Help a newbie? Lightweight PFD...

-- Last Updated: Mar-24-07 2:24 AM EST --

Hello from a first-timer here.

I'm an avid backpacker, and I typically head out on backcountry treks year-round, including at least one large trip (12-30 days) each summer, in places like Colorado (my current home), Washington & Alaska.

I've never been much of a paddler (save a few canoeing treks as a kid)... so consider me a newbie in this arena. But recently I've purchased an Alpacka Raft (, and I anticipate using it often in SE Alaska and Coastal British Columbia. I already have a 4-piece collapsible paddle (an Aquabound Shred) that'll pack on my back when not in use. I'm also getting a multi-sport helmet rated for river-kayaking & climbing, where that's necessary.

The last big-ticket item I need is a lightweight PFD, and I've never shopped for PFDs before. I can't stress the *lightweight* aspect enough... I'll be carrying this inside an 80-pound pack for up to 16-20 days at a time, while using it for no more than half-day stretches. Low-volume is nice too, although not as much as low weight.

Honestly, I don't even know where to look. A couple folks have suggested an inflatable PFD with a CO2 cartridge, which sounds great, but honestly I don't know anything about brands, weight, price or durability of these things.

So I'm here for suggestions. What's the lightest-weight reliable PFD I can find, with some packability and durability? Would you suggest inflatable, or no? Cheap is good, but in the end I'll pay for something if it's worth it. It'll be used in various waters, including minor rapids, calm-water river runs, and open salt- or freshwater crossings (up to 1-2 miles wide). I need one PFD that'll do it all.

Any suggestions, links, and/or advice is greatly appreciated. Please lemme know if there's anything I'm overlooking here.

Thanks a bunch!

- Mike

tough request Mike
But I can give you some good advice in one regard. If you have retailers in the area go buy it there. A poor fitting deal from ebay is no deal at all if the fit is marginal. You must (a) be real comfortable in the pfd or you won’t wear it and (b) be sure it won’t slip off in a capsize or stream crossing and float away. I’ve seen MANY paddlers assume if they capsize they can easily zip up the jacket while in the water. NOT TRUE!

Sounds like you are really dialed into your backpacking gear as am I and you know how crucial boot fit and pack fit and sleeping bag fit are to making everything work? More so with life jackets so visit your area dealers. Only way you’ll be able to really evaluate the packable aspects too. There are many, many good brands with US CG ratings. Sounds like you are a guy who knows how to have fun!!

Astral hybrid?

– Last Updated: Mar-24-07 11:52 AM EST –

I have an Astral Norge vest - it's well made by a good company, fits well, etc. They also offer a hybrid vest that has minimal flotation (8 lbs) which can be enhanced by oral inflation (+15lbs). It looks fairly compact, although I haven't tried one on. It would avoid the CO2 system with heavy cartridges. They don't state the weight, but it should weigh less than a full vest. It's worth a look.

--- just noticed, it won't be available until summer... whoops...

Thanks, lowbrace
I appreciate the advice. And you’re right, I’m very dialed into the fit of my backpacking gear (bought a custom-made pack for heavy loads just last year), so it makes a lot of sense about getting the right fit for a floatation device. Seems like a crucial detail.

One thing I’m really curious about though… it doesn’t seem that any of the PFD manufacturers actually list the weight of their PFDs online. They always list the floatation and other stats, but never the actual weight… which is why I’m having a tough time even narrowing something down. Do you know of ANY site that lists relative weights of these things?

Are the inflatable PFDs with the CO2 cartridge significantly heavier than other PFDs? They seem like they may be lighter, but I’m not really sure.

