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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Most Necessary Accessory

Finding the Perfect PFD—for You

By Tamia Nelson

April 22, 2008

Canoe Country rivers are now swollen with snowmelt, and the ice on the big lakes is breaking up. Buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, and mergansers are flying in every day, while chickadees are practicing their “fee-bee” song for hours at a stretch. And there’s another sign that the paddling season is getting under way: folks who’ve never canoed or kayaked before are visiting outfitters and looking at boats. That’s a good thing. But it’s also a case of misplaced priorities. A boat is important, to be sure, but it’s not the best first purchase for a would-be paddler. This distinction belongs to the not-so-humble life vest, aka Personal Flotation Device (mercifully abbreviated to PFD). You can rent or borrow a boat and still have a good time, but it’s mighty hard to enjoy yourself if your PFD doesn’t fit. So buy it before you buy anything else. Or are you thinking about doing without a PFD altogether? Bad idea! Paddling without a PFD is asking for trouble. It can even get you a ticket.

Of course, novices aren’t the only folks in the market for a PFD. Old hands have to go shopping now and then, too. Take me, for example. My life vest is looking pretty threadbare, and I figure it’s high time I had a new spring outfit. But where do I start? It’s been years since I last bought a PFD, and there are a lot more to choose from this time around. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have choices, but only up to a point. Too much choice can be overwhelming, even for an old hand. Novice, veteran, or in-between, it makes no difference. We’re in the same boat here.

A Horse’s CollarIt wasn’t always like this. When I first picked up a paddle, the only PFDs I ever saw other canoeists wearing were Type II “horse collars” (see the picture at right). And I didn’t see many of these. Why? That’s easy. Those horse collars were just about as comfortable as the name implies. You don’t find many of them on the water today, though. Nowadays, most paddlers opt for what the US Coast Guard calls “Type III Flotation Aids.” (Hot shots, big-water boaters, and EMTs will probably opt for specialty Type V PFDs, but these guys don’t need advice from me.) Type IIIs have to provide at least 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, and while they can’t be depended on to turn an unconscious person face-up in the water, they’re a lot easier to paddle in than the horse collars ever were. Since a PFD won’t do you much good if you’re not wearing it, this is a very big plus.

Conclusion? When you shop for a PFD, comfort is king. And that means Job One is…

Getting a Good Fit

This isn’t rocket science, is it? If your PFD doesn’t fit, it won’t be comfortable. If it’s not comfortable, you’ll be tempted to toss it in the bow of your boat rather than wearing it. And if you don’t wear it, it can’t keep your head above water if (make that when) you dump. Where fit is concerned, there’s only one choice. A PFD either fits perfectly or you need to keep looking. Chafing and binding are obvious no-nos. Paddling is an active sport. A little chafe that you notice in the store—under your arms, say, or around your neck—means a lot of misery on the water. Depend on it. To make matters worse, a PFD isn’t like a sweater. You can’t always solve a fit problem by buying the next size up. If your PFD is too loose, it will float high in the water while your head sinks down. Not good. So think comfy and snug. A warning: This can be a mighty hard target to hit.

Shop accordingly. Begin by narrowing the field. The search for comfort starts with getting the right sort of PFD for the paddling you do. Not all Type IIIs are the same. Ditto for all paddlers. If your idea of a good time is canoeing backcountry beaver ponds and listening to birds while you tempt shy brookies with a dry fly, your needs will be worlds away from those of a gonzo, rock-dodging creekboater or a coastwise kayaker hellbent on dancing with seals. Or maybe you’re just planning to take the grandkids out on your sit-on-top for an hour or two. No problem. Different strokes for different folks, right?

Floating HighFortunately, choices abound. One of the most versatile Type IIIs is also one of the oldest: the segmented, skirted vest, like the Extrasport Hi-Float in the picture. Wear the skirt down when you’re in your canoe, up when you’re in your kayak. The cinch-tabs and waist strap help you get a good fit. Sometimes, anyway. Not everyone succeeds. Paddlers with short torsos or big bellies may find these vests riding up in the water. And the double layer of foam often comes at just the wrong place for kayakers whose boats have molded seats. The moral of the story? If it fits, it fits. Lucky you. But if it doesn’t, look elsewhere.

