Life jackets are a critical piece of safety equipment for any paddleboarder. Like any other type of outdoor activity, paddleboarding involves a level of risk, especially when it comes to falling into the water. A life jacket can make all the difference in ensuring that you stay afloat and safe in case of an accident.
With so many different types of life jackets available, however, it can be challenging to know which one is the right choice for you as a paddleboarder.
In this ultimate guide, the team at Paddle Outside will dive into the different types of life jackets designed specifically for paddleboarding and their unique features, so you can make an informed decision and stay safe while enjoying your time on the water.
What Are the Different Types of PFDs?
When selecting a PFD for paddleboarding, it’s crucial to consider your individual needs and preferences.
The type of PFD you choose will depend on factors such as your swimming ability, the type of paddleboarding you plan to do, and your level of comfort with different flotation devices.
Regardless of the type of PFD you choose, it’s essential to select one that is Coast Guard-approved and fits properly to ensure optimal safety and comfort on the water.
Standard VS. Inflatable
Standard PFDs are made with foam panels that provide flotation and keep you buoyant in the water. They come in various sizes, styles, and buoyancy levels, and are designed to fit snugly around your body.
These are generally more affordable than inflatable ones and are a popular choice for those who prefer a more traditional, reliable design.
Inflatable PFDs, on the other hand, are designed to be lightweight and comfortable. They typically consist of a small, inflatable bladder that can be activated either manually or automatically in case of an emergency. Once inflated, the bladder provides buoyancy and keeps you afloat in the water.
These are ideal for paddleboarding as they are less bulky and allow for more freedom of movement than standard PFDs. They also offer the advantage of being easy to store and transport when deflated.
Ultimately, the choice between a standard and inflatable PFD comes down to personal preference, budget, and the specific needs of the paddler.
As long as both types of PFDs are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, it becomes a matter of preference and budget. It’s essential to choose one that fits well, feels comfortable, and provides the necessary buoyancy to keep you safe while paddleboarding.
Jacket VS. Vest VS. Belts
PFD jackets resemble traditional life jackets and are designed to provide full torso coverage and maximum buoyancy. They are an excellent choice for those who prioritize safety and require a high level of buoyancy. However, PFD jackets can be bulky and restrict movement, making them less comfortable for some paddlers.
PFD belts are a more minimalistic option, providing buoyancy through a waist belt that wraps around your torso. They are designed to be worn around your waist like a fanny pack and are a popular choice for paddlers who prioritize mobility and comfort. PFD belts are less bulky than jackets and offer greater freedom of movement. However, they provide less buoyancy than jackets and are not suitable for non-swimmers or those who need high levels of flotation.
PFD vests are similar to jackets but offer greater flexibility and freedom of movement. They are designed to be less bulky and more comfortable, making them an ideal choice for paddleboarders who prioritize comfort and mobility. PFD vests provide a good level of buoyancy but may not offer as much flotation as jackets, so they may not be suitable for non-swimmers.
How your PFD Should Fit
A well-fitted PFD is essential for optimal safety and comfort while paddleboarding. It’s worth taking the time to find a PFD that fits properly and adjusting it as needed for optimal safety and comfort on the water. Here’s how you can check the fit:
1. Check the label: The first step in selecting a properly fitting PFD is to ensure that it is Coast Guard-approved. The label on the PFD will provide information on its intended use and any specific instructions for fitting.
2. Choose the right size: PFDs come in various sizes, so it’s crucial to select one that fits your body type. Check the manufacturer’s sizing chart and try on PFDs to find the one that fits you snugly. Remember that you’ll be using this in the water, so you should choose a size that doesn’t feel too tight or restrictive.
3. Adjust the straps: Once you have selected a PFD that fits properly, adjust the straps to ensure a secure and comfortable fit. Tighten the straps so that the PFD fits snugly around your body, but not so tight that it restricts your breathing or movement. Once tightened, it should rest snugly around your body, not lift up towards the neck or head at all.
4. Check for mobility: Once the straps are adjusted, test the mobility of the PFD by raising your arms above your head and moving your upper body. The PFD should not ride up or shift around during movement. Simulate the motion of rowing with a paddle; you want to make sure your arms won’t chafe against the material too much.
5. Check the buoyancy: Finally, if you can, check the buoyancy of the PFD by entering shallow water and allowing yourself to float. The PFD should keep you afloat with your face out of the water and should not ride up or shift around during flotation.
‘Types’ or USCG Classifications Explained
With so many different types of PFDs available on the market, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your needs.
Let’s talk about the different types, or USCG classifications of life jackets to diffuse some confusion. This is a topic that has confused many beginners who aren’t familiar with watersports, and this can make the search for a life jacket frustrating.
