. It’s also the connectors you need to think about. You should make sure the plastic isn’t chipped or broken; if it is, you need to get a new one.

7. If The Material Is Torn Or Has An Air Leak

It doesn’t matter which style of personal floatation device you have; if there’s a tear or air is leaking from the material, you need to get a new one. Don’t try and patch the leaks; just discard them and get a new inflatable PFD. 

Rips, tears, and punctures will affect the buoyancy, which is not something you want when you’re going down whitewater.

What Causes A PFD To Wear Out Over Time And How To Care For It?

The biggest cause of wear on your PFD is prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays. The UV exposure will slowly break down the fabric and render it useless. 

Another thing you need to think about is moisture and humidity. This means you have to make sure your PFD is dry before storing them away for the week. 

Prolonged wetness can reduce the buoyancy of the PFD and produce mold or mildew to form on the fabric.

Luckily there are some simple tips you can follow to help reduce damage:

  • Store Your PFD Correctly: Some were cool and dry, out of direct sunlight.
  • Check Your PFD Before Use: Test your PFD before you go out to make sure it floats.
  • Don’t Alter Your PFD: Altering the PFD can affect the integrity, so don’t do it.
  • Reduce Its Exposure From The Sun: If you can, try not to dry the PFD in the sunlight or extreme temperatures, it might be quicker, but it can also damage it quicker.

Just these four tips can really help you prolong the life of your PFD and stop you from buying a new one every couple of years.

How Should A Life Jacket Be Dried After Being Cleaned?

Cleaning your PFD is an integral part of the owning process, and it’s something that you shouldn’t take lightly, especially if you want it to last a long time. 

So, in this section, I will talk you through a few things you need to do and a cleaning process.

Let’s take a look:

Things You Should Do:

  • Always air dry your PFD out of the sunlight and with plenty of ventilation.
  • Make sure you hang the PFD to avoid mildew forming.
  • Ensure you rinse the saltwater off the PFD if you’ve used it in the sea. 
  • Clean any mud, sand, or stains of the PFD after use.
  • You should wash your life vest right away if food, sunscreen, or mud is visible.

Cleaning Process:

  • Lay a tarp on the ground and fill a bucket with cold water and a little liquid laundry detergent.
  • Place the PFD on the tarp with all the straps unfastened and scrub the jacket using the detergent mixture. If it’s heavily stained, soak the stain in a mild soap for 10 minutes before washing it away.
  • If there’s mold on the life jacket, clean it outside by brushing the spores away before wetting the fabric. 
  • Rinse the PFD well with a hose or plenty of clean water. You need to get all the detergent out of the fabric.
  • Hang the PFD outside but out of direct sunlight.
  • Store the PFD in a dry/cool place until the next time you need to use it.

Things You Shouldn’t Do:

  • Never stick your PFD in the washing machine.
  • Never dry your PFD by using a direct heat source or putting it in the dryer. Your PFD will suffer from heat damage and stop functioning properly.
  • Do not use chlorine bleach to clean the PFD.

How Often Should A Life Jacket Be Tested For Buoyancy?

You should check your PFD at the start of each season to ensure you’ll have no problems when you go out paddling.

And there are a few tests you can do to check if your PFD is still buoyant, and we’re going to discuss that in this section:

1. Test The PFDs Buoyancy

If you need to test your PFDs buoyancy, you can use a few techniques. You should do these tests in calm water and the last one in a bucket:

  1. Walk into the water/swimming pool chest-deep and see if the PFD can hold you afloat in the water; if your chin drops below the waterline, it’s failed the test. If the PFD is rising above your shoulders, it’s also a bad sign. You should also practice swimming on your back and front to ensure it works on both sides.
  2. Use a large bin filled with water. Using weights, add the maximum weight to your PFD; if it does not float freely, it’s failed the test and is not at the proper buoyancy.

2. Test The CO2 Tanks Of Your Inflatable PFD

It doesn’t matter whether you have a manual or automatic PFD; you still need to run the following tests:

  • Ensure the gas canister is past its expiry date/expiration date and not empty.
  • Make sure the air cartridge is correctly secured and that no screws are loose.
  • Check for any damage or rust. If you find anything, chuck the canister away and replace it with a new one.
  • Inflate the PFD unit and leave it overnight to see if there are any leaks.

3. Test The Fit Of Your PFD

You don’t just have to check if the PFD is in good shape; you also need to ensure it fits like a glove. The last thing you want is the ill-fitting life jackets slipping off your shoulders when you need them most:

  • Make sure you’re visually inspecting the straps of the PFD and look for fraying straps or broken clasp.
  • Put the life jacket on to see if it is the appropriate size. It shouldn’t be too hard to move around in and shouldn’t be loose or too tight.

Important Considerations When Choosing A PFD

When Should You Discard A PFD

Okay, if you are unfortunate enough to have to get rid of your PFD and replace it with a new one, there are a few considerations you need to consider.

In this section, I will be talking you through foam-based PFDs, but if you want to find out how to choose between inflatable and foam PFD, you should check out this link.

Before I talk about fitting, I want to give you some of the pros and cons of standard foam PFDs:

  • They are very low maintenance; you don’t have much to do other than keeping them out of the sun and cleaning them.
  • You don’t have to worry about inflating them; they are inherently buoyant, making them very easy to use.
  • You can use them for multiple watersports, making them more versatile than life jackets.
  • Most PFDs come with pockets that you can use to store vital equipment that you need to get your hands to quickly.
  • They can get very hot on a warm summer’s day, making you feel uncomfortable.
  • Unless you pay a lot of money, PFDs can be pretty bulky and feel restrictive while you’re paddling.

