If your PFD is comfortable, then you’ll wear it. That’s the message I got out of my visit to Salus in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario. The Canadian company is one of the top manufacturers of PFDs (Personal Flotation Device).
Owner of Salus Marine, Steve Wagner, gave me a tour of the company’s manufacturing plant while I was there picking up a couple of jackets for an upcoming family canoe trip.
I felt kind of special being led through the factory, past all the cutters, sewers and packagers. It reminded me of when in grade four and our teacher took our class to see how crayons were made. I used crayons a lot while growing up but never knew how they were made. Same goes for a PFD.
The tour also made me realize how much time and effort is put into making a good PFD — all the testing that’s done and especially the thought put behind all the designs to make sure a PFD is comfortable to wear.
Here’s what to look for in a comfortable PFD. First, there’s difference between a PFD and a lifejacket. A lifejacket works well to keep you afloat; especially making sure your head is above water. The common design is those old-fashioned horse-collared types. But they’re incredibly uncomfortable, bulky, and not designed at all for paddlers to wear all day. A PFD may not guarantee to keep your head above water, but it’s something you can wear without knowing you even have it on.
Another important point is not to determine your choice directly on flotation rating. A young child may need as much floatation as an adult. Think more of your body type than your weight. People with less body fat need more flotation. The average weight of an adult in water is 10 to 12 pounds (4.5 to 5.5 kg), so obviously a 140-pound (64 kg) man does not need 140 pounds (64 kg of flotation).
Plastic zippers are better than metal for wear and tear, especially if sand sticks inside the teeth. Ties and straps are great to have, but only as secondary fasteners. If the PFD is equipped with buckles as fasteners, make sure they are quality plastic buckles (like Fastex); anything else can be easily damaged.
The perfect PFD should fit snugly, but not tightly to your body. A simple in-store test is to go shopping dressed in your regular canoe clothes, zip up a PFD and complete the following steps:
1) Grab the back of the PFD and wrench it upwards. Look side-to-side. Are you looking over your shoulders or is the PFD all you can see? If it’s the PFD, then the jacket is far too big.
2) Sit on the floor and pretend to paddle down the aisle. If the PFD chafes under your armpits, try another size.
3) Check to make sure the zipper doesn’t touch your chin.
4) Purchase the PFD you think fits, making sure to keep the receipt. Now, go to a lake, put it on and jump into some deep water. If it keeps you afloat and you can easily swim in it, then great. If not, dry it out and then take it back to the store for a refund.