For most kayakers, “PFD” and “comfort” are about as synonymous as “friendly” and “undercut rock.” Sure, we tolerate their bulkiness because, well, not wearing one is really dumb. But for the most part, the traditional PFD has felt about as liberating as 10th grade English class.
With its new, low-profile Orbit vest, Kokatat is trying to change all that. The company gets kudos for the attempt, but it still has a few bugs to work out.
First, I’ll accentuate the positive. The best thing about wearing the Orbit is it feels almost like wearing nada. One look at the vest and you’ll know why — it’s the minimalist construction. The Orbit is little more than two fat, Cordura-covered foam triangles sandwiched together by six straps (one over each shoulder, two pair at the ribs). It’s definitely not a “jacket” type PFD, which many paddlers will appreciate. On the other hand, one of my customers commented that the sandwich design made her feel like “a turtle in a shell” when trying it on.
The adjustable shoulder straps are cut super long, resulting in flotation that rides extra low on the paddler’s torso. The gummy rubber on the inside of the vest makes sure it doesn’t creep up your chest, and I was impressed with the Orbit’s ability to stay in place while paddling.
This low-rider cut is also primarily responsible for the Orbit’s liberal range of motion — with all the bulk down low, there’s absolutely nothing to pinch your shoulders. Kokatat even tucks away the adjustable plastic ladder buckles for the shoulder straps into a neoprene panel at the front of the vest so they don’t dig into your chest when you’re going for that super big loop. Kokatat was definitely thinking about your comfort when they came up with this PFD.
What they weren’t thinking about was your ability — okay, my ability — to cause yourself bodily harm while tightening the shoulder straps. In order for the adjustable plastic hardware to mount on the chest, and not the shoulders of the PFD, Kokatat had to reverse its design. In other words, you have to pull up on the shoulder straps, instead of down, to cinch them in place.
No problem, right? Well, sure, unless you lose your grip on the strap while yanking up on it. If you do that, you might just clock yourself in the chin and give yourself a fat lip. (Geez, the things I’ll admit to in print for your benefit, dear reader. Remember, if you see me, you owe me shuttle.)
Another thing that bugged me about the vest was its lack of pockets — this thing is so minimal, there’s nowhere to stick your earplugs or the candy bar you wanted for downtime at the hole.
Kokatat does offer a pocket, plus reflective taping, on its slightly more refined Orbit Tour, which retails for $129, as opposed to the $108 price tag for the base Orbit. If you’re going to get this PFD, I’d definitely recommend springing for the extras of the Tour. That said, both vests seem pricey to me for what you get — compare these to the MTI Play, a Cordura, freedom-of-movement PFD which comes with adjustable shoulder straps, reflective piping and two pockets for $85.
My last gripe (and I was really surprised by this) concerns the lash tab on the front of the PFD. First off, I was a bit puzzled by its inclusion on this vest. To me, the Orbit seems best suited as a play vest, and I know few play heads who lash a knife or whistle or whatever to their jacket; I felt the effort would be better spent on a pocket. But even if I did want this feature on the Orbit, I would have been out of luck because its stitching unraveled after only three or four uses. As I said, I was really surprised by this, as it doesn’t seem representative of Kokatat’s usual hallmark for quality workmanship.
With 15 pounds, 8 ounces of flotation, the Orbit gave me sufficient buoyancy when I jumped in the river to test it out, though this is not a high float jacket. Compare it to the 16 pounds, 8 ounces of flotation in the Stohlquist Brik.
All in all, I’d say this jacket is for those paddlers who absolutely must have a downriver PFD as well as play vest to be happy. If you like its feel, I’d spring for the little extras of the Orbit Tour.