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PFD Zipper vs Buckles

Sep 5, 2018
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I/we rarely wear our PFDs. Never owned a bike helmet, nor wear a hard hat when using a chainsaw. Just grew up this way I guess. I'm not a gear junky and have re-purposed our 30-yr-old (buckled) water skiing life jackets as our tripping PFDs as they tuck nicely behind the carry handles. We just recently purchased a couple new (zip-up) PFDs the brands and models I don't know as of this moment but they both cost around $90 so good-enough I would imagine with the impetus being less shoulder/armpit chafing as on our last trip we were bulked up a bit with clothing and did have to wear them on a particularly windy day.

It did not take long for me to notice 2 "problems" with these vests. The first being they are a miserable struggle to zip up which does concern me if we would ever need to put them on in a pinch or most unfortunately while in the water. The second being we have always quickly buckled our vests around the seats while portaging. Clip, clip, clip, done.

Aside from the obvious answer to always wear your vest does anyone have thoughts on this or are there paddling vests out there with buckles. I have not done a whole lot of research but thought I would start here.

NRS Ninjas are buckle and on close-out.

I have a high flotation NRS PFD which I bought for whitewater rafting years ago. I agree with you-it is hard to zip up. I generally have to loosen the straps to get it zipped. It is also hot. I got an NRS Ninja a couple of years ago and really like it. It has large arm openings, no chafing and is comfortable to wear. I literally forget that I have it on. It fastens with two buckles and has a front pocket big enough for my IPhone. I think that it would be hard to put on while in the water in an emergency though, as you have to put it on over your head and then find the buckle ends. Pretty tough while treading water! This type of PFD looks quite small compared to he traditional jacket type, but they do work. I tested it thoroughly in a pool. BTW, I always wear a PFD, bike helmet and even ski helmet now. Having been knocked unconscious has made me more safety oriented. NRS has a good selection and generous return policy.
NRS Ninjas
Prior to getting antsy and running out to the local fleet supply store to buy the two we now have, I did see these Ninja's were highly regarded and rated.

I think that it would be hard to put on while in the water
:confused: Darn. I suppose no PFD manufacturer would tout "Our vests have consistently outperformed our competitors when it comes to donning them while bobbing in the water frantically fighting for your life."
Several companies make "All Person Fit" PFDs that fasten with front buckles rather than a zipper such as the MTI APF and the Stohlquist Fit. Outfitters often use a basic version of a one size fits all front buckle style.
Last year I was leading a club trip and I sent out an email about gear safety that included a suggestion not to buy life jackets with buckles rather than zippers. My thinking being that almost all the quality jackets I've seen had zippers, but the cheap kind, like you find a Walmart, have buckles. One of the group, who had an NRS PFD, jumped on that. Most NRS PFDs have side buckles, but they are the exception, not the rule. I still think most quality life jackets have zippers.
I always buy a PFD with a front zipper, that I can get at, and one waist strap and buckle, to keep it from riding up.
Recently, I went on a semi whitewater outing and a guy showed up with a Mohawk whitewater canoe and a Walmart type buckle up life jacket.
This guy was very obviously a skilled whitewater paddler. I didn't say anything.
I think you can get a good lifejacket without paying an arm and a leg, but I don't think you should go too cheap with something that might save your life. I'm a fan of zippers on life jackets.
My answer to the "zipper or buckles" question is "neither". These days I use pullover type PFDs that have adjustable side straps on either side that can be tightened, but not completely released.

I have used zippered PFDs in the past made by Extrasport and found them to be quite comfortable. The only problem I encountered with these was during early Spring whitewater paddling in sub-freezing weather when the zipper would ice up to the extent that it could not be undone unless you sat in your vehicle with the engine running and the heater on for a prolonged period of time.
I bought a kokatat hustle last month and have used it in both whitewater and in a recent aggressive 3 day trip. I really like it. It pulls over your head and has side buckles. No arm restrictions and very comfortable.

My answer to the "zipper or buckles" question is "neither". These days I use pullover type PFDs that have adjustable side straps on either side that can be tightened, but not completely released.
This is what I've gone with, as well. Do keep in mind that these are usually "Type V" special-purpose devices. Mine only meets legal requirements if I'm actually wearing it. (I tend to sink, so I'm wearing 100% of the time anyway.)
My pfd is also the pull over your head type which is tightened on both sides with 3 buckles. Very comfortable and not hot to wear as the front flotation panel floats slightly away from your torso.

