By Andy Knapp

Every once in a while, I see or hear about someone’s modification to a personal flotation device, usually involving the addition of extra pockets, attachment points, reflective patches, more straps, and so on. We all want to fine-tune our gear to meet our needs, but is tinkering with a PFD a good idea?

To comply with regulations covering most waters in North America, a PFD design must have the approval of the U.S. or Canadian Coast Guard. These designs are tested to meet standards of secure fit and buoyancy, and any significant modifications to an approved design would in all likelihood technically invalidate this approval. While it is unlikely that you will get that closely inspected by the authorities, the design issues of proper fit and adequate flotation should not be overlooked.

Many safety-minded paddlers want to keep certain critical pieces of gear on their person and have it immediately accessible while paddling. “If you don’t have it on you, you don’t have it,” goes the mantra. Certainly this is true for safety items such as whistles, but what about radios, cameras, knives, snacks, keys, GPS units, towlines, and any number of other items that can quickly turn you into a Christmas tree of hanging accessories? Let’s look at several factors to consider while outfitting your PFD.

First, the weight of all these add-ons may affect the buoyancy of the vest. Heavier-than-water items will reduce the effective flotation, and even neutrally buoyant objects, such as hydration bladders, will add weight when you attempt to rise out of the water during a rescue attempt. This is why PFD pockets are designed so they can’t hold too many bulky and potentially heavy things. Second, the distribution of this extra stuff may reduce the ability of the PFD to properly position your head and face out of the water.

And finally, an array of stuffed pockets, tethers, and attachments have the potential for getting snagged on something during a rescue or re-entry procedure. Repeated practice on the water in a variety of conditions will help to address these concerns as you outfit yourself for serious tours. What is appropriate for a serious paddler with well-established rescue skills may not be for the first-time kayaker.

Another approach is to look for alternative places to stow your essentials. Some PFD manufacturers offer attachable pockets and other optional accessories that presumably have met the approval process. Various models of spray skirts, paddling jackets, wet suits, and dry suits have pockets that might meet your needs. Some accessible storage can be arranged with deck bags or secured attachments immediately inside the cockpit. These alternatives will have their own pros and cons as you balance flotation, accessibility, and entrapment issues. Each of us has different paddling needs, and these will change over time. Safety is ultimately a personal choice, and by making our choices carefully and on an informed basis, we all will benefit.