How to make your own pfd


Curious about Wooden Canoes
I wanted to make my own pfd (personal flotation device) and started out with two warning vests (they are compulsory to have in the car here in Europe, $5 apiece). I sewed the two vests together around the neck, shoulders, armholes and down the middle and sides, creating pockets for the flotation material.

As I had some styrofoam already, I used that and cut some pieces to fit into the pockets. I had to do it in segments, because the styrofoam is rigid and doesn't follow the curve of the body. After inserting a segment, I closed that pocket by sewing. The pieces at the top near the shoulders are thinner than the ones at the bottom for comfort. When I was nearly finished, I had the idea that a camping foam insulation mat would be much better than the styrofoam, because it is pliable and you could insert it in just two big pieces left and right, maybe glued up to three or four layers depending on the thickness of the mat. (I continued with the styrofoam.)

I then added a zipper at the front, some belt loops and a bottom strap, all from material I found at home. A luggage belt ($2.50) serves as a waist belt.

If you wanted to add more flotation, you could easily add a big piece of foam mat to the back. Lift with these styrofoam pads comes in at around 5 kg (11 pounds) which should be ok. It is a swimming aid and not a life jacket after all.



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wow-- very resourceful!

What a cool and interesting thing you did... never would have thought it possible!

An interesting craft-idea for young people who complain about their PFD...

Perhaps "make your own PFD" could be offered at a future WCHA Assembly--

Thanks, Thomas!

I don't know what the story in Europe is on pfds, but in the US, many states have laws that require Coast Guard certified pfds, especially for power boats.
There are several rivers in Maine where actually wearing a type II or III pfd is required in a canoe.

Quite a few years ago, one of the major pfd manufacturers put out kits for making pfds that were effectively duplicates of their commercially manufactured very good pfds. The kits, however, could not be certified, because the method of manufacture (home sewing) could not be controlled. The kits were only offered for a short time, I presume because certification was not available.

A couple of weeks ago, a Maine Ranger was waiting at the town take out that my wife and I were paddling to at the end of a morning's paddle. He had seen that I was not wearing a pfd and seemed a bit disappointed to find that I did have a proper one in the canoe -- all that is required by law. (I do wear it in white water or in rough windy conditions, but the water we were paddling that morning was dead calm and virtually without current or breeze. I'm a pretty good swimmer, the risk of upset was virtually nil, and so I chose to be comfortable.) Had my pfd not been certified, I think I would have gotten a citation.
While PFD's only have to be in the boat in Pennsylvania waters, we were paddling on Allegheny Reservoir in the Allegheny National Forest a week ago when very courteous officers stopped us on the water and informed us that we had to actually wear the PFD's on National Park Service waters. Given the number of experienced boater deaths around here in recent years, I have been recommending that all of our members wear them all of the time when on the water. You can get used to it just like we have grown accustomed to wearing seat belts. Non-certified PFD's may pose a problem.
"Perhaps "make your own PFD" could be offered at a future WCHA Assembly"

In the U.S. the potential legal liability of doing this, especially in any type of organized fashion is literally off the charts - and for good reason. A bit of bad quality control or a miscalculation of how much flotation to put here or there could drown somebody. Certification for PFDs is tightly controlled, tested, regulated and very expensive - which is why canoe companies don't just set up a little shop and make their own custom PFDs as an accessory sideline. If they do have their own, it's simply a standard vest like a Stearns, Omega, Lotus, etc. with their name silk screened on it.

The best whitewater vests on the planet used to be Flotherchoc vests from France. Even Old Town used to sell them, but they were not approved because they used air chambers rather than foam, and air chambers could theoretically pop. We used them because they offered the best protection, flotation and comfort, but in order to use one, we also had to stick a Coast Guard approved vest or cushion inside our kayaks (by partially deflating our flotation bags - which didn't seem to make a hell of a lot of sense). Even so, we were walking a fine line because technically the CG approved device jammed under the stern float bag behind the seat was not "readily available" (which is required) and a picky ranger could have ticketed us if he had wanted to. Charlie Walbridge (famous old whitewater boater) got fed up at one point and designed an excellent, high-flotation whitewater vest that may have been sold in kit form for a while, but again, it could not legally replace the CG approved vest or device which was required to be aboard the boat.

