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5 PFD mistakes you don’t know you’re making

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May 19 is National Lifejacket Day (yes, really!), and for good reason: worn properly, lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs) save lives. According to the Red Cross, over a 16-year period, only 12 percent of “immersion fatalities” involved someone properly wearing a lifejacket or PFD. Keeping yourself safe isn’t quite as simple as just wearing any old PFD, although that’s a big step in the right direction.

Here are five common PFD and lifejacket mistakes not to make this summer.

1. Thinking that PFDs and lifejackets are the same.

While some retailers consider lifejackets a type of PFD, Transport Canada makes a distinction between the two. Both lifejackets and PFDs are designed to keep you afloat in the water, but lifejackets are specifically engineered to turn you face-up, even if you’re unconscious. Although lifejackets tend to be bulkier and more awkward than PFDs, they offer greater protection—which is especially important if you’re on a large body of water or in rough weather, or in a remote area. Lifejackets only come in red, yellow, or orange. PFDs, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable and many are better-suited to canoeing, kayaking, or water sports. Although they’re available in more colours, it makes sense to pick one up that will allow you to be seen both by rescuers and other boaters—especially if you’re in a low-sitting craft like a kayak or canoe.

2. Using the wrong size

Lifejackets come in youth and adult sizes, while PFDs come in sizes for children, youth, and adults. In order to float properly, lifejackets should fit slightly loose in order to allow water under the front of the jacket. PFDs fit according to chest size for adults and weight for children, and should fit snugly while still allowing for easy movement. PFDs made specifically for women can often be a better fit. When trying on a PFD, make sure you’re comfortable and that the device doesn’t ride up when you pull on the shoulders. Kids’ PFDs should have a large collar to support their head. For small children and babies, a PFD should also have a strap between the legs. And don’t buy a too-big PFD thinking your kid will grow into it—that’s putting them at risk if they fall in the water.

3. Using the wrong PFD for your activity

Not all PFDs are created equal. While kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddle boarders are often fond of inflatable PFDs that can be worn as waist pouches or vests, these devices—which incorporate a carbon dioxide cartridge which inflates the PFD—aren’t approved for use on personal watercraft, white water, or while being towed behind a boat. They’re approved for use with kids under 16. Similarly, a large, bulky lifejacket probably isn’t the best choice for a multi-day canoe trip. When all is said and done, the PFD that is the most effective is the one you actually wear.

4. Using your PFD incorrectly

Loosening the straps of your PFD or (worse) keeping it off completely means your protection is seriously diminished if something unexpected should happen. Find one that’s comfortable so you don’t feel the need to take it off. PFDs also shouldn’t be used as kneelers or cushions—this can compress the foam inside, affecting their buoyancy.

5. Slacking on maintenance

PFDs need to be dried and stored properly to stay working season after season. Air dry them to reduce the chance of mildew, then keep them out of direct sunlight and away from direct heat sources, as these can degrade the fabric and reduce their effectiveness. Clean them with a mild soap and water if they get dirty. If you’re using an inflatable PFD, consult the owner’s manual for regular maintenance tips.

One last thing—if you have a pooch that enjoys being on your boat, consider getting a PFD for them as well. Many dogs are good swimmers, but panic and exhaustion can get the better of them. Look for a low-profile model that has a handle on the back for extra help getting your furry friend out of the water.

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