Anyhoo, you’re right, I just need to go to the nearest Kayak/Paddling store and check it out for myself. Thanks,

  • Mike

How much floatation do I need?
Thanks, carldelo. That actually brings me to another question:

I’m a male weighing approximately 180 lbs. I’ll be padding on rivers and/or flatwater, salt and fresh. How much floatation do I actually need? 8 lb doesn’t seem like much… if (for instance) my Alpacka got a nasty puncture halfway across a fjord-crossing and I found myself in the (cold) drink, would that actually be enough to keep me afloat? What kind of floatation specs should I be looking for? Something with manual inflation is fine by me.

just a note
I am pretty positive that inflatable pfds are not approved for whitewater use.

skip the inflating designs Mike
If you, ahem-leave your boat unexpectedly and either whack your noggin or get cold shock you won’t be able to diddle with blowing up any devices to save your butt. (My same complaint with blow up paddle floats!)

14-16 lbs floatation should do the trick based on your weight. But thats for a type 3 vest without a lot of gear loaded into it’s pockets or yours. If you are going light you won’t want to festoon your vest with gear anyway. But there are type 5 rescue vest that will be bulkier (not much) with 22 lbs floatation to offset the extra gear on the paddler and to provide places for towing rigs etc.

I think this vest might be what you are looking for

It’s built for more mobility in mind and flexibility in fit for going over a wider range of layers of clothing. IF you are a Wolverine (Go Blue) in Michigan try Sun and Snow in Ann Arbor or Summit Sports Lansing or Brighton.

My understanding is that most people are pretty nearly neutrally bouyant. As such, 8lbs will hold most people’s heads above water.

15 lbs is the standard to allow for all people, different clothing (stuff in pockets), and moving water/waves.

Your weight is less relevant than your density. Thin, athletic people with a very low body-fat percentage actually sink much more than, ahem, better insulated types.

Thanks lowbrace and canoehead
That’s really helpful. I wouldn’t be “weighting” the PFD down with stuff in my pockets… in fact, the fewer pockets the better. I’m looking for the KISS mentality (keep it simple, stupid). My gear will be in my pack, strapped to the bow of the raft. I can see the point about the manual inflation, and although a foam PFD will be bulkier, I can still strap it to the outside of my pack. I can use it under me as a (partial) sleeping pad during the nights, along with a regular 2/3-length pad. Gear is all about double-duty on treks like this.

I don’t have a lot of body-fat. I’m fairly slim/athletic (at least most the time, lol), and on a trek like this (multiple weeks under a heavy load) I’m bound to lose weight… sometimes up to 12 lbs in a trip. I end up looking like a wiry hobo at the end. So I’m a little leery to trust my “natural” buoyancy to keep me afloat.

I will definitely look at this stuff in the store. Do you know how much that Astral Tempo 100 weighs? They never list “weight” with the Technical specs. I s’pose it’s not a big deal to most kayakers/paddlers. I guess I’ll bring a digital scale to the store… I do that all the time for backpacking gear.

Thanks for the help, guys. If nothing else, it at least gives me some baseline data from which to search when shopping around.

Any other tips or suggestions are welcome. I appreciate it.

BTW, I am a Wolverine, but I don’t live in Ann Arbor anymore… graduated about 6 years ago. I’m in Boulder, CO currently, and there are a ton of boutique padding/kayaking shops in the area (most geared towards whitewater… not a lot of coastline here) for me to search through.

  • Mike

Kokatat Sea02
I just bought the KokataSea02. It is a Class III device so is not approved for personal watercraft use (or something).

I’ll paste a blurb:

“…the life vest’s inherent 7.5 lb of flotation can be immediately boosted to 22.5 lb by releasing the contents of the CO2 cartridge. An oral inflate/deflate tube allows the user to adjust the amount of flotation on the fly, and the flotation chamber can be inflated, deflated and re-armed without removing the life vest.”

From various reviews, an adult male can use this vest as more than a swimming aid, plus the 22lb’s of floatation is a tug away!

I wanted a non-bulky PFD.

Once I actually get out on the water I’ll post a review.

All inflatables?

– Last Updated: Mar-25-07 10:10 AM EST –


Do you mean the manual-inflate ones, or the CO2 cartridge ones as well?

Either way, I s'pose that makes sense. Take a dive into a water hole on a rapids, and you'd definitely want your floatation IMMEDIATELY, without having to blow in a tube or look for some little pull-cord. But I'm basing this from no actual experience (just thinking about it from behind a keyboard right now), so any experience-based clarification is helpful.

