Table of Contents
- Types of PFDs:
- Buying Your PFD…
- Inflatable Belts ($$-$$$)
- Inflatable Vests ($$$)
- Non-Inflatable Jackets ($-$$)
- Life Jackets for Women:
- For Rougher Conditions… ($$)
When going out on the water with your paddle board, it is extremely important to take certain precautions to ensure a fun, and safe, adventure. One accessory that should be on every paddle boarder’s list is a PFD, or personal floatation device, (the most common and practical would be a life jacket).
In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard requires riders to have some form of life preserver with them. Falling off from loss of balance, collision, or rough conditions happens to beginners and experts alike, but wearing a life jacket can help you get back on board.
Types of PFDs:
Before searching the various models, even before researching the various kinds of PFDs, the first thing to do is to determine the type of life jacket you need. When it comes to SUP, there are three major types of personal floatation devices: Type II, Type III, and Type V, and each one has its own purpose and strengths.
- Type II – Made for calmer conditions and inland waters closer to the shore, where you are more likely to be quickly rescued. Designed to make sure the fallen rider is face-up in the water.
- Type III – Floatation aids. Comfortable to wear, easy to move around in. Best for an area where you will quickly be rescued. Designed to put riders face-up, but the rider might have to tilt their head to stay in the proper position.
- Type V – Special-use devices. Have to be labeled for a specific purpose to be USCC certified. Some of the devices in this type are known as hybrid devices, and can be inflated or deflated as needed, acting as another category. For example, inflatable belts are a Type V, but act as a Type III.
While those are the most common types for paddle boarding, if you’re going out on the open ocean, or rougher conditions, you may want to consider a Type I device, which an offshore life jacket. It is the largest in size, but also the most buoyant and easy to spot in conditions where help may not arrive right away.
Buying Your PFD…
Inflatable or non-inflatable? Vest or belt? Type II or Type III? So many factors go into choosing the perfect life jacket, but once you make the right choice, you’ll feel more comfortable and protected out on the water. Here are some of the more common types of PFDs and their relative prices:
Inflatable Belts ($$-$$$)
Inflatable belts are popular because of their comfort. They’re tied around the waist, leaving the rest of the body free to move, making inflatable options ideal for serious paddlers and surfers. Belts are especially good for surfers and racers because they don’t restrain movement like vests do and are only buoyant when needed. The belt will inflate at the pull of a cord, keeping the rider afloat and their arms free to swim. If you’re on a budget, though, inflatable PFDs are typically a pricier than non-inflatable options.
- Onyx M-16 Manual Belt Pack (Type V, Performs as Type III) $$
- Stearns 16 Gram Manual Belt Pack (Performs as Type III) $$
- MTI Adventurewear Fluid 2.0 (Type III) $$$
Onyx M-16 Manual Belt Pack
The Onyx M-16 is one of the highest rated and most reviewed belts on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.8 stars. It’s approved for riders over 80 lbs. and 16 years of age, and can fit an up to 52” waist. It is very small and lightweight, and many reviewers claim they don’t even feel it there! To deploy the device, simply pull the tab, and it will inflate a jacket, which is packed in the belt. If that fails, you can also manually inflate it by blowing into a tube. While the belt can be used multiple times, the CO2 cartridge used to deploy the belt has to be replaced after each use. Also includes a D-ring to attach small accessories.
Stearns 16 Gram Manual Belt Pack
This Stearns model is one-size-fits-all for adults over 80 lbs and chest size of 30-52 in, and can be adjusted. Like the Onyx M-16, the Stearns Belt Pack can be inflated by mouth if the cartridge or cord fails. One reviewer who had to use it mentioned that it didn’t interfere with getting back on the board, and was fairly comfortable even after being inflated.
MTI Adventurewear Fluid 2.0
The priciest of the inflatable belt belt packs, the MTI Fluid is known for being extremely comfortable, and includes many features. It’s soft, cool, and dries quickly, accommodating waists from 28-50”. The belt also features a window with an indicator to show whether the device is armed and ready to go. Like the other models, the Fluid also has the option of being manually blown up. For added safety, MTI also includes a safety whistle. Other accessories include:
- D-ring for small accessories
- And a small zippered storage compartment
Riders must be over 16 years of age and 80 lbs.
Inflatable Vests ($$$)
Inflatable vests, unlike the belts, offer the rider a choice of automatic or manual inflation. Automatic inflation causes the vest to inflate as soon as the device is submerged beneath the water, while manual inflation activates the device only when the rider chooses. Inflatable vests are a sort of medium between belts and non-inflatable vests, because they’re built for those who prefer the feeling of a vest, but also allow the rider to make the choice of whether or not to use the floatation device when going into the water if the model has a manual option. They are also typically more comfortable than non-inflatable vests.
- Driftsun Universal Fit Automatic/Manual $$$
- Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M – 24 (Type V) $$$
Driftsun Universal Fit Automatic/Manual
While it is a vest, the Driftsun Universal Fit’s adjustable design allows its rider to move around quite freely. The vest is made out of lightweight, high quality material designed for durability and comfort. As the name implies, it also allows riders to inflate the vest three different ways:
- Automatically- when the device is submerged, it triggers the cartridge to go off and inflate the vest
- Manually- the rider can inflate the vest at any time simply by pulling the cord
- Orally- Blowing into the tube to increase or decrease buoyancy.