Luckily, these days there are plenty of really good PFDs available for paddlers and sailors from the major players and other than being pretty steamy on a sunny summer afternoon, they aren't too bad to wear. They aren't cheap, but trust me, at least in America, making your own PFD is probably not something you want to mess with. It might be a perfectly safe life vest, but from a legal standpoint it might as well be filled with lead or concrete.
Todd Bradshaw said:
The best whitewater vests on the planet used to be Flotherchoc vests from France.

I agree and still wear mine regularly while stowing a modern Coast Guard approved vest to comply with the law.

Greg Nolan said:
There are several rivers in Maine where actually wearing a type II or III pfd is required in a canoe.

Which rivers are these and who enforces this?

I accidentally left mine in the trunk of my 1964 Chevelle Malibu when I junked it and didn't realize it until the following spring. I suppose it got crushed into a cube and melted down.....I was not a happy camper.:(


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Benson, this is from --

I'm not sure if a canoe is a "watercraft"

Maine - PFD Requirements

1. While wearing your PFD is not normally required by law, there are four exceptions to this.
• Children 10 years of age and under must wear a Type I, II, or III PFD while on board all watercraft.
• Anyone canoeing or kayaking on the Saco River between Hiram Dam and the Atlantic Ocean between January 1 st and June 1 st must wear a Type I, II, or III PFD.
• Anyone operating a watercraft on the Penobscot River, between the gorge and the head of Big Eddy, and on the Kennebec River, between Harris station and Turtle Island, at the foot of Black Brook Rapids, must wear a Type I, II or III PFD.
• Anyone operating or riding on a personal watercraft (jet-ski, etc.) must wear a Type I, II or III PFD.
• Any person being towed on water-skis, surfboards, or similar devices must wear a life jacket, life belt, or similar lifesaving device.
(1) Canoes owned by a boys’ or girls’ summer camp located upon internal waters in Maine and duly licensed by the Dept. of Human Services and utilized by campers under the direction and supervision of a camp counselor at least 18 years of age or older during training and instruction periods on waters adjacent to the main camp within a distance of 500 feet from the shoreline of that camp, shall be exempt from the PFD requirements.
(2) Log rafts, carrying not more than 2 persons and used on ponds or lakes or internal waters of less than 50 acres in area, are exempt from carrying personal flotation devices.
Thanks Greg, those requirements seem reasonable to me and I'm sure that canoes are included in their definition of "watercraft." It would be great to know why log rafts on ponds were excluded. Is there a Tom Sawyer group, log raft heritage association, or some other state lobbying organization that I haven't heard about?

Rafting on the Mississippi

And, if one was paddling a log raft down the Mississippi (with or without a runaway companion and host of interesting characters), would PFDs be required in some states and not in others? In this case, it might be safest to take a PFD along... especially if the rafting-party numbers more than two.
I guessed the topic of "approval" would come up. To be honest, I don't know the regulation in Switzerland and I'm not going to ask. As an adult person I take responsibility for myself and I show my safety consciousness by wearing a seatbelt in the car, a helmet on the bicycle, steel cap shoes when mowing the lawn and wearing a pfd in the canoe.

If I'm ever going to be checked, I can even show TWO tags of type approval (although not for a pfd but for a warning vest) ;-)

We don't have any wilderness left in Switzerland except a single National Park in the mountains. I'd love to go to such remote places because that's where you stand on your own and have to judge and act upon situations by your common sense, that makes it most interesting. I wouldn't want anybody starting with rules and regulations in such a place....

Just my personal opinion!

Well said, Thomas. The world needs places, such as you describe... and the world needs people who feel "right" in such places. You've opened the door to a favorite poem of mine.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

--Mary Oliver


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