The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) provides classifications for personal flotation devices (PFDs) based on their intended use and level of buoyancy:
Type I PFDs
Type I personal flotation devices (PFDs) are also known as offshore life jackets and are designed to provide the highest level of buoyancy among all PFD types. They are intended for use in open, rough, or remote waters, where rescue may take some time and there is a higher risk of hypothermia, fatigue, or prolonged exposure to the elements.
These life jackets are designed to turn an unconscious wearer face-up in the water, keeping their mouth and nose above the waterline, and allowing them to breathe freely. They provide a minimum of 22 pounds of buoyancy, which is enough to support an adult in water, even if they are wearing heavy clothing.
Due to their high level of buoyancy, Type I PFDs are commonly used on large boats, cruise ships, or commercial vessels. These PFDs are not suitable for recreational activities such as paddleboarding or kayaking, where rescue is expected to be quick. They are too bulky and uncomfortable for these activities and can restrict movement and hinder performance.
Type II PFDs
Type II personal flotation devices (PFDs) are also known as near-shore buoyancy vests and are designed for use in calm, inland waters where rescue is expected to be quick. They provide less buoyancy than Type I PFDs, making them more comfortable and less bulky but not suitable for rough or remote waters.
These life jackets are commonly used for recreational activities where rescue is expected to be quick, however, they are not recommended for non-swimmers or those who are unable to tread water, as they do not provide sufficient buoyancy to keep an unconscious person afloat.
Type III PFDs
Type III personal flotation devices (PFDs) are also known as flotation aids and are designed for use in calm waters where rescue is expected to be quick. They provide less buoyancy than Type I and Type II PFDs but are more comfortable and less bulky, making them a popular choice for paddleboarding, kayaking, and other water sports.
Type III PFDs are not designed to turn an unconscious wearer face-up in the water, but rather to provide flotation and keep the wearer afloat while they await rescue. They provide a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, which is enough to support an adult in calm waters.
These life jackets are designed to be more comfortable and less bulky than other types, allowing for greater freedom of movement and a wider range of motion, making it the ideal choice for paddle boarders.
Type IV PFDs
Type IV’s are throwable devices designed to be thrown to someone in the water for temporary buoyancy while awaiting rescue. They are not designed to be worn, but should be readily accessible to the boat crew in case of an emergency.
Type IV PFDs include devices such as life rings, horseshoe buoys, and throw bags. These devices are required on most boats and watercraft that are longer than 16 feet in length, and should only be thrown to a conscious person who is able to hold onto it until rescue arrives.
Type V PFDs
Type V personal flotation devices (PFDs) are specialized PFDs designed for specific activities such as windsurfing, kayaking, or paddleboarding. They provide the same level of buoyancy as a Type III PFD but are designed for specific activities and require additional training and education for proper use.
Type V PFDs come in a variety of designs and styles to fit the specific needs of different water sports. They may include inflatable vests, hybrid foam/inflatable vests, or specialty vests with features such as pockets or hydration systems.
These flotation devices may have different activation methods, such as automatic or manual inflation, or require a certain level of user engagement to provide adequate buoyancy.
Due to their specialized design, Type V PFDs require additional training and education to ensure proper use and safety. When purchasing a Type V PFD, you should double-check that it is USCG certified.
Features for Paddle Boarding
Buoyancy: Look for a life jacket with adequate buoyancy to keep you afloat in the water. A Type III PFD, which is designed for calm waters and water sports, is generally recommended for paddleboarding.
Snug Fit: A well-fitting life jacket is crucial for optimal safety and comfort. Look for a life jacket that fits snugly but does not restrict movement or breathing. Adjustable straps and a range of sizes can help ensure a proper fit.
Comfort: A comfortable life jacket can make all the difference during a long paddleboarding session. Look for a life jacket with a comfortable design, lightweight materials, and minimal bulk.
Visibility: A life jacket with high visibility can help rescuers locate you in the water. Look for a life jacket with bright colors or reflective tape for added visibility.
Durability: A durable life jacket can withstand the wear and tear of paddleboarding and last for multiple seasons. Look for a life jacket made of high-quality materials and with reinforced seams.
Additional features: Some life jackets may come with additional features, such as pockets or hydration systems, that can be useful during a paddleboarding session.
So, What Are the Top 3 Paddle Boarding Life Jackets?
It’s important to note that all PFDs must be Coast Guard-approved and used according to their intended use and classification.
When selecting a PFD for paddleboarding, it’s recommended to choose a Type III PFD, which is designed for calm waters and water sports and provides a comfortable and secure fit.
Below are the top 3 life jackets we recommend for paddle boarding: