In this article we answer the question, 'Should you wear a PFD on the water?" in order to learn important information on PFD usage and the confusion behind wearing them.
Editor’s Note: During the writing of this post on PFDs and SUP safety there was another tragedy in the SUP community – one that happens on a regular basis and could have been easily avoided.
In this case, a young paddler in their 20s, who unfortunately did not know how to swim, drowned in a lake in the UK while not wearing a PFD.
More urgently, the paddler who was new to watersports most likely saw the paddle board as having enough flotation to provide protection on the water and didn’t conceive of even falling in. What’s worse – no one asked her if she knew how to swim or if she needed a PFD.
As members of the paddling community, we should all understand situational awareness, risk assessment, and also have self-awareness of our place on the learning curve. We can’t expect everyone to know something when they have no experience with it. Yet, somehow with SUP (probably because it appears so peaceful and accessible), many assumptions are made about safety.
SUP really is simple, accessible, and relaxing but paddling, typically done in environments like oceans, mountain lakes, rivers, and islands, are all places that experience dynamic changes in wind, currents, and waves. We can still inspire new paddlers without creating fear by just sharing the knowledge - Paddle safely, and have fun!
(And be sure to spread awareness on the subject of PFD usage by sharing this article with as many people, and new paddlers, as possible.)
PFDs are an important topic of discussion in the SUP community. We understand and know that a lot of pictures of paddlers on social media depict participants in a flattering light, in unique poses, and undertaking awe-inspiring paddles. And we also realize that with these photoshoots, often the participants are without a PFD. Especially when it comes to paddle surfing and SUP yoga as there is much confusion
These pictures are meant to inspire new paddlers to get involved with the activity and are not meant to mislead or dissuade anyone from taking the proper safety precautions.
With such an important topic we wanted to make sure we covered every base possible when it came to the ins and outs of PFD usage.
What follows is a near-comprehensive discussion of the topic along with best practices, state and federal laws, as well as international organization guidelines. As well as important guidelines for practicing situational awareness and risk assessment.
We also included personal interview questions and answers from Paddling Pros that are part of the Perfect Paddles Community. If you’d like to skip to their answers, they are located at the end of the piece.
However, we’d suggest running through the entire article to get a broad understanding of where and when to wear a PFD while on the water.
Ready to get into it? First, let’s start with the most obvious question…
What is a PFD?
PFD stands for personal flotation device. It is a piece of equipment designed to keep you afloat, and potentially save your life, if you were to fall off your paddle board.
Today, PFDs come in a couple of forms. The most popular for stand up paddler boarders are life vests and inflatable PFD belts.
Life Vests are the most buoyant to keep you afloat in case of an emergency as they don’t require inflation after you fall in.
This is key, especially if a paddler hits their head or goes unconscious. In these situations, belt pack PFDs will do nothing (unless they’re designed to automatically inflate), other than act as a rescue aid that requires a paddle buddy or a good samaritan nearby.
Inflatable PFDs are considered a type III PFD (see below) and the most comfortable option to wear for paddle boarders in warm water climates. They typically come in a sleek design that is worn around the waist like a belt.
There are two primary types. One inflates like a tube with a harness that you pull over your neck. And the other (bigger and bulkier) inflates into a life vest that you put around your neck and will support your head.
To help keep paddlers afloat, they are inflated when activated (either automatically or manually) by a C02 cartridge that rests inside the belt. Pulling on the cord activates the inflation of the buoyancy aid and once deployed can be worn around your neck and tied like a traditional vest.
Or it comes out like a tube that keeps you afloat and gives paddlers something to grip while they await rescue or help.
Inflatable PFDs are often the first choice of paddlers because they are comfortable to wear and still offer some protection in the water.
Types of PFDs
There are different types of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) designed to meet specific needs. Here's a summary of each type:
Type I: Offshore Life Jackets are the most buoyant class of PFDs and are ideal for rough, choppy, open waters. These vests have neck support and a minimum buoyancy rating of 22 pounds for adults.
Type II: Near-Shore Buoyancy Vests are designed for inland water sources like lakes and calm rivers. They have a similar design to Type I vests but offer more comfort and less stiffness. They also have neck support and a minimum buoyancy rating of 15.5 pounds for adults.
Type III: Floatation Aids are comfortable and designed like a buoyant vest that zips or buckles up at the front. They are suitable for calm water and offer less neck support than Type I and II vests. They have a minimum buoyancy rating of 15.5 pounds for adults.
Type IV: Throwable Devices are not designed to be worn, but thrown out to individuals in the water. They are used as a supplement to life vests and have a minimum buoyancy rating that can vary from 15 pounds to 18 pounds.
Type V: Specialty Use Devices are designed for a specific activity, such as white water rafting or hybrid inflatables. They have varying buoyancy ratings that can range from 15 pounds to 22 pounds, and it's important to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
Your Local Pro
Here at Perfect Paddles, our mission is to elevate the voice of the local Paddling Professional in your area – a paddler with years of experience who is certified to teach, coach, and guide.
These are the paddlers who know the area best. After all, they are the ones who are intimately involved in the local paddling community, understand the nuance of their launch locations, and what it takes to stay safe while on the water at all times.
They probably also have gear available for hire that is most suited to those locations as well.
With that said, if you ever have any questions, or require any advice about SUP (whether it’s about wearing a PFD or not), we always suggest you contact your local Paddling Professional for help.
They are, after all, experts in the sport of SUP and more than happy to help you along in your own SUP journey.
To find the local Pro near you, head to perfectpaddles.com, click on Trip Planning Tools, and underneath the drop-down menu, click on SUP Search.
There, you can type in your location and find the most qualified SUP Professionals in your area.
After all, paddle boarding takes place in a fluid environment that changes by the moment, day, and season. Knowing when, where, and which PFD to wear is a skill. One that can be acquired through years of experience or as simple as connecting with the Perfect Paddles Local Pro network right at your fingertips.
Take advantage of our resources by heading to our SUP Search Section on perfectpaddles.com and connecting with the paddlers who know their areas, and what it takes to safely paddle there, best!
Practice Situational Awareness and Risk Assessment
Paddle boarding takes place in a fluid environment that changes all the time – wind, waves, currents, and boat traffic. The time you spend on the water, the time of the day, and the time of the year all play factors in what’s involved for your next paddle.
Calculating the risk versus reward goes into any activity, especially in wild places like oceans, rivers, lakes, and bays.
Before you even decide to head out, it’s important to ask yourself these questions:
- Are you alone? In a group or with a buddy?
- Is a trained instructor keeping an eye on you?
- Are you in a protected area and in consistent conditions that are within your skill level
- What is your skill level?
- How long will you be on the water?
- What changes can you expect while you’re out?
- Does your skill level match your paddle buddies?
- Is your gear appropriate for the conditions?
- If it’s a brand new location and you’re exploring for the first time, who can you ask for local info?
When approaching the water assess what’s on the water such as boats, buoys, rocks, etc.
And again, ask yourself:
- What’s happening to the water?
- Wind, currents, waves?
- What’s under the water – sting rays, coral reefs, oyster beds, pollution, wildlife?
One last thing to consider is your swimming ability.
Paddlers should be able to swim, tread water, and be able to get back on their board under their own power in the conditions they are paddling in.
Since environments and conditions change this is all based on the situation. If a paddler is unable or not confident in their ability to perform these functions a paddle buddy who is able to assist, a hired coach or guide is really the only way to go.
If you can’t swim, paddling may actually be the motivation you need to start taking swim classes so anyone can experience the joys of life on the water. But, a non-swimmer definitely needs to be wearing a properly sized, situationally appropriate PFD, and have an experienced paddle buddy or hired coach with them.
This seems obvious but there are regular fatalities in SUP where a nonswimmer drowns without even thinking or being told they should be wearing a PFD. If you’re new to watersports and see people floating on a board having fun you may think that this is not a swimming sport. It is. Or at least it should be considered when deciding on whether to wear a PFD and what type of PFD to wear.
If you don’t consider yourself a strong swimmer, it’s best to wear a life vest-style PFD when first starting out.
By understanding the questions, you’ll have a better time determining whether you’ll be safe on the water or not.
What Does The USCG Say? US Coast Guard Regulations:
In 2008, the United States Coast Guard recognized the need to establish rules and regulations for stand up paddle boarding as its popularity grew and more paddlers were going from ocean paddling and surf zone SUP surfing into inland waterways where boat traffic and paddler traffic interacted more frequently.
To begin, the Coast Guard needed to classify a SUP for ocean activity as well as flat water and marinas. This solution needed to work for both ocean paddlers as well as inland lake and river paddlers and include the whole breadth of skill and experience levels.
Coming up with an all-encompassing rule for stand up paddleboarding safety equipment was tricky due to the varying challenges posed by different environments, experience levels, and seasonal changes – as the activity appeals to everyone from brand-new water sport enthusiasts to experienced white-water hard chargers. One specific safety concern was determining the required safety equipment a paddler must have on board while on the water
After much debate, this is their conclusion…
As of 2008, “The Coast Guard determined that SUPs over 10 feet long would be considered ‘vessels’ when operating ‘beyond the narrow confines of a surfing, swimming or bathing area.’ A vessel, according to 1 USC 3 ‘includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.’”
What does that mean?
“If they see a SUP operating in the surf or swimming/bathing area, they leave it alone and treat it as they would a surfer on a surfboard. On other waters, they treat it as a kayak or other paddle craft/vessel.”
To read the entire USCG FAQ on PFDs click HERE.
Why was this their determination? Why are SUP boards treated so dynamically?
Well, to put it simply – SUP boards are treated so dynamically because they are a dynamic watercraft! They are both surfboards and vessels depending on the environment in which paddlers are using them.
And since vessels are not allowed to launch in most surf zones (that’s why we have boat ramps) they couldn’t say that SUP boards are only vessels because the original intention of SUPs was to surf. And they’ve only recently become an inland waterway vessel where now we have more inland waterway paddlers than ocean paddlers.
So, they determined that SUP boards could continue to operate in the surf (albeit in zones separate from bathers and even surfers) while agreeing that in the surf zone, they are to be treated as surfboards, and PFDs are not allowed to be worn.
Meanwhile, on flatwater paddling surfaces, it is required that you have a PFD on board that matches the number of people on your board – just like on any other boat – but in the surf zone, you’re not allowed to wear or have a PFD on your person or board.
Note: On a tandem board, and multiple-person “jumbo” board, everyone needs a PFD on board.
In addition, the National Coast Guard has established certain regulations for the safety gear you bring along on your paddle board. According to these regulations, all paddle board operators are required to carry a whistle and a flashlight with them.
A whistle or any other sound-producing device can be very useful in case you have lost your board or have drifted away from your group. By using the whistle, you can signal for help and alert other boaters in the area.
And along with the whistle, a flashlight or other illumination device is required if you plan to be out on the water around sunset. This is not only for your own safety, but also to let other boaters know that you are in the water.
Last, if you are paddling with your kids on the front of the board, it is required that children under the age of 13 wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times. This means, according to the Coast Guard, that no vessel may be operated in the water unless every child under 13 years old who is aboard the vessel is wearing a PFD.
Just as the Coast Guard specifies paddle boards as vessels in the United States, international organizations like the British Canoe Associations have followed suit.
In fact, the BCA recommends, “that you have both a primary and secondary form of floatation support when stand up paddle boarding.
Your primary form of floatation support is your board. You need to be tethered to your board by the correct type of leash for the water and environment you are paddling in. For further guidance on choosing the correct leash click here.
