PFD Rules and Regulations in Canada

November 28, 2023

Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs, otherwise known as life jackets, are key to safety when boating or near water. But just taking your PFD with you to the beach or on a boat isn’t going to keep you safe: you have to wear it! And, you have to wear an approved model that is right for your size, age, swimming ability and activity. 

What is a PFD?

A PFD is a vest, or sometimes a suit, that is worn by any person on, in or near the water to prevent them from drowning. Most PFDs are flotation devices that you can wear, such as life vests, however there are also some approved throwable PFDs.

When do you have to wear a PFD?

The Canadian Red Cross states that wearing a life jacket could eliminate almost 90% of all boating-related drownings. 

More than 500 people in Canada drown every year, and many of these people were not wearing a PFD, or not wearing one correctly, at the time of their death.

While Canadian law does not enforce wearing a life jacket on a boat or when in or near water, you are required by law to have one nearby that is easy to access. You need an appropriate, approved life jacket for each person on board a boat.

pfd rules in canada

Not wearing a life jacket or PFD greatly increases your risk of drowning, even near the shore or in shallow water, and especially while boating under the influence (which is illegal). Even strong swimmers need to wear a life jacket to increase their chances of surviving adverse or unexpected circumstances.

While it is legally permitted not to wear a life jacket, you could save your life by keeping it on. And laws do change, so it’s important to keep up to date. As of the publication of this article, provincial legislation in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada is being revised, and it is possible that wearing a life jacket may become obligatory in the near future. 

Why wear a PFD?

A properly worn life jacket is essential safety equipment for anyone heading out on a boat. It will keep a person on the surface of the water even if the wearer is injured or unconscious, will reduce the initial impact of falling into water and prevent cold water shock, and can help them reach safety or stay afloat until they are rescued. Even strong swimmers should wear a PFD when boating or performing any type of water activity, including water skiing, windsurfing or operating a PWC.

Which PFDs are approved for use in Canada?

All life jackets and PFDs used for boating on Canadian waters must be approved by one of the following organisations:

If a PFD is approved by Transport Canada it will be indicated on a tag on the inside of the life jacket. There will also be a Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) number on the same tag. Newer labels on PFDs may have updated symbols and categories of use, but older PFDs are still usable, as long as they are in good working condition. 

Life jacket labels do not include an expiration date, however you should use good judgement. If the jacket is sagging, ripped, missing straps, or damaged in any other way, it should be discarded. Always test a PFD in shallow water before taking it out on a boat. 

Note that commercial and fishing vessels have specific rules and regulations related to approved PFDs, which may differ from those applicable to recreational boating and swimming.

PFD and life jacket types

Technically, a PFD and a life jacket are not the same thing, however the terms are often used synonymously. 

There are three types of life jackets approved for use in Canada:

  • SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea): These life jackets are approved for use on all types of vessels. Available in both foam and inflatable models, these will keep your head above water. They come in models for wearers over 70 lbs and under 70 lbs (32 kgs).  
  • Standard life jackets: Approved for all vessels except SOLAS vessels. These will also keep your face out of the water and come in models for wearers over 88 lbs and under 88 lbs (40 kgs).
  • Small vessel life jackets: These are approved for small vessels only, as they are less buoyant than standard life jackets. They will also turn an unconscious wearer onto their back, but more slowly, and they come in two models: keyhole and vest. They are available in three sizes: over 90 lbs (41 kgs), between 40lbs (18 kgs) and 90 lbs 41 kgs), and less than 40 lbs (18kgs).

NBSS Canada - PFD Types for Use in Canada Infographic

PFDs are approved for use in Canada for recreational boating and watersports. They are available in a variety of styles, including:

  • Foam-filled: These PFDs offer less flotation than life jackets, have limited turning capacity, but are smaller and less bulky so can be a comfortable alternative for strong swimmers. Available in a variety of styles and colours. 
  • Inflatable: Inflatable PFDs can either be manually inflated, or will inflate automatically when immersed in water using a carbon dioxide (CO2) cartridge. This type is only approved for wearers over 16 years of age who weigh more than 80 lbs (36 kgs), and can never be used while white-water paddling or operating or riding on a PWC.

Children’s PFDs and life jackets must meet additional safety standards to be acceptable:

  • Children must wear an appropriate size and style based on their weight: the child wearing the device must weigh at least 9 kgs (20 lbs). Children cannot wear adult PFDs or life jackets.
  • The device should have a large collar to support the head, and a safety strap that goes between their legs. 

To learn more, read our article about how to choose a life jacket.

Get your boating license with NBSS

Staying safe is essential if you want to enjoy the water. Always wear a PFD that meets federal safety standards, and be sure that it is in good condition and that you are wearing it properly.

Responsible boating involves learning the rules and finding out what type of lifesaving and safety equipment you need on board, from fire extinguishers to reboarding devices and everything in between. 

If you operate a power-driven boat in Canada, you also need proof of competency. Get your license now with the National Boating Safety School. You can follow our accredited boating safety course and take the exam online. Get your Pleasure Craft Operator Card in time to enjoy the next boating season with confidence! Contact us anytime for more information.

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