Now we’ve spoken about a few of the pros and cons in regards to foam PFDs, let’s talk about something you need to think about when it comes to sizing and features:

PFD Sizing And Fitting

One of the biggest considerations you need to take into account is how to get a suitable PFD for your body. To get the right size, you need to measure the circumference of your chest at its broadest point.

But there are a few other things you need to consider:

How To Get The Right Fit For Your PFD:

  • Loosen all the straps on the PFD, put it on, and zip it up.
  • Start at the waist and tighten all the straps; if it comes with shoulder straps, then make sure you tighten them last.
  • Have some pull on the shoulder straps; if it moves past your head or nose, you need to tighten the straps. If it does the same again, you need to look for a smaller size.
  • A correctly fitted PFD should be a snug fit yet allow you to move around freely and not chafe while paddling.

Some Pro Tips For Finding The Right Fit:

  • To help you get the best fit, try to wear the clothes you’ll be paddling in.
  • Mimic the motion you’re going to use when you’re paddling to see if it’s going to chafe when you’re paddling.
  • Try and think about how the PFD will work with the style of seat you have in the kayak.
  • The more straps the PFD has, the more adjustments you can make, making you a better fit.

Foam PFD Features & Specifications 

Once you’ve got the fit right, you need to think about the features you want to see included in your PFD.

Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Personal Floatation Device Features To Look Out For

Colors: You might want to think about the color of your inflatable device; having a bright-colored PFD will help you stand out.

Reflective Tape: Again, this is about adding visibility to you when the light conditions get bad. 

Pockets: Most PFDs will come with pockets on the front, but the placements and sizes of the pockets can vary depending on the brand and model.

Tabs: Having tabs on your PFD is great for attaching extra items like knives, whistles, or torches. Take a look at the locations and number of the tabs to see if it suits your needs.

Ventilation: If you’re paddling in hot locations, you’ll find that you can get hot in PFDs. Check for built-in vents that will allow your body heat to escape.

PFD Specifications To Look Out For

Flotation Weight: This is basically looking at the buoyancy the PFD provides. And this is the amount of force the PFD needs to use in pounds to keep your head above the water.

The average adult needs around 7-12 pounds of flotation to keep their head above the water to stay afloat.

Most PFD providers will provide much more than this, so you don’t have to spend too much time trying to analyze the number.

But one thing you should keep in mind is your weight, body fat, lung size, clothing, and what type of water you’re in will all affect the PFD’s floating abilities.

USCG Classification: The last thing you need to consider is the five categories PFDs are split into. These classifications are determined by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and in this section, I’m going to explain the five types:

  • Type I: These are designed for people taking on rough water where it could take a while to get rescued. You’ll notice that they are very bulky, have extra buoyancy, and usually turn people’s bodies around to keep their heads out of the water.
  • Type II: This grade is intended to help people in calmer inland waters where the chances of being rescued will be quick. They have a more basic design and tend to be less bulky and less expensive. They also turn some people face-up when they are unconscious. 
  • Type III: This class is excellent for paddlers where the chances of rescue can happen quickly. They offer wonderful freedom of movement and can be extremely comfortable on long trips. The one downside is they don’t tip your head back or put you in the face-up position.
  • Type IV: These flotation devices are meant to be thrown at a conscious person in trouble and provide a backup to their PFD. Examples of this would be life rings and buoyant cushions.
  • Type V: These are considered to be specialist devices that are intended for specific activities. You must wear them at all times, and you can find variations of them for kayaking, waterskiing, and other activities.

Even though there are five class types, most kayaks only choose one of two types. And that’s the Type III and the Type V because they tend to be more comfortable for kayaking.

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

Okay, I hope this has helped you understand when you should discard your PFD and when you should think about getting a new one.

Remember, it’s suggested that you get a new PFD after ten years, even if it’s in excellent condition. Over time, the waterproof layer will slowly break down, and the foam will start absorbing water, which ruins the PFD’s buoyancy.

You should also check for any signs of damage on your PFD regularly to ensure it’s in serviceable condition.

And if you want your PFD to last ten years, you need to follow my guide above to help that happen. Poor storage is one of the biggest killers when it comes to PFDs.

For the women out there, you can check out our top five best women PFD for kayaking. You can also check out our buying guide for the best kayak fishing PFD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Inflatable Life Jackets Expire?

The only other thing you need to watch out for is the gas canisters. The gas canisters can expire and jeopardize your safety if they don’t inflate. After ten years of use, you’ll probably have to look for new life jackets.

Do Foam Life Jackets Expire?

Yes, after ten years, you should think about getting a replacement. You’ll also need to make sure you use the correct storing techniques. If you crush the foam in the life vest, it will lower the buoyancy rating and make it harder to stay afloat.

Who Approves PFDs?

The U.S. Coast Guard approves PFDs and ensures they meet a certain standard of buoyancy and construction. They’ll also give the PFD a type, making it easier to identify the type of PFD you need.

What Should You Do With A Ripped Life Jacket?

If you find any tears or rips in your life jacket, you need to dispose of it immediately. The safety equipment is no longer fit for purpose.

Where Should PFDs Be Stored On A Boat?

Any self-respecting boat owner will store a life vest or foam-filled PFDs on their boats. Most of them are stored on the top deck or the bow of the boat. They’ll also be very easily accessible to ensure you can grab them in an emergency.

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Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.