Life Jacket | PFD For SUP

This article describes the two basic types of life jacket / PFD (Personal Floatation Device) and advises the situations where each is most appropriate.

How To Select The Right PFD

The right life jacket / PFD for each paddler will depend on the paddling environment, the ability of the paddler to swim and be comfortable in the water, and personal preference.

Inherently Buoyant Life Jackets

This is the more traditional type of life jacket, in which is worn as a vest, with the floatation provided by foam that is sewn within the fabric of the jacket. For children under the age of 16, they are the only type of PFD approved by the US Coast Guard.

Life Jackets designed for general-purpose boating and water activity can be used for stand up paddle boarding, but more appropriate models are designed with paddling in mind. The difference is that a life jacket designed for paddling will have more open space around the shoulders and upper arms so that it does not interfere with paddling motion.

The main things to consider when choosing a life jacket are fit and weight rating. A life jacket must be comfortably snug and should stay in place when you raise your arms over your head or when the jacket is lifted upward at the shoulders.

Every USCG-approved life jacket will have a maximum user weight printed on it. Using a life jacket rated for less than your body weight will not provide enough flotation to keep your head above water, so using a properly rated life jacket is essential for safety. According to the US Coast Guard Boating Safety Division, inherently buoyant life jackets have the following advantages:

  • They are the most reliable
  • Come in Adult, Youth, Child, and Infant sizes
  • Designed for swimmers and non-swimmers
  • Special designs are available for specific water sports including SUP.


This is an example of a good all-around life jacket that can be used for all water activities. It's a good choice for all-around SUP because of its low profile and uninhibited arm movement. The dispersed profile is good for beginners, as it makes climbing onto the board easier and keeps heat and weight down.



This is an example of a life jacket that is designed for SUP as it provides emphasis to free arm movement. The floatation is centered in two areas to allow free movement of the shoulders. These types of jackets are often used by Whitewater enthusiasts as many of them are designed to 'flip' the rider face up in the case of unconsciousness.



Higher-end life jackets are often offered with specific water activities in mind. This can include various river-based activities, fishing, and deep-sea purposes. This style of life jacket is generally bigger and heavier with the advantage of accessories/options relating to a specific SUP activity.

Inflatable Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

While inherently buoyant life jackets are the most reliable type of personal flotation device when they are properly worn, the best floatation devices are the ones you will actually wear. The comfort and convenience of inflatable belt pack PFDs give them a distinct advantage in that regard. For paddlers above the age of 16, inflatable belt PFDs are a popular option due to the comfort and convenience they provide.

U.S. Coast Guard-approved inflatable life jackets are authorized for use by persons 16 years of age and older (check the label). Keep in mind that they require regular maintenance and attention to the condition of the inflator - they must have a full cylinder and all status indicators on the inflator must be green.

There are many types of inflatable PFDs but only certain ones are suitable for stand up paddling. Look for an inflatable PFD that is manually activated by pulling a cord. Another type of inflatable PFD, designed for boating, inflates automatically when the user falls into the water. These are completely inappropriate for SUP because most paddlers expect to fall into the water occasionally if not routinely – it’s all part of the fun.

The advantages of Inflatable PFDs are that they are the most compact, lightweight, and comfortable. The disadvantages are that they are approved only for adults over the age of 16 and require activation by pulling a cord, which can be problematic if the user is knocked unconscious. For this reason, belt pack PFDs are not recommended for whitewater paddling, where there is more potential for head injuries.

Look for a belt-pack PFD that is Coast Guard approved and is manually activated. To erase any doubt, it is advisable to purchase your belt pack PFD from a company that specializes in SUP equipment and is selling the PFD specifically for stand up paddle boarding.

For more details on types of life jackets and specific requirement, refer to this brochure prepared by the USCG Boating Safety Division



This fits around your waist like a belt. It makes it very easy to paddle freely and keeps your body cooler than wearing a full vest.


The cord is pulled if floatation is needed and the C02 canister will inflate the life jacket bladder.


It's important to keep a spare C02 canister handy and to always check the pack is primed before wearing on the water.
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