NRS Zephyr Review
Cons: Expensive to re-arm, complicated repacking
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|Pros||Ultimate freedom of movement, comfortable, handy pocket||Comfortable articulated fit, multiple pockets, thin ventilating back||Very adjustable, great fit, comfortable, good sizing options, moves well, compatible with rescue harness||Soft straps, secure fit, good mobility for paddling, decent breathability||Universal size, easy to use, comfortable back, versatile|
|Cons||Expensive to re-arm, complicated repacking||No bottom security buckle, can ride up||Not cheap, full coverage can be hot, runs a bit large||Bulky high back panel, pockets only have snap button closure, doesn't go large enough for all users||A bit bulky for smaller people, mediocre durability, stiff, full coverage is hot|
|Bottom Line||Out of the way when you don't need it, easy to use and reliable when you do||With a comfortable slimline profile and high functionality, this well-designed PFD was an all-around favorite||A highly adaptable, secure, and super comfortable women's PFD with great sizing options||A comfortable PFD that does not feel as bulky as it looks but has some size limitations||A versatile, general-use vest that is good enough to get you out on the water safely and without discomfort|
|Rating Categories||NRS Zephyr||Astral E-Ronny||Astral Layla||Stohlquist Flo||Stohlquist Spectrum|
|Comfort and Mobility (20%)|
|Quality of Construction (15%)|
|Features and Versatility (15%)|
|Specs||NRS Zephyr||Astral E-Ronny||Astral Layla||Stohlquist Flo||Stohlquist Spectrum|
|Intended Use||Paddling but for expert swimmers only||Recreational, touring, fishing||Whitewater, sea paddling, touring, SUP, sailing||Canoeing, kayaking, sailing||Canoeing, kayaking, sailing|
|Entry Style||Waist belt, clip||Front zip||Pull over; side entry, off-center 3/4 zip and bottom clip||Front, center zip||Front, center zip|
|Wear Type||Belt (inflatable)||Vest||Vest||Vest||Vest|
|Sizes Available||Universal (27-50")||S/M (31-37”)
|Size We Tested||Universal (27-50")||M/L (38-44”)||M/L (38-44”)||M/L (34-40")||Universal (30-52")|
|Measured Weight||19 oz||16 oz||28oz||21 oz||18 oz|
|Foam Type||24g CO2 cylinder, high-efficiency welded bladder||Gaia PVC-free foam||Kapok fiber front, PVC-free PE foam back||PVC-free, PE foam||PE foam|
|Main Material||400D ripstop nylon exterior||300D diamond RPET||200 x 400D ripstop nylon shell, 200D nylon liner||240D ripstop nylon shell, 200D nylon liner||240D ripstop nylon shell, 200D oxford liner|
|Claimed Designed Buoyancy||27.8 lbs||16 lbs||16.3 lbs||16.1lbs||16.5 lbs|
|USCG Classification||Type V with Type III performance||Type III / performance level 70||Type III||Type III / performance level 70||Type III|
Our Analysis and Test Results
The NRS Zephyr is a manually deployed, unisex inflatable PFD belt that comes in just one "universal" size. A type V PFD with a type III performance, it's made of polyester with a high-efficiency welded bladder and operates with a 24g CO2 canister.
The Zephyr provides no flotation to the user until the lever is yanked on the PFD and a punctured CO2 canister inflates the internal bladder. Inflation is rapid; however, we could imagine it may take a moment for the user to locate and initiate the mechanisms. For this reason, the Zephyr is only suitable for strong swimmers who would be able to tread water while navigating this process.
Once deployed, the Zephyr is designed to provide 27.8 pounds of buoyancy, the most out of any of the personal flotation devices we tested. That said, as the jacket is not fully secured to your body like the other vests we tested, the buoyancy doesn't feel like it is floating your body any higher in the water than when wearing other PFDs rated with 10 pounds less buoyancy.
With a wide range of adjustability in the waist belt, this PFD is designed to accommodate paddlers with waist sizes from 27 to 50 inches.
Despite only being available in one size, this was one of the few personal flotation devices that smaller and larger paddlers unanimously felt fit them well.
Once inflated, the Zephyr is a whole different beast. The blown-up bladder is horseshoe-shaped and has to be fitted over the user's head. Even those with average-sized heads found it awkward to squeeze themselves into the inflated PFD, and those with larger heads may particularly struggle.