- Mike

Do you know what that weighs?

Any idea what the weight on that thing is?

Also, forgive my ignorance, but what exactly does “Class 3/Class 5” mean for PFDs? Is there a chart somewhere I can read up on that? If it’s not rated for personal watercraft, then I s’pose it’s not for me… since I’d be using a one-man raft the whole time. Although I’m not entirely sure… is there some definition of “personal watercraft” that I don’t know about?

Again, please excuse… I can talk backpacking gear all day and night, but I’m rather a greenhorn when it comes to paddling lingo.

  • Mike

West marine
Has an auto-inflatable PFD that goes off when submerged to a depth of 4 inches. I think they are coast guard certified for any boating use.

Any idea what those weigh?
Weight is my biggest issue. Would that be heavier or lighter than a foam PFD?

look at
kokatat’s orbit, super low profile small whitewater pfd, its gonna be a bit pricey as its kokatat but they make nice stuff

Looks just-about perfect!
Thanks… that’s looking more like what I want. No silly pockets, unnecessary webbing, or other superfluous features that’d simply weigh me down for the 95% of the time I’d be carrying it on my pack.

I’m either looking for something like that, or perhaps getting something cheaper that I could “cut off” the superfluous features as I see fit. I’ll have to check 'em out in the store and see what works.

Lastly, any idea what that weighs? No one yet has been able to answer that question (here, or online in general), and it’s what’s on my mind the most.


  • Mike

Inflatables with CO2 cartridges are heavy. Heavier than non-inflatables because of the Steel CO2 cartridge. What they are not, is bulky.

What I would recommend is the Kokatat Orbit or Orbit Tour (pockets and reflective striping). It is the smallest foam vest and is pretty light. It is a type 5 which means you have to be wearing it for it to count as a PFD but it sounds like you plan on doing that.

Kokatat isn’t using the new Gaia foam yet. Gaia is more environmentally friendly than PVC foam but it is heavier. So an older PFD with PVC foam or Kokatat’s vests will be lighter than Gaia foam vests. All of Astral PFDs use Gaia foam. They also use Kapok which is a tree material. It is definitely heavier than PVC foam. Kapok is used in their Norge, Abba, and LDB PFDs.

USCG requires 15pounds 8 ounces of flotation in a PFD. The Orbit has exactly that much. If you are in rapids or aerated water, this will not be enough for you to float.

I agree
I agree that inflating after you capsize is not ideal. I suggested the inflatable to save space and weight (less foam) in the pack. I would tend to put it on, orally inflate it some, then paddle - not wait until swimming. I think the CO2 systems would be too heavy to carry in a pack.

What about non-CO2 inflatables?
Would an inflatable PFD without a CO2 cartridge (i.e. manual-inflation) be lighter & less bulky than a foam one? I wouldn’t mind inflating it before heading out each time, if it saves me the weight and space. Or would that make it too “puffy” & cumbersome while wearing it? Obviously I’d want something fairly durable, but I’m willing to sacrifice convenience if I can save the weight. Like I said, I’d only be using this for a couple hours at a time (tops), once every few days.

Counting Ounces
I to sometimes make trips where the overall weight and volume of my gear is of great concern. I have been watching this thread hoping for insight on the same questions you ask about inflatable PFD’s. How heavy are they? Can the CO2 cartridge be disarmed and provisions for manual (lung) inflation be installed thus saving the weight of the metal cartridge?

With any vest that relies on a solid material for flotation bulk will be an issue. If you can find a PFD that lays flat it can serve double duty and function as a sleeping pad. I use my old segmented Seda vest as a bottom side insulator when sleeping in my Hennessy Hammock, thus saving the weight of an additional sleeping pad.

I own two different foam PFD’s and each weights about 17oz. I doubt if there is a solid flotation vest that weighs much less than 16oz.

Hoping others might weigh in with the weights of their vest, fellow ounce counter,