One of the most essential pieces of safety gear that persons should wear, at all times, while paddling, is a personal flotation device or PFD. According to the United States Coast Guard, almost 75% of all persons killed in boating incidents drowned. Of those, 84% were not wearing a life jacket. In my opinion, a PFD is NOT optional safety gear, but mandatory. Both Rachel and myself always wear a properly fitted PFD when paddling and I urge all my readers to do the same!
So, what should persons look for when shopping for a PFD for paddling? You should always seek out and work with a paddle sport expert to get "fitted properly" for a PFD. You should also arm yourself with good information before making that trip out to your local outfitter. Here are three basic tips to help an adult paddler make the right choice when shopping for a PFD.
Tip #1: Fit should be snug and tight: Use your chest measurements as a guide. Loosen all the straps and than zip it up. Tighten the straps around the waist first and than the shoulder straps. The fit should be snug and tight. Have another person grasp the PFD by the shoulder and pull up. If the PFD moves above your mouth and nose, try tightening the straps. If the PFD still moves above your mouth and nose, it is too large. Wear clothes you would normally paddle in to get an accurate feel and fit. Sit on the floor, or better sit in a display kayak (if allowed), with a paddle, and mimic a paddle stroke while wearing the PFD. The PFD should feel snug and tight without riding up as you paddle and move.
Tip #2: Designed for paddling: PFDs designed for paddling sports have large arm openings for freedom of movement. Air vents on the sides help your skin to "breathe" and allows air to move and cool your body as you paddle. Reflective tape on the front and rear of the PFD help boaters see you in poor lighting conditions. Choose a bright neon color (yellow, green, orange, or red) for a more visible "you," while you are paddling your low profile kayak during daylight hours. Some PFDs have a plastic lash tab for attaching a paddle leash, so your paddle does not get away from you. Deep front pockets are good for carrying other items such as energy bars, navigation map, safety whistle, multipurpose tool / knife, or a cell phone (in water tight bag).
Tip #3: Use correct PFD type: The United States Coast Guard lists five recreational boating PFD categories. Search out and use Type III and Type V PFDs. These PFDs are commonly used by kayakers.
"TYPE III PFDS / FLOTATION AIDS: For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others. Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue." (Source - USCG)
"TYPE V PFDS / SPECIAL USE DEVICES: Only for special uses or conditions.
See label for limits of use: Hybrid Inflatable PFDs. Canoe/Kayak Vest. Boardsailing Vests. Deck Suits. Work Vests for Commercial Vessels. Commercial Whitewater Vests. Man-Overboard Rescue Devices. Law Enforcement Flotation Devices" (Source - USCG)
Again, PFDs will only work if you wear them at all times while on the water! A properly fitted PFD will fit snug and tight on you, but will be comfortable for long periods of paddling. You will not go wrong by following these three tips when buying a new PFD. Stay safe out there and enjoy your time on the water!