The Wearing of the GreenLike here, for example. Another veteran design, this vest is also segmented, but it has no skirt. It’s soft and comfortable, and that’s good. But it doesn’t have any cinch straps under the arms. That’s bad. Unless you find the perfect fit, it’s likely to ride up. Bottom line? As I discovered early in my paddling career, this is not a vest for big water. Nor is it suitable for non-swimmers—in any water.

Newer designs are more form fitting, and they offer a much wider range of adjustments. Take the Stohlquist BetSEA, for instance:

A Good BetSEA

A thoroughly modern vest, the BetSEA has adjustable side, waist, and shoulder straps (plus a “unique cross-chest cinch strap”). It also has a zippered pocket, reflective strips, and a knife tab. Designed for women, the BetSEA is short-waisted, with hand-beveled foam cups that Stohlquist claims “wrap rather than crush.” And it works. For some women, anyway. But not for me, I’m sorry to say.

This brings up a critical point. Just how important is sex, anyway? (Remember that we’re talking about PFDs here.) “Women’s” vests are proliferating, but is there any reason why a woman shouldn’t wear a man’s vest, if it fits? No. None whatsoever. If it fits. Or why a man shouldn’t wear a woman’s vest? No again. If it fits. A case in point is the Kokatat MsFIT® Tour:

A Great 'FIT

Although advertised as a woman’s vest, a quick scan of’s Product Reviews will show that the MsFIT (I love bad puns!) Tour fits a lot of short-waisted men, too. Conclusion? It’s nice to have choices. And it’s wonderful that manufacturers now recognize that women are anatomically different from men. But when it comes to choosing a PFD, sex isn’t everything. Actual fit matters much more. Fit. We’re getting back to that at last. First, though, a quick peak behind the scenes:

Backsides Up

Well, sort of. Behind the vest, anyway. When narrowing down your choices, don’t forget to look at the back of any vest that catches your eye. Here you see the backsides of the BetSEA (left) and MsFIT Tour (right). Note the reflective strips and (on the MsFIT only) the tab for a strobe. Both are very good things to have on your vest whenever you paddle in traffic. Bright colors help, too, though paddlers who stick to remote beaver ponds may prefer subdued shades, particularly if they’re also anglers.


OK. Got your short list of candidates in hand? Then it’s time to…

Go Shopping!

The rules are simple. Fit comes first. So when you try on a PFD, dress like you will on the water. And be sure to adjust all the straps, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Or if no instructions are available, start by snugging up at the waist and working your way north from there: waist, zip, sides, shoulders. Then go through all your moves—in a boat if possible, on the outfitter’s floor if not. Sit (or kneel), twist, bend, drive, switch… Tug up on the PFD’s shoulder straps. Again. Harder! Imagine that you’re in the water and your vest is trying escape over your head. It can’t? Good. Now go back to twisting, bending, and driving an imaginary paddle through invisible waves. If you keep at it long enough to work up a sweat, and if the PFD stays put through the whole performance without so much as a hint of chafe anywhere, you may have found yourself a winner.

The real proof only comes on (and in) the water, of course. Which is why borrowing a friend’s vest or buying from an outfitter with a no-questions-asked returns policy is a very good idea. And then there’s the question of cost. PFDs aren’t cheap, and useful extras like pockets, lash tabs, and cinch-straps all add to the price. (The MsFIT is nearly twice as expensive as the BetSEA, for instance. Both are very well made, but the MsFIT has more pockets and tabs.) Still, there are good vests to be found at every price point. Comfort is key and fit is king. Everything else is negotiable. If the price still stings, remember this: when you need a PFD in a hard chance, you really need it. Dollars don’t count for much then.

Whether you’re brand new to paddling or an old hand with many miles under your keel, you have to have a PFD. And there’s never been a better time to buy one, either. Be warned, though: it won’t be simple. Getting a good fit is Job One, but it’s not always an easy job. So don’t delay. Do your homework. Take your time. Somewhere out there is the perfect PFD—for you. It’s worth whatever effort it takes to find it. In fact, you could say it’s a matter of life and death, couldn’t you? I think so.

Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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