Throw Bags, Accessories and WorkShops "Gear For Life"

Choosing a Rescue PFD

CHOOSING A RESCUE LIVEVEST THAT FITS PROPERLY *(at conclusion of this report, see our description of features in a variety of vests that we both liked and disliked).
                                                                                                 - Jim Simmons

Rescue vests have evolved as hybrids of type III personal flotation devices (PFD) and are designed to provide buoyancy and freedom of movement when paddling whitewater, yet can be employed as a rescue tool. The primary difference between a regular lifevest and a rescue lifevest is the inclusion of a Quick Release Harness Belt System (QRHS).

Styles in PFD design are usually of these types:
a) Lowcut designs, which position the buoyant material down on the midriff and have large armholes that provide maximum paddling freedom of movement. You will also see these vests referred to as 'low profile'.
b) Short or Regular Waist, Higher Cut designs, which also have ample armholes, however, the buoyant material is placed higher up on the torso.
c) Longer Style, with more than the usual amount of flotation and frequently selected by professionals, rescue personnel, and boaters paddling on big water.

Rescue vests are typically sized in these ways:
a) Regular sizes of S, M, L, XL, and XXL.
b) Overlapping sizing--usually S/M, M/L, or L/XL, etc. Some of the brands can have quite a broad range of sizes and may not fit well.
c) Universal Fit--one size fits all and include a wide range of sizes such as 30-56 or 32-52. (these are normally used by outfitters, or SAR personnel.

Your vest should fit properly and stay in place when performing swimming self-rescue or rescue applications. A vest that 'rides' up the torso can block your breathing, hinder your vision and create a greater snag potential if in the water performing aggressive self-rescue or assisting a victim.

Suggestions when trying on a new vest:

1. Put it on and cinch tight the side adjustment straps until they are snug. Next, adjust the QRHS belt with the tri-glide buckle and the black cam buckle. Always do this after you adjust the side straps because adjusting the harness belt is the final step in the vest fitting your torso. Finally, adjust the shoulder straps for comfort/tightness. Since you'll be sitting in either a kayak or kneeling in your canoe, in the store, sit in a chair to simulate your boat before adjusting the vest.

2. Once the vest is adjusted have someone pull up on the shoulder straps to see if the vest stays put and doesn't creep up the torso. If it rides up in the store it most likely will ride up when wet, or when doing aggressive river swimming.

The majority of time your lifevest it serves as your buoyant aid when paddling, but when needed you will use it for performing rescue applications. Be sure that when the vest is all cinched up snugly it does not have space or gaps in the high chest area. Water can collect in this space and impede your progress if self-rescuing or swimming aggressively. For carrying rescue items (prusiks, webbing, carabiners, etc) needed in rescue events consider how much pocket storage space the vest provides. Some vests have limited pocket space.

If the vest comes only in overlapping sizes, a smaller paddler may not be able to adjust the straps snugly enough to prevent the vest riding up the torso. In addition, the excess length of the side adjustment straps can be a hindrance. In rescue vest reviews that a few of us instructors have conducted we felt that vests manufactured in regular sizing (s,m.l,xl, etc) tended to adjust the best. Some manufacturers use beveled foam, or ergonomic panels which give a good fit. Ask a lot of questions and do some comparison shopping before you make a purchase--your rescue vest will serve as a trustworthy paddling friend.

Unfortunately, there are not yet many choices in rescue vests for women paddlers. Two are the Wonderpro by the Astral Buoyancy Company and one by Palm Equipment of the U.K (not readily available to paddlers in the U.S.).

Considering the environment factors some manufacturers (such as Kokotat) are using a foam manufacturer that supplies the new GAIA PVC-free foam; Astral has also created a 'green' rescue vest. Not only does the PVC free foam help the environment it may enhance performance of the vest as well because of friction reduction.

Over several years our group of instructors has conducted field reviews with a variety of the current brands of rescue lifevests (between 2004 and 2010). We wear these vests when paddling and also use all of these popular brands in our ACA Swiftwater Rescue workshops. In addition to personal information we gain about using them we solicit feedback from our workshop participants. (*This is a work in progress and others will be added as we gain information about newer vests).
Features we really liked a lot--
1) beveled, or ergonomic shape and fit in the Stohlquist X-Tract and their new Descent vest. Ease of adjusting the Descent is quick and easy and the X-Tract is the most comfortable vest that we have worn.
2) stretch neoprene pockets on vests built by MTI are both roomy and comfortable to use. Some vest pockets tear or wear out before the vest needs to be retired.
3) buckle retainers for the leftover tails on the side adjustment straps on the Palm vests. They keep wearer from having to strain to reach the ends to snug the vest, a very handy feature.
4) small keeper pouch for the self-tether carabiner on the side of the Kokatat Ronin Pro. It keeps the tether streamlined against the vest preventing snag potential.
5) even though it is a lowcut design, the spine protection on the Kokatat Ronin Pro is a welcomed addition in a lowcut vest.
6) a splotch of velcro attached to the O-ring mates it with the sewed on section on the back of the vest to keep it stowed when not in use. Extrasport, Descent, MTI and Palm have this feature and we feel this should be standard on all vests.
7) long standing and dependable vests marketed by Extrasport, especially vests with more flotation that serve SAR personnel or paddlers wanting more flotation in big water paddling.
8) innovative ideas by Astral, some we feel are both practical and impractical, but we appreciate pushing the envelope with new design ideas.
Features we didn't like too well--
1) shoulder buckles such as stainless steel retro-glide type, that slip under tension when being pulled on or even when rolling a boat (previous Lotus P-Vest and older Extrasport models are examples.
2) vests that have inadequate storage capacity for at least a minimun of rescue gear items that we'd like to carry. X-Tract by Stohlquist, Extrasport Pro Creeker, Lotus P-vest (no longer made), Extrasport Ranger.
3) toggle and buckle assembly for the harness belt that may 'hide' behind a full center pocket, causing some fumbling to locate and release the toggle when performing lowers.
4) a few vest brands have no reflective tape/piping for nighttime vision should this be needed.









JS--7/25/'07; updated 11/'10















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