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When it comes to boating, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are an essential safety measure.

But what causes a PFD to wear out over time? Do life jackets expire? What should you do if a PFD has a tear in the outer fabric? When should you discard your PFD altogether?

These questions can be answered with knowledge of how to properly care for your PFD so that it lasts many years of use.

In this blog post, we’ll cover the various reasons why PFDs wear out over time and provide tips on proper maintenance techniques. Read on to learn if your old life jacket still has what it takes or if it should be replaced.

What Causes a PFD to Wear Out Over Time?

A group of people wearing PFDs rafting on a whitewater river.

PFDs, or personal flotation devices, are essential for any outdoor enthusiast who plans to spend time on the water. However, these life-saving pieces of equipment don’t last forever. They need to be properly cared for to extend their usefulness.

Knowing what causes a PFD to wear out over time provides you with the knowledge to protect your device. This will provide you with a safer experience while enjoying your favorite watersport activities.

Here are some common reasons why a PFD may wear out over time:

Sun Exposure

One of the most common causes of PFD deterioration is sun exposure. UV rays from the sun can cause fabric and other materials used in PFD construction to break down and become brittle over time, leading to rips and tears as well as fading colors.

To protect your PFD from sun damage, store it away from direct sunlight when not in use.

Additionally, periodically applying UV-protective spray to your life jacket will help extend its life span.

High Temperatures

High temperatures can weaken PFD fabrics by causing them to shrink or warp due to excessive heat exposure.

Keep your PFD away from direct sunlight and other sources of high heat such as radiators or hot car trunks during storage periods between uses.

Mold and Mildew

Moisture and humidity from improper care and storage can cause mold growth on the fabric which weakens a life jacket over time.

After each use, rinse off the PFD with fresh water and hang it up away from direct sunlight to dry completely before storing away in an area with good air circulation.

These measures will help prevent mold and mildew growth as well as odors from developing due to trapped moisture inside the fabric layers.

Chemical Exposure

Chemical exposure is another factor that will wear out a PFD prematurely. Life jackets are commonly exposed to:

  • Cleaning products that have corrosive properties can damage fabrics used in life jackets making them more susceptible to damage. Avoid using harsh chemical cleaners on your jacket. Mild soap should do just fine!
  • Chemicals such as gasoline and its fumes or motor oil can quickly degrade fabrics if left untreated.
  • Sunblock can discolor fabrics and the oil in sunblock can damage PFD materials.
  • DEET in bug sprays can also damage your PFD. Consider using repellants with permethrin instead.

DEET Alternative: Consider using Sawyer Permethrin Fabric Treatment for your PFD to protect against mosquitoes and ticks for up to 6 weeks, and Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellant for your skin.

Saltwater Exposure

Saltwater exposure has corrosive properties that can weaken metal parts like buckles and prematurely deteriorate fabrics used in many types of life jackets.

After each use of your PFD in saltwater environments, thoroughly rinse it off with fresh water and hang it up to dry in an area with good circulation away from direct sunlight and salty air.

Physical Wear and Tear

Physical wear and tear caused by regular use majorly affect the lifespan of a PFD. It is important to inspect your PFD regularly for any signs of wear and tear so you can take steps towards repairing them before they become too large or dangerous.

Normal Wear and Tear

Normal wear and tear occur naturally regardless of how well a PFD is taken care of. Expect a gradual decrease in its condition over time.

The lifespan of a PFD is largely determined by usage intensity factors like wear from paddling or fishing activities or tears and damage caused by sharp objects like rocks, sticks, fish hooks, etc.

Zippers are one of the weakest points of a PFD. Like all zippers, they are prone to failure under stress.

Inspect zippers regularly for signs of damage, make sure they move freely without sticking and lubricate occasionally with a non-toxic, biodegradable lubricant.

Excessive Use

Excessive use, overloading pockets, and improperly adjusting your PFD all put an extra strain on all parts associated with life jackets including the fabric, seams, zippers, straps, and buckles of your PFD. This will lead to a shortened lifespan even when proper maintenance practices are followed.

Improper Maintenance and Storage

Improper maintenance and storage of a PFD including a throwable type IV PFD may cause it to expire or need replacement sooner than expected. Let’s look at common maintenance and storage errors.

  • Using improper cleaning techniques such as using harsh detergents that prematurely break down the PFD’s materials.
  • Storing a PFD while wet and not allowing enough air circulation promotes mold growth which shortens a PFDs lifespan.
  • Poor-fitting and improperly adjusted straps will put extra strain on certain areas which will prematurely wear out a PFD.
  • Unnecessary exposure to UV rays.
  • Exposure to chemicals that can damage the materials of the PFD. This includes sunscreen and bug spray.
  • Periodically apply Gear Aid Zipper Lubricant. It provides UV protection for plastic and nylon zippers and prevents your zipper from getting stuck by repelling dirt, sand, and other debris. It also provides protection from salt, rust, and corrosion.
  • Failing to periodically inspect and repair fabric tears, fraying straps or webbing, and broken buckles, zippers, and snaps will also shorten the life of a PFD.

Some forms of deterioration can’t be avoided. Others can be deferred with a little TLC. Next, we’ll look at ways to properly care for your PFD.

How to Care for Your PFD Properly?

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are essential pieces of safety equipment for any outdoor enthusiast. Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, fishing, skiing, or boating, having a PFD can save your life in an emergency situation.

To ensure that your PFD remains effective and reliable over time, it is important to take proper care of it.

Cleaning and Drying Instructions

After each use, rinse off the PFD with fresh water and hang it up to dry completely before storing away.

This will help prevent mold growth as well as odors from developing due to trapped moisture inside the fabric layers.

If necessary, you can spot clean stubborn stains with mild soap and warm water using a soft brush or cloth.

