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STP Gear Doctor_Kevin

Gear Guide: How to Select, Size and Maintain a PFD

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by on 05-09-2012 at 02:29 PM (738 Views)
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With the weather warming up, no doubt many of us will be doing some waterskiing, fishing, kayaking, wakeboarding, tubing or other form of watersports activity this summer. Whether canoeing on a calm lake, kayaking the open sea or running the rapids, your conditions can change at a moment's notice. So it's important we take the necessary steps to ensure we're equipped with a reliable and appropriate PFD. In a nutshell, a PFD (personal flotation device), also called a life jacket or life vest, gives you more buoyancy to help you stay afloat. The most important advice I can give about PFDs is to always wear one on the water.

Most states legally require you to have a Type I, II, III or V PFD that is U.S. Coast Guard approved. An approved PFD will be marked with the USCG approval number and the proper size for the intended wearer. Laws vary by state, but the USCG recommends that anyone operating a human-powered watercraft (canoe, kayak, jet ski, sail boat, etc.) should wear a PFD, and children under 13 wear one at all times while in any vessel.

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Extrasport Baja Type III PFD Life Jacket

PFD Types

TYPE I PFD (Off-Shore Life Jacket): Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. They are bulky and bright colored, but they have the most buoyancy and will turn most unconscious people face-up in the water.

TYPE II PFD (Near-Shore Buoyant Vest): For general boating activities. They are good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position, but not always. They less bulky than Type I.

TYPE III PFD (Flotation Aid): For general boating or a specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, etc. They are good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue. They will allow the wearers to put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their heads back to avoid being face down in water.

Type IV PFD (Throwable Device): Cushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and provide backup to a PFD. They are not for people who cannot swim, rough waters or the unconscious. These are not USCG approved.

TYPE V PFD (Special Use Device): These are specialized PFDs for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be used for the activity specified on the label. Varieties include kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests and deck suits.

A Word About Buoyancy

Buoyancy is the force (in pounds) required to keep a person's head and chin afloat above water. Most adults need just an extra 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to stay afloat. Additionally, your weight, body fat, lung size and clothing are all factors to staying on top of the water, as well as the conditions of the water itself. The USCG denotes each PFD classification to have the following minimum buoyancy:
  • Type I - 22 lbs.
  • Type II 15.5 lbs.
  • Type III 15.5 lbs.
  • Type IV (Rings & Cushions) 16.5 & 18 lbs.
  • Type V (Hybrids & Special Use) 7.5 (deflated) 22 lbs. (fully inflated) & 15.5 22 lbs.
PFD Sizing

For adults, your chest size, not your weight, will determine what size is right. A PFD should fit snug, yet allow you to move somewhat freely. Each PFD will have a different design and foam placement to fit the contours of your body. It doesn't matter where the foam is located safety-wise, but comfort-wise you'll want to pick something that suits your shape. Generally, the more straps a PFD has, the more adjustable and customizable it will be.

Women should consider getting a women-specific PFD, which will usually offer a better fit. For children, their weight will determine the size. Fit is very important for keeping a child's head above water. Never get a PFD that your child will "grow into."
  • Infant PFDs: 8 to 30 pounds
  • Child PFDs: 30 to 50 pounds
  • Youth PFDs: 50 to 90 pounds
For infant and kid-sized PFDs, look for a padded head support to help keep the head above water. Also consider a handle to assist retrieving the child and leg straps to help keep the PFD from riding up. Youth-sized PFDs look and have the features of adult PFDs. The more straps, the more adjustments can be made for sizing.

Fitting Your PFD

Once you've selected the right size PFD, follow these fitting steps:
  • Loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip it up.
  • Start at the waist and tighten all the straps. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last. It should feel snug but not uncomfortable.
  • Next, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulders. If it moves up past your nose or head, try tightening the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large.
  • The right size may seem "thick," but check your movements to make sure it is comfortable and will not chafe anywhere. To do so, sit in your kayak or canoe at home. This will simulate how it actually feels while sitting.
  • If possible, test your PFD in a pool or shallow water to see how it works. It should not ride up or slip over your chin while floating.
  • Your child's PFD should be fitted in a similar fashion. To check the fit, once the child is secured in it, pick him/her up by the shoulders of the PFD. The child's chin and ears should not slip through.
Features and Styling

Contoured foam panels have largely replaced the bulky foam ribs of old-school PFDs. The style of newer PFDs can be pullover, side-entry or a zipper up the front. They all function the same, so your choice depends on personal preference. To allow good freedom of movement, look for a deep neck, large armholes and narrow shoulder straps. Most modern PFDs are waist length or low-profile, designed for kayakers sitting with a high seat back, but they are comfortable for other paddling sports. Other features to consider include:

Tabs: Look at the number of tabs and their location on the front and back on the PFD. Tabs let you attach a knife, whistle (which is required in many areas), strobes or other accessories.
Pockets: Consider size and placement. Are there pockets to warm your hands or have easy access to your doodads? Is there a pocket for a hydration unit?
Color: Bright colors improve visibility. Reflective tape is another good feature.
Ventilation: PFDs with mesh panels and other vents are ideal for hotter conditions.
Fishing Features: Some manufacturers offer PFDs with fishing-specific features, such as tool hangers, loops for a rod and a drop-down pocket table for working with lures and flies.

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PFDs for Your Dog

Dog PFDs are not USCG certified, but they can still be a lifesaver and help your pet enjoy the water. Ensure that your pup's PFD fits snugly, so that he or she can't twist, step or swim out of their PFD. It should also be low profile so they won't get snagged on anything. A PDF with easy-release buckles and handle to lift Fido out of the water is also a good idea.

PFD Care

Do: Rinse with fresh water after use, especially after being in salt water. Drip-dry before storing. Store in a cool, dry, dark place where there is good ventilation.

Don't: Never alter a PFD to make it fit. An altered life jacket is not USCG approved. Don't use a PFD as a cushion, kneeling pad or boat bumper. It will lose buoyancy. Don't put heavy items in the pockets, and don't store it in sunlight UV rays can damage the fabric.

Again, the most important advice about PFDs is to always wear one. Even the best of swimmers can find themselves in trouble. I hope this information will help you have a safe and fun season on the water.

-The Gear Doc

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Updated 05-10-2012 at 09:40 AM by STP Gear Doctor_Kevin

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