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Outfitting Your PFD (Life Jacket)

I had a request from one of my readers to talk about the topic of “outfitting a life jacket”.  It has been said in reference to your safety gear, “if it isn’t on your person, then you can’t guarantee it will be there when you need it.”  The trick is finding ways to carry all this gear that will keep the items accessible and yet not hinder your ability to paddle or perform any rescues/recoveries.  As a sea kayaker, buying your PFD is just the beginning.  There are several additional pieces of gear that you will want to carry with you ON your life jacket, so buy a life jacket with plenty of roomy pockets and lash tabs.

First of all, here is a list of some of items that a sea kayaker might want to carry on his/her PFD.

  • VHF radio
  • Flares/Signaling Devices
  • Strobe Light
  • Knife
  • Whistle
  • Rescue Stirrup
  • Compass
  • Repair Kit
  • Drinking Water

This is a pretty daunting list, but I can carry all these items in and on my own PFD.  In addition, I wear a tow belt.  If you paddle in remote areas, you may want to devise a way to carry a very small emergency survival kit should you end up stranded somewhere without your kayak.  Your survival kit could be as basic as an emergency blanket, some matches, and water purification tablets in a small waterproof drybag or dry box.


Now comes the question of HOW to carry all this stuff.  I have an older style Stohlquist Mocean PFD which has 3 large pockets and 2 lash tabs.  I also have a Lotus Designs PFD backpack that I use to carry things on the back of my PFD.  Unfortunately, Lotus Designs is no longer in business and I am not aware of a similar PFD backpack being made specifically for use on life jackets.  However, I have used other small hydration system backpacks like those sold by Camelback.  They can be quite easy to attach to the back of any life jacket.

My VHF radio fits in a specially designed pocket on the front of my PFD.  My radio is about 10 years old and is quite large.  Newer radios can be much smaller and easier to fit in a pocket.  In the large pocket behind the radio pocket, I carry a rescue stirrup.  Also inside that pocket and attached to a D-ring inside the pocket, I have an orienteering compass, a signal mirror, a laser flare, and a Fox 40 whistle.  On the other side in a large bellows pocket, I carry a small, basic on-water repair kit in a small dry bag.  the repair kit contains some Gorilla Tape, epoxy putty, a garbage bag, a few zip ties, and a couple large elastic bands that will fit around my hatch cover rims.  A Spyderco knife with the saltwater-resistant metal blade is attached to the lash tab on the front of my life jacket.  The lash tab on the back shoulder holds my rescue strobe light.  The Lotus Designs PFD backpack holds a plastic hydration bladder with drinking water, a dry bag with my flare gun and flares, and a large, heavy duty orange survival bag that can be used as shelter or for signaling.  I have a small string attached to the bag containing my flare gun so that I can more easily remove it in the event of an emergency.  The string clips to a D-ring on the right side of my PFD.  I can grab and pull the string with my left hand to pull the flares out of the pocket in which they are stored on the back of my PFD.  Despite carrying all this gear, my life jacket still has plenty of buoyancy to keep me afloat, and with the occasional exception of my radio antenna, none of it gets in my way when I am paddling, rolling, or trying to re-enter my kayak from the water.  I do plan to get a smaller radio in the future which should hopefully rectify even that small issue.

While this is the list of what I carry and the way in which I choose to outfit my own life jacket, but no means is this the only way that it can or should be done.  I would suggest that you talk to other sea kayak instructors and skilled paddlers to see what and how they choose to carry important gear with them on the water.  Think about what you will need.  Remember that items must be easily accessible, preferably with one hand, and consider what would happen if you wet exited and found yourself separated from your kayak.  I’d love to hear what other gear you may carry with you, and how you have solved the problem of “how” to carry it.



Attaching a basic Camelbak hydration bladder backpack on a Kokatat PFD.


This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Seem that attaching a Camelbak is affecting the lower part of the pfd and I can only imagine that the straps could be incomfortable (with the plastic parts). As you have a Kokatat PFD you should look at the external hydration attachment (Tributary). I have successfully attached it to my old and new PFD that are not Kokatat and find they are worth every pennies.

  2. I never had any discomfort with the Camelbak pack that I used in the past although I could see that certain Camelbak-type packs would have that problem. The straps were thin and the plastic parts were located at the bottom of the straps so there was no rubbing. The Kokatat Tributary is too small (in the opinion of the people I paddle with) which is why we have looked for other options. If I am going to the trouble of filling a hydration bladder, I want at least 2 liters.

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