Ultimate Guide To SUP Life Jackets: Find The Best PFD For Stand Up Paddle Boarding

SUP life jacket

The weekend’s here and it’s finally time for some paddle boarding. You start loading up your car – board, paddle, leash, surf hat, dry bag and you’re ready to go.

Not to fast.

You don’t want to forget your life vest. Not only does the U.S. Coast guard require that you wear one when paddle boarding, but these days SUP life jackets are so comfortable that you have zero excuses for not wearing one out on the water.

Let us help you navigate the life vest options for paddle boards so that you can stay safe (and legal) when you’re paddling.

In a hurry and just want our recommendations? We think these are the best PFDs for SUP:

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Do I REALLY Need A Life Jacket For Paddle Boarding?

Heck, yeah, you do! I mean, if you want to be a law abiding citizen and not get in trouble with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

The USCG has determined that SUP boards operated outside a surfing, swimming or bathing area are “vessels” under USCG regulations.

Of course, in addition to life jackets being a legal requirement for stand up paddle boarding, wearing one of these is also a matter of safety. You never know when you might lose your balance or get knocked off your paddleboard and end up in the water, where you may hit your head on a rock.

Wearing a personal flotation device is really just common sense for any type of water sport, no matter how good of a swimmer you are or how careful you are when you paddle out.

USCG Regulations For Paddle Boarders

Here’s a quick look at the USCG regulations that you should know about when you operate your SUP, as mentioned above.

Life Jackets:

  •  Any person 13 years of age or older must have a USCG-approved Type I, II, III, or appropriate Type V* (*see stipulation below) life jacket.
  • Children 12-years old or younger must wear their USCG-approved life jacket.
  • The life jacket must be in “serviceable condition,” without rips, tears or deterioration that will diminish its performance.
  • It should be of an appropriate size and fit for the wearer.
  • A Type V jacket can only be used as long as it’s USCG-approved and applicable for the activity.
  • Belt pouch-type inflatable PFDs must be worn on the person to meet the life jacket regulation.
  • Read the label of the life jacket to know if special requirements pertain to that device.
Stohlquist Edge PFD
Stohlquist Edge PFD via REI

Other Requirements:

  • You must carry a whistle, or other sound producing device, to warn other boaters.
  • If you’re on the water after sunset, you need to have a flashlight, or similar lighting device, to warn other boaters.
  • As the operator of a “vessel,” you are required to follow the Navigation Rules.
  • You are also required to report any boating accident or injury to the local reporting authority, either the USCG or other agency that has been delegated that authority.

As you can see, most of the time the Coast Guard requires that you wear a life vest. We think the best practice is to just always have a personal flotation device you take your stand up paddle board out on the water.

What You Should Know Before Buying

Now that you know the importance of having a PFD when you go stand up paddle boarding, we want to give you some pointers on what to look for before you buy one of these. There are lot of different PFDs on the market, and we want to make sure you get the best one for your needs.

Size and Fit

This should be common sense, but it’s important that your life vest is both the proper size and fit for your body. For adults, this can be a little confusing since you not only need to consider your weight, but also your chest size.

Even worse, the sizing tends to vary from one manufacturer to another. So, if you’re shopping online, then I suggest buying the same life vest in more than one size to try it on at home. Otherwise, try on the PFD in your local outdoor retailer.

Standard Life Jacket Sizes For Adults

  • Extra Small: fits 28-32” chest
  • Small: fits 23-36” chest
  • Medium: fits 36-40” chest
  • Large: fits 40-44” chest
  • X-Large: fits 44-48” chest
  • XX-Large: fits 48-52” chest
  • XXX-Large fits 52-56” chest

Standard Life Jacket Sizing For Kids

  • Infant PFD: 8-30 lbs
  • Child PFD: 30-50 lbs
  • Youth PFD 50-90 lbs
Stohlquist Fit Youth PFD
Stohlquist Fit Youth PFD via REI

How should your PFD fit?

A properly fitted PFD should be comfortable to move in, while having a snug fit in the chest area. We suggest that when you try on a PFD that you wear your paddling clothes to get the best idea of how it actually fits you.

It’s important that you can move freely in your personal flotation device while paddling.

If you’re a woman, then you should only buy a PFD that is designed for women. Women’s PFDs are made to fit the curves of a woman’s body, specifically in the chest region.

