By Joe Bousquin
May 11, 2004
Upside: The low profile gives you high mobility.
Downside: No pockets and awkward shoulder straps leave
you wanting more for your money.
Rating: ^^^ (3 out of 5 peaks)
Ideal User: The river playhead who absolutely must
have two of everything, including a PFD.
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
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,
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
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.
Editor's Note: Joe Bousquin is a dirtbag kayaker and employee of
Sierra Outdoor Center in Auburn, California. Email him