Did you know that the United States Coast Guard (USCG) now classifies stand-up paddle boards (when used outside bathing, swimming, or surfing areas) as “vessels”? This means that there are specific requirements for the kinds of SUP life jackets you need to wear when taking part in this activity. But beyond this legal requirement, wearing a life jacket while paddle boarding is good common sense. You will never need one until you need one, but you definitely want to have one on if things go sideways. In this article I’ll share my tips for finding a comfortable, functional SUP life jacket you’ll enjoy wearing, and tell you how to buy the right size.
Don’t underestimate how dangerous using a stand-up paddle board (SUP) can be when you take it outside of bathing, swimming, or surfing areas. In fact, in these kinds of waters, being a paddler on a SUP can make you extremely vulnerable.
This is why you must know all the safety regulations and carefully follow them.
When using a stand-up paddle board, you must wear a vest, jacket, or inflatable belt that gives you a range of motion and fits properly. When choosing a SUP life jacket, you should try to do some paddling motions to make sure that you’ll find it comfortable to wear when paddling for long periods of time. An important factor in a life jacket’s comfort is its breathability. After all, you don’t want to get overheated. Paddling is hard work (and excellent exercise)!
SUP Life Jacket Specifications
Paddlers over 12 years of age must wear a USCG-approved Type 1, 11, 111, or appropriate Type V life jacket. Kids under the age of 12 need to wear a USCG-approved life jacket whether they’re paddling or riding a stand-up paddle board. It’s essential that you seek a life jacket specifically made for children under 12 in order to make sure that your child is safe and comfortable while out on the water.
Life jackets cannot have any signs of damage that may interfere with how they function. In order to comply with regulations (and keep yourself and your family safe), they must also fit properly. If anyone uses a Type V jacket, it must be specifically designed to use for stand-up paddling boarding. It must also be approved by the USCG.
If you use a pouch-type inflatable PFD, you will have to wear it in order to comply with the life jacket rules. With any kind of inflatable PFD, make sure you take a look at any restrictions included on or with the product.
While in some states it’s not legally required that adults actually wear the PFD in some situations, you must always have it with you. And it’s commonly accepted that you putting yourself in a potentially unsafe situation if you don’t wear your PFD at all times. This is especially the case if you don’t have advanced swimming skills and/or if you’re in water that has stronger currents, is deep, is further away from the shore, or is cold (as it could quickly cause hypothermia).
You Get What You Pay For with SUP Life Jackets
In order to be comfortable and safe while paddling, you will need to be willing to pay a bit more for your SUP life jackets. The cheapest ones on the market are usually quite uncomfortable, especially while paddling. I use and recommend this one from Amazon, because it offers great range of movement and excellent flotation, but there are other options if this one isn’t your style.
A touring and whitewater paddling jacket is generally far superior to an inflatable PFD. One reason is the fact that it’s so easy to put on and buckle.
About Self-Inflating Life Jackets for Paddle Boarding
If you decide to go with a self-inflating vest anyway, make sure you invest in a quality one. A self-inflating vest is worn in a similar way to a traditional vest. In most cases, you will need to inflate self-inflating vests with a carbon dioxide (CO2) canister.
Certain kinds of self-inflating vests provide the ability to inflate the vest when and if you fall in the water by using a manual pull-cord. If you go with this option, then go with the best quality you can find. You don’t want to take the chance that the mechanism will fail when you’re in the water. Also practice using the cord before you actually take the life vest paddling.
I’m not a big fan of these and don’t recommend them. A life jacket’s job is mitigating your risk on the water, and adding another point of failure is a risk not worth taking in my view.
There are high quality, old-fashioned SUP life jackets that are comfortable to wear and will work no matter what. Remember that paddle boarding is hard work. You may be tired when you go into the water, and having an assist from a proper PFD could be a big deal.
What is an Inflatable Belt?
Some paddlers prefer an inflatable belt like this one on Amazon from Onyx. These don’t provide the same kind of safety factor as a life jacket, but it is the easiest to carry and wear … there when you need it, you’ll forget you have it on when you don’t.
Inflatable belts look a bit like “fanny packs.” If you fall in the water, you pull a cord so the belt will inflate. Again, if you go with an option like this, make sure you go for top quality. As with the self-inflating vest, remember to practice using the cord to inflate it before you actually take it onto the water.
The disadvantage to this type of PFD is that if you hit your head when falling into the water, you won’t be able to inflate it. A proper life jacket, will keep you afloat no matter what, even if it’s a bit less comfortable or stylish.
Size Chart for SUP Life Jackets
When purchasing SUP life jackets, it’s essential you buy one that is the right size to be buoyant on you. Remember – sizing isn’t only about fit and comfort, it’s about keeping you afloat and alive.
Let’s take a look some size charts below:
Adult SUP Life Jacket Sizing
- 28-32” chest: Extra Small
- 36-40” chest: Medium
- 40-44” chest: Large
- 44-48” chest: X-Large
- 48-52” chest: XX-Large
- 52-56” chest: XXX-Large
Kids’ Standard Life Jacket Sizing
- 8-30lbs: Infant PFD
- 30-50lbs: Child PFD
- 50-90lbs: Youth PFD
And just a note on life jackets for kids – even the strongest of swimmers should wear a life jacket. Create good habits for your kids and model good behavior.
Whatever you do when paddle boarding is what your kids will want to do, so make smart choices to teach them to do the same.
More Safety Gear & Tips You’ll Want to Have on Hand
Of course there’s more to staying safe while paddle boarding than simply wearing a SUP PFD. There are a few pieces of equipment that I take with me, especially if I’m paddling alone.
Other Safety Gear You May Want
It’s a good idea to bring a whistle with you, or another device that produces adequate sound in order to let other boaters know of your presence. We’ve all seen the end of Titanic, right? A little safety whistle is cheap, lightweight and takes up almost no space. It’s worth having any time you’re out in a boat or on a paddle board.
A flashlight or other type of powerful lighting device is another essential if you will be paddle-boarding in the early morning hours or near dusk. It can be difficult for speed boats to see during the twilight hours, and having a headlamp or small flashlight is a great way to be sure that fast-moving boats see you.
Be Aware of the Navigation Rules
You cannot take your SUP outside bathing, swimming, and surfing areas without knowing the Navigation Rules, so make sure you get training on these and feel comfortable with them before venturing out.
Also be aware that you must report any injury or accident to the local reporting authority.
Final Safety Advice
It’s common sense advice (and the law), but it’s always worth reiterating: never drink before or while going on a SUP. This is true in any situation, but it’s especially vital when going outside bathing, swimming, and surfing areas.
Going paddling on your SUP can be riskier than you may have imagined. If you plan on taking your SUP on waters outside of bathing, swimming, or surfing areas, there are many safety tips and rules you must keep in mind. One of the most important steps is to get a high-quality life jacket that fits as it should and is comfortable while paddling.