Setting up a PFD for Small Boat Sailing

Setting up a PFD for Small Boat Sailing

Posted by Alan Stewart on Apr 19th 2020

Everything below means nothing unless you wear your PFD AT ALL TIMES! If you’re in a Watertribe event such as the Everglades Challenge then it is required but everyone should be wearing a well equipped PFD anytime they are on the water. Being an expert in your craft means having the right equipment in the right places. Take pride in setting up your PFD with good equipment and know how to use it. Practice self rescues with your PFD and all gear in place. 

Here is a link to the Watertribe required equipment list. Note that not everything I wear is required but I still consider it to be the minimum essentials for what I do. The way I've set up my PFD won't necessarily work well for you in your boat. Maybe you just don't like handheld GPSs or have other equipment you deem essential. Paddlers have to think about range of motion more than sailors, all of these are factors to consider when setting your PFD up for your boat. 

Choosing a PFD

It should have many pockets while not being too bulky. Self inflating pfds are not for expedition use on small boats in my opinion because the chances of them failing or inflating when not desired is too high. Additionally they are expensive and cannot carry anything.

My favorite is the Misfit or now called the Bahia Model by Kokatat. It has two large zip pockets on either side, a tall pocket for a handheld GPS and a knife attachment point.

What should you carry on your PFD at all times….

PLB (personal locator beacon)

This is number 1. Buy one when it’s on sale, borrow one from a friend. Just HAVE ONE.

I have a ACR res-q-link which has a now updated model. This is probably the most important piece of gear you could add to a PFD.


Should be operable with one hand. Not carried in a pocket. PFD whitewater river knives are plentiful online. These are secure and work well. They rust over time and should be replaced or sharpened every couple of years. You can get more exotic alloys but they start to really cost.


No moving parts. I carry this one. It works well.

Strobe Light (shoulder mounted in a one-hand accessible location)

I have this one. It is simple. Beware ones that are automatically water activated unless they have a setting. My Dad had one of these this year in the EC and malfunctioned and it was just constantly turning itself on! Eventually we just had to put it in a box for the rest of the trip.

VHF Radio

On a small boat, especially an open cockpit boat it does not make any sense to have a fixed VHF radio. Therefore it should be hand held and it should be readily accessible at all times so that you don't have to search for it. It should be attached to your PFD and preferably if sailing with crew, both members should have one. It should be submersible and we prefer ones that have an alkaline battery tray so you can replace batteries rather than waiting for them to charge.

While the Icom M88 that I have in the video seems discontinued this radio is one that we have purchased recently. It includes a battery tray that can hold alkaline batteries as well as a lithium battery rechargeable pack and it also has GPS location transmit technology. Be sure to read the instructions before you need it! This is a good choice for a handheld VHF.

Additional suggested items for Small boat cruising:

-Leatherman Wave

-Electrical tape


-Spare cord

Optional add-ons for expedition cruising or if you plan to be sailing at night.

PFD Backpack/Hydration pack

While paddlers often use a hydration pack attached to their PFD or under their seat, the pack part of the hydration pack comes in very handy for storing a hypothermia kit on your person. I consider this just a good idea for watertirbe (expedition) use. This is close to what I have on my PFD but a small pack would be easy enough to make yourself rather than buying this however this is a ready to use solution. Hydration pack for PFD

Hypothermia kit (inside PFD “backpack”)

-Small drybag with (swim cap, survival blanket, chemical heat packs, storm proof matches, firestarter)

-Spare cord for lashing/repairs

-Zip ties

-2 Orion skyblazer singal flares

Our Favorite lights

Not necessarily PFD related but nonetheless important on a small boat. These are my 2 current favorite lights.

-Headlamp: UK Vizion AAA headlamp

-Small handheld spotlight single AA: Ultrafire spotlight