Smallest airline-safe PFD?
September 24, 2013 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Trying to find an extremely small personal floatation device which is airline safe and suitable for a non-swimmer; any recommendations? I am aware of the various "belt-pack" devices, but all of those I've found thus far rely on CO2 and are not especially suitable for non-swimmers.

I have upcoming river travel in some fairly remote areas with a companion that is not a good swimmer. While we could probably get away with a CO2-initiated PFD in most of the developed world, the prospect of trying to get a CO2 cartridge through security (either checked or carry-on) in the backcountry parts of the developing world does not fill me with enthusiasm.

Consequently I'm looking around for extremely portable PFD strategies that don't rely on CO2. I'm considering acquiring a SOSpenders-style device, and then removing the CO2, but that will rely on my companion being able to inflate the device themselves, should it be needed. This worries me slightly, but at the same time I am concerned about the overall weight & volume for traditional PFDs, since we will need to carry them for weeks and my companion is not enthusiastic about wearing a traditional PFD in the presence of border tribes.

An alternative might be some type of throwable survival floatation device, if it doesn't require CO2? The river travel is slow, so consciousness upon entering the water is basically assured.
posted by aramaic to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total)
Have you gone to any stores and tried on PFDs? Some of the jet-ski ones are fairly thin and lightweight now. Also kayaking-style ones give you more freedom for your arms, though they do sit in a bulky way over your stomach.

I don't know of any inflatable ones that don't use the CO2 cartridges, and honestly I would be concerned about a non-swimmer using one. For the non-swimmers in our family we rely on the jet-ski style above since they don't have to do anything to activate it and it's fairly comfortable. Unfortunately that doesn't address their hesitation over wearing a regular one.
posted by brilliantine at 7:56 AM on September 24, 2013

some type of throwable survival floatation device

If the plan is to have a panicked and disoriented person who can't swim catch something you throw to them, well that sounds like a bad plan.
posted by ryanrs at 8:29 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Non-inflatable PFDs are bulky inherently, by the laws of physics. You cannot displace X volume of water without taking up X amount of space. The smaller ones provide less floatation inherently. This is why they make inflatable ones, because you need a PFD to take up a certain volume to work.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Perhaps I should have said "most concealable" rather than "smallest". My companion is somewhat concerned that a standard PFD, whether worn above or under clothing, will either make them the subject of mockery or (worse) be misunderstood as a bulletproof vest or other piece of military equipment (locals do not use PFDs, and have unpleasant experiences with military personnel).

Floatation aids which do not look like a vest, for example, would be a welcome option.
posted by aramaic at 8:55 AM on September 24, 2013

In that case, I think your companion needs to take some swimming lessons if they are able to. I don't think you're going to find a personal floatation device that meets your criteria without compromising safety, and not being able to swim on this trip sounds like it could be a potentially hazardous liability even with proper PFDs.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:01 AM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know this sounds bizarre, but what about a kickboard?

I'm an *extremely* poor swimmer and afraid of the water as a result, to the point that even a vest feels like it allows me too little control in the water (the vest will keep you from sinking, but it can be very difficult to move in if you don't have swimming technique down otherwise). Kickboards are the only thing that give me real freedom of movement and thus make me feel comfortable/allow me to actually participate in water activities.

Throwing a kickboard is unlikely to be much help, but if you worry about the swimmer being unable to hold onto it while on the water, there may be some out there with an attached leash (or maybe you could try to do a mod). It should also be able to slip into baggage pretty easily, is extremely light, and I doubt anyone would think of it as some kind of military gear, considering it works on the same principle as holding on to a floating log to keep above water.
posted by rue72 at 10:01 AM on September 24, 2013

A seat cushion floatation device might be the closest you get to your requirements. Nobody is going to blink an eye if you bring your own seat cushion. They will keep your head above water if you don't panic, but in a real drowning situation with a frightened non-swimmer you might consider them 50/50 at best. You should have the person practice using it in a swimming pool. Put your arms through the straps and clasp it to your chest. Lay back with your chin and face out of the water. Do not try to put it on your back.
posted by JackFlash at 10:03 AM on September 24, 2013

…in the backcountry parts of the developing world…

…concerned that a standard PFD, whether worn above or under clothing, will either make them the subject of mockery…

My experience with this sort of travel is that if there's anything that visibly marks you as Not From Around Here, you're gonna get a certain amount of ribbing and point-and-laugh anyway — especially if it's an area that attracts few tourists. (And probably there will be something that marks you that way, because unless you know the area extremely well there will be regional, cultural or ethnic markers that you don't even notice.)

I may be wrong, and I'm not trying to tell you your business. I've just been through this experience — "Oh, if I do X and Y and Z right I'll fit right in" followed by "Shit, never mind" — a bunch of times in a bunch of places, and frankly just about everywhere I've been it turns out the best policy is more like "Go ahead and stick out like a sore thumb, take the good-natured ribbing, play along, and find ways to use it as a conversation starter."

Which, not coincidentally, is the best policy for dealing with people who mock you for wearing a lifejacket here in the developed world too.

(The military thing is more worrying. On the other hand — is the situation there really so bad that "undercover military/paramilitary unit infiltrating our community" will be a more likely hypothesis than "a couple tourists or maybe some missionaries or something"?)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 10:09 AM on September 24, 2013

PFDs are designed to keep the wearer's head above water. You might consider under-spec-ing it, say, a smaller size of closed cell foam /soft ski vest. I'm a decent swimmer, but I wear a PFD a fair amount, especially in a river. Mockery is stupid, and no reason to not wear the PFD. The standard, blocky orange ones aren't very comfortable, but more stylish ones exist, and look non-military. The soft ski vests are quieter and softer, so may be easier to wear. Life vests are also warm, which should be taken into consideration when planning clothes.

I nearly drowned as a kid due to not wearing a life vest. Ending up in the water is a real option on your trip. Easy to avoid the risk of a nasty experience or worse. Bring an inflatable seat cushion, too, unless you know the outfit is really safety-conscious. Life jackets are bulky, but not very heavy.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on September 24, 2013

The TSA allows CO2 cartridges in life vests, plus spares, in both checked and carry-on baggage. I would be inclined to go with a SOSpenders type device as it seems unlikely that other countries will be more draconian, especially if you explain that it is safety equipment.
posted by exogenous at 11:03 AM on September 24, 2013

If the weather is on the colder side, you could get a float coat (just linking here for the pics - no idea about the shop); they look like regular jackets. They even sell short sleeved ones.
posted by bluefly at 11:36 AM on September 24, 2013

Geez man, is your friend more concerned about mockery, or about drowning? If they are worried about looking like a noob who can't swim... well, they are a noob who can't swim. Better to accept the writing on the wall than let your pride kill you, I would think.

Nthing Jet-ski vests, they are surprisingly compact and usually in dark colours these days. I don't think anyone would see someone on a kayak or whatever wearing a dark vest, and think that it's a bulletproof vest as opposed to a lifejacket.
posted by smoke at 4:11 PM on September 24, 2013

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