As outdoor instructors, there’s something about us that makes it hard to get rid of old kit. Maybe, just maybe we’ll use it again one day… With PPE gear though (helmets, harnesses, bouyancy aids and the like) it is important to keep track of how old it is and when it should be retired.
Today I finally admitted that one of my buoyancy aids was past it. Bought 5 years ago, my BA was one of the first bits of kit that I ever bought. At university I used it probably 3 times a week for two years and it’s had regular weekend use since then. Last summer, I worked in an outdoor centre in Ireland, where it was used in salt water conditions nearly every day for 6 months. I’ve had my money’s worth and then some.
So how did I know it’s time was up?
First of all, it’s five years old. Now, buoyancy aids don’t have a magic sell-by date which they self-destruct on. Some will be perfectly usable for a long time and others might wear out faster than you think. It’s to do with how much you use them and how well you look after them. Working in the outdoors, I find that my kit wears out a lot faster than it used to when I was participating a lot less on a purely recreational level. A coach can easily notch up 200+ days on the water a year – that’s the equivalent of a club paddler going out once a week, every week for four years. For the weekend paddler roughly 3 years of use is a good ballpark figure for the life of a buoyancy aid. Any extra is a bonus and of course, mistreatment could shorten it’s lifespan.
Secondly, it had holes in it. Lying down to do reach rescues, climbing back in to open canoes and catching it on rocks during canyoning trips had ripped the fabric in several places. Although they didn’t affect the floatation, they were a general indicator of it’s age.
Lastly, the most obvious sign to me was that the material had got baggy. Foam degrades with age. Some buoyancy aids will crumble inside as the foam falls apart, others, the foam sheets will come apart from each other. With most though, the foam will shrink as it deteriorates, so that the material covering it looks saggy – as though the foam inside is too small for it. A lot of manufacturers will over-fill buoyancy aids, meaning that a certain amount of shrinkage is acceptable. However, when it starts to look this way, you really need to think about testing it to see if it’s still safe.
How do you test a buoyancy aid?
Outdoor centres will have their own protocols when it comes to testing PPE. Some will random sample a percentage of the whole stock, others will test every last one. Be aware that simply jumping in the water with a BA on isn’t the most accurate way to work out whether it still provides the same amount of floatation that it is rated to. Wearing a wetsuit or being in salt water can also have an effect on how well you float in the water. Some BA’s may (just about) float you, yet still fail a proper test. The only way to test them properly is to attach the correct weight to them and then see if they float in water. Full details of how to do that can be found here.
Is there anything that can be done to make a BA last longer?
1) Don’t squash it. Don’t sit on it, kneel on it, or use it as a pillow and try to put it at the top of your kit bag in the car.
2) Wash it after use. Like the rest of your paddling kit, wash it in clean, cold water and letting it dry fully before the next use will help prolong it’s life.