Personal Flotation Devices

The decision about whether to wear PFD's on any trip you organize should be a non-issue. To the members of your Wear an approved PFDpaddling party, putting on a PFD should be as automatic as putting on a seat belt as they get into their car. 

Although it would be very comfortable to paddle without a PFD, it isn't that much of a hardship. New PFD's are light and reasonably comfortable. If we have an old one which is worn or uncomfortable, we should go out and buy a new one - maybe a jacket designed specifically for paddlers. The alternative to spending that $50 may be spending a quarter in a pay phone at a lodge to tell someone's family that he or she has drowned on your trip. All of a sudden, the cost begins to look like a bargain.

We have to remember that even the strongest swimmers can tire, expert paddlers can catch an odd wave or a boat wake, and anyone can get conked on the head by an aluminum gunwale as they tip. It is possible to fall into the water from a shoreline that is very difficult to climb out of, or get dumped into water that is so cold that it saps our energy very quickly.

We also have to remember that people who are panicking are dangerous - they instinctively want to get into the closest boat, and they don't much care how they accomplish that feat. One canoe tipped over can quickly lead to a second, and we will eventually have a disaster on our hands.

The bottom line of this whole issue is this - nearly everyone who has drowned on a canoe trip has not been wearing a PFD. The number of people who have and wear a proper-fitting PFD and drown is almost non-existent. Can we beat the odds? Probably - we may be able to paddle for years without a PFD without even a close call, but that will be little consolation on the day that we land in the drink and find ourselves without our PFD.

We should always discuss this issue with everyone in our group before we leave on our trip. We ask the group if they have a problem with a "PFD at all times" rule. If they do, we have a problem to deal with, but at least we're dealing with it around the kitchen table instead of at the dock when we're putting in at the start of the trip. If the group is in agreement with this policy, there will be no need for discussions or arguments once we are underway.

This stern warning aside, do I always wear a PFD?  I have to admit that I don't.  If I'm part of a group paddling through 6" of water in a marsh or if I'm paddling a narrow creek or calm lake close to the shore, I sometimes have my PFD within reach behind my seat.  When do I always (no exceptions) wear a PFD?

  • Whitewater or fast water
  • Large open bodies of water far from shore
  • Windy or wavy conditions
  • When I'm paddling solo

As in all things in life, there is a tradeoff between safety and comfort.  The approach to this issue should be a conservative one, always erring on the side of caution.