Do not use harsh detergents or bleach as these may damage the material.

Storage Tips

When not in use for extended periods such as winter months when boating activities slow down, store your PFD in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight to prevent UV fading of fabrics and mold growth.

It is also best to keep them away from chemical fumes like gasoline which can cause deterioration over time.

Periodic Inspection

Check PFDs regularly for signs of wear and tear such as fraying straps, loose buckles, and sticking zippers that may need replacing before failure while out on the water where they are needed most.

Check all seams along stitching lines for weak spots caused by repeated stress which could lead to tearing apart under pressure at some point.

If the waterproofing of your PFD needs to be revived, it can be treated with Revivex Instant Water Repellent from Gear Aid.

Additionally, PFDs won’t float if they become waterlogged. Periodically check for buoyancy.

Next, we’ll discuss what to do about tears in the outer fabric of a PFD.

What Should You Do If a PFD Has a Tear in the Outer Fabric?

If you find that your personal flotation device (PFD) has a tear in the outer fabric, it is important to assess the damage and decide whether to repair or replace it. Depending on the severity of the tear, there are several options available for restoring your PFD.

Minor PFD Fabric Tears

For minor fabric tears, patching techniques can be used to restore its integrity. This may involve using an adhesive patch kit specifically designed for the fabric of your PFD. If this isn’t available, then a piece of heavy-duty fabric tape such as gaffer’s tape can also be used as a temporary fix until you can get a proper repair done.

Note: Unlike duct tape, gaffer’s tape can easily be removed without causing damage or leaving adhesive residue.

Major PFD Fabric Tears

In cases where major tears have occurred, professional repairs should be sought out from qualified technicians who specialize in PFDs and other water safety equipment. These professionals will use specialized tools and materials to ensure that any necessary repairs are made properly so that your PFD is restored back to its original condition with no future issues arising from the tear.

It is my personal preference to replace a PFD with a repair that requires professional attention. I’d rather put my money into a new one than make an expensive repair.

When it comes to a tear in the outer fabric of your PFD, you should always assess the damage and decide whether to repair or replace it. In the next two sections, we’ll discuss when you should discard a PFD and what disposal options are available for unusable ones.

Do Life Jackets Expire?

Life jackets, also known as personal flotation devices (PFDs), do not have an official expiration date. Although they are designed to be durable and long-lasting, PFDs wear out over time due to sun exposure, chemical exposure, and physical wear and tear.

Occasionally manufacturer recalls occur. If your PFD has been recalled, consider it expired and follow the instructions of the product’s manufacturer.

Next, let’s look at when a life jacket should be replaced or discarded for safety reasons.

When Should You Discard a PFD?

My Kokatat PFD with the Fox 40 Sharx. The slip resistant covering of the Sharx safety whistle is perfect for use on the water.

When it comes to personal flotation devices (PFDs), knowing when to discard them is an important part of safety. PFDs are designed to keep you afloat in the event of a water emergency, but they can wear out over time and become less effective. Knowing when it’s time to replace your PFD will help ensure that you stay safe on the water.

Age and Usage Considerations

The age and usage of a PFD should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not it needs replacing.

Manufacturer Guidelines: Each manufacturer has its own guidelines regarding the lifespan of their products. Generally speaking, most manufacturers recommend replacing your life jacket every five years if used regularly, or sooner if there is visible damage or deterioration.

If a PFD is well maintained and stored properly between uses, some may last longer than five years before needing replacement; however, this varies depending on the quality of the product and how often it is used.

It’s best practice to check the PFD’s recommended lifespan before using it after extended storage periods.

Signs of Deterioration or Damage

It is important to inspect your PFD periodically for signs of deterioration or damage such as:

  • Rips in the fabric
  • Worn-out stitching along seams
  • Faded colors from prolonged sun exposure
  • Discoloration from chemicals like sunscreen or bug spray
  • Fraying straps and webbing
  • Broken buckles, D-rings, zippers, or snaps
  • Cracked foam material
  • Mold and mildew growth

Any visible signs like these could indicate that your life jacket has reached its expiration date and should be replaced for safety reasons.

When checking for signs of damage, be sure to pay special attention to the D-ring, loop, or other connector where you have secured your safety whistle. You want it securely attached in case of emergency. For more on safety whistles, check out Safety Whistles For Outdoor Emergency Preparedness.

Extend the Life of Your PFD: Many companies will offer replacement parts so you can extend the life of your PFD without having to buy an entirely new one.

When selecting a replacement life jacket, make sure you choose one with features that meet your needs. Consider adjustable straps for comfortability while wearing it in the water, bright colors for visibility, and pockets where you can store small items like keys or wallets securely while paddling around.

Additionally, look at what type of materials were used during construction as some fabrics are more durable than others which could increase its longevity significantly depending on how often it is being used outdoors.

Disposal Options For Unusable PFDs

When disposing of an unusable PFD, make sure to:

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Recycle when possible
  • Donate old life jackets that still have life to local organizations in need

It is important to pay attention to the age and condition of your PFD in order to ensure its effectiveness. Knowing when it’s time to discard a PFD can help you stay safe on the water, so be sure to follow these guidelines for proper care and maintenance. Next, we’ll discuss what you should do if your PFD has a tear in its outer fabric.


Kayaker keeping warm in frigid water temperatures by wearing a drysuit.

It is important to understand what causes a PFD to wear out over time in order to properly care for your life jacket and ensure its longevity.

Taking a few simple steps to maintain, care for, and repair your PFD can extend its lifespan and ensure your protection while kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, fishing, boating, and more.

A woman wearing a PFD paddling in the front of a tandem kayak on a beautiful lake at the base of a mountain range. The graphic asks, "What Causes a PFD to Wear Out?"
Steve Hood

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