by Steve Wagner

Finding the right PFD can seem like a daunting task. Designs have become increasingly complex and specialized. The study of anthropometrics, ergonomics and advanced material technology, combined with increased consumer demand for quality and choice, have allowed and inspired PFD manufacturers to design and develop superior products. The result is that you have more choice than ever. The challenge is to make the best possible choice.

Choosing a good PFD extends beyond finding one that fits and floats. After all, not all vests work for all people, and no one single vest works well for all activities. What’s involved in choosing the best PFD is researching the one that is RIGHT for YOU.

What’s Your Sport?
First, you need to consider how much time you’ll spend in the water versus on it.

For sports that involve frequent visits to the water, such as white water kayaking, you will want a vest with lots of adjustments to create a secure fit that will eliminate in-water ride-up. A secure fit can also be achieved with leg harnesses or straps high under the arms, but arm straps are uncomfortable when paddling and leg harnesses are simply “not cool”.

For sports that involve less frequent visits to the water, such as canoeing or sea kayaking, you have more options. Looser fitting vests are more acceptable for these sports and can be more comfortable. Larger arm holes provide minimal interference with your paddle stroke, but in the event of going over, the looser fit may result in some in-water ride-up. Another feature of the looser fit is venting, which keeps you (the paddler) cool and comfortable. If you’re not going to be getting wet doing Eskimo rolls, venting of some kind is required to stay comfortable during long, hot paddling trips.

Fitting Your Vest

Next, you need to make sure the vest fits, which requires a little bit of effort.

When you try on a pair of shoes in the store, you add a pair of socks, lace up the shoes, stand, walk around and maybe even jump and move in funny motions to simulate your activity or sport. Trying on a PFD is no different. Wearing a comfortable PFD, like wearing a comfortable pair of shoes, can make your sport more enjoyable. A well-fitting vest is barely noticeable, and allows you to move freely and comfortably.

Start by considering chest size as written on the inside of the PFD, but use this only as a guide. Keep in mind that different genders and body shapes will also influence fit. Second, consider the time of year that you will be traveling and the clothes and gear underneath your vest. Heavier clothing, dry tops or foul-weather gear will often mean that you need to move up at least one vest size. The better vests, with multiple adjustments, will allow you to adjust the fit to accommodate different types of clothing.

Sure, the vest is comfortable standing in the store, but this is clearly not how you’ll be wearing it while on the water. Once you have a vest that fits you, consider how you will be positioned and how you are going to move in your vest. Sit in a canoe or kayak. Check the out-of-water ride-up. Does the vest fit well with your dry top? Is it still comfortable? Practice your paddle stroke. Better yet, get out on the water and try it out in the real environment.

If you still like the vest, consider other details that may affect fit or convenience. Pockets are great, but consider something stuffed into this pocket. Is it now in your way? Sometimes the best pocket is one that is centralized in the belly area that – even full – is clear of your paddle stroke. Is the pocket large enough for what you want to carry?

The options can seem limitless. In spite of this, finding the right vest does not need to be complicated, but you do need to consider more than just colour, size and price. With a solid understanding of features and benefits and the help of a good local outfitter, you can find the best vest for you – a vest that, like a good shoe, feels like it was made just for you.

Steve Wagner

Salus Marine Wear, Inc.
Originally published in KAYAKING Magazine 2002/03

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