BLOG 34. A PFD Rant
by Cliff Jacobson
The new PFD’s are wonderful, especially if you paddle Class III water and above, jump waterfalls in your kayak or race slalom in technical rapids. For high-adrenalin activities like these you need a life vest that sticks to your body and won’t “ride up” in rapids. But that tight, hypothermic-defying fit you cherish when canoeing big water can be hot and uncomfortable for casual cruising. A PFD that sticks to you like glue will be hot, sweaty and confining in July heat. What to do?
If you have a big water capable PFD, there’s not much you can do other than loosen the straps and pray a cool breeze will waft through. Or, you can buy a less exotic PFD that’s designed for quiet-water sports. Discount stores have racks of ‘em; they’re built for anglers and casual paddlers who don’t venture into rapids. These relatively inexpensive vests are less size-specific and better ventilated than whitewater models and they’re quick and easy to put on. They will keep you head up and afloat in reasonably calm water, but they ride-up too high for reliability in rapids. And if your body doesn’t have a text-book perfect shape they may chafe your armpits or chin when you paddle.
|A comfortable "quiet water" PFD. Kopka River, Ontario|
Frankly, I’m not crazy about today’s PFD’s. The top models are all designed for extreme paddling, not for the gentle kind of canoeing and kayaking most people do. They’re hot and clingy and some are a pain to put on. Three decades ago there were many wonderful PFD’s that were comfortable, cool and reliable in rapids. Names that come to mind are Harishok, Flotherchoc, Seda and Omega. They were tubular built, that is they used accordian-like layers of thin, closed-cell foam encased in breathable nylon. The foam tubes were narrow and short, which permitted unrestricted “accordion movement” in all directions, unlike today’s “flat panel” vests which bend best at the panel stitch points. The tubular PFD’s were much cooler and more comfortable than modern flat-panel types. The narrow tubes allowed the vests to be quite thin; you felt more like you were wearing a thick sweater than a Michilen-man coat.
The tubular PFD’s of the past are long gone. Modern vests have flat panels that limit ventilation and reluctantly follow body curves. The old tube vests had a vertical zipper in front, which could be drawn down if you got too hot. Now, there are side zips, zips that angle across the chest and models with no zippers at all. Remember when car radios had a round knob to control volume? Handy and efficient, wasn’t it? But then the engineers got involved and complexity set-in. What was once a simple radio has become a multi-function touch screen that needs a manual or in-house training to decipher. Sometimes simple things are best. So it is with life jackets.