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When should you replace your personal flotation device?

This story was originally published on CANOE & KAYAK. Words by Katie McKy.

Be honest: Do you ever give your life jacket some TLC or do you always assume that it will be there for you, like a doting dog? There are times when maximum buoyancy is a life-and-death matter.

Personal flotation devices (PFDs), like everything else, have finite lives. If it’s to save your life one day, prolong its own life as much as possible, and when the time comes, replace it.

Having the right PFD could save your life. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Lili Colby, the Chief PSDiva at MTI Adventurewear, which makes nothing but life jackets and has done so for 25 years, understands how many paddlers abuse their products.

“Many people come back tired from a paddling trip and simply throw their life jackets in the corner of their garage or in the bottom of their boat,” she shares.

Tossed into a dark corner, PFDs can turn into a petri dish for mildew, which can both break down fabric and flotation and make them less likely to be worn in the future. So how do you keep your PFD at peak performance and avoid the funk?

Colby says, “It’s all about how well you take care of it. After each use, rinse it out with freshwater, and not just after saltwater paddling. Even the salt from sweat can reduce its lifespan.

“Then dry it out properly. Put it on a hanger and open the straps to let air get to it. Dry it right side out and then inside out.”

Quality PFDs mean happy paddler and happy pooch. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Just as it’s best to store a boat inside, so it goes with your life jacket.

“Store them inside a boathouse or garage, out of the sun,” Colby continues. “Sun degrades the material. Fading is the first sign your jacket is getting worn out. Fading might not mean your jacket is compromised, but it’s a sign it’s headed that way.”

What are other signs that it’s time to shop for a new life jacket? Ripped fabric and frayed webbing are good indications.

“There are expensive and inexpensive lifejackets,” Colby says. “The latter use cheaper foam, which breaks down. It can become dry, and some have been recalled.”

A lack of quality can mean your dream of surviving a spill turns to literal dust. Coast Guard inspectors in Key West, Florida, recently discovered more than 60 life jackets whose flotation had crumbled, broken and even escaped the fabric. These life jackets had been properly stored away from sunlight and kept dry, but the unicellular foam likely degraded due to high temperatures.

The Coast Guard urges boaters to be alert to compression of a life jacket’s flotation foam, which reduces buoyancy and can be caused by years of storage. Foam that is hard, stiff or brittle is also problematic.

Having a functioning PFD is key in big water. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

A simple test is to squeeze it to half its thickness. It should return to its original thickness shortly. Another indicator of an expired lifejacket is wrinkling of the fabric covering the foam, which suggests the flotation foam has contracted, becoming less buoyant. The Coast Guard warns that life jackets manufactured by The Safeguard Corporation should be especially scrutinized in the preceding ways.

“If you bought something cheap, poke at it,” Colby says. “If your finger goes through it, you need a new one. Quality foam tends to keep its flotation qualities.”

Even if your life jacket’s flotation is fully functioning, if it’s too tight or plain old ugly, you’re unlikely to wear it.

“Does it still fit you? People don’t want to wear moldy, ill-fitting life jackets. Make sure it’s comfortable,” suggests Colby.

Mary Snyder, VP of marketing at Absolute Outdoor/Onyx, says, “The law states that your PFD must be in good condition before you go out on the water. If it is not in good shape, it should be destroyed and a new one should be purchased.”

Just as you change the battery in a smoke detector, do the same with your life jacket.

Snyder says, “Another recommendation by the U.S. Coast Guard is to test your life jacket at the beginning of each season.”

Read more about PFDs on CANOE & KAYAK

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Ask Eddy: The History of PFDs

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