This post I have been wanting to write since I seen a Facebook Post by Scott Mansker who organizes the MR340 Kayak race but, this applies to every paddler whether your in the race or you are just a recreational paddler. I However would hope the new MR340 paddlers or “First Timers” would take come of my advice. I will tell you I am no national authority on wearing PFD’s but it is pretty much common sense. But, when doing the race and most races there are some rules you must follow.
The MR340 has grown to such a large race, about 500 boats that the Coast Guard is notified about the race and they have requirements for the race. The main requirement is.. DING DING you guessed it, WEARING A LIFE JACKET or PFD. Sadly, safety crew members have noticed paddlers improperly wearing or not even wearing their PFD at all at some points of the race. In 2019, paddlers will be checked as safety boats and checkpoint volunteers. If they see a paddler not wearing their pfd they will be reported to the race committee with a warning, If they are seen a second time not wearing their PFD they will be subjected to a time penalty,
To both, race paddlers and recreational paddlers. Yes, the summer heat sucks ass, especially when your surrounded by glorious cooling water but, one second, literally one second is all it takes to get you in such a bind you are fighting for your life. I will be the first to admit that when I am on a smaller calm river that I usually do not wear my pfd belt but I always have it on my boat. However, this is if I am just paddling around our local lake that is small and not deep, I know that is not an excuse. When I do a float trip of any distance whether it is 7 miles or 340 miles I always wear my belt. You don’t have to get a full fledged vest for calm or flat water. There is the PFD Belt I wear which looks like a fanny pack with a blow up doll wedged in it.
These are the go to for most SUP paddlers because they are small and out of the way. Kayakers and Canoers use them but to some they may not be as comfortable since you really need to wear the bulky section in front in order for it to deploy properly.
The other type of inflatable PFD is the inflatable vest. This vest essentially looks like suspenders but because of how it is designed it allows for better ease of movement when you are sitting in a kayak or canoe. Both types of pfds use a small Co2 cartridge that is replaceable. There are also 2 types of inflatable pfds, there is the auto inflate type, when you hit the water a little sensor or trigger automatically inflates the vest. These are great if your on a speed boat or bass boat incase you hit something or get knocked out. They are also great for 340 paddlers to wear at night when you are exhausted and are still a few miles from your next checkpoint and you suddenly passed out and flip your boat. The vest will auto inflate which will most likely also wake your ass up. Then there is the manual inflate which is just that, when you fall overboard you can pull on the rip cord and the vest or bet will inflate. I personally use the manual inflate during daytime paddling and sometimes I forget I am wearing my belt and just jump in the water to cool off, or I get to shore and walk in to swim and forget it’s on, I really don’t want to have to repack my vest everytime.
Kayak and canoe vests typically do not look like your normal ski vest you would see on the lake. Kayak and Canoe vests are what I call “More Strappy”. They are cut completely different because you are typically sitting in a seat in a forward leaning position. A traditional ski vest will ride up in your face and just make your day a living hell. Paddling vests are usually very short cut in the front and back with most of the floatation in the front. Personally this serves two purposes. 1. To keep from riding in your face 2. More floatation in the front of the vest will keep you floating face up in the air in the event you are knocked out. The back of the vest will have either a high thick pad right below the neck and to the shoulder blades or they will have a very thin longer back. The longer back vests are great for people with framed or beach style kayak or canoe seats. The Thicker and shorter back vests are great for touring kayaks or kayaks that have a low backrest typically from the lumbar area to the base of your shoulder blades.
Properly fitting your vest to you is the most important things. This ensures safe wearing and comfort. Your vest should fit snug but not to snug. You don’t want to fall out of it and you don’t want it cutting off circulation. I mean, it’s not a corset, it’s a dam life vest. The Coast Guard uses the term “Comfortably Snug”. How I size a paddler may be different than others but I always end up with the same result. Some companies use a sizing like … Small/Medium, Large/Extra Large etc…. What I like to do is try to get the paddler in a vest one size larger than what they need while still being able to fit the vest snug around them. The reason I do this is if the paddler is going out in cold weather having that extra strapping will allow the paddler to wear a jacket or sweater or parka and rain gear. But I always make sure the vest fits properly with just a t shirt on first. Paddlers vests typically have a ton of adjustment straps on them so you can literally fit it like a glove. Some vests may even have two breast straps you can pull down on if the vest is riding up on you.
Womens vs. Mens Vests
Women can obviously wear a men’s vest, but some women’s vest may integrate a small amount of cuppage for the…. well you know. And some may have a lower cut under the arms but it is minimal. Mostly womens vest are prettier colors, for those that need to coordinate. Basically most paddlers vests are the same with the exception of a few. There is no gender bias when it comes to something that will save your life.
Pick what fits your needs
Some vest are plain and simple, some have a few little pockets and some are fully decked out. Most of the decked out vests are going to be your angler vest’s. Angler vests are also great for ultra distance and race paddlers because they usually have large pockets and a ton of them. You can put small first aid kits in them, whistles, areas to attack a knife, even food bars and sunscreen so everything is right at your finger tips. They are also a fantastic vest because they are cut to allow fishermen free movement of the arms which helps when paddling to. Most other vests are cut similar but angler vest are just feature rich and feel a little better to me. You don’t need to spend that extra money however, you will be just as safe with a more basic paddlers vest, you might not be the cool kid though.
Now, I am bias when it comes to brands because I sell Stohlquist pfds at the kayak shop I work at but there is a few other brands they are just as good. NRS is huge when it comes to pfds, Stearns, Onyx and Hobie just to name a few. Stohlquist always seem to be at the top of most popular and safest vests to wear. Here is a few.
In 2017, est 658 people died while boating and 2629 where injured. 76% of the people that drowned, 85% were not wearing a PFD. These are just some stats I found on the UL website. That is a pretty preventable number of deaths due to no PFD. When you go out to purchase a PFD remember when you say “oh I will just get a cheapy to get me by” ok, some of those cheapy PFDs may still be Coast Guard Approved but every style of the vest has a rating. If your PFD is not rated to the type of water you play on then get something that is. I always tell people, budget the purchase of your boat with the PFD included. You can’t put a price on your life. This does not mean you have to break the bank, there are plenty of PFDS on the market in the 70 to 100 dollar range that are perfect for what you want to do. Even that badass, fully loaded fishermen’s vest is around 140 bucks.
TIP’S for Ultra Distanct paddlers
If you are going to be paddling all day and thru the night it is good to have both an inflatable and a regular paddlers vest. You can wear your belt or inflatable during the day to stay cooler and let your body breathe a little better. Then at night when you know you are going to be tired and it is a little cooler out wear your regular paddlers vest. This will give you the piece of mind that if something were to happen like pass out and flip or hit a buoy you will instantly be floating and alive.
Now like I said before, I am not the nations leading expert on PFDS but I do like to think I have a good amount of common sense and I hope some of you can take some knowledge away from this and you are most welcome to add your tips and comments.