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Kayak Life Jackets vs. Traditional Life Jackets

Kayaking life vests are very different from the traditional life vests that many people are familiar with. Kayaking vests and traditional personal floatation devices (PFDs) are designed and intended for different activities.


If you are interested in getting serious about kayaking, it is extremely important to find a life jacket that fits properly and is intended for kayaking. The shape and design of kayak life jackets versus a traditional life jacket is like night and day. Kayaking vests are designed with a short torso so they are comfortable in a sitting position. They are also made with less flotation in the front of the jacket for a lower profile, which is to better suit arm movement across the body. The shoulder straps on a kayak life jacket are almost like those of a backpack with some padding that does not become bulky. Tradition life jackets are designed only to keep a person afloat unlike kayak vests which are designed for mobility. To optimize the range of motion it is important to find a kayak PFD that is either a front entry or over-the-head design. The best vests for kayaking feature a V-shaped neck opening with very narrow shoulder straps to make arm and shoulder movements unobstructed and to minimize chafing. Traditional vests are not designed for a large range of motion. The typical life vest does not give the user a lot of space to move around, as the intended purpose of a traditional life vest is only to keep a person afloat.


The fit of a kayak vest is crucial to survival and comfort. It is important that the vest comes equipped with adjustable straps. The straps at the waist, shoulders, and armholes should be adjustable to provide a proper, snug fit. Make sure when purchasing a vest that it is not too loose to begin with or it does not have straps to allow for further tightening. A secure and well manufactured vest will allow for more peace of mind when kayaking and also a tight snug fit is very comfortable when adjusted properly. Traditional vests do not come equipped with adjustable straps and typically have a wide shoulder strap which helps to add buoyancy to the jacket. A normal life jacket tends to have two or three chest straps unlike a kayak vest which tends to have a zip closure.


Kayak vests also differ from traditional vests because they have reduced foam thickness or mesh in the lower back of the jacket to accommodate a seat. This is unlike traditional vests which are bulky and have consistent foam throughout the jacket to ensure floatation.


Other features that are unique to kayak vests are that they are typically equipped with multiple pockets. The built in pockets allow for storage space for gear that is needed for kayaking trips. Pockets are important to have but make sure not to overload pockets and only bring necessary gadgets, as excess weight will weigh you down when in the water. Pockets are usually only found on vests that are intended for water sports such as canoeing or kayaking. Pockets are not needed on a traditional life vest for it is only intended for flotation. Kayak vests also feature reflective tape and come in many different colors in order for the vest to be easily seen from the air. Another plus to kayak vests is that companies are now making gender specific models to create even more vest-to-body connection in order to improve on the fit and effectiveness of the life preserver.


Kayaking PFDs have distinct features and a design which sets them apart from other types of flotation devices. Kayaking PFDs are typically US Coast Guard Class Type III. USCG type III is considered a flotation aid instead of the typical life vest which is usually type I or II. Type III vests are good for conscious users in inland water and where there is good chance of fast rescue. Type III are not the most buoyant of life jackets for the user may have to tilt his or her head back to avoid going face down in the water. Type III vests are specifically intended for active water sports such as canoeing or kayaking. Type I vests or off-shore life jackets, are extremely bulky and are hard to move in. These are best suited for open, rough, or remote water where rescue may take awhile. Type II PFDs, or near-shore buoyant vests, are good for calm or inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue. Type II vests are less bulky than type I but not as compatible for kayaking as type III. Type I and II are considered traditional life vest, or what most people would consider wearing or buying. Type III vests are specifically designed for movement and comfort.


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