Series 2: Correct Equipment for Women Paddlers – Part 3: Selecting a PFD


Last March, at Paddlesport in New Jersey, Jay and I had the occasion to do a little PFD shopping. We were looking for the best fitting PFDs for women. I am pleased to report that all of the major companies—Stohlquist, Kokatat, Astral, NRS, and MTI have great options.

The first hint that it’s a PFD for a woman, is how it looks.20150329_131220 Many of the companies have pretty flowers embroidered on the shoulder or back, or the colors are of a bright or pastel pallet, or there is some other fancy, aesthetic feature.

20150329_134034But, the most important feature that they all have in common, is accommodations on the inside of the jacket for breasts. These accommodations vary from slight indentations, to shelves, or a little of both, which should make finding one that fits our various shapes and sizes attainable. The only possible exception will be for those of you who are blessed with a very generous front end. If you are one the lucky ones, then some of the shelves and indentations may still be a bit of a squeeze.

Anyway, I tried all of them on, and by and large, they all fit me fine. (Full disclosure, I’m a 36 D.) What seemed to make the difference for me was whether the PFD was high profile (padding reaching to the neck area), or low profile (a more low-cut design). The low profile fit better.

High profile.

High profile.

This fit factor, high/low profile, was an important point for Jay, because not only does it relate to comfort while sitting in the kayak, it can also impact your rolling. To test the high/low profile style, she and I tried on a few and positioned ourselves on the floor in a rolling position. We found that the high profile PFDs tend to ride up. The low profile PFDs seemed to stay in place. Interesting to note, many of the low profile PFDs are white water jackets.

In addition to the PFD cut, the amount of padding, and whether they ride up in a rolling position, another consideration in PFD selection is entry. There are basically three entry options:

  1. Zip-front entry
  2. Side entry
  3. Over-the-head entry

I have always had a zip-front entry PFD, and actually really like them, but they do have their down side. When performing rescues, it’s possible for them to come unzipped if they catch on the boat or the swimmer. This only happened to me once, and it was because I had my whistle on the zipper (no more). While the zip-front is my favorite style, I did find that the fit in some of  them wasn’t that great. I really had to do major adjustments with the straps in order to get a snug fit, and to position the girls comfortably. Once adjusted, however it was all good.

The side entry PFDs, surprised me. At first they felt a bit awkward to put on, but once on, all of them fit me quite well.

Rolling position test.

Rolling position test.

The concern about zippers coming undone is not an issue. They didn’t ride up during the rolling position test. And, there was plenty of support and accommodation for the girls. Overall, I have to say, I really liked all the side entry PFDs I tried.

The overhead entry is another matter. I just don’t like them. I have no good reason why – too much struggle to pull over my head, messes up my hair, major situating of the girls before I get that good comfortable fit I like – who knows. It may be that I’m just not used to them, but I found them uncomfortable, and I didn’t like the way they fit across my chest. Every head entry PFD I tried, regardless of the company, seemed to fall in just the wrong spot.

Ultimately, after trying a bunch of many types on, I found a favorite. Now, it may be I was influenced by my friend, Laura, who is in the market for a PFD, and pointed out the importance of side protection. Or it could be the concern that a bunch of coaches shared with me over the apparent lack of protection in the back area of my current PFD. (I bought it deliberately for that reason—easier to roll without all that back padding.) Either way, the winner for me is the, Ronin Pro by Kokatat.20150329_131810

I absolutely love it! It has all the features I like – low profile, snug fit, no riding up in rolling position, comfortable accommodations for the girls, enough padding on the front and back without being bulky, plenty of pockets for whistles and safety gear, and new to me, an offset front-entry with side protection – perfect for rock gardening, surfing, river running, and every day touring.

Bottom line, the correct PFD for you, like a kayak or paddle, is in the fit. Please try a bunch on and do the rolling position test. It will really help you pick the right one.

Next in the series, Kayakers Kit.

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— Kerry Pflugh

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