The secondary type of floatation support you should choose will depend on your skills, the conditions, and the environment in which you are paddling. Any buoyancy aid/PFD should be: -
- The correct size and fit correctly
- One that carries ISO 12402 certification
- Maintained by following the manufacturer's guidelines
Always practice remounting your board, once fitted in your PFD, in a controlled environment so a remount can be done quickly and with minimum effort.”
Great advice. But what about local bodies of water in your area?
One area that is confusing about appropriate PFD choices is that, in the United States, federal laws are not exactly the same as local laws. The local laws, especially in the surf zone in oceans, suggest that PFDs are not allowed.
To the beginner, this would seem counterintuitive and even reckless but the reality is that lifeguards know how dynamic the surf zone environment is and the variable experience and skill level of the average population on the beach so any “rule” is based on the situation at any given moment.
Hence the term situational awareness really breaks down into experience and instinct developed over time.
So, what is a new paddler to do? Build experience and get guidance from a Local Pro.
Ocean waves provide a natural barrier of entry to most flat water paddlers. When going for a paddle in the ocean most paddlers either have a lot of skill in the surf zone to assess and plan their outing, or a very flexible schedule so they can pick the best day based on reports or change plans last minute.
Or they can get really, really lucky and arrive at the ocean on a day when the wind and waves are calm enough for their skill level.
To determine what your local laws are, it’s always best to do a quick search, or again, contact the Local Paddling Pro in your area.
Examples of State Laws:
Understand When And Where
So, when should you wear one? To put it simply, it’s always ‘yes’ to wearing a PFD until the situation arises where it’s ‘no.’
First and foremost, always follow the Coast Guard regulations, the local laws, and the advice of your local Paddling Pro before you decide whether or not to wear a PFD.
These regulations exist for a reason and the advice of a local Paddling Pro is undeniably important for insider knowledge on launch locations.
So, when is it a ‘no’? Per USCG anytime you may have to swim under your board. Most notably – in the surf zone where the waves are crashing.
This is confusing and counterintuitive. In one of the most dynamic places on the planet, a surf zone seems like a place where you would want flotation the most, so why don’t surfers wear one in most cases at your local beach break yet, big wave surfers do?
SUP Surfing/In The Surf Zone
The most confusion about PFDs comes in the surf zone when paddlers are SUP surfing waves, or crossing the surf zone for a coastal cruise. And, you guessed it, each of those two activities has different things to consider based on the situation!
While it might seem like a good idea to wear a PFD for added safety, there is a reason why it's not allowed per USCG – anytime you may have to swim under your board (you can’t push your SUP under a wave unlike a surfboard due to the thickness and buoyancy) a lifevest is not recommended in the surf zone if you are SUP surfing.
What if you’re crossing the surf zone? The same rules apply. Get out of the surf zone and put it on and take it off when coming back in. If you get knocked down your best bet is to swim under the board and out to sea so you can come in on either side of your board. The risk here is mainly in getting hit in the head by your gear and underwater is the best place to be until you get a lull and can swim in.
Moreover, if you do fall off your board while wearing a PFD in the surf zone, you don’t want to be hit with the full force of the wave. In these instances, it’s much better to dive underneath. But if you're wearing a life jacket that keeps you above the water, you won't be able to duck dive properly, and the full force of the wave will hit you.
This makes wearing a life vest while surfing potentially more dangerous than not wearing one.
The one exception is in big wave surfing and wearing an inflatable vest is a new piece of kit.
With waves so massive and hold downs lasting so long and with intense pressure having a flotation aid to get you back to the surface saves more lives than not. These are performance pieces of kit and if you’re in this situation you’re not on the traditional SUP learning curve any longer – this means your reflexes, instincts, and situational awareness are highly developed.
The tricky thing for instructors or new paddlers who are learning to go through the surf zone is balancing a big board – big enough to support a wobbly paddler, but small enough to move quickly, turn, and get out of trouble between waves.
