What Are the Best Whitewater Life Jackets?

I’m looking to step up to a better personal flotation device (PFD) for whitewater. What are the big differences between models?

Aug 1, 2012
Outside Magazine
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a kayaker   


The waterways are swollen this week after a long dry spell. Don’t let the only thing holding you back be your personal flotation device, that essential piece of gear that protects you if, say, a paddle accidentally cracks you over the head, you fall overboard with an injury, or need to fish a buddy out of treacherous water. In other words, the freak events you never imagine happening until they do.

I certainly need to upgrade. Sure, my PFD still floats, but it gets swampy and chafes if I try to match cadence with friends. The good news is that the number of really well-designed open-cut jackets have grown, and this year has brought new models that stay cool in hot weather and move with you. Look for wide arm holes, a high waistline, and design that fully adjusts along the torso and vertically. Technical PFDs for challenging water should have discrete pockets and attachment rings for a whistle, a rescue knife, and other essentials.

Jackets with acceptable performance will most likely run you more than $100. But the good news is that for this price, what you get is a PFD you’ll want to wear religiously every time out. And you should. For those who ride without a floatation device, I always think of that riveting passage in Aaron Ralston’s book, 127 Hours, in which he falls into icy grip of the Colorado, and simply cannot get out. This is before his famed accident, before his hard-earned wisdom, when he was still a reckless young man. If it can happen to strong swimmer like Ralston, it can happen to anyone. Check out some of the best options on the following pages and paddle safely.

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