Auto vs Manual Inflate PFD: Which is Best?

When it comes to kayaking, paddling or kayak fishing, safety on the water is a critical concern for all anglers and their families. The number one tool for on the water safety is a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD (Personal Flotation Device). When I first started kayak fishing I didn’t like wearing my PFD and sometimes would take it off while fishing. Over time I realized how dangerous this could be after hearing tragic stories about anglers who were not protected and seeing others dump in the water and need their PFD for assistance. I also realized that I wasn’t wearing my PFD because it was bulky, uncomfortable and was too hot to wear in the summer.

This is where making a change to an inflatable PFD solves many of those problems. As these continue to gain popularity in the kayak angling world, they eternal question (and argument in some cases) is whether to choose an automatic inflate model or a manual inflate. Both have real advantages and reasons for a kayak angler to choose one vs the other.

Automatic Inflatable PFD
Neptune automatic inflatable PFD from MTI
MTI’s Neptune Automatic Inflatable PFD will deploy when immersed in water for added peace of mind.

An automatic inflate PFD is designed to deploy when submerged in water, firing the CO2 cylinder and automatically inflating the air bladder. Simply getting wet from splash or rain will not trigger the C02 cylinder, immersion in the water is required for it to trigger inflation. This option is a better fit for paddling lakes or very slow moving water in a stable kayak where you have very little risk of entering the water or being hit with a big wave.

As a backup system, each inflatable PFD also comes with a manual pull cord which will trigger the CO2 cylinder to inflate. For a great automatic inflate option, check out the MTI Neptune Automatic Inflatable PFD, which weighs only 2.1 pounds and comes in high visibility orange or camo color schemes. Shane Oakes, an avid kayak angler and 2016 Angler of the Year for Western Arkansas Kayak Anglers has used an auto-inflate PFD for a few years. “I chose an inflatable PFD because of comfort, specifically less restricted in movement as well as not being as hot as a conventional life vest,” Shane explained. Why does he use an auto-inflate PFD? He has simple and straightforward reasoning. “I selected an auto-inflate in the event I was hurt in such a way that prevented me from manually activating it.”

Manual Inflatable PFD

A manual inflatable PFD has a straightforward design, you pull the manual cord and it triggers the CO2 cylinder and inflates the vest. This seems to be the most common version of inflatable PFDs used by kayak anglers because of the concern of flipping over and winding up in the water, accidentally triggering inflation. For manual inflatable PFD users, it is key for them to remember when going into the water to reach and pull the manual cord. This could be difficult to do depending on mobility, injury or if you are simply disoriented.  Other than this key difference in how it is deployed, there is little difference in manual vs automatic inflatable PFDs. The MTI Helios 2.0 manual inflatable PFD weighs only 1.6 lbs and provides flotation on demand with its

Helios inflatable PFD from MTI
The Helios 2.0 from MTI inflates with a pull on the “Jerk tag” so you have flexibility when to deploy.

easy access Jerk tag.

Wes Jones, a member of Natural State Kayak Anglers, has used a manual inflatable PFD for three years and chooses an inflatable for comfort. “As a bass fisherman, the majority of our fishing here in Arkansas is in warmer temperatures and an inflatable is so much cooler than a regular PFD,“ Wes explained. “They are also way less bulky and so much easier to move around in. I bought a regular PFD when I got my first yak, wore it one time and haven’t gone back to it since then.”  Wes chose manual because he feels like he is a very confident swimmer and has concerns about the PFD accidentally deploying when he doesn’t need it if he gets too wet.

Both manual and auto inflate versions will also have an oral air tube which allows the wearer to supply additional air to the bladder in the event it fails to fully inflate. This is a higher probability in extremely cold temperatures which may reduce the effectiveness of the initial CO2 inflation. It is important to remember that inflatable PFDs are not recommended for those who cannot swim and not for active watersports such as whitewater paddling, skiing, wakeboarding, or other uses where you may frequently take a spill into the water.

Be Prepared with C02 Backup

If you are using an inflatable PFD, it is a best practice to keep an extra CO2 tube handy just in case you have to re-arm the vest on the go. In a past Razoryak Tournament Trail event at Lake Fort Smith, Arkansas, an angler had a mishap right at take-off and his auto-inflate fired. This could cause a problem for a kayak tournament angler. All reputable kayak fishing tournaments require a functional PFD be worn by anglers at all times while fishing. Veteran tournament director Jeff Malott confirms that an inflatable PFD not properly armed with a working CO2 cylinder would be a problem. He recommends carrying a spare CO2 cylinder or a backup PFD in your kayak storage so you can stay in the game in case of a mishap.

I haven’t decided as of yet whether I’ll be using a manual or automatic inflatable version in tournaments, but I’m leaning toward the automatic for the additional peace of mind and safety. It is easy to rearm if deployed and I just cannot predict the situation when I will need it and know if I can successfully pull the jerk cord. Whether you choose an automatic inflatable PFD or a manual inflate PFD or a more traditional PFD, the important thing is to ensure you are protected on the water while kayak fishing. Always wear a personal flotation device equipped with a whistle when kayaking. If you currently aren’t wearing one because of comfort, take some time to look into an inflatable version from MTI or other manufacturers.

2 thoughts on “Auto vs Manual Inflate PFD: Which is Best?”

  1. I always use an automatic PFD. You never know when you could get knocked unconscious! I just wish they started putting more options for pockets on inflatable life jackets.

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