Features women should look for in their PFD include:

  • princess seams
  • contoured cups (for those with large busts)
  • styles that fit a longer torso

Don’t get discouraged if it takes you a few tries to find that life jacket for paddle boarding that gives you the perfect fit.

What Type Of PFD Do I Need For Stand Up Paddle Boarding?

As you start to shop for your life vest, you’ll notice that there are different types of them. In fact, they are broken down into different classes.

Here are the type of life jackets:

  • Type I — The Offshore Life Jacket
  • Type II — The Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest
  • Type III — The Floatation Aid
  • Type IV — Throwable Device
  • Type V — The Specialty Use Device

It is incredibly important that you pay attention to the type of personal flotation device that you’re considering using to make sure it’s the right one for your water activity.

NRS Chinook PFD
NRS Chinook PFD via REI

Here’s a quick look at the differences between these types of life vests, as noted by ISLE:

  • Type I — suitable for use in any conditions on the water. They have a minimum buoyancy requirement of 22 lbs. These are similar to what you see in airline safety demonstrations.
  • Type II — designed for use in calm water near the shore where the chance of being stranded in the water for long periods of time is low or non-existent. They have a minimum buoyancy requirement of 15.5 lbs.
  • Type III — suitable for calm and near-shore water sports where long wait times for rescue would not be expected. They have a minimum buoyancy requirement of 15.5 lbs. This is likely what you picture when you think of a life jacket.
  • Type IV — usually consist of the flotation rings, cushions, or buoys you’d expect to see handing near a public swimming pool or on a cruise ship. Not approved by the USCG for use by paddle boarders. They have no buoyancy requirements
  • Type V — Special use life jackets typically have a buoyancy rating between 15.5 to 22 lbs for adults. However, automatic inflation models have a buoyancy rating between 22.5 to 34 lbs. Only suitable for stand up paddle boarding if it is one of the activities described on the label of the jacket, vest, or belt.

Most stand up paddle boarders wear either type II or type III PFDs.

Buoyancy and PFDs

You’ll notice that the types of life jackets listed above have buoyancy ratings. If you’re new to life vests, then you might not know what that means in terms of safety in the water.

Buoyancy is the amount of force required to keep your head above water.

So, if you end up off your stand up paddleboard in the water, the purpose of the PFD is to keep you afloat – even if you’re unconscious. And the buoyancy rating lets you know how effective it is as that, and if it will work for you body.

Since most people have some body fat, the average person only needs somewhere around 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep them afloat. But what if you’re a really fit person with a low body fat percentage?

Fitter people are less buoyant.

If you have a very low body fat percentage, then it is very important that you test your PFD in a swimming pool or the shallow end of a lake before paddling out with it. It’s very important that you have enough buoyancy to stay safe in the water.

Features To Look For

As you compare the various life vest options for your paddle boarding adventures, there are few features that we think you should look for in your new PFD.

  • Clips/Tabs – these are perfect for attaching a whistle, knife, locator beacon, etc. to
  • Pockets – great for a flashlight/headlamp, your phone, snacks, etc. Some pockets are even big enough for a water bottle.
  • Color variety – we think it’s best to choose a PFD in a bright color so that you can be easily spotted, if you need rescued.

While these aren’t the only features available in life jackets, there are the ones that we think are the most useful to consider before buying.

How To Put On Your PFD For A Proper Fit

Getting the right fit from your stand up paddle boarding PFD is a bit of a process. Luckily, it’s not a difficult one, but there are a few steps you must complete each time you put one of these on.

  1. Loosen all of the straps on the PFD.
  2. Put the PFD on and zip it up.
  3. Tighten the straps, with the shoulder straps being the last that you tighten. The fit should be snug, but not uncomfortable.
  4. Ask someone to pull up on shoulders of your PFD to see how it moves. It should not go past your nose.
  5. Tighten the straps more if it goes past your nose when the shoulders are pulled up.
  6. Move around while wearing the PFD to test your range of motion.

If you are confident in your range of motion while wearing the PFD, then you have successfully gotten the right fit. All that’s left to do is test it out in the shallow end of a lake or swimming pool

As a quick recap, here are our favorite PFDs for stand up paddle boarding right now:

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