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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.

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.

Choosing a Life Jacket for Stand Up Paddle Boarding


Why PFDs?

This is pretty straight forward, but worth considering when 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 it’s 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 a bit of added assistance when you do fall in.


Types of PFDs

Because of the wide variety of water sports there’s also a variety of PFDs. They come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll definitely be able to find something that suits your needs. The U.S. Coast Guard classifies PFDs into five categories. However, paddle boarders tend to stick to two of those categories, Type III and Type V.

Personal Flotation Device Classification Types

Personal Flotation Device Classification Types

The reason SUPers 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 bladders or even sealed gourds. Yes, sealed gourds!

Alternative Life Jackets

Bike Tubes Used as Swimming Aids

Vests (Type III & Type V)

Foam Core PFDs (Type III)

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 there.

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.

Pile of Life Jackets

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 5 Life Jackets Drying

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.

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. Worn around the waist like a belt it’s easy to forget you’re even wearing one. However, when inflated it offers 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 Life Jacket

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.

PFDs drying

Life Jackets Hanging Out to Dry


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.


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 in the same, but when it comes to PFDs they’re both important to get right. Consider size 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.

Sunset Paddle

Paddling into the Sunset at Split, Croatia

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.


Author Shenglong

More posts by Shenglong

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