Paddling from the Beginning – Life Jackets

Now the first thing we have to do is define whether that thing you wear to stay afloat in the water is called a Life Jacket, Life Vest or PFD (Personal Flotation Device.) Well, no we don’t. You can call it whatever you like. One thing is sure, wearing one, whatever it’s called, gives you a much better chance of survival in the water than simply depending on the fates or rescue by human loving dolphins.

I’m going to start out today’s post on life jackets by not mincing words,  quoting stats or kissing up the “don’t tell me what to do” crowd.  Don’t be stupid. Wear a life jacket.  Does wearing a life jacket mean you’ll always be safe?  No.  Not in the least. However by not wearing one the odds of your surviving a long dip in the lake or sea goes way down. All the complaining and indignation in the world won’t keep you afloat and it won’t raise your kids for you when you’re gone.  “I get too hot” is not a justification either. I’ve paddled in the tropics and in temps well over 100f and I won’t accept that you get “too” hot.  Hot? Absolutely. Hot enough not to wear your PFD? No way. Now, I’m not adverse to risk, and we’ll certainly talk about that as this series goes on. I also recognize special circumstances such as rolling practice a foot off the beach where a PFD does seem like overkill. However for normal boating or paddling there is simply no excuse not to wear a life jacket. So with that bit of lecturing out of the way….

Buying Your PFD

I’d like to suggest that the a PFD be the first bit of gear you buy. Usually people buy life jackets as an afterthought; After the kayak, after the totally expensive paddle and often after they’ve spent too much money on extras like supposedly chemical free water bottles and totally cool reflective tape. It’s only when the new kayak endorphins are wearing off and the first effects of buyer’s remorse are causing a twitch above the left eye, that someone says, “Oh, Sh*****, I need a life jacket too!”  By that time they don’t have the patience, or budget to get the right PFD.  Often they end up buying something ill fitting and cheap that won’t stay in place in the water, or rubs their underarms raw after a day’s paddle.  Often that is followed up by a better PFD with little to no pockets. For some that will work out. Others however, will continue down their kayaking path and realize they need places for their stuff… Open water paddlers, and fisherman have lots, and I do mean LOTS of stuff.. They have snacks, and cameras, and radios, and hooks, whistles and mirrors, and on and on…  It’s not un-common to own 3 or 4 vests by the time you’re through, simply because you were not aware where you were going in the sport when you started.  Take the time now to buy the right one.  One that is comfortable, one that fits and one with lots, and lots (and lots) of  lots of pockets.

Very Comfortable Astral Vest. Just 1 big pocket.

Of course there is more to a PFD than just comfort, flotation and lots (and lots) of pockets. Another thing you will want are a few nice attachment points as well. Those are the 2 inch black plastic squares (or diamonds depending on the angle) that you often see sewn on the chest and sometimes the back shoulder of the vest.  One usually holds a knife (we’ll get there..) and the one on the back shoulder holds a safety light. If a vest is super cool, it will have a third attachment point for a watch…

In addition check inside of all those pockets for little loops or “D” rings.  These will allow you to tie off all your gear, so if you drop them in the water they won’t go to the bottom.  Now’s a great time to learn not to trust manufacturer’s labels. Not all that says it will float will, not all that says “waterproof” is.  The point being, that if you just take precautions in the first place you won’t have to sit on the phone complaining about iffy claims later.

Put it On

Life jackets usually go on in one of 3 ways.  You may put it on like a vest and zip or clasp it, you may pull it over your head, then snug it up and another type goes over your head, then zips at the side.. Which is best?  Who knows!!  It’s totally up to you.  I can tell you that the “zip up front” kind tend to be most forgiving of your clothing, and easily adjust if your weight fluctuates a bit.  The “over your head” types tend to cause more fiddling.  Again, however it’s your call.  I can tell you from experience that the “over the head” model does not play well with back-shoulder zipping drysuits.. but that’s a story for another time.

Make It Fit

Once you have your life jacket on, the general concept is to zip and snap it all up, then make adjustments from the bottom, working your way up.  Different PFDs have all sorts of clasps, ties, and zips and may work differently.  However you do it, there are a couple goals.  First, you don’t want your PFD coming off.  (Duh!)  Second you don’t want it to choke you in the water or end up over your face.  So, after you have your vest on and seemingly snugged up, stick your thumbs up under the shoulder straps and lift up (see below). You’re like a 1940’s farmer hitching up your pants by the suspenders!  If your thumbs go up past your ears, pull the vest back down and snug it up again. Lift it again. Better? Keep fiddling until it will stay down under reasonable pressure.   That said, if you are out paddling and find yourself getting winded faster than usual, maybe your life jacket is just a bit too snug. It happens.

