Sometimes, life jackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs) seem like a necessary evil to us paddle boarders. It’s not that they’re evil, cause they could technically save your life… but when you’re out paddling on a beautiful day, the last thing you want to feel is a cumbersome life jacket rapped around your body. Let’s just be honest.
Plus, sometimes it feels a little bit silly to wear a life vest when you’re standing on a very large flotation device. But, according to the law, you’re actually required to have a PFD aboard your paddle board in most cases.
Paddle Board Life Jacket Requirements
To makes sense of paddle board life vest laws, you have to consider how the U.S. Coast Guard recognizes paddle boards. According to the USCG, stand up paddle boards are considered “vessels”…. unless you’re paddling in a surfing or swimming area. Outside of those areas though, you’ll be considered a “vessel” and will be held to the same requirements of all other vessels.
The law’s a little bit confusing, but I wouldn’t put too much thought into it. The best thing to do is get a PFD and carry it with you at all times. It’s safe to assume that unless you’re paddle surfing, you’re required to have a flotation device with you. And if you don’t, it’s a hefty ticket. I was tempted to not use one when I first started, but then I heard several stories about paddle boarders getting ticketed. I figured I’d play it safe and buy a live vest, rather than donate money to the state… plus it’d be cheaper than a ticket.
One other thing – you should check the boating laws in your state and how they apply to paddle boards, but you don’t necessarily have to be wearing a live vest when you’re paddle boarding. You just need to have one on board. I have a cargo net on my board, so I just stuff a life vest under that so I’m legal and safe.
However, if you choose a belt style self-inflating PFD (popular with the SUP crowd and recommended below), you are required to actually wear it when you’re on the water.
The 3 Best Life Vests and Life Belts for Paddle Boarding
Paddle Board Life Belt – Onyx M-24
The Onyx M-24 inflatable life belt is one of the most popular PFDs for paddle boarding due to its low profile design which doesn’t interfere with your paddle stroke, and goes almost unnoticeable.
The life belt sits like a fanny belt around your waste, and contains a red draw cord to pull in case you get into trouble. When you pull the cord, it engages a small CO2 canister causing the vest to inflate. The CO2 canisters are replaceable and it’s a good idea to have a few on hand at home in case you accidentally pull the draw cord and need to refill the PFD.
I have several friends who use this PFD and are very satisfied. The only issue one of my friends had with it was accidentally inflating it, but that was more of a matter of user error. I think he had the cord misplaced a bit and when he was paddling he accidentally pulled it and inflated the vest…. it made for a humorous moment, and he hasn’t had any issues since.
This life belt PFD also has a convenient zipper pocket for storing any keys or other small valuables you want to take out to sea with you.
Auto Inflating SUP Life Jacket – Onyx A-24 In-Sight
The Onyx A-24 automatic inflating life vest is similar to the Onyx live vest above, in that they both are powered by CO2 cartridges, and both have a sleek non-cumbersome design that doesn’t interfere with paddling.
However, the Onyx A-24 is slightly different because it’s more than just a fanny pack, and like a normal life vest, it actually goes over your shoulders even when not inflated. This still isn’t very cumbersome, but doesn’t quite have the naked feel that the life belts do. The Onyx A-24 is definitely more noticeable, although it’s fairly minimal, and still doesn’t interfere with paddling.
The A-24 can be inflated manually, by pulling the pull-cord or it also has an auto-inflate sensor that automatically inflates the life vest when the sensor gets saturated. This could be an issue if you fall off your SUP very often, which I definitely did when I was beginning. However, you can disable the auto-inflate option if you’d life, which is an easy solution.
Traditional Style SUP Life Vest – NRS Vapor PFD
The NRS Vapor is more similar to a traditional life vest, because it doesn’t require inflating. That makes it slightly more bulky than the inflatable PFD options. But, the NRS Vapor is still and ideal PFD for paddle sports, with it’s medium profile. It also has a back hand warmer pocket, and a front pocket pouch which allows you to safely stow any valuables.
The other nice thing about the NRS vapor, and other traditional life vests are that they don’t have to be worn when paddling. You just have to have them on board your “vessel”. For me, I just stow my vest in my cargo net, which allows me to paddle completely unencumbered. This works great for short day trips, but it might not be ideal for longer adventures where you need all that board storage space and cargo nets.
SUP Life Vests in Summary
Of course, there’s a number of other PFD options other than those above. Since you don’t technically need to wear a vest when you’re paddling (unless it’s inflatable), you can even check out your local thrift store to see if you can find something in good condition. The main drawback of getting a used vest is that you don’t know the history – which could compromise it’s safety. So, maybe it’ll help you avoid a ticket, but the main point of the vest and the SUP vest law is safety. For those reasons, I suggest getting a new PFD that you can trust to keep you safe.