Throw Bags, Accessories and WorkShops "Gear For Life"

2010 Rescue PFD Field Rv

OVERVIEW
These are results of our recent September, 2010 field review of the Kokatat Ronin Pro and Stohlquist Descent on the Mulberry River, Arkansas. Also included will be an updated discussion of the MTI Patriot. We first reviewed the Patriot in 2005 and have been using them for the past five years, recently purchasing a new one of the same model (In 2007 MTI had begun a 2-3 year hiatus in selling the Patriot because of an approval standard issue). They informed us that as soon as all the current models are sold they will introduce a new version of this vest.
                                                                                    - Jim Simmons, ass't by
                                                                                       Mike Gardner (both ACA Instructors)
                                                                                       Mulberry River, Arkansas Ozark Mtns.

As with previous field reviews, this is an independent review with no sponsoring entity and we received no financial remuneration. We always purchase the vests and use them regularly in our paddling trips and ACA rescue workshops.
Note: at the conclusion of this review we'll give a commentary on lowcut vest design and ideas we'd like to see in a rescue lifevest for paddlers.
 
RESULTS OF THE FIELD EVALUATIONS OF RONIN PRO AND DESCENT--September, 2010
Table One gives the criteria used in the evaluations; followed by discussion of each vest; and concluding with Table Two giving the specifications, features and options available for each vest.
Table one shows the results of the criteria evaluated. The five point scale we used:
5--Excellent; 4--Good Performance; 3--Acceptable; 2-- Needs Improving; 1--Poor
Once the results were compiled if the final rating was more/less than a whole number a scale was determined using plus or minus, such as 4+, 3-, etc. for each final criteria rating.
 
Table 1. Rating Scale.
Review Criteria

KOKATAT

Ronin Pro

STOHLQUIST

Descent

Ease entry & removal

Comfortable & snug fit

Shoulder adjustments

Torso adjustments

Visibility daytime in water

Visibility nighttime

Easy access to pockets

Carrying capacity basic items

Freedm mvt. when paddling

Buoyancy in river swims

Fits different sizes well

Doesn't 'ride up' when swimming

QRHS* under tension

ease of releasing toggle/tail

snug fit after release harness

Self-rescue over strainer or back in boat

Upper front torso protection

Upper back torso protection

Lower torso protection

Side panel protection (rib area)

Overall impression of vest

4

4

4-

4

5

4

4+

4

5

4

4-

4

4

5

4

4

2+

4+

4

4

4

4-

4+

retract

4+

5

4

4+

4

5

4

4-

4

4

5

4

4

2

2

4

2

4-

*QRHS--the quick release harness system includes the webbing belt, a stainless steel tri- glide (3-bar) buckle, a black cam (fixlock) buckle, and the release toggle (usually red).

DISCUSSION OF EACH VEST
In addition to the five point rating scale, reviewers completed a form giving the following: pro's and con's for each vest; and factors we really liked or disliked. These were compiled into an overall discussion.

KOKATAT Ronin Pro (Comes in Red, Mango and Coal)
This vest has been available for a year or two and is marketed as a choice for both whitewater and ocean paddlers. It is well made with a 'smart' appearance. The review vest was red, size L/XL (42-48) with 17 lbs 5 oz flotation. Unlike some other lowcut vests it has both spine protection and improved side panel protection, important factors for body protection. It has an overlapping front entry with a safety fastex buckle and we found the vest to be comfortable even in the low end of the sizing range. When donning the vest it was a bit unhandy to mesh the front panels together to close the zipper. Shoulder straps have good padding (more toward the back than front--Kokatat calls them thermal molded) and they were easy to adjust. The vest has the usual side adjustment straps but we found when fully let out, they were unhandy to reach to cinch the vest.
 
When aggressively swimming, as well as after releasing the harness belt, the vest stayed in place with no ride up--an important factor with any vests. It has duplex pockets (one stacked on other) which we liked and which give ample storage space for carabiners, prusicks and webbing, etc. Pockets zipped from opposite sides and have easy access. Even when stuffed with gear the pockets did not protrude or impede swimming, etc. Although not a lot, the reflective tape up on shoulders is exactly where it needs to be and gave excellent nighttime vision. Tape on front shoulder straps also serves as a keeper for excess strap tail.
 
We really liked that the vest is made with environmentally friendly GAIA PVC free foam panels. It also comes with a safety instruction booklet that describes the technical aspects of using the vest properly. We applaud such safety details. We readily appreciated the small pouch that stows the self-tether carabiner (also has the usual keeper loop on top of pouch), an idea we have wished for in other vests (keeps tether streamlined to prevent snagging). In general, there were not factors we strongly disliked, other than because of the lowcut design, it lacks front upper torso protection. We did note that the back buoyant material does not extend to the end of the cordura fabric.
 
