by Wes Kisting
Listen carefully because I really mean what I’m about to say: If you’re going to paddle a kayak, you must wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD, a.k.a. “lifejacket”) at all times. Period.
Every now and then, I come across a few PFD-lacking fools who complain that PFDs are just too uncomfortable, inconvenient, or restrictive to wear. But even if these complaints were valid (which they aren’t) experienced kayakers would still tell you that a PFD is the single most important piece of gear they own. Of all the “performance” and “safety” gear that you can wear, strap on the deck, or stuff in your hatches, a properly-fitted PFD is by far the most likely item to save your life—but only if you wear it!
Not all PFDs are created equal. While it is true that some PFDs can be bulky, awkward, restrictive, and likely to chafe, paddling-specific PFDs are engineered to minimize or eliminate these problems. At one time, it was difficult to find (or to afford) a good paddling PFD, but thanks to steady growth in kayaking’s popularity, a number of excellent choices are now available on the market at an affordable cost. “Affordable,” of course, is a relative term. You can still expect to spend four or five times what you might spend on a PFD at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, but in return, a paddling-specific PFD will feel ten times more comfortable, fit twice as securely, and last ten times longer.
Features to Look For
Here’s a list of important features to look for when you purchase a PFD:
Put the PFD on and make sure it’s going to hug your torso snugly without riding up or slipping off. Have someone tug upward on the shoulder straps to make sure they can’t pull the PFD up over your head. If the PFD doesn’t fit snugly enough to stay on you in rough water, it doesn’t matter how cool-looking or comfy it might be. Put it back and find one that does fit. Remember, it needs to save your life, not just look and feel good.
Most PFDs will have adjustable straps for varying the tension around the torso area. Make sure the PFD will be adjustable enough to achieve a snug, comfortable fit whether you’re paddling shirtless or wearing three layers of neoprene underneath. Sometimes a PFD feels perfect when you try it on over a T-shirt, but squeezes you like a vice when you put it on over a thick wetsuit and sprayskirt for the first time. If you find a PFD that is sufficiently adjustable, you will be able to wear it comfortably regardless of how many layers you have on.
Wide Arm Holes
The major drawback of many PFDs is the size of the arm openings. A true paddling-specific PFD will have oversized arm holes. Try to find a PFD that has minimal padding and “bulk” around the shoulder and armpit areas; these are the places that you are most likely to chafe while paddling, so the less bulk, the better. Also make sure that there’s not too much padding or bulk around the neckline—the other place you are most likely to chafe. I prefer PFDs that have no flotation or padding anywhere in the shoulder straps because there is virtually nothing to restrict movement or chafe skin.
Neoprene Lining and Trim
Ideally, a paddling-specific PFD will have neoprene lining and trim wherever it makes contact with your skin—particularly in the shoulder and neck areas. Neoprene is semi-elastic and soft, which means it not only feels comfy, but again, reduces chafing. Some companies will use mesh or nylon in the side panels or shoulder straps to save money or enhance breathability, but I recommend spending the extra cash for a PFD with far-superior neoprene trim.
Many PFDs come down all the way to the waistline, but most paddling-specific PFDs are cut slightly higher for three reasons: First, a slightly higher-cut PFD won’t press against your legs and try to ride up, making it more comfortable while sitting for long periods. Second, a higher-cut PFD won’t push down on your sprayskirt as much either, reducing the chances of collecting a puddle of water either on the skirt or on your lap. Third, a higher-cut PFD leaves your lower torso freer to flex, making it much easier to perform the “hip snap” maneuver which is so crucial to a successful eskimo roll. Essentially, if you can wear the PFD comfortably while seated on the floor with your legs extended in front of you (mimicking the seated position in a kayak), it should work well for you. Just make sure the bottom of the PFD doesn’t press against your thighs, or have any strange taper in the front or back that might press awkwardly against your kayak seat or sprayskirt.
Attachment Rings and Pockets
Be sure there is somewhere handy on the PFD where you can attach a plastic safety whistle (for signalling) and a knife or bandage scissors (for cutting yourself free of snags and tangled lines). Some PFDs will have D-rings for this purpose; others may just have small sewn loops or straps. All of these attachment options work fine. Also, make sure there aren’t too many attachments. It’s handy to have one or two, but it’s potentially dangerous to have more than a few. More loops and rings mean more chances to get snagged or hooked on stuff. Another convenient accesory is a small, zippered, self-draining pocket of some kind. Preferably, this pocket will be just large enough to stuff in a small signaling mirror and a pair of noseplugs. It also makes a good place to stash a small bottle of Dramamine if you occasionally suffer from sea-sickness.
Color plays an important role when it comes to safety. Ideally, you should look for a PFD that is brightly-colored and highly visible. Some day you may find yourself in the water, separated from your kayak. If there’s a search-and-rescue team scanning the water to find you, or a distracted power-boater bearing down upon you, you’ll have a far better chance of being spotted wearing a yellow or orange PFD than you will in that sleek, black, super-sexy PFD you’ve been drooling over in the store window. I’m not suggesting that you completely disregard aesthetic appeal (after all, you do have to wear it at all times, and you’ll be far more likely to do so if you feel “sporty” instead of “dorky”), but try to find the brightest “awesome” PFD you can find.
Breathability is a quality which is really subject to personal preference, but you need to consider it if you’re going to be comfortable. I love (and highly recommend) PFDs which a lot of open space in the chest and back areas. Why? Because if it’s sunny and hot, you will sweat less (and chafe less) in open-cut PFDs. Some PFDs on the market are cut wide enough in the arms to avoid chafing, but are still fairly closed in the upper back and chest areas, which can make them feel uncomfortably warm on hot days. With an open-cut PFD, you can always add layers when the weather gets chilly, but the only way to cool down a poorly-vented PFD is to cut holes in it—which I don’t recommend unless you like to sink.
Another option to look for—particularly if you’re a guide leader or if you regularly paddle in challenging conditions—is a rescue-oriented PFD with attachments for a towing belt, rescue line, throw bag, and other rescue accessories. Most PFDs can easily be adapted to retrofit these items if they are not already equipped for this purpose, but it’s something to consider before buying.
A Place to Begin
In case you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by this list of crucial features, let me recommend a good place to begin your quest for the perfect PFD. Take a good look at the Stohlquist “Brik” PFD: extremely adjustable, zero chafing, comfy neoprene side panels and straps, plenty of flotation, a high waistline, just enough attachment points, a convenient mesh pocket, and an open upper back. For comfort, adjustability, performance, and value, I doubt you’ll find a better deal anywhere. It’s my favorite PFD and for around $120, it’s also one of the best values I’ve found. My Brik has already delivered more than five years of reliable, comfortable service—and it’s still in great condition. In my book, that’s money extremely well spent.
by Wes Kisting