Life jackets you can live in

Berne Broudy
Posted July 1st, 2002

PFDs to fit your budget and your body.
[It’s a good idea to always wear your PFD, even in calm water. Mike Donohue has on the Palm On Tour by Harmony Gear. Photo by Berne Broudy.]
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Every paddler should wear a PFD (personal flotation device), and excuses why some people don’t are as plentiful as rocks in a river. PFDs used to be bulky, hot and generally uncomfortable. But the boom in paddling popularity has catapulted PFD design into the new millennium. They are now designed with technical savvy, features and floatation that will suit any paddler’s needs.
PFDs keep you afloat because they are made of closed-cell foam, which has millions of tiny air molecules that water can’t penetrate. All models and styles are similarly bouyant, but the quality of the foam will feel different when they’re on. It varies from rigid (less expensive) to soft and conforming (more expensive).
Choosing a PFD is a personal matter: your body size and shape will determine what works best for you. Always try before you buy; you may be pleasantly surprised by models that look uncomfortable on the rack but ride well on your body. If possible, sit in your boat with your PFD of choice before you’re asked, “MasterCard or Visa?” There is considerable variation in boat seat design, and you want to make sure your new PFD is comfortable on your body, in your boat. Stashed in the bow or stuck under a bungie, it won’t do you much good.
When choosing a PFD, think about your personal paddling habits: if you paddle later in the day you might want reflective taping and a strobe lash point. If you paddle year-round or in variable weather, you want a PFD that feels good on your skin and over a dry top. Front-zip PFDs are easy for everyone to operate, while a side-zip can require some level of coordination until you are used to it, and most side-zips mean you need to take your hat off. Purchase the PFD that will make your paddling experience safe and pleasurable.
The age-old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is not a hard and fast rule in the world of PFDs.  If you are on a budget, think about what is most important to you in the features department, and you will still end up with a couple of great options.
Have fun, and wear your PFD. It could save your life!