Updated February 18th, 2023
Do you need a life jacket to paddle board? The short answer is yes. You need to have one with you unless you are using your paddle board in a swimming or surf zone. Do you need to wear it? What kind of life jacket or PFD is best for paddle boarding? Lets take a deeper look at paddle boards, life jackets and boating safety.
Do you need a life jacket to paddle board?
The USCG (United States Coast Guard) has classified stand up paddle boards as a vessel. That means that you must have a USCG approved life jacket with you for each person on the paddle board. If you are 12 years old or younger it has to be worn. The coast guard considers you a boater when your on a paddle board even if you don’t think you are. Being a manually propelled vessel doesn’t get you out of having to follow life jacket rules. All the rules for small boat safety equipment apply to your paddle board.
This means you need to have a whistle or other sound making device with you too. If you are using your paddleboard after sunset you need to have lights as well.
If you are standup paddleboarding in a surf zone or swimming area then you don’t need to have or wear a life jacket.
See this article from NRS to learn more about life jacket rules for paddle boards.
Somewhere between 80 and 90% of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets. Most people think they do not need a lifejacet on until something goes wrong. The problem is that once something goes wrong, chances are you won’t be able to get a life jacket or put it in. If you participate in a water sport like paddling on a paddleboard, kayak or canoe, wearing a life jacket is a good idea. See this article to learn more about the drowing and life jacket usage.
What if you don’t wear a life jacket on your paddle board?
Will you ever get a ticket for breaking this rule or the whistle rule? I can tell you from personal experience that it happens. Back in my younger and less smart days a few of us were out at the local small lake for an afternoon sailing on Sunfish. A Sunfish is a small board boat not much bigger than a touring paddle board.
This lake is a solid 30 miles outside of town down mountain roads. It’s about as out of the way as you can get. This lake is at most a 1/4 mile wide and 1/2 mile long so not big. This is the last place you would expect a DNR or other water police to show up.
What happens? We go out on a nice calm hot day and don’t bother taking life jackets with us. What happens next? A DNR officer shows up and waits for us onshore. We all got tickets. He was being nice and wrote them all up for “not having a sound making device” instead of not having a life jacket. The fine was slightly cheaper.
The moral of the story is that yes, you can actually get a ticket for not having a life jacket with you on your paddle board. It can happen at a place where you think no DNR or water police would ever waste time going to.
What types of PFDs are out there?
There are 5 types of Life Jackets or PFD (Personal Flotation Device) available. Lets look at each type.
- Type 1 – These have a minimum of 22 lbs buoyancy and will turn you face up in the water. These can be used offshore. These are big and bulky. They are not that comfortable. They are thick enough to provide some degree of insulation as well as flotation.
- Type 2 – These are also designed to turn you face up in the water. They are not as good at it as a Type 1. They have 15.5 lbs of buoyancy. A Type II PFD is the typical horse shoe shaped rectangular foam PFD you see as an emergency supply on ships
- Type 3 – This is the generic standard PFD lifejacket most people think about. These have 15.5 lbs of buoyancy. They will not turn someone face up in the water. They are meant for inshore usage when rescue will be quick. This is the type worn by most recreational boaters or paddlers. They are thin enough to be comfortable and to not restrict movement.
- Type 4 – Throwable device. This is the square flotation cushion or round throwable floaty. These aren’t meant to be worn. They are meant to toss to someone in the water.
- Type 5 – Special Use Lifejackets. These are everything else. This include inflatable life jackets, paddling vests, windsurfing harnesses. Type 5 PFD’s must be worn to count towards meeting the USCG requirement. You can’t just have strapped to the board with you.
See this article from BoatUS to learn more about the different types of PFDs.
What is the best type of paddle board life jacket?
For general paddle boarding a Type 3 is the best way to go. They make Type 3 PFD’s designed for paddling. They have arm cutouts that don’t restrict arm and torsoe motion. If you are using a SUP anywhere you might fall in the water and become separated from your board than use a Type 3 SUP life jacket.
All type 3’s are not designed for paddling. A Type III PFD meant for water skiing or use on a personal watercraft will not work well for paddling. It won’t have good arm motion and will have a lot of buckles that will restrict your motion. These life jackets are designed to stay on when you hit the water at high speeds. Get a SUP life vest that was designed for paddle sports.
What about using an inflatable life jacket on a standup paddleboard?
As a paddle boarder you have the option to wear whatever you want while paddleboarding. Inflatable life jackets have their place on the water and are the best choice in some situations.
The only inflatable pfd you should consider as a paddler are manual inflating. In no way should you think about using an auto-inflating PFD on a paddle board. All you will accomplish is wasting a bunch of CO2 cartridges. You will burn one every time you fall in the water or walk in too deep forgetting you have it on. At that point you have a bulky Type 2 horshoe vest for the rest of the afternoon. If you happen to have a spare CO2 cartridge you can repack it and your good until the next time you fall in the water.
Auto-inflators can cause you problems. If you fall in the water near shore where there are logs or branches you can get stuck under the water when it inflates. I personally was at an event where someone drowned because of an auto-inflator. It happens. Auto-inflating life jackets are best used on large boats where you most likely won’t fall in the water. If you do fall in the water you will be clear of any rigging or debris in the water.
What about inflatable belt pack PFDs?
PFD Belt packs are good for conditions where you don’t need a PFD but are legally required to have one. To use a belt pack, you have to pull the inflator cord to blow it up and then put it on. If you are knocked off your board and drowning it does you zero good. If it’s a hot sunny calm day and you want to wear as little as possible then an inflatable belt pack can be a good way to go. You have to wear it to be legal with the USCG regulations. You can’t just strap it to the front of your paddle board like you could a Type iii pfd.
See our review of the Onyx M16 to learn more.
What is a buoyancy aid?
A buoyancy aid is similar to a Type iii PFD that isn’t USCG certified. Most likely it is a European designed PFD. It doesn’t have enough buoyancy to be a USCG approved Type III PFD. The equivalent European regulations call for less flotations than the USCG. I personally have one of these I use for windsurfing and paddle boarding. It’s shaped to work with a windsurfing harness and no type III made is.
Should I use a leash?
Another important safety item besides a life vest is a board leash. This attaches your board to you and prevents it from drifting away. When do you need to use a leash? You should use it in any condition where you will have a hard time swimming back to your board if you fall off of it.
If it’s windy out and your paddle boarding in open rough water you should use a leash. Your board can drift away from you quickly. A coiled leash works fine for open water or lake paddle boarding.
If you are using your paddle board in a surf zone you should use a leash. You should never use a coiled leash for surfing. A coiled leash can tangle with itself making it too short. It will have more drag in the water than a straight leash.
If you are paddle boarding in a river you should get a leash with a quick release. If you fall in the water it’s possible that you and your board end up on opposite sides of a branch or log. This can be a dangerous situation where you can’t untangle yourself and the board. In this case, you need to be able to detach the leash quickly.
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Staff Writer | Paddling
Stacey moved to Michigan from Seattle. She loves to paddleboard, kayak, snowboard and is also an avid runner. She goes paddle boarding almost every weekend during the summer on the lakes and rivers in Michigan. She been known to abuse an Epic and Ikon Pass doing trips out west with her college friends. She is also an electric vehicle enthusiast and loves riding around on e-bikes, scooters, and electric cars.