WARNING : This vest, while described to be effective, has not yet been tested by the USCG, so it is not certified and might not meet requirements in the U.S. if the rider is questioned. -as of August 2017
Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M
The Absolute Outdoor Onyx is the most reviewed inflatable vest on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars and 297 reviews. This vest extremely durable, made to resist wear and tear, without sacrificing comfort. It has a slender design to allow for unconstrained movement, and is very lightweight. Like the Driftsun, the Onyx has manual, automatic, or oral inflation. One advantage held by the Onyx, however, is that it is approved by the USCG under a Type V classification.
Non-Inflatable Jackets ($-$$)
Non-inflatable jackets, while typically considered less comfortable than inflatable ones, are considered a safer option. There is guaranteed buoyancy at all times, without having to inflate with a cord or mouth, keeping your arms free when in the water. They also require little maintenance and don’t require purchase of the canisters required by inflatable devices, putting less of dent in your wallet. SUP riders under the age of 12 are required by law to wear a Type III Non-Inflatable Jacket.
- AIRHEAD Type II PFD
- Flowt Type III All Purpose Life Vest
- NRS Vapor PFD
AIRHEAD Type II PFD
The AIRHEAD is a USCG approved Type II life jacket, which can turn unconscious riders face-side up in flatwater. It is also the cheapest option on this list. This PFD comes in three different sizes:
- Youth- Fits children under 50 lbs, offering the minimum buoyancy.
- Medium- for riders between 50-90 lbs.
- Adult- for riders 90+ lbs.
While this product does meet the requirements, it isn’t the most comfortable PFD on the list, so many reviewers mentioned that they keep it by their side, as opposed to constant wear.
Flowt Type III All Purpose Life Vest
The Flowt Type III, while the second cheapest option on this list, is more comfortable than the AIRHEAD. It comes in 5 different sizes:
- Infant (Type II)- for infants under 50 lbs. Includes closed sides to prevent irritation from straps.
- Child- For riders 30-50lbs in weight. Fits a chest size of 20-25.” Features a leg strap for extra safety.
- Youth- For riders 50-90 lbs. Fits a chest size of 25-29”
- Universal Adult- For riders 90+ lbs. Fits chest size of 30-52”
- Oversized Adult- Fits chest size of 52-62”
NRS Vapor PFD
Though the priciest of the non-inflatable options, the NRS Vapor is by far the most comfortable. It has two side buckles, and a soft, lightweight foam frame that adjusts to your body. It has an “action cut design,” which allows paddlers to move their arms with more ease. It also features a chest zipper with a huge pocket and a hand-warming pouch. This model also comes in three sizes: S-M, L-XL, and XXL. While the company did not give specific chest measurements for the different sizes, reviewers suggested going with the one closest to your shirt size and adjusting from there.
Life Jackets for Women:
While most life jackets claim to be unisex and universal, some life jackets are made specifically with women in mind for a more comfortable experience. For example, there’s:
- O’Brien’s Women’s Impulse Neo Life Vest
O’Brien’s Women’s Impulse Neo Life Vest
The Impulse is one of the highest rated choices on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 and over 140 reviews. It comes in 5 sizes:
- XS- Chest size: 28-32”
- S- Chest size: 32-36”
- M- Chest size: 36-40”
- L- Chest size: 40-44”
- XL- Chest size: 44-48”
It’s also really comfortable, and features a zipper lock with two buckles as an extra precaution. USCG approved. While some reviews say that the product runs small, many reviews assure that the size chart is accurate and don’t recommend buying a size up, because it could be too loose.
For Rougher Conditions… ($$)
Though inflatables are the best option for surfing because they allow the rider to move much more freely, if you’re going out in the open ocean, a bay, or rougher waters, you may want a Type I vest. These vests are the kind found on commercial boats, and flip unconscious riders face-side up or a little back. Type I vests are designed for longer survival in the water, and many models have reflectors, making them easier to spot. One such device would be:
- the Kent Commercial Type I Jacket Style Life Jacket.
One major drawback to these vests is that they are not designed for comfort. They are built for safety. Paddling constantly in this vest may not be the most comfy ride, so if you do go with this option, some reviewers recommend keeping it by your side as opposed to constant wear.
Purchasing a life jacket isn’t just a safety necessity, it’s a U.S. law. While there are many PFDs to choose from, deciding on the type is the first way to narrow down the options. Remember, Type II and III are for calmer conditions where you are likely to be quickly rescued. Type V is for specific uses, and Type I is for rougher conditions. Once you’ve settled on the type, the next choice is style.
Belts are best for surfers and racers, staying out of your way until you need them. Inflatable vests have the option of automatically or manually inflating. Non-inflatable vests are always ready to float and are, on average, a cheaper option. Now that you’ve decided the style, all that’s left is to choose the model and size for you, and then you’re ready to ride. Stay safe, and happy paddling!
Side by Side Comparison of SUP PFDs!
Just to make it easier to decide which life saving device you should buy to stay safe, here’s a quick comparison…
PFD Inflatable Belts (comparison):
PFD Inflatable Vests (comparison):
PFD Non-Inflatable Vests (comparison):
PFD Non-Inflatable Women’s (comparison):