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Choosing a PFD

What is important in choosing a PFD?

Your Personal Flotation Device or PFD is probably your most important safety item when paddling. It can save your life even if you are in the water and knocked unconscious.

At the same time, if your PFD is not sized right or does not allow you to have a proper range of motion, it can give you much grief and even discourage you from enjoying the paddle sport.

Choose a Real Paddle Sport PFD

Modern paddle sport PFD’s are light years ahead of the old style bulky Life Saver Vests. A paddle sport PFD is designed to be so comfortable that you almost forget that you are wearing it even after hours of paddling. That is, of course, if you choose the right vest for your body shape and size.

Get the Approvals

The first thing to look for in a PFD is one that is government approved. In Canada, that means it must be Canadian Coast Guard approved, Transport Canada approved, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada approved. Canadian approved PFDs must also have an Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC) Maple Leaf Label on the inside of the jacket.

Proper Sizing

To be effective, a PFD must provide at least 9-12 lbs of additional buoyancy to a typical adult, or about 7 lbs to a child. The designs from most manufacturers exceed this and generally will provide about 15 lbs or more of additional buoyancy in an adult sized vest.

At the same time, the PFD vest must be sized correctly so that it will hold your head out of the water even if you are unconscious. It must also fit your body snugly. A loose fitting or over-sized vest will not do this. Such a poor fitting PFD will ride up your body in the water, your head will slip downwards below the water level and you could drown. 

A proper snug fit is particularly important for a children’s PFD as a child is more likely to panic and struggle in an emergency. In such an instance the vest will ride up over the child’s head and the mouth will be below water. For this reason, PFD’s for small infants often have a crotch strap that prevents this from happening. Infant PFD also are equipped with head supports, and since children grow constantly, their PFD’s must be continually checked for proper fit and adjustments made. New PFD’s will need to be purchased a number of times as they grow up.

A paddle sport PFD is properly selected by chest size, not by the weight of the individual. Different people have different upper body shapes and thus require different PFD’s. There is no such thing as a one model fits all. When selecting the correct PFD for your body shape, you may need to try on a number of different models. PFD manufacturers understand this and produce a wide range of models to suit all different types of people. There are even special designs specifically made for female paddlers.

Ease of Adjustment

Individual PFD’s have as many as 8 different adjustments to customize the fit to exactly suit you. Adjustments are to be found around the waist, under the arms and around the chest, and over the  shoulders.  This fit will need to be adjusted each time you go paddling depending on what clothes you will be wearing at the time. Keep this in mind when choosing your PFD. You will not always be wearing just a tank top or T-shirt. In spring and fall you may have additional bulkier clothes underneath your PFD. Adjust the fit each time you set out in your boat. Make sure the model you select will be able to accommodate the range of clothes you will be wearing.

Freedom of Motion

Freedom of motion is critical, especially if paddling for many hours at a time. An improperly sized or poorly designed PFD will impede your arm movement for paddling and cause painful chafing.

Kayak and canoe PFD’s are thus designed with large arm holes to allow the full range of motion necessary for paddling. Paddle sport PFD’s also have a high waist so that the paddler can easily bend at the waist. This is critical when reclining in a kayak or sitting in a canoe. A kayak PFD must allow the kayaker to flex at the hip in order to execute a roll recovery. Finally, the points that contact your body should  be soft and elastic. They should not be rough, have coarse stitching or buckles. The neckline should also allow a full range of head motion.

When trying out a PFD, put it to the test with a full range of arm and body motions including raising your arms above your head and bending forward and side to side. If it binds, chafes or restricts your movement, try adjusting it or select another model. Kneel down and have someone lift you up by the shoulder straps. If the vest lifts up to your chin, it is likely to large for you. Try a smaller size that will not move out of place.

Storage and Attachment Points

A canoe or kayak PFD should have storage pockets and attachment points for safety gear and other small accessories. These enable the paddler to access important items without having to open storage compartments on the boat. Make sure the storage pockets will not interfere with your motion when your fill them with stuff. Safety items such as a whistle, signal mirror, compass, flares and flashlight should be kept in the pockets for use in the event of an upset.

Choose a Bright Colour

Select a PFD vest that is a bright colour that can be seen from a distance. Yellow, orange and red are excellent choices. Keep in mind that your vest should make you visible to rescuers if you are in the water separated from your boat and waves are present. This requirement excludes dark colours such as black, blue and green. These are not good contrasting colours against dark water. A PFD should also have reflective strips included in the design so that it will give additional visibility if light is shone in your direction especially at night.

Try It Out

The best method of purchasing a kayak or canoe PFD is not just to try them on and wear them in a showroom or store but to try them out in a boat on the water with a paddle in your hands. That is what makes the Frontenac Outfitters on water showroom unique. We encourage you to come to our store, select some models and then try them out. This way you will be 100% sure of your choice.

PFD Use and Storage Tips

  • Adjust the fit of your PFD each time you set out. Make sure it fits snug and will not move out of place in the event of an upset. A PFD that is worn loosely is almost useless .If you are knocked unconscious, it could actually cause you to drown .
  • Always wear your PFD. It is useless if you do not have it on. In the event of an emergency, you may not have the time to find it and put it on. Emergencies happen fast and without warning.
  • Never use your PFD as a kneeling pad or a bumper. Do not crush it. This will reduce its buoyancy capacity and thus make it useless as a floatation device.
  • Do not store the PFD in the sun as ultra-violet light will damage the fabric and flotation material.
  • Rinse off the PFD after use and dry it thoroughly before storing it to prevent mildew from forming.
  • Rinse off the PFD with fresh water after use in salt water.
  • Check the PFD for wear and deterioration at the beginning of each season. Ensure that all the adjustments work.
  • If the PFD no longer fits you, get a new one. It is your most important safety device when paddling.

    We hope you enjoyed this article. Should you have any suggestions or changes to improve it, please call 613.376.6220 or email [email protected]

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