We especially liked the spine and side panel protection and the keeper pouch for the tether carabiner. The Ronin Pro will provide good service and durability and it received good reviews. Kokatat manufactures quality whitewater gear and apparel and we appreciate their forward thinking on certain factors. We have used a Kokatat ProFit rescue vest in our rescue workshops for several years.

STOHLQUIST Descent (Comes in Mango, Red and Black)
The review vest was L/XL (40-46) with 17 lbs. flotation. New for 2010 this lowcut type V vest is an over-the-head entry with an offset zipper closure--it has a neat tab for assisting this closure. The vest adjusts with one side panel strap and a unique chest adjustment that secures the fit on the torso (one of these covers the zipper to prevent opening). Of all the vests we have used the Stohlquist X-Tract (still sold) has been the most comfortable; however, with the ergonomically articulated foam the Descent rivals it in comfort even though it's positioned lower on the torso.
The QRH belt offsets and proved to be easy to release when doing lowers; and the vest stayed put after releasing the belt and when swimming. Stohlquist is new using a small harness belt (about 1 1/4 inches) with a black oxide stainless 1 1/2 inch O-ring, similar to Astral vests. Although we don't prefer the smaller belts we did not notice any difference compared to the Ronin Pro regular two inch wide belt, in performance or stress to the rescuer when executing lowers (trials were in a normal class II chute). The O-ring has a splotch of velcro attached that keeps the self-tether centered on the back when stowed, always a handy feature.
 
Some of us liked the free-floating shoulder strap strap system that has no specific adjustment, and some did not (straps retract down in front). We wonder about the durability of this system over time and use. Those that liked it said the vest still stayed in place when paddling or swimming. Once adjusted the vest provided a snug fit. As with the Ronin Pro because of its design the vest has good lower torso protection but lacks upper torso coverage front and back, as well as in the side panels.
With a larger size paddler in upper size range the leftover tail of the harness belt seemed too short once the vest was cinched. Also, when the innovative center pocket system is full of gear items, the toggle and belt end tended to 'hide' behind the edge of the pocket (probably because of smaller side wearer having to cinch up tight). We also felt the overlapped sizing range seems to run smaller than the 40-46 size indicates. Although the Descent is a lowcut design, we would like to see some attention to upper areas of the torso, front and back, and spine protection up behind the neck. The large armholes for freedom of movement are overkill for what is needed.

All in all, we really liked the comfortable fit that comes from its ergonomic shape and also the chest adjustment straps on both sides. The unusual center pocket system is handy and it did not protrude when swimming over a strainer or climbing back into an open canoe. Several of us who have worn Stohlquit X-Tracts for several years appreciate the characteristic comfort and snug fit that Stohlquist builds into a vest. The Descent has a lightweight, phantom-type feel that paddlers will enjoy and there is a lot to like about this vest.

Table 2. Specifications, Options and Features Available

Company

 

Model

 

Type vest

Review color

Retail price

Sizing

 

 

Review size

Flotation

Approval

 

Fabric

 

QRHS*

Self-tether (optional)

Lashtabs/attachments

Pockets

Reflective tape/piping

Crotch attachment

Environmentally friendly

 

KOKATAT

 

Ronin Pro

 

Lowcut

Red

$214.00

Overlapping

S/M (36-42); L/XL

(42-48); XXL (50-56)

L/XL

17lbs, 5oz.

USCG (UL) and

CE Transport Canada

500D exterior;

200D interior

Yes

Yes

Yes

Duplex center

Yes

No

GAIA PVC free foam

 

STOHLQUIST

 

Descent

 

Lowcut

Mango

$199.95

S/M (33-39);

L/XL (40-46);

XXL (48-54)

L/XL

17 lbs.

USCG (UL) & UL

Listed-US & Canada

500D exterior;

200D Oxford interior

Yes

Yes

Yes

Center system

Yes

Yes

Not mentioned

 

*QRHS--quick release harness system

MTI PATRIOT (Comes in Mango only, 26.5 lbs flotation)
#click on home page and the link to previous Rescue PFD Study to see the details on our initial review of the Patriot in 2005. This is a discussion of a new one we purchased in Spring, 2010 and is based on five years of use. Around 2007, MTI stopped selling this vest for 2-3 years because of an approval standard issue. MTI has informed us that as soon as all the current Patriots are sold they will market a newer version. (see the MTI 2010 Catalog).
 
