The maximalist. Photo: Neil Schulman

By Neil Schulman

Camera. Energy bar. Eye drops. Deflated beach ball. Film canister filled with a "mystery item." Somewhere in the large pocket of my PFD is the goal of all this rummaging around: a simple tube of lip balm. Sometimes I wonder if my PFD is like a "manbag" where I bring something for every conceivable situation and can't find any of it when I actually need it. And my friends often wonder if my I'll actually float, with all the stuff I have in my PFD.

Of course, there's a good reason for things to be in your PFD pockets: they're accessible. In rough water I don't open my day hatch more often than I have to, which makes the PFD the best place for items I need on short notice. The trick is knowing why you'll need what you carry more than the things you won't.

A group of advanced paddlers once got together and emptied out our PFD contents. We compared what we carried, and talked about why. It was a great exercise. Here's my personal PFD kit.

The minimalist. Photo: Neil Schulman

Whistle: A whistle is required by the coast guard, and essential for signaling and keeping a group together. Mine is tied on by a string around the shoulder strap, where it won't accidentally unzip the main pocket if it gets caught up during a rescue.

Nose Plugs: Equally obvious in function, and also tied to a shoulder strap. Nose plugs are also useful for Bob Dylan impersonations.

Water: My enjoyment of paddling improved vastly when I started carrying a hydration bladder in the back of my PFD. I keep it small—no more than a half-liter—so it doesn't add too much weight and interfere with torso rotation. The weight burden is more than made up for by not getting dehydrated. Of course, that means I also need to stop more to empty out my "other" bladder.

Photo: Neil Schulman

Knife: A key piece of emergency gear, attached to a lash tab. I strongly recommend a blunt tip, especially for a sport that involves drysuits. A serrated side as well as smooth edge is important. Obviously, corrosion-proof is important.

Watch/barometer: Second only to the water in importance, this allows me to keep track of both time and weather at a glance. I can't tell you how many times keeping track of dropping barometric pressure has allowed me to get off the water to beat a weather system moving in.

Marine Carabiner: An all-purpose device, great for quick tie-offs. \And if you want to create some mayhem: paddle up to two friends, clip their bow or sterns together, and paddle away. Of course, you might not get the carabiner back.

Grease pencil: Second only to the water and barometer in importance. I write all kinds of things on my deck or chart: tide and current times and directions, start times and barometric pressures, or how long it took to make a particular crossing. When leading a trip I'll jot everyone's name and the color of their boat on my deck, since I'm notoriously bad with names. By the end of a multi-day tour my boat looks like a big yellow dry-erase board. On a recent trip around the Brooks Peninsula, I kept a running log of the weather forecast from Environment Canada, the barometric pressure I observed, and the actual weather. It allowed me to calibrate forecasts with actual conditions much more easily, and greatly helped the go/no-go decisions with long crossings and exposed headlands.

Compass: My kayaks all have deck-mounted compasses. But navigation often means taking bearings off different landmarks. I use a mirrored sighting compass to do that without having to turn my boat in all different directions. I'll also use it for plotting courses on my chart, and the mirror is handy for putting in my contact lenses in the morning.

Glow sticks: For night paddles or being caught out after dark. These are tied to the back of my PFD, under the flap that hold the hydration bladder. If we're out past dark and need to keep track of each other, a fellow paddler can just reach over and activate one. I carry an extra as well.

Monocular: The big front pocket of my vest holds a small 7x monocular. I use it to read navigation aids, scope out sea conditions, search for landing sites, and also to tell a marbled murrelet from a rhinoceros auklet. It's not particularly powerful, but any greater magnification would just exaggerate the motion of the waves and make things fuzzier.

First aid (band aids, Maxi-Pad, gloves, and a safety pin): A guy carrying Maxi-Pads might be embarrassing, but they absorb a lot of blood if need be. The safety pin can clip a wrist cuff to a PFD shoulder strap to quickly immobilize a shoulder injury. I keep them in the front pocket in a soft dry-zip case.

Denzo tape: First aid for boats instead of people. It's petroleum-impregnated tape that can be slapped against a wet hull and creates a rough seal: not dry, but enough to get the boat to shore for a more lasting repair.

Epoxy Putty and Gloves: Epoxy putty is also handy emergency repair. It comes in a stick that you can pinch a bunch off, and rub it together activates, and also apply to a hole in a kayak underwater. It a takes about five minutes to develop a bond. I keep a small amount along with a pair of medical gloves, in a film canister in my front pocket. A larger amount lives in my boat repair kit.

