Home/Choosing Your SUP Gear, Paddleboarding Safety/How to Choose a Life Jacket for Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is an exciting way to get out on the water. However, when venturing off to enjoy the wonderful sport of SUP, it’s best to head out prepared. For a water sport, preparation includes safety.

As with all water sports, a personal flotation device (PFD) is an essential piece of safety equipment. Some states even require PFDs by law. Your age, location and circumstance determine what’s required, so it’s always good to check with local authorities before heading out.

We’re going to give you all the crucial info you need to pick a proper lifejacket for standup paddleboarding. Any paddler can tell you the importance of this buoyancy aid, but it can be difficult to know which SUP PFD is appropriate for the situation. We’re going to outline the different types of jacket, and give you recommendations for how to choose your own.

Contents

Purpose: Why PFDs?

This is pretty straight forward, but worth considering when choosing a life jacket for standup paddle boarding. Personal flotation devices are exactly that, a device that helps you float. When you find yourself in the water, whether by accident or on purpose, they provide you with a bit of buoyancy. Although choosing a life jacket is pretty simple when you think about it, in some cases they can save your life. In others, it’s good enough to keep you comfortable and give you peace of mind and added assistance when you do fall in.

Personal Flotation Device Classification Types

Personal Flotation Device Classification Types

The reason paddleboarders tend to stick to Type III and V PFDs is mainly due to their purpose-built design considerations, which provide a more comfortable, full-range of motion for water sports. We’ll dive into the specific Type III and V PFDs recommended for SUPers below, but if you’re looking for a more detailed rundown of all the various PFD types check out the Boat U.S. Foundation or U.S. Coast Guard website. Regardless of which one you choose, long gone are the days when PFDS consisted of cork vests, simple blocks of wood, inflatable life jacket bladders or even sealed gourds. Yes, sealed gourds!

Bike Tubes Used as Swimming Aids

Vests (Type III & Type V)

As mentioned, Type III and Type V PFDs are by far the most popular type of life vests for a standup paddleboard. These offer the perfect blend of safety and comfort. Let’s take a look at each type in turn.

Foam Core PFDs (Type III PFD)

One of the most common PFDs found in the SUP world is the foam core vest. Although slightly bulkier than inflatable vests they benefit from minimal maintenance and reduced cost.
Their foam construction doesn’t require any air chambers or gas cartridges to keep you afloat. Therefore, the regular service and maintenance is reduced significantly. Another major advantage that standard vests have over inflatable vests or belts is that their size allows for pockets and storage. Of course, not all models have pockets, but not all SUPers need them. Take the time to think about the range of activities you plan on doing on your SUP and in the water in general when making the final decision.
Why choose a Type III: Always on protection. You don’t have to activate or put on the PFD, and it’s always effective when being worn.
When to use: River paddling, white water especially, if you’re a less confident swimmer, or a child.
Cons: Not designed to turn you upright if unconscious like Type I & Type II.

Type III – Foam Vests

Inflatable PFDs (Type V)

Inflatable vests are a great option for SUP. They consist of either a single or pair of air chambers that inflate from a built-in gas cartridge. That technology helps them achieve a minimalist design that makes them more comfortable and less bulky. Meaning, slimmer chest and back plates and less ribbing or belts in the front. That in turn creates a life vest designed for a greater range of motion when compared to common vests.
Why choose a Type V: Maximum range of motion and comfort.
When to use: Tends to be the most popular option for most paddlers in good conditions.
Cons: Must activate, pull over your head and adjust when in the water.

Type V – Inflatable Vests

Auto inflatable and Manual inflatable PFDs (type V)

Inflatable vests come in two versions – auto inflatable and manual inflatable. Manual inflatable life vests only inflate upon manual activation. Usually by pulling a cord located in the front of the vest. Auto inflatable vests automatically inflate upon immersion, although they can be inflated manually as well. It’s important to consider how often you plan to get wet, because with an auto inflatable PFD you risk using the gas cartridge unnecessarily. Even the best paddlers fall off once in a while or feel like jumping in. Therefore, auto-inflatable PFDs are rarely used by SUP boarders.
Unlike the more common foam core vests, inflatable life jackets require regular maintenance. This of course is due to the gas cartridges that allow them to inflate. Because of this design feature, it’s recommended to check them before you head out and replace the gas cartridge annually (refer to OWNER’s MANUAL for maintenance requirements).

Inflatable Life Belts

Inflatable life belts are by far the most streamlined PFD available. When worn around the waist like a belt, it’s easy to forget you’re even wearing a PFD. However, when in use, inflatable life belts offer similar buoyancy to other options. Like manual inflatable vests, they require you the user to activate the gas cartridge by pulling on a cord. And also like the other inflatables they need to be serviced regularly because they contain a gas cartridge.

