Do I Need A Lifejacket Or A PFD When Paddling?

Do I need a lifejacket or a PFD?

Wetsuit…check. Leash…check. Lifejacket…? Hmmm. If you’ve ever wondered whether you should wear one, then you’re not alone. With so many different options out there, which do you choose? Essentially, it all comes down to the type of activity you’re doing and your personal preference. The most important thing is that you have one…and wear it!

First things first – what is a PFD?

PFD stands for Personal Floatation Device. There are generally five types, based on their level of buoyancy, ranked from type 1 to 5. Think of type 1 as your traditional heavy-duty yellow lifejacket, usually worn at sea. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find more specialist vests and throwable devices. Type 1 lifejackets are intended to keep the wearer’s head up out of the water by turning them the right way up, even if they’re unconscious. While these are ultimately the safest option, they can also be extremely bulky and restrictive, so pretty unsuitable to use for paddling.

Do I actually need to wear one?

There’s a lot of speculation on this topic. Some countries don’t recognise paddleboards as a vessel, so there might not be any hard and fast rules to say you must wear one. It’s wise to check the legal guidelines of where you’re paddling, as this could vary from country to country. It also depends on the ability of the people in your group – for example, it’s widely recommended that children wear one.

For most SUP activities, we reckon it’s a good idea to wear a type 3 PFD. Look for ‘level 50N’ buoyancy as a guide. Generally, these types of PFD will take the form of a vest, although you can also get devices that are fitted around the waist. Most modern PFDs for paddling and kayaking are much less bulky than standard lifejackets. They’re specially designed for these sports, so you should feel a lot more comfortable and able to move around freely.

Although these lower level PFDs won’t keep your head above the water like a lifejacket would, they will still help you float should you come off your board in choppy waters or injure yourself in an accident. We don’t mean to sound negative, but things do go wrong occasionally. Regardless of how strong a swimmer you may be, you need to be prepared for the worst case scenario and who knows, a PFD might just save your life one day. With this in mind, it goes without saying that you should always wear a suitable level PFD or lifejacket for whitewater SUP/kayaking, or any activity in fast-flowing water. Children under 12 must also wear a suitable life jacket or vest at all times on the water, no matter what the nature of the activity is. For added confidence, you might want to look into auto-inflatable PFDs, these are usually recommended for children under 16 or people who can’t swim.

What features should I look for in a PFD?

Most PFDs built for SUP and kayaking will be made from a soft foam which gives the vest its buoyancy and shape. The advantage of wearing one is that they’re not only capable of saving your life, but that they often come with handy features, such as pockets for stashing small, essential items like keys, as well as bigger pouches to store hydration packs or even snacks (hey, we’re not judging, paddling can work up an appetite!) Of course, they also provide an extra layer to keep you warm and toasty.

Your chosen PFD should be form-fitting, this is especially true for racing as it helps that your strokes aren’t restricted. You might want to look at design features like cut-away shoulders and drawstrings to adjust the fit accordingly. Ultra-light material makes for better temperature regulation and breathability in summer, whereas fleece-lined pockets could be a godsend for chilly hands in winter.

If you’re looking for a PFD for children, you might want to consider a firmer textured foam vest, as these tend to be the most robust. For adults seeking a more streamlined silhouette, look for materials like nylon and neoprene.

When choosing a heavy-duty jacket for whitewater SUP, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for additional safety features. As well as having a substantially higher buoyancy level, (65N minimum) it should ideally have a pocket for carrying a rescue device or whistle. Make sure that the outside is free from any toggles or loops etc. as these could potentially snag and get caught. You’ll also want to make sure that the jacket is snug to ensure it won’t be ripped off by high water pressure. Nobody wants to be chasing a wayward PFD downstream!

As well as just looking cool, bright colours can also help to improve visibility of you and your fellow paddlers in foggy or poor light conditions. Look out for light reflective panels as a bonus.

An airbelt PFD may be a worthy investment if you’re looking for something a bit more streamlined and find that a conventional vest shape gets too warm or restrictive. As the name suggests, these fit around the waist with a clasp and contain a buoyancy aid that can be deployed on contact with the water.

Lastly, don’t forget about your furry companions! Despite dogs being naturally good swimmers, you never know when you might run into difficulty. It might not be possible to keep an eye on them as well as yourself and other paddlers at the same time. There are loads of vests available on the market with grab handles and adjustable straps to cater for dogs of all sizes.

How much does a PFD cost?

Again, another factor when it comes to choosing equipment is of course the cost. And while you shouldn’t put a price on your safety, it’s reassuring to know that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a half decent PDF. Most basic style vests that meet the minimum buoyancy requirements can be picked up for around £35. For more advanced features, such as one adapted for racing for example, you could be looking at upwards of £90.

Above all, whatever PFD you choose, the most important factor is you need to feel comfortable in it. If it doesn’t fit properly, it gets in the way or you’re constantly fiddling with it, you’re just not going to wear it, simple as. And an unworn PFD is a useless PFD, no matter the price tag!

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