What’s In Your PFD?

Most life jackets come equipped with all sorts of carrying capabilities – an assortment of sleeves and various shaped pockets, zippered and mesh.   Once a friend boasted that his Astral GreenJacket was capable of carrying 8 cans of carbonated beverages.  That’s an impressive use of the compartments.  But, other than a copious amount of hydration, what can or should we be carrying in our life jackets?  Over the years of curiosity and on-river necessity, I’ve learned of endless clever items that water enthusiasts have managed to squirrel away in their PFDs’ pockets.  Some options have been added after learning from the past, some are simple life hacks, and others are sentimental, superstitious, or just random and bizarre.

Regardless of what we deem essential or worthless, most would agree that our PFDs should carry a whistle and a knife.  The later may be unnecessary for many PFD wearers but, if you’re a whitewater kayaker, rafter, canoer, SUPer, or anyone that might be dealing with ropes on the water, it’s a must, even if its most likely use is preparing PB&Js or shotgunning said beverages.   

What follows is not a decisive packing list, but a collaboration of ideas and opinions that may be intriguing, helpful, or entirely redundant. In this video Benny Marr shares what he has deemed essential PFD components.  From the wine corks and webbing, it’s apparent that in his past he has dealt with the unhappy reality of missing drain plugs and broken backbands.  Although slightly different in the minutiae, the lifejacket I utilize on a daily basis contains much of the same – tokens to river gods from friends abroad, a skullcap for a quick warm-up, earplugs, sunscreen, snacks to minimize hanger, and useful gear, including zip ties, tow tether, and a basic pin kit (webbing, 3-carabiners, and 2 prusiks).  I can’t argue with others that prefer safe-keeping a comprehensive pin kit in a drybag within their boat.  It keeps the gear dry and in best functionality.  I simply like knowing the essential pieces are always on me.  Many people I know carry a compact throw rope in their PFD for the same reason.  Likewise, on longer and remote trips I nerdily carry a small waterproof case containing a lighter, iodine tablets, ibuprofen, and a mini-tool.  They’ve all proven their worth on multiple occasions.


While working at World Class Academy, I surveyed the always cutting-edge students about the contents of their PFDs.  I anticipated pockets overflowing with nothing but snack wrappers, ants and an uncharged GoPro.  Similar to the rest of the river population, yes, there were some of those things.  But additionally, they all contained an assortment of essential gear and some other clever ideas worthy of sharing.  There was a miniature unicorn cat and a 5-dollar bill, moldy and wet from miles of traveled river. There were wise ever-essential life hacks including a toothbrush, spare contacts, and a female relief funnel.  Surprisingly, one student even had snacks that had not been immediately consumed. 

Honestly, the options are endless, and what might seem worthy to one paddler, might be incredibly unnecessary to the next.  My only intention in sharing these words and photos is the hope that it triggers a conversation with your paddling buddies about what to include in your own ultimate PFD pack list to be better prepared, comfortable, and ultimately, have more fun.


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