A piece of kit sometimes overlooked during a paddler’s early experiences of kayaking is the seemingly humble buoyancy aid (BA) or personal flotation device (PFD). Offering extra buoyncy, warmth and storage, a decent BA/PFD can also be a lifesaver in certain situations – so its purchase shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sourcing a snug and comfortably fitting type needs to be the main agenda point but models offering bonus extra features should also be taken in consideration – depending on what paddling you’re going to be indulging in. Placid, open sea or inland lake waters all have their fair share of potential hazards and in many instances a well-made, good fitting buoyancy aid could mean the difference between keeping your head above water or not. With many different models and types on offer there are some key points to keep in mind when shopping for your new BA/PFD.
There are many different paths your kayaking career may take and in each instance there will most likely be a PFD that fits your chosen or aspirational discipline. Whether, in time, you fancy charging some heavy white water or taking on the ferocity of your local big wave surf break, something on the market will no doubt be available that suits your requirements. Buoyancy aids for flat water touring, open ocean sea paddling, female specific and kiddy types can all be found if you do a bit of hunting around. If you’re a dog owner then you can also keep them safe at sea as certain brands manufacture PFDs for our canine friends – there is no excuse for the whole family to not get involved!
The standard minimum buoyancy level for BAs is CEN 50N, but which environment you plan on paddling in will dictate just how much buoyancy your BA should have. For example, a BA with this amount of flotation isn’t adequate for paddlers heading for white water, it needs to be CEN 60N – at least! 50N is fine for placid, calm waters. A CE mark on the inner label (UL mark in the US) indicates the garment has been manufactured according to strict guidelines. If you’re the type who is going to chuck yourself over a weir or down a raging river then it may be worth considering something even more heavy duty. The only thing to remember though is that a BA will not turn you face up if you’re unconscious – they’re only able to provide extra float.
The key thing when purchasing a BA is to get the fit spot on. If it doesn’t wrap around you securely then you may as well not be wearing one. Bear in mind though that your buoyancy aid will be used all year round and during different seasons you’ll be wearing less or increased layers of clothing underneath – this then needs to be taken into consideration when fitting your PFD. While in the shop it’s worthwhile tightening up the garment and getting a friend to lift you up by the shoulder straps. If the BA can be easily pulled over your head then you need to try a smaller size or alternative design. Fitting kids out is especially tricky as children tend to grow particularly fast. What may fit one week may not the next – worth keeping in mind after periods without on water activity.
If your local spot happens to be full of hazards such as rocks or other obstacles then it could be worth considering features such as extra padding in your BA. A thicker layer of foam could go some way to helping protect against knocks and scrapes if you’re tipped out of your kayak. Used in conjunction with a helmet and possibly knee and elbow pads, an extra bit of padding in your buoyancy aid will complete your safety gear look quite nicely.
It makes sense that you’ll want to have some goodies on your person during paddling exploits. A few energy boosters such as chocolate or energy bars are always welcome as your muscles become tired and achy. From a safety point of view, having somewhere to attach a throw line and knife is a good idea and many PFDs come with various pockets, loops and places to store and attach all the necessary tools for your session. In some cases you can purchase buoyancy aids that are already fitted with a throw line belt, making it easier to attach this other necessary piece of kit. Other features such as reflective strips and gear clips are all handy and could influence which product you eventually end up owning.
There are many different types of BAs available and all feature slightly different construction materials. In some cases neoprene is employed to increase comfort but in all cases a decent product needs to be manufactured in a robust and durable material. After all, your BA is going to have a certain amount of abuse thrown at it during its lifespan. Salt water, UV light, nicks, tears and general wear will all eventually take their toll so getting hold of something that will stand the test of time will see your readies stretch further and give a more cost effective piece of equipment.
Finishing up your paddling session and dumping your gear in the car boot is the quickest way for your BA to succumb to mould and eventually the breaking down of materials rendering it a useless bit of kit. Hosing off your buoyancy aid at the end of every paddling trip with fresh water will increase its longevity – as will drying it thoroughly and keeping it stored somewhere away from moisture and direct sunlight. If for any reason your personal floatation device shows signs of wear within its warranty period, even after due care, then it needs to be taken or sent straight back to the retailer. Don’t under any circumstances continue to use a faulty piece of equipment – your life could be at risk if you do so. Look after your kit and your kit will look after you.