The farmers were playing hockey on the pond at Essex Farm last week and the Nordic skaters are already posting notices about ice conditions on ponds in Vermont.
Although I grew up skating on rinks I’m hooked on lake skating and counting down to good conditions.
Most skaters carry some form of safety gear in case the ice breaks but I like extra insurance. This fall I spotted a piece of equipment that looked like a good addition to my gear — an inflatable life jacket — and a friend at Coleman had one for me to try. The vest, made by Stearns, is called SOSpenders.
Inflatable life jackets are rated by the U.S. Coast Guard as Type V, but they provide buoyancy equivalent to Type III foam-filled jackets when they are inflated and used according to their design. And every personal flotation device (PFD) is designed for a specific use. SOSpenders are designed to give maximum range of motion — like when you are skating, fishing, sailing, paddling or paddleboarding.
Having a life jacket for each intended use may seem like overindulgence or unnecessary spending but there is nothing like the right gear for the job. For most activities I want light weight and freedom of motion with good security and something I can easily adjust to my clothing layers in both winter and summer.
SOSpenders inflate with a strong jerk on the cord. The inflation mechanism uses a CO2 cartridge that is activated by the ripcord. The mechanism can be set to inflate only when the cord is pulled but also can be set to inflate automatically whenever it is submerged. It can also be blown up by mouth although in an emergency I would have more trouble blowing it up than just pulling the cord. Inflation takes a few seconds as the strap-like chambers unfold and fill with air.
The drawbacks of these life vests are that they may inflate slowly in cold temperatures and that they don’t provide the warmth that a foam-filled PFD would supply in low temperatures or high winds. Some reviews say that the automatic inflation mechanism can be triggered by very high humidity. The price ranges from $100 to $250 depending on the bells and whistles. If you use a CO2 cartridge to inflate the vest you will need to make sure the cartridge is included or purchase a rearming kit. The kits are available for around $20.
I like the PFD I’ve used in the past but the inflatable is now my “go to” PFD. They make a great gift for people who love outdoor water sports although they are not intended for children under age 16 or non-swimmers. They’re a happy medium between die-hards who refuse to wear protection and family and friends who worry about safety on the ice or water.
When warm temperatures keep waterways open longer and allow extended fishing and paddling days, remember New York state navigation law states, “Anyone underway in a boat less than 21 feet in length anytime between November 1 and May 1 must wear a securely fastened life jacket. This includes canoes, kayaks, rowboats and motorboats.”
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.