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Buying a properly fitting PFD is probably the most important purchase of all. After all, this is one piece of gear that can literally save your life. It is required to have in your possession whenever you go out on the water. The US and Canadian coast guards take this requirement very seriously (they will impound your boat and its contents if rules aren't followed).
The US and Canadian Coast Guards classify PFDs into 5 different categories. The most appropriate category for canoeing is the TYPE III PFD. These are vest style life preservers that are designed to float an unconscious wearer face up in the water. The vest style means added security in the fit of the PFD on the paddler. When properly secured it is highly unlikely that the PFD can come off of the paddler.
Cushions and throwable PFDs should not be relied upon as canoeing PFDs. A cushion can provide a padded seat for a passenger but that passenger should be wearing a Type III lifejacket as well. Cushions can be very easily torn away from a swimmer’s grasp in current or wind or waves and the handles of the cushions also pose a hazard of getting snagged on river obstructions which could trap both swimmer and cushion in a nasty situation.
When shopping for a PFD, make sure it is UL (United States) or ULC (Canada) approved. Interior labels will show the UL label mark and attest to the PFD’s approval. For a PFD to acquire UL approval is an arduous process that encompasses the design of the PFD, the materials (down to the thread used), and the assembly techniques. All aspects of the PFD must meet strict standards. Design standards address details such as the amount of foam and the placement thereof to ensure that the PFD will orient the wearer properly in the water and has enough buoyancy to support the wearer. In water testing is conducted using subjects of various body shapes to make sure the PFD remains in proper position on the wearer in the water.
All components must be approved for use in a PFD, from buckles to foam to fabric to webbing to thread. Those components in turn must be assembled in a specific way as defined by the approved “book” each manufacturer provides to UL. The “book” defines how seams are constructed, stitches per inch, how the foam is cut and trimmed, even how the labels are attached. UL inspectors will visit manufacturing facilities and will dissemble a sample PFD to confirm that it is built to specifications.
Legally, if a life vest does not show the UL or ULC mark it will not satisfy USCG or CCG regulations for PFDs. Such non-approved jackets are termed buoyancy-aids, not PFDs.
So, beyond the UL or ULC mark (or in Europe the CE designation) what should you look for in a PFD?
A PFD is of no use if it is not worn. Simple truth, so one of your priorities is to find a PFD that is comfortable and non-binding, so you’ll have less excuse not to wear it. One of the components that can make a PFD more or less comfortable is the foam. Lesser expensive PFDs use a stiffer, boardier foam whereas more expensive PFDs utilize a softer more pliant foam that can better conform to the paddlers body. It’s not as if the lesser expensive PFDs opt for the stiffer foam, it’s simply a cheaper foam. The softer foam can be cinched in nicely in line with your body, making the PFD non-obtrusive when paddling and allowing maximum freedom of movement. Some mid price PFDs will use soft foam front panels and the stiffer foam in the back panel. Both foams will do the job, UL and ULC have seen to that, it just comes down to a matter of cost and target selling price.
The shell of the PFD is another place you’re likely to find some differences to consider. Lighter duty, less expensive PFDs will rely on a lighter nylon shell compared to more expensive PFDs who may feature fabrics as stout as 1000 denier Cordura© nylon. Again, all the shell materials are approved and are reliable but the key is longevity. Your heavier fabrics will simply outlast lighter fabrics both on the river and it terms of simple exposure to environmental hazards such as UV (ultraviolet light degradation). The heavier fabric will provide a longer useful lifetime despite the higher initial cost.
The adjustment and security systems built into a PFD will also impact cost, with the more elaborate providing more fine tuning capability but also added cost. Many Type IIIs at the bottom of the price spectrum rely on 3 web straps across the chest to secure the PFD and on calm waters that may suffice whereas on rough or turbulent waters, the security provided by the 3 straps may not be sufficient.
Some PFDs also feature adjustable shoulder straps which is a nice feature and allows you to customize how your PFD rides on your chest, high and tight or a bit looser and lower on hot days.
PFDs that utilize a zipper as well as straps provide a marked improvement in fit security and in comfort as well. Underarm cinch straps provide fine tune fit adjustment and allow the same PFD to be comfortable worn next to bare skin or over bulky layers of clothing such as pile or fleece. An adjustable waist strap further adds to the fit security and is a key component to preventing the PFD from rising up over your head and face when in the water. As you might imagine, this is not a promising scenario as the PFD goes from a life saving piece of equipment to straight jacket binding the wearer’s arms and eliminating the ability to swim. Testing a potential PFD for “ride up” is one of the essential tests you should make while going through the buying process.
There are a number of different “styles” of PFDs available, from the conventional center front zip entry to what are called pullover styles which are just as they sound, you put them on or off by pulling over your head. The advantage to a pullover style PFD is that they can be low profile due to lack of a zipper and the ability to utilize a larger uninterrupted foam platform. The disadvantage to a pullover is lack of ability to ventilate by opening a zipper and inconvenience putting PFD on and off.
In between are the side zips or offset zip entries which require the user to slide one arm into the PFD rather than both as with a pullover. Just as they sound, these are compromise styles combining the advantages of the security of a pullover with the convenience of a zip front style.
More and more PFDs are featuring pockets and lash tabs which can be nice features but are rarely essential. Such features are often more of interest to kayakers than to canoeists as canoeists have the advantage of easy access to the interior of their boat to retrieve a needed item. A kayaker can be buttoned up in his sprayskirt and less able to hunt up what he needs, so the ability to stash often needed items on the PFD has some merit.
Some PFDs have key clips or locking pockets designed to contain your car keys. This is a long running debate in the paddling community; are your keys better left with your boat or kept with you secured in your PFD? Neither is a perfect answer as either way it’s possible to become separated from your keys. I suspect if you are diligent in always wearing your PFD that attaching them to the jacket makes sense. However, think of the consequences the one time you don’t wear the PFD and the canoe flips and the PFD (with your keys) floats free and heads down river? On the other hand, it’s always possible that your canoe can leave you whether inadvertently due to inattention or in event of a capsize in turbulent conditions.
There are PFDs specifically designed for children and for women as well as more generic styles. Two features particularly worth considering in a Kids PFD is an easily grasped grab loop at top of the back of the PFD and leg loops that run through the child’s crotch and prevent the PFD from riding up. If your child is not yet a swimmer, a flotation pillow that cradles their head is a sensible precaution. Opt for bright colors with children’s PFDs as well to make it easy to see and keep track of your wayward brood.
A specific women’s PFD may be appreciated by bustier women or women with very short torsos but most PFDs can do equal duty for either sex due to the sophisticated design and the soft pliable materials utilized. Still there’s no reason not to satisfy your curiosity and test fit gender specific PFDs.