We wish the Patriot had the MTI kinetic internal fit system of its sister vest, the Pro Play (being phased out). Because the foam panels front and back are thicker (26.5 lbs flotation), when putting on the vest (front entry) it is sometimes difficult to mesh the two together to close the zipper. Also, when the upper right front chest pocket is full it can sometimes be a slight nuisance for either a left or right-handed paddler, however, the stretch neoprene pockets on MTI's vests are among our favorite material. As previously stated, this vest is well made, very durable and has given us good service over the past five years. We have often noted that with different size paddlers, it does sometimes 'ride up the torso' when aggressively swimming or when the shoulders straps are pulled (like when wearer is being a 'victim' during workshop instruction). There are anchors for crotch straps, but 'ride up' is likely because of the thickness of the buoyant panels and the fact it is short waist.

Two inch wide shoulder straps have thin paddling that provides some protection for the shoulders, clavicle and neck area. The vest adjusts with two side straps under the arms and when let out it does not have side panel protection. A bit of a nuisance--the vest has no breakaway 'keeper' for stowing the carabiner of the self tether when not in use--we fashioned one from velcro loops.
 
MTI designed this vest for 'big water' paddling and had a retail price in '05 of $125. The current price of $149.95 is still an excellent value for a solid vest that will give good service. The shell fabric is the same 500 Cordura Plus and the foam panels are PVC foam. It has lash tabs front and rear but the reflective tape down both sides of the front zipper is not as easily seen in nighttime as we'd like.
 
Relative to this vest having 26.5 lbs flotation, when several kayak paddlers wore this vest none of them reported that it impeded paddling strokes in any manner. They did report that they would likely not use one for general boating because of its bulkier feel, but others of us who regularly wear this vest found no restriction or hindrance in movement because of the higher flotation. Compared to vests with regular flotation, we've found it just as easy to swim aggressively with the Patriot as regular vests. We definitely appreciate the MTI product warranty of three years for materials and workmanship. For sure we'll continue to use MTI vests.

Jim Simmons, ACA Instructor. Contributing to this report, Mike Gardner ACA Canoe Instructor.

COMMENTARY ON LOWCUT RESCUE LIFE VEST DESIGNS
When our group of ACA Rescue instructors and boaters first conducted rescue vest field reviews in 2004 on the Mulberry River, AR we described vests with large armholes and the buoyant material positioned on the midriff as 'low profile'. We now prefer the term 'lowcut' as a more accurate labelling of such vests [Astral, Kokatat Ronin Pro, Stohlquist Descent, Extrasport Pro Creeker, Lotus P-Vest (no longer made) and others]. Some manufacturer's are also now using the term lowcut. Webster's collegiate dictionary indicates that 'low' means "situated, or passing below the normal level", while 'profile' is "a representation of something in outline, or something seen in a side view, or to shape the outline of by passing a cutter around." Lifevests may in fact be lowcut but with a higher profile.
,
We (three who paddle kayak; three, open canoe) have a different viewpoint about rescue vests that have become almost exclusively the lowcut designs. We've had experience using most all of the recent popular brands, revealing specific features and differences in performance. Some in our group also participate in their local/regional SAR efforts, so we've used full body rescue vests as well. Examples of short/regular waist, higher cut vests are :Stohlquist X-Tract, Lotus Rio Pro (no longer made), some previous Extrasport models and MTI's Patriot. Full body examples (longer than regular waist length) are Extrasport's Ranger and Force6, both in the 26-30 lb range; along with the new Tactical offered by Extrasport (24 lbs), the NRS Rapid Rescuer (22 lbs), and the latest Force6 Rescuer I vest. Commonly used lowcut vests are Stohlquist Descent, Kokatat Ronin Pro, Astral Green and Extrasport Pro Creeker.
 
It's our perspective that any rescue vest for paddlers should have more substantial physical protection than lowcut designs provide; and one should also have more than the standard 16.5--17.5 lbs of flotation. Obviously, the majority of time worn a vest will simply serve as a paddler's buoyant aid, but when needed for what could be a variety of rescue applications we believe a vest, first of all, should be considered a 'protective rescue tool' that just happens to double as the required buoyant aid. We disagree with the current trend toward almost exclusively lowcut vests. Can we not have options for fuller, higher cut vest that still satisfies freedom of movement for paddling?

This commentary is not intended to offend vest manufacturer's. We're not implying that a rescue vest should cover the upper torso like that of "an armored knight" only that it should have protection for upper areas of the body too. We believe the large armholes characteristic of lowcut vests are gross 'overkill' for sufficient freedom of movement required--many paddlers view these as 'pretty cool'. In simple comparisons using different vest brands it's apparent to us that the large openings are a marketing trend and without merit. We respect what vest makers deal with regarding marketing numbers, production costs, supply and demand, yet we are uncertain as to why manufacturers (and some paddlers) believe lowcut vests should be the standard bearer (our argument can apply to regular lifevests too).