For most newer paddlers a big board in turbulent water is needed, or, if crossing the surf zone to tour, many touring and race boards are 12’6 to 14” + in length while most leashes are only 10’ft. The trouble is falling in the surf (or anywhere) with a big board and your board shooting away from you only to spring back just as your head comes back to the surface - being able to dodge your gear and swim under it as needed.
This is a baby-steps situation that at any moment may require a high level of skill and reflexes. Finding a protected area to practice in small surf to get your timing down and build your reflexes is critical.
Contact your local Paddle Pro to find out if there are any in the area you want to paddle in so you can get your timing down and be able to enjoy a lifetime of epic awe and wonder that comes with ocean paddling, SUP surfing, coastal echo, and wildlife tours.
There’s a lot of energy in the ocean and if you can tap into it and not just get pushed around by it you are tapping into what is most elemental about SUP!
When it comes to whitewater river paddling, it's always a good idea to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) or buoyancy aid. It is recommended that paddlers wear a properly fitted PFD that provides adequate buoyancy and is specifically designed for whitewater use.
Since the risks associated with whitewater paddling are higher than other types of paddling, there is an increased chance of capsizing and falling into the water. A PFD can help keep you afloat and protect you from hazards like rocks and debris. The force of the moving water can make it more difficult to swim to shore, so wearing a PFD increases your chances of staying afloat and getting to safety.
It's important to choose a PFD that is appropriate for the level of whitewater you'll be paddling and to ensure that it fits properly and is comfortable to wear. You should also practice self-rescue techniques and be aware of the specific risks and hazards associated with the river and the conditions you'll be paddling in.
The nuanced situational appropriate behavior for a river is about the leash – leashes in currents (either river, tidal, rip, or other) can present a snagging hazard. Leashes that are quick-release and worn around the waist or generally (probably always) the right choice.
For a demonstration of why this is the case check out this short video:
Many races require beltpack PFDs and leashes.
There has been talk of including helmets when paddlers go in and out of the surf zone multiple times during the race to prevent head injuries with all the boards and paddles crisscrossing through pounding surf.
Ultimately, it’s best to listen to the race planners in terms of deciding whether you should wear a PFD while on the water. And often, they’ll have support boats on the water with rescue and safety teams in case of an emergency.
With that said, in most instances, you will be required to wear a belt pack PFD to participate.
What about when practicing SUP yoga? Well, this again depends on a variety of factors. Are you alone? In a group or with a buddy? Is a trained instructor keeping an eye on you? Are you in a protected area and in consistent conditions that are within your skill level? These include your level of experience, the water conditions, and the local laws and regulations.
If you are an experienced paddler and are doing SUP yoga in calm, flatwater conditions, you may not be required to wear a PFD. After all, it will restrict your flow and make it more difficult to move in and out of poses.
However, it's always a good idea to have a PFD on board and to be prepared to wear it if conditions change or if you encounter unexpected hazards or challenges on the water. With a PFD on board and not on your body, you’re still covered in case of an emergency but not restricted by a bulky vest or belt pack.
Downwind paddles typically involve paddling downwind in open water conditions, catching the bumps or waves the wind produces on the open water.
This activity is incredibly fun but challenging and potentially dangerous. In these instances, it’s a necessity to have a PFD on your person – either in the form of a life vest or belt pack PFD. Though, we lean more towards a life vest if the wind conditions are strong and definitely if the water is cold.
With a life vest, you don’t have to worry about inflating your PFD if an emergency should happen. And because the conditions are typically wicked during a downwind run, the more safety precautions you take, the better.
PFDs And You
PFD usage is an important topic in the SUP community. And we understand why paddlers can freak out when they see a picture on social media of a paddle not wearing this crucial piece of equipment. It may seem dangerous but more than likely these pictures are taken under supervised conditions or done by paddling professionals.