Fit is a tricky thing.  It used to be that all PFD companies assumed paddlers were all 6 foot 1 inch tall men with perfect V shaped bodies.  Most of us were lucky to keep a PFD in place. They’ve gotten over it.  Now there are vests for both women and men.. (What? We’re different? Go figure!?), and there are vests for those of us not built like X-Men. You’re lucky to be shopping for a vest these days.  There are so many options out there.   Find what works for you.

Because so many people hate wearing their PFDs, companies have worked on a compromise and now offer a variety of C02 charged PFDs.  In order to make these new PFDs more comfortable they have little or no flotation until they are inflated with a Co2 cartridge.  Some you wear like a normal vest which still gives you use of the pockets such as the SeaO2 by Kokatat. Some are rolled up in waist belts and need to be put on to work such as the West Marine Coastal Manual Inflatable Belt Pack.  Most of these types of PFDs offer little or no flotation until inflated. Just keep in mind what happens if you hit your head or are otherwise incapacitated.  You have to weigh the risks and make your own choices.  Personally I love the fit of my PFD and paddle happily knowing I have flotation the second I hit the water. What’s more, I like knowing I can rest and float to get my head together when dealing with a sudden swim.

Once you’ve purchased your perfect vest, you need to go out to the beach and start playing with it.  (Or finding out why it’s not quite as perfect as it felt in the shop!!) How do you float? How does it carry you in wave conditions?  Does it stay in place when floating or swimming?  Does it  get in the way?  How can you adjust to swimming with it?  If it’s the Co2 type, does it actually inflate?? This is not stuff you want to learn in an emergency, you want to know before you get in trouble.  It’s during this play time that you’ll probably realize the second benefit of a PFD.  It’s not just that it keeps you alive, or that it lets you rest in the water, but it also helps you to retain heat as well. Nice thing here in the great white north..

Later in this series we talk more about all the stuff you want to have in those pockets I suggested.  Over time all these points should come together.

Kokatat MsFit

Lastly the most obvious question..  Do I have a preference?  Yes.  I’ve always loved the MsFit by Kotatat.  The reasons are simple.  First, it’s got the most useful pockets of any vest out there.  Second, it fits my particular body shape.  The vest was originally designed for women, but also fits dairy state designed paddlers as well.   I bought my first MSFit vest right after I started paddling.  Later Kokatat provided me with another MSFit for a trip.. So am I biased?  Dam Straight. :)

So now is a great time to go shopping for a life jacket if you plan to learn to paddle this summer.  You may want to attend Canoecopia in Madison next month.  You’ll be able to talk to the reps and get the Canoecopia discount as well.  Before you know it, you’ll be developing your own biases as well!

Comments? Coaches & “Old Salts”, what are your thoughts on paddling without life jackets?  It there a PFD you like more than others? Why?

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4 Responses

  1. MarcP

    Nice article, and good pics too, Derek.

    I personally have been too hot in high 90’s humid Ontario or Quebec weather in Canada, using water to keep warm. On the West coast, never, so far.

    Would I refrain from using my heavy many-pockets PFD if it’s too hot? Only if conditions warrant. The other option is to wear it loosely (hard with some vests) with a t-shirt stuffed strategically to create a breathing space like some cycling backpacks do.

    The solution for me would be to own one of those sparse WW vests – no pocket space but lots of cooling! Haven’t found one that’s comfortable on my form yet. Darn!

    I’ve successfully used the excuse about ‘what-if and you capsize and sink’, when safety-boating punlic events. Some folks might float without a PFD. Some won’t!

    Also to consider, aging bodies deal less well with heat, so as you become more vulnerable in 60 through 90’s (that’s years, not degrees F), the temptation to remove the PFD increases. A bit of a quandary.

    About 60F here with 15 knot Easterly winds in Victoria, BC. A perfect paddling day.


  2. If you get too hot wearing a PFD, take a look at the Astral V-eight PFD which has a lot of ventilation cut into the foam of the vest. Personally, when it’s hot, I get into the water and submerge my body before getting into my kayak. Evaporative cooling keeps me comfortable. This technique also works well when wearing a drysuit in warm weather. As you dry off and warm up, you can roll to cool off again. If you don’t have a roll, ask to use the bow of someone else’s kayak and practice some hip snaps or bow rescues to cool off. At the very least, you can use a hat or a container of some sort to scoop up water and douse yourself. I have paddled in Florida Alabama, and Louisiana in early September in 90-degree temperatures. I never paddle without a PFD. Ever.

  3. Pingback : Buying a Life Jacket (PFD) | SherriKayaks