PFD use in swift water environments

The following are a few notes regarding PFD use in swift water environments. They may help you in an overall assessment of your PPE and its suitability


The quick-release belts should be trimmed so that approximately 15cm of webbing protrudes from the cam. Longer belts will take much longer to release in gentle water conditions and may tangle with other fittings on your PFD. This presents a problem for those attempting to share this equipment.

It is well worth checking the quality of the quick release toggle as we have found the short cord inside some to be deficient. A valuable part of PPE drills should be practice finding and releasing the toggle until it becomes second nature. You may also have to release someone else’s toggle in an emergency. Be mindful of the additional complication when adding a throw line belt to your Kit; this has another release toggle; make sure this is always positioned off-centre to avoid confusion.

We have found that some PFD’s do not release as they should, even in quite powerful conditions. The cause would appear to be friction on the belt as it passes under the under the user’s arms. Some models enclose the moving belt within well positioned sleeves, some do not. The only way of guaranteeing function is through regular testing in the water.

When donning a PFD make sure it is the adjustment straps that influence its fit rather than any reliance on the releasable belt; otherwise it may ride up just at the wrong time!


Most cows’ tails are connected to the releasable belt by a “D” or “O” ring. It is important to check these to ensure that any joining weld is intact. If it is not, the cow’s tail can detach from the belt or inadvertently connect to one of the belt guide-loops.

Some teams use an “O” ring without a cow’s tail (adding on where necessary for specific tasks); this works so long as karabiners are not inadvertently connected to the wrong part of the PFD in time critical situations.


It is well worth sourcing knives with a double release mechanism to reduce the chance of accidental release. The general consensus has moved away from any use of lanyards/retractable cords to connect the knife to the PFD due to the risks of injury. Avoid using them for general purpose tasks-they should be in perfect condition when you need them. Practice getting them out as part of basic PPE drills.


These should only be used if they are needed. Some wearers will benefit from the additional means of preventing the PFD from riding up once they are in the water. The down-side of additional webbing systems is their snagging potential. Any loose webbing should be carefully stowed under the PFD.



We have found that some models of PFD are made of such thin material that the buoyancy foam inside is prone to miss-shape under the arms changing the fit during use.


Depending on the type of conditions you expect to encounter you may wish to consider shoulder straps with guaranteed strength. The webbing on some straps passes from the back to the front without a break making them much stronger. This means that in the event of an entrapment a person can be pulled upwards by these straps without risk of them breaking.


Some PFD’s on the market have two or more pockets. This means you can carry sufficient equipment for most operations without compromising swimming. You may wish to cram in slings, karabiners, light-sticks, first aid kit, etc.


Those spending the majority of time on powered craft may wish to re-assess their choice of PFD. Some operators avoid the use of cow’s tails (particularly if they are slack) to reduce the risk of entanglement with other fittings in the event of capsize. Knives and other projections should be minimised to make re-entry into a righted craft more achievable. “Vest” type PFD’s will make this operation easier.