There hasn't been anything new in PFDs (personal floatation devices) in a long time. Part of that is due to the fact that the category has come a long way. PFDs of recent history are so comfortable that wearers can forget that they're there, and manufacturers' big stories have typically revolved around new colors or the addition of more pockets. That all changed at OR Summer Market this year with the debut of Astral Buoyancy.
Some may remember the name Philip Curry -- the boater who started Lotus Designs. In 1999, Curry sold Lotus to Patagonia. Patagonia then re-positioned all of its paddling gear under the Lotus label. Curry ended up with a lot of time on his hands to ponder PFD design while his non-compete clause was in effect.
That time off served Curry, and Astral, well. Astral PFDs are not just part of a new brand, they are a radical change from what has been offered and provide customers with a real reason to upgrade.
The most significant feature of Astral PFDs is the way that they adjust. Our tester's tried-and-true Kokatat PFD has eight points of adjustment, while Astral has just two straps that form an internal harness. This harness wraps around the body and continues up to the shoulder straps so that girth and height are adjusted at once (note that Astral's price-point line -- the 100 Series -- does not incorporate this feature).
The other feature Astral incorporates throughout its line is an integrated sleeve for a hydration system. While every pack company in existence seems to be adding this feature, paddlesports companies have been slow to catch on. For a hiker, a hydration system means convenience. For a paddler, it means not having to pop your skirt to retrieve a water bottle in heinous conditions where a swim might be very uncomfortable (again, this feature is not available on the 100 Series).
In addition to the SNEWS-tested Aquavest 200, Astral also has a complete line of models ranging from touring PFDs to rescue models to its innovative women's models. While the women's models were not tested, they feature a shorter torso length and tailored sports bra which should be a welcome innovation for both retailers and consumers.
One constructive criticism that our tester voiced was the length of the adjustment straps. Astral could shave six to eight inches off each strap. It would save some material and save users from dealing with unwanted straps flapping around. Barring that, what does one do with all of the excess webbing once the vest is cinched tight? Creating a place to tuck the loose ends into, at the very least, would turn Astral's PFDs into functional works of art.
We add a cautionary note born of experience. The Aquavest 200 accompanied our tester on a four-day Lower Salmon River trip in Idaho. PFDs are made for swimming and that's just what he did -- swimming out of holes, floating on his back down the river and in one case, swimming a powerful Class III rapid.
This particular test involved paddling out into a wave train and wet exiting. Once out of his boat, our tester hit one of several boil lines. The first took him down a few feet for a matter of a few seconds before he resurfaced. Almost immediately he was taken down again and kept on going to a very dark place for a very long time. His companions estimated that he went deep for 45 seconds. Our tester was not happy when he resurfaced and thankfully he was not dragged down again -- he relayed he was not sure he could have kept water out of his lungs had that happened.
In relating this story to Curry at Astral, he brought up the Half Bladder for its PFDs which fits in the front pocket and adds an additional 4.5 pounds of floatation. The Half Bladder is a hydration pouch that serves double duty as extra floatation if filled with air instead of liquids. It is one of several integrated accessory pieces that range in price from $30 to $50 retail. Just another add-on sale you're thinking? Our tester stated that he would have paid a lot of money for that 4.5 pounds of buoyancy.
Our tester would have experienced the same deep swim wearing most lower-profile PFDs sold today -- they all check in at about 16.75 pounds of floatation. Our tester's next trip on a large volume river will include the Half Bladder, and it should be an item that goes out the door with every Astral PFD.
SNEWS Rating: 4.5 hands clapping. (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)
Aquavest 200 -- $136
Half Bladder -- $30