We have a lot of requirements for an inflatable belt PFD. It needs to be comfortable to wear, easy to forget it's on, simple to use, and reliable when you need it. The NRS Zephyr meets all those criteria and is easily our Top Pick for an Inflatable Belt. Made of soft, yet durable materials, the Zephyr is comfortable to wear without getting in the way. Simple instructions and use give us peace of mind that it will work when we need it to. Of the inflatables we tested, this one is by far the simplest to use once it's deployed and in the water with you. Some useful features like an extra pocket and a view window to see if it's ready for use, along with durable materials and quality construction help propel the Zephyr to the top of our list of inflatable PFDs.
NRS Zephyr Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Quick inflation, easy to use in water, comfortable, simple repacking and rearming, useful pocket
Cons: Bulky when sitting or swimming, pack is a bit stiff
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The NRS Zephyr is a manually deployed, unisex inflatable belt PFD 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 16g CO2 canister.
Compared to the other belt packs we tested, the Zephyr has a strap of medium width and medium softness, which we think is pretty comfortable to wear over clothes or against the skin. Behind the actual inflatable pack is a soft fabric pad that keeps the scratchier fabric and velcro from touching your skin. We're impressed that the velcro - which lines the bottom and both sides of the inflatable section - doesn't seem to catch or rub while we wear it. This is not the case of all the other models we tested. A simple buckle around your waist makes it easy to adjust the Zephyr, and a little loop holds the remainder of the strap tail out of the way. Though it's not the lowest profile inflatable PFD that we tested, we still think it's comfortable to wear and we frequently forgot it was even on while paddleboarding.
That being said, none of this kind of PFD is ideal for sitting in. For it to function properly, you have to wear the bulky inflatable section on the front, which gets in the way of comfortably sitting down. All inflatable belts were pretty uncomfortable when worn in a seated position. They're all much better for a standing activity like SUP or sailing. The size of the "fanny" portion of this "fanny pack" also creates a fairly stiff section that's a bit annoying to wrap around your waist. Fortunately, the forgiving padded section behind the pack helps to alleviate some of the discomforts you might otherwise feel.
For something that only wraps around your waist and doesn't even come close to your shoulders, any PFD of this style is going to offer some pretty top-notch mobility. The Zephyr helps keep your legs mobile by having the pull tab for deployment located slightly off-center, so it doesn't catch between your legs. However, what makes this model a good choice for mobility is how well the inflating function works.
Wearing a PFD this low profile and specifically made only 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 the day comes that you need to use it's inflation properties. During our testing, the Zephyr consistently proved itself to be reliable on deployment and easy to use as an inflated flotation device. It explodes into a square-shaped yellow pillow and has an adjustable neck strap that's long enough to easily fit over your head and pull to the tightness you need, based on your height. This may sound elementary for this type of PFD, but the other belts we tested proved to be more difficult to use when inflated. Since the situation in which you may deploy an inflatable PFD will probably involve a fair amount of panic, we think it's important to have one that's easy to use. The Zephyr is also the simplest and easiest option to deflate, pack up, and rearm.
As is true of every inflatable option in this review, it's difficult to swim with an inflated Zephyr resting on your belly and looped around your neck. You can float (obviously) and maybe get a halfway decent backstroke going, but you're not going to go far once this is blown up. As a ready-for-action fanny pack, it's also not ideal for swimming when packed up, as it creates a fair amount of drag.
The first thing to note about any inflatable belt PFD like the Zephyr is that it's only intended for expert swimmers, and to be legal, it must be worn on the front. This limitation 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 sit-down paddling. On a SUP though, it's pretty awesome. Also if you choose to 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.
Rearming the Zephyr is a simple process. NRS recommends purchasing the full rearming kit that includes the 16g CO2 canister as well as 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 — that means that it joins the aquatic ecosystem as yet another small piece of trash. Though NRS doesn't mention it in their directions, you can rearm the whole thing the same way but without using the little green plastic trash piece. It won't have a nice green "I'm ready" spot in the indicator window, but it also won't fling garbage away into the sea. And, like all the inflatable PFDs we tested, there's an emergency mouth-inflate tube if you have forgotten to rearm your unit.
The Zephyr's strap and case are made of (non-ripstop) polyester, and the bladder is welded. True to what we've come to expect from an NRS product, the quality of construction is solid, and we had no issues using this PFD. Even our scouring of other internet reviews didn't dig up any dirt on potential failures of the Zephyr. NRS also backs it up with a lifetime manufacturer's warranty.
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. We assume this is to prevent potential yuckies picked up in wild waters from growing inside your PFD, so this seems like 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.
The Zephyr isn't the cheapest inflatable we tested but also isn't the most expensive. We like its compromise between comfort, usability, and reliability. For the mobility and peace of mind, knowing it will work when you need it, that it brings to the table, we think it's worth a few extra bucks.
The NRS Zephyr is a comfortable belt when it's packed up, easy to use when deployed, and simple to rearm and repack, making it our Top Pick for an Inflatable Belt. Despite not being the smallest or cheapest inflatable we tested, the Zephyr brings a great blend of comfort with the reliability of knowing it will perform admirably when you actually need it.
— Maggie Brandenburg