With that said, it is clear that when it comes to SUP safety, you need to know about situational awareness, wear quality gear at the right times, learn local knowledge from an experienced paddle coach or guide, and have an annual skill development program. Like everything on your SUP, it’s all about dealing with change and the use of PFDs is dependent on various factors.
As we have learned, wearing or having a PFD is mandatory in flatwater paddle boarding situations, but not necessarily in the surf zone or during SUP yoga.
The type of PFD also matters, with inflatable PFDs being the most popular choice for comfort and ease of use, but not always the best option in an emergency. Local laws and regulations, as well as the advice of a local Paddling Pro, should always be followed to ensure safety while paddle boarding.
Ultimately, it's important to understand when and where to wear PFDs and make a conscious decision based on the specific conditions and environment of each paddle boarding activity. Remember, the primary goal is to stay safe and enjoy the amazing experience of paddle boarding.
Hear From The Pros!
Perfect Paddles offers the collective knowledge of over 900 Paddle Pros around the world, with their insight into varied locations, environments, and conditions. We asked some of our partners to offer their local knowledge of various environments across the USA. Check out their answers below…
Do have any thoughts on the topic or any other SUP-related topics? Contact us at [email protected] and you might be featured in a future article or newsletter!
Davide Sartoni, Owner, Operator of the River SUP Guy
Coloma County, California
What do you tell paddlers who are learning to paddle in rivers about safety gear?
Is there ever any situation when a PFD is not used on a river?
No. When it comes to basic personal safety equipment
1) wear a properly fitted vest-style PFD
2) wear a properly fitted whitewater-specific helmet
3) dress for the conditions
4) wear footwear that will protect your feet as well as provide traction on slick surfaces”
Erin O'Malley, Owner/Operator of Sunset Stand Up Paddle
Laguna Beach, California
In your area, when do you recommend paddlers wear a PFD?
All the time on flat water?
Yes, always. Plus it's the current law for SUP.
Is it okay for them to have it on their board only?
Technically yes, but if one becomes in distress and can't get back to the board what does that PFD do for the paddler? Nada. I recommend a worn PFD- vest or waist.
Or do you recommend they wear one?
What about paddling in the ocean – in the surf zone and past it?
Past surf zone waist PFD. No PFD while surfing as you want to be able to get off your board or under the waves.
And do you recommend a Life Vest style or Belt Pack?
It depends on the paddler and the environment. Those who aren't strong swimmers or those if a white water sup environment should have vests on. Also in any cold extremes, a vest should be worn. Otherwise, waist is good!
Hank Lewis, Owner/Operator Surf, Skate, Fitness
Jamaica Bay, Rockaway Beach, New York
We have several drownings in Rockaway every year - mostly young people.
Per my PSUPA training and common sense, I require my clients to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket (not an inflatable PFD) and a leash at all times (exception – on the life jacket when paddle surfing). When paddle surfing life jackets become a hazard because you can not dive to get out of the way of an incoming board.
We do not have the rapidly moving water here that you find on some rivers - so quick-release leashes are not required. My clients use coiled leashes when paddling flat water and I use a surf-style leash (in case I need an additional tow line).
Honestly, on most paddles, I am certain I can get to shore without a life jacket. I qualified as a lifeguard, I know the waters I paddle, and I am calm in emergency situations. So why wear a life jacket (or at least just stow it on the board?) Simple. As SUP instructors or instructor trainers (or even as experienced paddlers), we have an obligation to the SUP community. It is definitely true that when newbies see professional paddlers paddling sans PFD they think it is cool and wants to emulate them.
Developing a ‘Wear It’ culture is difficult and it starts with modeling the behavior.
Our responsibility to our clients doesn’t end when the lesson or tour is over. Successfully inculcating best safety practices in beginning paddlers will give them a life long advantage.
Only when our clients are alive, getting fit, having fun, and caring for the environment – have we done a good job as instructors.
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