Type V – Inflatable Life Belt   –@isupworld

Things to Consider When Buying

Now that you have a general idea of the popular options for stand up paddle boarding it’s time to think through what suits you. SUPers come in different shapes and sizes with different skill levels and interests as well as comfort with and experience on the water. We should base our choice of PFD on some of these considerations.

Life Jackets Hanging Out to Dry

Size

Regardless of what type of PFD you choose, it must fit well to work properly. You could slide out of a PFD if it’s too large or find yourself overly constricted if it’s too tight. Since sizing can vary between brands and models it’s worth considering a visit to an outfitter. However, if that’s not an option, do your best to get accurate measurements of your body before selecting a size.

Also keep in mind that you may be wearing your PFD over clothing. So when taking measurements yourself or trying one on at the shop, consider your usual SUP attire. You want it to fit snugly around your chest with free unrestricted movement of your arms, which will allow you to paddle freely.

The PFD market is extremely diverse. There are male and female options which take into account all of our sizing needs and differences. Don’t be overwhelmed by the options, the variety allows for more comfortable PFDs for everyone.

Fit

Now that you found the right size it’s time to adjust it to the right fit. You may think size and fit are one and the same, but when it comes to PFDs, they’re both important to get right. Consider size and the general range that you fit within. Whereas fit is how you make your sized PFD perfect for you.

Fitting is fairly simply process, but worth taking the time to get right. It of course will also vary PFD to PFD, so it’s best to consult the owner’s manual for exact instructions. However, there a few general rules to keep in mind.

As previously mentioned you want your PFD to be snug, but not uncomfortable. Tighten it up and make sure you can still maintain a wide range of motion. When you feel like you have that right, check to make sure your PFD can’t slide too far up or down your body. If it’s loose when you’re in the water it certainly won’t be comfortable and may not even work properly.

Style

Of course, with any decision of what you’re going to wear, there’s the style factor! You’ll see that manufacturers have incorporated many style elements into their life vests these days. There are so many options on the market, and you can surely find one that fits your tastes.

Gone are the days when life jackets have a negative connotation amongst users. So if you’re going to pick a vest, make sure to pick one you really enjoy. And the choice is yours! We’d start by picking the type of life vest you want first, and then surveying the style options to find the one that best suits your tastes.

Notable PFD Brands:

Paddling into the Sunset at Split, Croatia

Different Safety Considerations

Life jackets are far from your only consideration when staying safe while paddleboarding. In this section, we’re going to run down a few other factors that you should consider for staying safe and secure on your paddleboard.

Leash

The first consideration is having a leash. A SUP leash is secured around your ankle, and ensures that your board doesn’t float too far away when you fall off. This coiled leash is designed so that it doesn’t interfere while you are using the board, but extends when you fall off to keep your board close.
This is an especially relevant consideration if you are a beginner or not a strong swimmer. As a beginner, you might fall off more often, and retrieving your board can become a pain without a proper leash. Or if you are not confident in your swimming abilities, it can be a major bonus to have your board close by.

Check Weather and Water Conditions

Next up, be sure to check weather and water conditions before you head out for a paddle. Depending where you are paddleboarding, there may be many relevant considerations as to the safety of your outing. These include winds, fast water, big waves, temperature, current, and undertow. All of these features are worth consideration for your safety.
It might help to consult a local before heading out onto a body of water. Those familiar with the conditions will be able to tell you what to look out for. This is especially relevant when paddling in the ocean or on rivers, as these tend to have more turbulent conditions.

Evaluate Skill Level

As an extension of the above, the safety of the weather and water conditions will really depend on your skill level. You should have a good idea of what you can handle before you head out. While basically anyone can handle flat, calm water, the intense surf is best left to experienced paddleboarders.
So be sure to have a realistic assessment of your own skills, because these will determine your safety at various points in your experience.

Sun Protection

Finally, consider the sun. One of the most hazardous parts of a paddle can be the risk of sun burn! Be sure to either properly apply sun screen, or buy a life jacket or shirt that will cover you from sun damage. It might not be what you typically think of when you think of “safety”, but it is a relevant consideration nonetheless.

Last Thoughts

When it comes down to it, the final decision is up to you. While the US Coastguard PFD Type Classification System is a useful guide, make sure to check the legal requirements in your area. Your choice should primarily depend on your safety. However, with so many choices you can have safety with comfort and style.
By |Published On: April 18th, 2019|Categories: Choosing Your SUP Gear, Paddleboarding Safety|0 Comments|

Share This Story!

About the Author: Matt G.

Matt Gelgota is a traveler and all around digital marketing guy. His greatest adventure to date was the Mongol Rally, a 10,000 mile unsupported on and off-road saga from Sweden to Mongolia. He has visited more than 50 countries and has been paddling a Thurso Surf Expedition since 2018. Since then he’s had a chance to paddle board in Nepal, Thailand, Japan, and the US. When he’s not on the road he divides his time between Tokyo and Atlanta, Georgia.

Leave A Comment