The Zen has a quick-release rescue belt with a stainless steel attachment ring, a quick-release carabiner attachment loop for a tow-tether (sold separately), a lash tab for a rescue knife, and a large front zipper pocket.
In order for the Zen to be considered a rescue PFD, these features are 100% necessary, but the Zen also has some nice unessential luxuries. For instance, there’s a fleece-lined hand warming pocket on the front of the vest—I definitely appreciated this feature on several super cold Gore Canyon runs this year.
The Zen also has reflective material on the shoulder straps. I’m a big fan of this feature—it’s pretty handy if you find yourself out in the dark and need to be more visible.
All that said, this is a “minimalist” vest, so it’s obviously going to be missing a few bells and whistles. I definitely miss a belay loop like the one on my Green Vest, which came in handy when lowering boats or people into a canyon (even though I wouldn’t trust it for a full-on rappel).
The Zen also doesn’t have much space to store a chest throw rope. I personally don’t use a chest bag since I feel that it adds bulk to already bulky rescue PFDs, and thus inhibits my paddling, but I know of many people who like this feature. You could try to cram a throw bag in the small velcro pocket behind the hand warmers, but that would make it difficult to fit your hands into the warmers. If you want to use a wearable throw rope with the Zen, I’d recommend investing in a waist bag.
Fast access to carabiners can make or break many rescue situations. The Green Jacket has many little loops on the shoulder straps and between the inner and outer panels, loops that make it easy to clip lots of carabiners onto my vest. With the Zen, I usually store my biners in the front zipper pocket, which is quite large. I have no trouble fitting the biners and a Snicker bar or two in this compartment, but I do miss the extra storage space provided by the loops on the Green Jacket.
As a former raft guide, I can see the appeal of this vest for people who push rubber down river every day during the summer. First off, the price tag is affordable. Secondly, the Zen has all of the essentials without the added weight and bulk of other rescue vests.
The only other thing I’ll say here is that I have experienced some pretty extreme nipple chafe while rowing a boat shirtless in the Zen (although this can happen with any vest). We all know that raft guides go shirtless to get their tan on…
This isn’t exactly a competition vest for those who are paddling in the top ten at big events, but it is much better for playboating than other rescue PFDs I’ve used. So yes, while I know it’s a bit odd to discuss the playboating qualities of a rescue PFD, it’s still valid since most of us only want to own one PFD.
My primary activity these days is creeking and running rivers, but I still like to get down and dirty in the play park every now and then. The Zen’s low-profile fit lets me do both without needing an ultralight play vest.
The Zen is a really good rescue PFD, especially when you consider its affordable price. Although I sometimes find myself missing small features such as the Green Jacket’s belay loop or additional rib protection, I think the Zen is a capable rescue vest with just enough features to keep you safe and comfortable.
If there’s one final endorsement I can give, it’s that I felt confident enough in the Zen to drop into the Grand Canyon of the Stikine with it strapped to my chest this past fall.