When Should You Discard a PFD? (The Hidden Danger of Waiting Too Long)

It’s impossible to overstate how important a personal flotation device is–it could literally save your life. Most people buy one, wear it, and never think about getting a new one, which is understandable.

But is it unsafe to continue using the same PFD forever?

Did you know that PFDs degrade over time and eventually need to be replaced?

So: When should you discard a PFD? The general rule is to replace your PFD when it no longer performs as intended.

Does it look like your life jacket is ragged and worn down? You might consider replacing it.

In fact, you may need to replace your PFD every year depending on usage and care.

Understanding the Different Types of Life Jackets

When I was a young man, I made the mistake of boating without a life jacket fairly often and it almost cost me my life. Don’t make the same mistake I did!

Knowing your gear inside and out is a cornerstone of safe boating. And when it comes to PFDs, there’s a variety to choose from, each designed for different circumstances.

Let’s look at the most common types of life jackets: foam life jackets and inflatable PFDs. 

Foam Life Jackets

Foam life jackets are what most people envision when they hear the term “life jacket”. These are constructed from buoyant materials, such as PVC or polyethylene foam.

They’re durable, require minimal maintenance, but make sure to always check their condition before heading out, because the foam in a life jacket can degrade over time.

when should you discard a pfd

Inflatable PFDs

Then we have the ever-popular inflatable PFDs. When deflated, these are less cumbersome and more comfortable to wear than their foam counterparts.

They inflate manually or automatically upon immersion in water, typically via a CO2 gas cartridge. It’s important to replace this cartridge as needed to ensure the PFD’s functionality.

An uninflated PFD offers no buoyancy, so regular inspections (make sure to check the straps!) are super important so you can make sure it will inflate and protect you properly.

When shopping for an inflatable or a foam life jacket, choose one that fits well and is appropriate for kayaking (or whatever water sport you plan on enjoying!). I’ve seen it happen a million times: someone grabs the first PFD they find and buys it without considering if it’s the right type for them or even if it’s still in good condition.

Remember: a poorly chosen or ill-fitting life jacket may not keep you afloat in an emergency. It’s a good idea to test the jacket first to get an idea about its condition and potential life span.

The Lifespan and Maintenance of PFDs

PFDs, like any piece of safety equipment, have a lifespan. “So does that mean I can just check the expiration date?” you ask–well, no, it’s often not that easy, but there are things you can do to determine the exact life expectancy of your PFD.

Consider how often you have or will use the PDF; regular usage will naturally result in more wear and tear. Frequent exposure to elements like saltwater or sunlight will cause degradation. If you’re using your PFD regularly, check for signs of damage before and after each outing.

Always rinse your PFD with fresh water after use, especially if it’s been in salt water. Keep it in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight when not in use.

Avoid storing it under heavy items, which could compress the foam in life vests and diminish its buoyancy over time.

Check the co2 cylinder of your inflatable PFD often and replace it sooner than you think–you can only use them once! And if the co2 cylinder is empty, remember: your life jacket is no longer safe.

No PFD lasts forever. It’s time to get rid of your trusty life jacket when it shows signs of serious wear or damage, or if it doesn’t pass regular inspection and buoyancy tests. Don’t gamble with your safety by using a PFD that’s past its prime.

How an Inflatable PFD Works (Co2 Cylinder Usage in Inflatable Life Jackets)

Inflatable PFDs feature a clever system that makes them exceptionally useful for situations where maximum buoyancy and minimum bulk are required.

A new inflatable jacket is typically fitted with a CO2 cylinder, a small canister containing compressed CO2 gas. In the event of an emergency, the user pulls a cord attached to the life jacket, which activates a CO2 gas cartridge inside the jacket.

The beauty of an inflatable PFD lies in its compactness and versatility. When not in use, it’s unobtrusive and comfortable to wear. Yet, when required, it can provide significant buoyancy to help you float in the water, potentially saving your life.

It’s always important to check your inflatable PFDs for signs of damage. This includes examining the cylinder. You may need to replace parts of your PFD, like the CO2 cylinder, more frequently than the PFD itself. 

When to Replace the Co2 Cylinder in an Inflatable PFD

Knowing when to replace the CO2 cylinder in an inflatable PFD is an important skill that every boater should learn. This CO2 cylinder is a one-time-use item, meaning that once it’s been activated and the jacket has inflated, it can’t be used again. 

And you need to replace the CO2 cylinder in an inflatable PFD if it shows signs of damage or corrosion. Even if the cylinder hasn’t been used, damage or wear can compromise its functionality, making it potentially unreliable in a critical situation.

Always remember, safety first. If there’s any doubt about the cylinder’s condition or if it’s been a while since you replaced it, it’s best to replace it.

When Should You Discard a PFD?

Determining when to discard a PFD is as important as knowing when to replace a CO2 cylinder. Wear and tear from use and exposure to the elements can degrade a PFD over time, which jeopardizes its effectiveness.

Keep a watchful eye for signs that it’s time to discard your PFD. Notable signs include fraying straps, discoloration, or tears in the fabric.

It’s also important to check for buoyancy. If your PFD struggles to keep you afloat, if your PFD has tear, or if you PFD becomes visibly torn or ragged, you need to discard it.