Comfort and Mobility
Compared to the other belt packs we tested, the Zephyr offers a more comfortable fit via a strap of medium width and softness. The latest version of this belt lessens bulk by eliminating padding everywhere but directly underneath the clip. The back of the actual pack is reasonably comfortable nylon fabric, covered mainly by the large, smooth official approval patch. The wide clip is secured to a thinly padded section that prevents it from ever touching the skin around your waist. An elastic loop keeps the strap tail easily out of the way no matter how you adjust it.
Though less invasive than a vest-style PFD, the Zephyr is still rather bulky, with its large inflatable section packed into a relatively small space. For it to function properly (and be legal), you must wear that bulky section on the front, which can get in the way of comfortably sitting down. All inflatable belts are a little awkward when worn in a seated position. You can get used to this fit and feel, but inflatable belts are ideal for standing activities like SUPing or sailing.
When packed away in the waist belt, smaller paddlers didn't find the belt too bulky, and larger paddlers didn't find it too constricting to wear.
Any PFD of this style will offer top-notch mobility since it just wraps around the waist and doesn't come close to your shoulders. The Zephyr also helps keep you mobile by having the pull tab for deployment located slightly off-center, so it doesn't catch between your legs.
Wearing a low-profile PFD that's made explicitly for expert swimmers, you don't expect to deploy it every time you get on the water, but you want to know it will work if and when you need it. During our testing, the Zephyr consistently proved itself to be reliable on deployment and easy to use. It explodes into a stiff yellow vest that slides over your head. Short black straps on either side help to pull the neck hole farther open, with no additional straps or adjustments to worry about afterward.
These types of PFDs are meant for expert swimmers in emergency situations that exceed their swimming abilities. In this respect, we love how quickly and reliably the Zephyr inflates — it's one of the fastest we've tested. Its only downside is that, because it has no additional security straps on the inflatable portion, the neck hole is very small, and some of our testers had a hard time getting their heads through it, particularly when panicking and treading water.
Quality of Construction
The strap and case on the Zephyr are made of non-ripstop polyester, and the bladder is welded. The quality of construction is solid, and we had no issues using this PFD. Even scouring other internet reviews didn't reveal any trends regarding potential failures.
The only mildly annoying thing we noticed is that the bladder and pack are supposed to be completely dry before repacking them, which just takes time. That said, this is a reasonable step to take toward extending the life of your inflatable. And, obviously, poking a hole in the bladder renders it useless, a problem foam life vests do not face.
Features and Versatility
The most important thing to remember about every inflatable PFD belt like the Zephyr is that it's only intended for expert swimmers, and, to be legal, it must be worn and armed with a CO2 canister. This definition of who can safely wear this type of PFD is limiting. It's mostly intended for paddling, though the fanny pack design might not be everyone's favorite for sitting down. That said, if you wear it a little higher on your waist, you can easily rock this thing for canoeing, kayaking, sailing, or even on the pontoon or yacht. And, on a SUP, it's pretty awesome.
Rearming the Zephyr is a simple process. NRS recommends purchasing the full rearming kit with the 24g CO2 canister and a little green tab to indicate that the system is ready for use. This small plastic tab disappears when you pull the arm that deploys the airbag — meaning trash in the water. Pro tip: though NRS doesn't mention it in their directions, you can rearm the whole thing the same way without using the little green plastic trash piece. It won't have a nice green "I'm ready" label in the indicator window, but it also won't fling garbage away into the sea. In this newest version of the Zephyr, NRS diverted from the 16g CO2 canister (that's easier to find and available in bulk) in favor of the larger 24g CO2 canister (which is a more difficult size to find at a reasonable price). Finally, like all the inflatable PFDs we tested, there's an emergency mouth-inflate tube — though this may be difficult to operate if you find yourself in a true emergency situation.
The Zephyr isn't the cheapest inflatable we tested, but it also isn't the most expensive. We like its compromise between comfort, usability, and reliability. For the mobility and peace of mind that it brings to the table, we think it's worth the few extra bucks.
It is worth considering that the recharging kits for the NRS Zephyr are considerably more expensive than the slightly smaller canisters used on other self-inflating PFDs. However, we would only expect to be inflating these in emergencies, so the extra cost of a canister is well worth it.
The NRS Zephyr is a comfortable belt when packed up, is easy to use when deployed, and is reliable to use in emergency situations. Despite not being the smallest or cheapest inflatable we tested, the Zephyr provides a great blend of comfort with the reassurance of knowing it will perform effectively when you need it.
— Sara James and Maggie Nichols
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