Since my participation in riversport tracks more than 44 years I experienced firsthand the early rescue vests that were regular/full cut style. There was a perception then that the vests should be a valuable rescue tool; hence, a reason for the fuller, higher cut that gave body protection (even had to sign a waiver/release when purchasing one, verifying that the user had received rescue training). These early vests did not impede paddling movements in any manner nor did they interfere with the kayak sprayskirt. Are there clear evidence-based reasons indicating lowcut designs are a decided improvement over higher cut vests? Over several years in practice sessions with a variety of vest brands we've found body areas expecially vulnerable to injury are the upper torso (front and back), side rib panels and the clavicle area--places not typically accounted for in lowcut designs. More 'body' in a vest should also provide more potential capability in functions a vest might have, plus it would be warmer in cold weather paddling.

Another primary item of protective gear, and a valuable partner to a lifevest, is a good helmet. The protective value of helmets parallels that of a rescue lifevest. In early evolution of paddlesport boaters did not always wear helmets as is common today. Gradually this changed as whitewater helmets were developed. In recent years because of injuries and a few deaths attributed to ill fitting helmets that flopped back on the forehead, manufacturer's developed retention systems/straps that keep the helmet securely in place. With more difficult streams being paddled boaters highly prize a protective and comfortable helmet (likely one that gives full coverage). Following this line ofthinking, when creeking on difficult runs it seems contrary for paddlers to wear substantial head protection (such as a Sweet, or other brand, full-face helmet), elbow pads, armguards, yet don a lowcut vest design that lacks coverage in the upper torso. While the following circumstances won't occur frequently, visualize risks involved when a boater is underwater (either setting up to roll, or to wet exit); or performing swimming self-rescue in a rugged section of a stream where tree limbs or rocks may injure the torso; or perhaps engaging a 'victim' in some type of swimming rescue in a very rocky area.
 
In our recent September, 2010  field review of the Kokatat Ronin Pro and the Stohlquist Descent we found both to have some excellent ideas and features even though they are lowcut designs. For instance, the Ronin pro has two physical protection features that have been needed in lowcut vests. More spine protection up on the back and about a five-inch wide side panel for rib protection. As expected, both have good lower torso protection, however, the Descent lacks upper torso body protection in both front and back. The Ronin, especially when the vest is let out for the larger size paddler, lacks upper torso protection in the front. Both of them have the characteristic larger armholes for paddling freedom of movement, leaving the armpit area vulnerable to blows.
 
Relative to vest buoyancy, our desire is to have a rescue lifevest option that has a range of 20-22 lbs. of flotation. With regular flotation, when executing swimming self-rescue in turbulent water a swimmer will likely be underwater more than on the surface (applies to regular lifevests too). Additional flotation is also needed for handling the size and weight of a victim, such as when engaging a swimmer in the river. We have experimented with different brands (with varying amounts of flotation) and although we've not conducted repeated formal trials we believe the higher cut vests provide better flotation than the lowcut designs. Most vests are designed for men with just one or two choices available for female paddlers. Because the center of gravity in the male physique is higher than in women, again as a result of our comparison tests, we think higher cut vests provide better floatability for men (since a man's body mass is up).

In the future we'd like to see more choices in rescue lifevest for paddlers other than a lowcut design. A vest that is protective, yet innovative and appealing. Will paddlers buy it? We think so and we'll certainly expect to pay more for such a vest. When we depart the putin for a boating trip we'd like to have a vest with good torso coverage and more flotation so we're ready for any rescue tasks but with more substantial body protection. We hope vest makers might find some agreement with these suggestions and consider building such a vest.

Here is a summary of main ideas we would like to see in such a rescue vest:
- a fuller, higher cut design with more flotation (20-22 lbs), that comes down on the torso but will not interfere with a kayak sprayskirt.
-reduce the large armholes adding more physical protection in both the front and back torso, and along the clavicle and neck areas. Include spine protection up behind the neck and have wider shoulder straps with streamlined padding.
-side panel protection that graduates up under the armpits without impeding paddling movements.
-sufficient pocket space for carrying minimum rescue gear items, along with sleeves for knives, whistles, etc. that keep the vest streamlined.
-capability for attaching a throw bag on the upper back area in case a paddler/rescuer needs to carry one, yet have the hands free for swimming, etc.
-overlapping size ranges not as broad as some brands, so a vest is easier to fit smaller wearers in a size range. (generally, overlapping sizes don't fit well for everyone in a range).
Jim Simmons, ACA Instructor. Contributing to this report, Mike Gardner, ACA Instructor
October, 2010
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