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Essential Gear: The PFD

Alan Bergman – The American Express credit card commercials sternly warn us, “don’t leave home without it”.  The US Coast Guard has their stern warning, too: don’t engage in any kind of boating without it.

It, in the latter example, has many names:  life vest; life jacket; personal flotation device; and, PFD.  And, it has one hugely important purpose . . . keeping you buoyant in the water.  No matter what you call it, the PFD is essential gear to be worn when engaged in kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding.

Traditional PFDs are typically foam-filled, somewhat bulky vests, while inflatable PFDs tends to be lighter, more comfortable and less obtrusive.  There are also now hybrid PFDs, which provide the buoyancy provided by a traditional life vest, coupled with the ease-of-wear inherent in an inflatable PFD.  Which is better?  To quote the US Coast Guard, “The best life jacket is the one you will wear”.

Each type does have its plusses and minuses.  The traditional, vest-type PFD is designed for quick, unexpected immersion.  It has tremendous buoyancy, is ruggedly made and requires virtually no maintenance.  Most of these also have pockets and compartment for storage, and loops for clipping on a whistle, marine band radio, signal flare and other gear. On the negative side, some boaters do find that it limits range-of-motion while paddling.

Inflatable PFDs, whether auto inflatable or manually inflatable, do require maintenance and the CO2 cartridge needs to be replaced after each use.  With manually inflatable PFDs, the wearer must be physically able to engage the inflation, which may or may not be possible in a capsize or boating accident situation.   The advantages of these are the tremendous comfort in warm weather, compact size and light weight.

PFDs should be US Coast Guard approved.  Types I, II and III are most commonly worn by recreational paddlers.  Adult sizes range from small to extra-extra large.  All of this information is typically printed on the inside of the traditional PFD.

A PFD must fit you snugly, yet not restrict your ability to move.  All zippers and fasteners should be engaged.  If a PFD’s color is very faded, chances are that it no longer will provide the buoyancy that it once did, and should not be worn.  Children belong in children-sized PFDS, which are manufactured in four different weight range sizes.  There are PFDs especially made for women, which are shaped to better fit a woman’s contoured body.  Yes, there are even PFDs made for our canine companions, too.

In my own kayak club, members are not allowed to participate in club paddles unless they are wearing a PFD upon hitting the water.  Whether a club member has two years or twenty years of paddling experience, it does not matter . . . a PFD must be worn for all club outings.  Having one in the kayak, but not on, doesn’t cut it. Trying to get into a PFD while in the water is virtually impossible (especially true for a foam-filled PFD).

At Wild Meadow Paddlesports, we include a PFD with every canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental. Don’t leave our store without it!