What to Keep on Your PFD

During our circumnavigation of Florida, Dan and I encountered bad weather and heavy seas on a number of occasions. We capsized only once, but the experience changing my perspective. When a massive wave collided with my kayak, there was no hope I might roll in that really cool way the pros do in videos and pop right-side-up on the wave’s backside. Not in those seas. Not with sixty pounds of gear. When my head came above water, I was floating free of the boat, which was bobbing upside down. The next wave to hit pulled the kayak with it, and when I was dragged too, I realized a rope was wrapped around my leg. With a knife on my PFD, I could have cut the rope and easily swum free—but I didn’t have a knife. Luckily, I was able to dive underwater just enough to put slack on the rope and untangle myself.


Unable to reenter our kayaks with 7-8 foot waves crashing around us, we swam to shore, dragging our boats with one arm. Both of us could easily have lost our kayaks—they might have sunk or been carried away by the waves faster than we could swim to them. We were also off the coast of Gasparilla Island, a developed, inhabited place, so that even if we’d lost the kayaks, civilization, water, phones, and our families would have been close at hand. We were lucky, but things could have been much different.


Let’s imagine a different scenario, one in which we capsized, lost the boats, and washed ashore far from the nearest town and needed to spend a day or more walking to reach a phone. This is much more likely in Florida than one might imagine. Consequently, I think everyone on a thru-paddle should carry a number of items on their PFD: a knife, a space blanket, fresh water, waterproof matches, and a whistle.

1. Knife

Carry a knife with these features:

  • general utility knife (not a diver’s knife)
  • a fixed, 3-4 inch blade
  • corrosion and rust resistant steel blade
  • combination smooth and serrated blade
  • synthetic sheath (not leather) that can attach to your PFD
  • Be sure you can attach a floating key chain so that the knife won’t sink if you drop it.


Brief explanations of key features:

  • Diver’s knives are soft and will not last long doing the kind of general-purpose work you will perform during a long-distance kayak trip.
  • Folding knives have some attractive features: they are half as long as a fixed blade, don't require a separate sheath, and come with an integrated clip that easily attaches to the PFD. However, in an emergency situation, such as becoming tangled in a line after a capsize, it would be very difficult to open a folding knife—even those that are marketed as push-button, one-hand models. In addition, the pivot mechanism will always rust, corrode, and become choked with salt and sand. A fixed blade is therefore much safer, and easy to clean and maintain. During an emergency, you only have to find the handle and pull the knife from its sheath.


Remember, you don’t have to spend a fortune on your knife, but a good blade won’t be found on a cheep knife either.


If you’d like to read in greater depth about how to choose a knife for your PFD, the definitive article comes from the New South Wales (Australia) Sea Kayak Club magazine.

Visit the magazine’s website at http://www.nswseakayaker.asn.au/magazine/47/knive.htm  or download a PDF of the article here.

The PFD Knife by Trevor Gardner.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 40.4 KB

2. Space Blanket

Emergency Blanket at REI
Emergency Blanket at REI

Space blankets, also called mylar blankets, emergency blankets, or thermal blankets, were developed by NASA, are inexpensive, and are common in backcountry emergency survival kits. Since their use is standard practice, so I won’t extol their virtues at length. The kayaker does need to keep something in mind, however:


I kept a space blanket in the pocket of my PFD while on the CT and after the trip I unfolded it. To my surprise, it had become a big sheet of clear plastic streaked with a few lines of metal. See, space blankets are plastic films impregnated with aluminum—and that aluminum is susceptible to corrosion no different from any other metal item in your gear. During the trip, almost all of the aluminum had corroded away into the sea, leaving me with nothing but a plastic sheet, which would have been useless in a survival situation.


To prevent this during your trip, keep your space blanket sealed in a watertight container, like a good zip-loc.

3. Water

There are hydration packs like Platypus and Camelbak that can clip onto the back of your PFD. Having this fresh water with you in an emergency would be invaluable. When not paddling, these packs can become a daypack/water pack for hiking.

4. Matches & Whistle

The need for matches should be self-evident, and Florida law requires that a whistle / noice maker be attached to your PFDs. Many PFDs are sold with a whistle.