I had a pfd zipper failure on a 10 day sea kayak camping trip,. The finger tab that is used to pull the zipper back and forth broke off. Rendered the pfd virtually useless until one of my companions came up with some stainless wire he brought with him. We fashioned a zipper pull from that, but it does illustrate the zipper is a single point of failure for the pfd.
My USCG approved type V pullover style Kokatat "orbit" with pockets is the type most of my Yukon River paddling buddies use. Photo taken during a mandatory stop at Eagle AK to show our passports to Customs Agent Officer Floyd Collins. A super nice guy, he had pre-race on the phone told me we would be in and out within 2 minutes. But he had so much useful information that we dawdled for 20 minutes chatting with him during our 1000 mile canoe race. (No other racer passed us during our interim pause.) Everyone wears their PFD 100% while on that broad fast moving recently ice melted freezing cold water. Unfortunately Floyd was killed when his truck rolled over down a different river embankment during the following season heavy rain storm.

Officer Charles Floyd Collinsat eagle.jpeg
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If you wear a PFD all or most of the time, I think physical and thermal comfort (esp. in hot weather) and freedom of motion are much more important than whether it has zippers, buckles or is a pullover.

I have had one very scary experience with a zippered PFD, as most of mine have been. It was an Extrasport Hi-Float PFD that I always wore for whitewater paddling in the 1980s and 90s. It had a full front zipper and a fabric waist tie. I replaced the waist tie with a Prusik cord and two interlocked carabiners, which were intended for river rescue work.

Running the Cheat Canyon in open boat high water in 1988, I got swept into the hole at the bottom of Big Nasty Rapid. After side surfing for my life for about 20 seconds, I got window-shaded and spat out of my boat. After surfacing and coming to my senses, I found my PFD had become completely unzippered! The only thing that kept it on me was my interlocked carabiner waist tie. That violent hole probably would have ripped the PFD off me if I had kept the fabric waist tie.

since the advent of plastic buckles,(my first was a Woodstream multi-panel WW vest) that's what I've used for several reasons- buckles don't freeze when mornings can be below 0C (32f), they don't get plugged with sand or debris, and are generally very adjustable to allow for more or less clothing. I literally wear out (foam coming through the fabric) about 4 pfds every 10 years from tripping and teaching and have tried dozens because I go for fit and function over brand.
Long gone are the days when the only options were Buoy-o-buoy's or horse collars and there are many quality, well thought out pfd's with buckles or a hybrid of both on the market, far more important is whether it will do the job for you and that it fits right.
Finally getting back to this and certainly lots to consider. Photos of our new vests below. Have no clue if Onyx is a good brand however they did come from the local Fleet store so probably not. Mine is a universal size but when the straps are snugged up, it does feel proper. I'll need to read through all the comments and suggestions at lunch break later today. Our trips have no whitewater or rivers. Slow, winding streams at times.

You need to test your gear!!!!!!

The fit is extremely important for swimming and for cold water protection. It's important. Differences can be dramatic.

My NRS Ninja is much better for swimming than my Astral V8 or Extrasport; it also provides more cold water protection. If you're in the water you can snug it up TIGHT by pulling two straps and then it will not move. Can't do that with zippers which seems to compromise the basic function of a PFD.

Regular seat belts are more comfy and convenient than 5 point harnesses too, the only problem is that they aren't nearly as safe.

Just follow safety guidelines on Americancanoeing.org and you won't have to rely on opinions or speculation on safety topics.
Just to be sure we've covered all the bases, another pfd option to be considered is one that inflates with a CO2 cartridge, either automatically when it hits the water, or by pulling a tab. The ones I'm familiar with are by Mustang Survival, but there are others. My wife wears one during the summer months in preference to a regular pfd.

You need to test your gear!!!!!!
This is where I am with the new vest(s). Time for a swim and some practice and if these just aren't the ticket will be getting something different. Our trips just don't compare in danger to some of the things noted above...wind aside where I have no trouble putting a vest on. Portaging has always been more of a concern and I won't be wearing a helmet.