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How to Choose a Life Jacket (PFD) for Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Ensuring safety while enjoying stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is paramount. One crucial aspect of this is selecting the right life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD). Not only is it vital for your safety, but it’s also legally required in many places. This guide will walk you through why life jackets are essential, the different types available, and how to choose the ideal one for your paddleboarding adventures.

Why Lifejackets are Important (and the Law)

Safety First

Life jackets save lives. They keep you afloat and reduce the risk of drowning, especially in unexpected situations like sudden falls, strong currents, fatigue or health issues. Even the strongest swimmers can struggle to stay afloat for an extended period, making life jackets critical for safety.

We covered this topic in depth in our The Importance of Wearing a PFD and Leash While Paddleboarding blog.

Legal Requirements

In Canada, and many regions around the world, wearing a life jacket while paddleboarding is not just recommended; it’s the law. The Substitute Safety Equipment provisions in section 4 of the Small Vessel Regulations do not allow leashes in place of lifejackets and PFDs.

A SUP is a human powered boat less than 6m and you are required to carry mandatory safety equipment under the Small Vessel Regulations.

Always check the local regulations for your area to ensure compliance.

Types of Life Jackets and PFDs

Firstly, what's the difference between a lifejacket and a PFD?

The terms “life jacket” and “PFD” (personal flotation device) are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference between the two. A life jacket is designed to turn an unconscious person face-up in the water, while a PFD provides buoyancy and keeps you afloat but does not have the same turning capabilities.

Types of Life Jackets

Type I - Life Jackets

These are offshore life jackets designed for rough or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. Think the 'over the head' stored on ferries and cruise ships type. They offer the most buoyancy and are designed to turn an unconscious person face-up in the water. However, they are bulky and not recommended for SUP.

Type II - PFDs

Type II PFDs, also known as offshore buoyant vests, are crafted for those navigating isolated or rough waters. These vests provide high buoyancy and are suitable for a wide range of water conditions. Whether you’re an ocean racer or an adventurous sailor exploring open waters, offshore vests offer unrestricted movement, exceptional comfort, and total peace of mind for long days at sea. However, because they are expensive and SUP is not their intended use, we don't recommend them for paddleboarding.

Type III - PFDs

These are the most popular choices for SUP enthusiasts. Type III PFDs are ideal for calm, inland waters, offering excellent buoyancy. They are comfortable, available in various styles, and provide essential freedom of movement for paddle boarding. Designed specifically for activities where adventurers can see the shore, these inshore buoyant vests ensure both comfort and safety. Inshore PFDs excel in balancing user safety, advanced technology, and sleek design. In essence, these PFDs provide reliable flotation, keeping pace with all your adventures.

Type IV - PFDs

These are throwable devices like rings or cushions. They are not intended to be worn but can be thrown to someone in distress. They are not suitable for SUP as a primary source of flotation.

Inflatable Waist PFDs

Inflatable Waist PFDs are lightweight and less bulky, making them popular among paddlers. They can be either manually or automatically inflated. However, they require regular maintenance and are not suitable for individuals under 16 or non-swimmers. We recommend using a traditional Type III PFD.

How to Choose the Right Life Jacket for SUP

  1. Know your weight and intended water activity as well as consider the type of water you'll be paddleboarding in, whether it's calm inland waters or rougher open waters. You'll likely want a Type III or foam PDF as they generally offer the best mobility.

  2. Consider your budget (and the cost of fines). Don't be afraid to invest in a quality life jacket. Remember, it's your safety on the line, and paying the fine could have bought you 1-2 PFDs!

  3. Ensure that the life jacket is Transport Canada and/or U.S. Coast Guard-approved or meets the relevant certification standards in your region. This guarantees that the PFD has passed safety and performance tests.

  4. Ensure that the PFD has adequate buoyancy for your weight. Most adult life jackets range from 15.5 to 22 pounds of buoyancy. Check the label for buoyancy ratings and choose one that matches your weight.

  5. Consider additional features you might want like pockets, reflective strips, marine radio clip, knife attchment and a whistle for added safety and convenience.

  6. Consider the material of the PFD, as some fabrics can be more durable and comfortable than others.

  7. Go try them on and adjust for fit and comfort.

  8. Start by loosening all the straps.

  • Put it on, do up the zipper and then buckle and tighten the bottom strap below the rib cage. This strap is to prevent the jacket from riding up in the water.

  • Then, tighten the straps along your rib cage. You want these to be VERY sung.

  • Finish by fitting the shoulder straps. Tightening the shoulder straps first will make the jacket ride up too high.

  • Consider if there is extra room on the straps for wearing extra layers in cold weather. If there isn't enough room, try a larger size.

  • Now, test the fit by raising your arms and having someone lift you up by the shoulder straps. If the jacket slides up, retighten the bottom strap. If it still rides up, try a different jacket model or size. The PFD should NOT slide up.

  • Move your arms and mimic paddling motions. Bend over. Feel it out.

  • Wear the jacket for a few minutes to ensure all-day comfort. You'll be wearing it all day while paddleboarding.

Ready to find the perfect life jacket?

We recommend shopping at the following places;

Choosing the right life jacket for stand-up paddle boarding is crucial for safety and legal compliance. Remember to consider fit, buoyancy, mobility, material, and extra features when making your selection. By investing in a quality PFD, you can enjoy your time on the water with peace of mind and avoid being fined.

Leave us a comment with your PFD fit tips or which PFD you like to paddle in.

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