Deflated Beach Ball: This one gets a lot of laughs. But if a hatch cover implodes and is lost, how will you keep water out of the compartment? Raft up, stick the beach ball under the hatch cover, and blow. It will form a seal (better on glass boats than on plastic molded hatch rims) that keeps more water from getting in. And you can use it for playing games on the water or volleyball in camp. Get one with a world map on it and it can double as a navigation aid.

Neoprene hood: A basic item for keeping warm. In trips on fair weather with cold water, I'll often carry two, in case someone else in the group gets chilled.

Eye drops: I wear contacts, and after a rolling session, they help my lenses stay in position.

Energy Bars: Tastes like sawdust, but it's sustenance when you need it.

Lip balm: If I can find it, of course.

Submersible camera: I'm a freelance photographer, and the new class of compact, submersible point-and-shoot cameras can take surprisingly sharp images, as well as video. My Canon D10 is about the size of a pack of cards.

There are two notable things I usually don't carry in my PFD. One is my VHF radio, which is something I might need quickly in an emergency. My VHF is submersible and small, but still takes up enough space to be awkward. I usually keep it on the top of the day hatch. I'll put it in my PFD if the group splits up. In a group, we usually have a couple of people to keep their VHFs in their vests so we're covered should there be an emergency.

The other absent item is flares. I usually keep them in my day hatch, in a dry bag. Like many others, I've found that the small flares (like pencil flares) are very prone to failure and need to be kept totally dry. The more reliable ones, like parachute flares, are too large for a PFD pocket. A dye marker does fit, but I've found them prone to the tops popping off as I rummage around. There's no reason to alert the coast guard because I couldn't find my lip balm.

At first every item in my PFD had its own string so I wouldn't have to worry about dropping it overboard. I found out very quickly that these lines were nothing but trouble. They were inevitably tangled, and like any line, have a habit of getting caught on something at the worst possible time. Now the only items that get lanyards are the monocular and nose clips. The monocular I'm likely to use and drop when I'm paddling actively, and the nose clips obviously need to be attached to something. I keep an extra lanyard with my camera, but it's usually not attached; I added foam to short wrist strap so it floats. I've done the same to the VHF radio.

On solo trips in potentially rough water or near darkness the VHF usually goes in the PFD, along with a dye marker with extra tape around the rim. Some people also attach dye markers to their spray skirt grab loop, but these can more easily come open accidentally. Sometimes I'll also include a paddle leash, although I find I prefer to use a the contact tow line on my deck or a tow belt to either clip my paddle to the boat, or, in high winds, my boat to me.

For exercise paddling, I usually keep the water bag either in the cockpit or on the back deck, to remove the weight from my body. My whitewater paddling setup is very different, with a different PFD.

Of course, different PFDs have different numbers and types of pockets. My main sea kayaking PFD is a Peak UK sea vest, which has one large chest pocket and back pocket rather than two or three small ones. I prefer this because the chest pocket—even if it bulges when fully stuffed—doesn't get in the way of my strokes the way small pockets closer to the sides of the vest do. And I've yet to get hung up by the big pocket in the front. The large back pocket easily holds a hydration bladder, or a VHF if you can rig a way to reach back and grab it. This setup is comfortable, but there are times when I probably resemble a pregnant hunchback. The water bag on my back slightly interferes with extreme lay-back rolls, but not enough to cause a problem worth getting thirsty over.

I prefer pullover-style PFDs rather than those with zippers. Zippers (especially front-zip PFDs) can easily catch on deck fittings during rescues and come open. And they can rust.

There are also accessory pockets that can be added to PFDs. With my current PFD I neither need nor want them, but they can work. I keep a Kokatat Rear Pocket on my whitewater PFD, which fits snugly enough to avoid flopping around or catching: I'll use it for either a very small amount of water or things like energy bars. It used to live on an old sea kayak PFD and worked fine. My partner uses the Kokatat Tributary backpack for hydration. It also fits snugly, at least on a Kokatat vest. She trimmed off the bungie cords on the back, since they didn't have much of a function and could get hung up.

Despite years of rough-water kayaking, I've yet to need to inflate a beach ball inside a blown hatch except in practice. Nor have I had to whip out a Maxi-Pad to staunch a bleeding wound. But it's a system that I'm used to and know where everything is, even if I have to rummage for a moment. And each PFD will have different pockets. Once you find a system that works for your paddling environment, stick with it until it becomes automatic. And make sure it doesn't weigh so much you don't float.

Neil Schulman is a sea and whitewater kayaker, freelance photographer and writer, and environmental consultant in Portland, Oregon.