Moreover, any visible waterlogging, mildew, or shrinkage indicates degradation, and it’s best to replace the PFD. Also, check to make sure your life vest (if it’s an inflatable one) inflates properly and holds air as it should.

If you observe any of these signs, don’t hesitate to discard the PFD and get a new one. It’s a small price to pay for a device that could be a lifesaver in the event of an accident. Always prioritize your safety when you’re in the water.

How to Test Your PFD (Personal Flotation Device) for Buoyancy

Testing a life jacket for buoyancy is a lost art, and one you should learn as soon as possible. Here are some steps to test your PFD:

  1. Look for signs of damage, such as if the PFD has a tear, frays, or loose straps. If it passes this initial check, you’re ready to test the buoyancy.
  2. Submerge the life jacket in water, squeezing out as much air as you can. Release it. If it’s in good condition, it should quickly float to the surface.
  3. For inflatable PFDs, inflate them and leave them inflated overnight. If they hold air without any signs of deflation, they’re still buoyant and safe to use.
  4. Try on the PFD and float in the water. It should keep you afloat comfortably without any excessive effort on your part. If you find yourself struggling to stay afloat, it nees to be discarded and replaced.

How to Replace Your PFD

It’s not easy, picking life jackets. To begin, you need to know what to look for in a new life jacket, which stumps many people.

Firstly, select the appropriate type of PFD based on your water activities. Foam life jackets may be more suitable for kayaking, while inflatable PFDs could be preferred for offshore sailing due to their high buoyancy.

(For more information on Type IV PFDs, check out our article “What Is the Main Advantage of a Type IV PFD?”)

Once you’ve decided on the type, look for a life jacket that fits snugly. It should be comfortable; it shouldn’t ride up or obstruct your movements.

Consider the weight capacity. It should support your weight comfortably while keeping you afloat.

Check for US Coast Guard approval, which ensures that the PFD meets safety standards. And consider a jacket with bright, visible colors to increase your visibility in the water.

After purchasing a new PFD, familiarize yourself with its features and adjustments. And, remember, replace it with a new one as soon as it shows signs of wear and tear.

Always Wear a PFD

There I was, twenty-two and convinced I was invincible, paddling my dad’s kayak in the Lower Saranac alone, when a sudden storm knocked me off my boat and into the water. Was I wearing a PFD?


Did I nearly drown?


Even seasoned swimmers like me can find themselves in a predicament when faced with unexpected water conditions. That’s why it’s necessary to always wear a PFD while aboard any boat. 

For starters, wearing your PFD means that you’re always prepared. Accidents occur swiftly, and there may not be enough time to don a life jacket during an emergency.

PFDs are designed to keep you afloat without any effort on your part. Whether you’re conscious or unconscious, a properly fitted life jacket will turn most unconscious individuals face-up in the water.


The sea may compel us to boat, but she is also a force to be reckoned with. The key to enjoying the sea’s treasures while staying safe on the water is respecting its power and outfitting yourself with a reliable PFD.

Both foam life vests and inflatable PFDs break down over time. Regular maintenance, including checking for wear and tear, testing the CO2 cylinder, and confirming buoyancy are really important. If you notice signs of damage or reduced performance, it’s time to replace your life jacket.

A well-maintained PFD doesn’t just give you the confidence to venture into the water; it might one day save your life.

As lovers of the sea, we should make the phrase “Safety First” our mantra. Because a sea adventure is most enjoyed when we know we’ve done our part to keep danger at bay. It’s important to replace your PFD when the time comes so that every sea voyage is as safe as it is exciting.

When should you discard a PFD?

When it is no longer in good condition or is damaged beyond repair. It is important to regularly check your PFD for any tears or signs of wear and tear.

What type of PFD should I wear for buoyancy?

This depends on your activity and the conditions you will be paddling in. There are different types of PFDs designed for different water activities, such as boating, kayaking, or fishing.

How long should I keep my PFD?

There is no specific time limit for how long you should keep your PFD–it depends on the usage and condition of the PFD. It is recommended to replace your PFD every few years to guarantee it is in good working condition.

What is the hidden danger of waiting too long to discard and replace a PFD?

Well, it may no longer provide the expected buoyancy and safety you need during an emergency. This can put your life at risk while you’re spending time on the water.

What should I do if my PFD has a tear?

Replace it with a new one. A tear can compromise the buoyancy and effectiveness of the PFD.

How often should I test the life jacket?

At least once per year. First submerge it in water and make sure it floats; if it does, test it on your body in relatively shallow water to test its buoyancy. 

What should I do if my PFD keeps deflating while in the water?

If your PFD keeps deflating while in the water, it may have a leak or a faulty valve. In such cases, it is best to replace the PFD and so that you have a reliable and functioning one before going back in the water.

How long should I keep my PFD?

There is no specific time limit for how long you should keep your PFD–it depends on the usage and condition of the PFD. It is recommended to replace your PFD every few years to guarantee it is in good working condition.

Image Credits

Photo 1 by Miguel A Amutio
Photo 2 by Felix Serre
Photo 3 by Florida Fish and Wildlife

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