Inflatable PFDs offer the best of two worlds—peace of mind without the bulky and restrictive foam flotation of traditional life jackets. An inflatable PFD is a perfect option for some paddlers.
The five low-profile PFDs featured here all use a manual mechanism for inflation. In an emergency, a manually inflating PFD needs a conscious paddler to pull the jerk tab, triggering a CO2 canister to fill the PFD’s bladder with air.
To assess whether a manually inflating PFD is a good fit for you, consider your swimming ability, the likelihood of paddling alone, the water temperature you’re paddling in—water colder than 60˚F can cause cold water shock, rendering a swimmer incapable of inflating his PFD—and how likely you are to fall, due to skill or balance.
Manual vests are not recommended for people who don’t know how to swim or for children under 16, and they must be worn to be legal, rather than being stowed on your board.
1. Khimera | Mustang Survival
$249.99 CAD | www.mustangsurvival.com
The innovative life vest from Mustang Survival blends the security of foam flotation with the sleek profile of inflatable technology. The Khimera offers 20 pounds of dual buoyancy—7.5 pounds from foam, plus an additional 12.5 pounds when the air bladder is inflated.
The front flotation panel hides a manual toggle—pull it in an emergency and inflation cells in the chest and upper back swell. The cells expand under the fabric of the vest, so when it’s inflated the vest looks like a regular, inherently buoyant vest. Adjustable shoulder and waist straps create a slim, body-hugging fit. Also features bright reflective shoulder patches for visibility. Weighs just under two pounds with a 12-gram cylinder.
2. 16G Belt Pack | MTI Adventurewear
$69.95 | www.mtiadventurewear.com
A buckle-it-and-forget-it kind of belt, the ultra-slim 16G Belt Pack from MTI Adventurewear is a top choice for minimalists. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive size; the 16G packs a punch with a whistle included, and a moveable D-ring attachment point for accessories.
In case of an emergency, pull the toggle to inflate the pillow-style bladder, then secure the strap behind your head. The 16G offers more than 16 pounds of inflation thanks to a 16-gram CO2 cylinder and it weighs just over a pound.
3. M-16 | Onyx outdoor
$99.99 | www.onyxoutdoor.com
Onyx’s M-16 is so slim you can put it on and forget it’s even there. The M-16 truly feels like a belt. But pull the jerk tab, and the 16-gram CO2 charge provides 17 pounds of buoyancy, and the oral inflation tube can top you up to 26.5 pounds.
Once activated, a pillow-style bladder emerges from the M-16, with a nylon strap to secure behind the neck. There is no zippered pouch in this ultra-slim package for storage, but you can clasp small items, like keys, to an attached D-ring. The jerk tab clips to the belt, keeping it out of the way but close at hand.
4. Esprit | Salus Marine Wear
$159 CAD | www.salusmarine.com
Salus refers to this burly inflatable as a “paddler ring” rather than a belt, promising to combine comfort and full range of motion with peace of mind in this fanny-pack-style PFD. The Esprit features an accessory pocket with secure zippered closure, an ultra-comfy padded nylon belt, high-vis accent color, and mesh on the front pocket to help the belt drain if it’s immersed.
The foam-filled liner of the belt also helps it float if dropped overboard. A Velcro tab keeps the inflation tab out of the way and secure. When the yoke-style bladder is activated, the Esprit offers 35 pounds of buoyancy and an oral inflation tube allows for top-ups.
5. Ripcord | Level Six
$155 CAD | www.levelsix.com
Level Six’s new inflatable PFD is lightweight and low profile, especially considering the 33 pounds of flotation it offers. The Ripcord weighs just over a pound and uses a 33-gram CO2 cartridge to inflate a yoke-style bladder in just seconds, and it can be inflated further using the blow valve as a backup. The Ripcord features reflective piping and boasts a zippered pocket for stowing small valuables or a couple tasty snack bars.