The first week in July presented good, challenging conditions to test out the best new life jackets, including the NRS Zen life vest, in Vermont's West River. Five inches of rain fell on the area a few days before we hit the water, making it as high as it had been all year. The Governor and state police even issued warnings for people to avoid treacherous river waters. You couldn’t ask for a better time to dip in with the Zen.
During our first few minutes in the kayaks, one of our novice testers capsized unexpectedly, spending long seconds working to exit from the spray skirt under the boat. Once he surfaced, the Zen really helped him reach shore. Without its buoyancy and good center of gravity, this newbie would have had a much harder time lugging both boat and paddle while swimming. The Zen’s open-cut design gave him the room in his shoulders that he needed to swim like mad out of the strong current.
While it certainly protects beginners, the Zen is really designed for advanced paddlers and guides who can take advantage of its rescue features. That’s what makes the coast guard call it a type V device (“Special Use Device”), not one of the more typical Type III options.
Our expert tester was Bob Everingham, a former professional guide of whitewater trips in Idaho, who explained the Zen’s most prominent rescue feature, a tow ring on the back with a quick-release belt and buckle. The special high-visibility buckle allows you to extricate yourself fast in an emergency, say if the boat you’re towing gets stuck on a rock.
Because of the rescue point, the Zen presents extra hassles for those who aren't looking for the latest safety features. For instance, you can slide the shoulder straps easily over your head and then buckle it sideways, but then you do have to thread the belt correctly through the front buckle. It’s cumbersome process for someone who's just out to enjoy an easy day on the water. (NRS also makes the Ninja, a similar open design vest without rescue features.)
In terms of fit, our whitewater expert, Everingham, liked how the independent flotation panels in front allow the vest to move with you, though he felt they had a higher profile than he was used to. Then again, with a generous 17.5 pounds of buoyancy, this vest kept him higher above the water than his old one. Other testers complained about the location of the strap buckles, which are located almost behind you on your right flank.
Other than that, testers liked the placement of the vest’s storage. There’s a cavernous front pocket with a whistle clip, a front lash for a rescue knife, fleecy hand warmers, a map pocket with velcro, and a rubbery quick-release loop to attach a throw bag.
“There are tons of pouchy places to keep maps or M&Ms, it has a great fit, and there are serious features for emergencies,” Everingham said. “My only problem is that it didn’t come out way before, because it’s a lot better than what I’ve been using.”
Weight: 3 pounds
Sizes: S/M, L/XL, XXL
Colors: red or all-black