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Do you need a life jacket for paddle boarding?

Posted by Alex Clasper

Please note this information was accurate at the time of publishing however laws change regularly so always check the latest lifejacket laws and recommendations provided by your local Maritime or Water Authority prior to stand-up paddleboarding.

‘Should I wear a lifejacket on my SUP?’ It’s a question that comes up a lot and unfortunately, there isn’t always a clear answer. It depends on several factors such as where you are paddling, your ability, your conditions and more. So let’s explore these factors to help you understand what may best suit your personal circumstance. 

Many countries have varying laws about wearing lifejackets on a paddleboard depending on how a SUP is categorised by their maritime authority or coastguard. Sometimes these laws or regulations can even vary state by state. 

Let’s start by looking at Australia. Currently in New South Wales paddleboarders do not need to wear a lifejacket when they are paddling. This is because stand-up paddleboards are seen in the same category of surfboards (not boats or kayaks) and therefore it is considered that a full-body lifejacket/ PFD may interfere in a self-rescue scenario. If we then jump over the Pacific and look at the United States of America, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) officially classified stand up paddleboards as vessels back in 2010 as stand-up paddleboarding was gaining popularity. Therefore, adult stand-up paddlers are required to have a USCG-approved life jacket also known as Personal Floatation Device (PFD, Type III) for each person, a sound signalling device (whistle), visual distress signal and navigation light (flashlight).

The USCG goes on to say that your PFD doesn’t have to be on your body. “All persons 12 years old and under are required to wear a USCG-approved life jacket or PFD however all operators over 12 years of age are only required to have a Type III adult USCG-approved life jacket or PFD either attached to the vessel or on the operator’s person.” This information also differs for those who are SUP surfing, where simply having a leash attached to you at all times is seen to be sufficient. 

As each state or country’s rules differ and it’s often challenging to find the most up to date information, the easiest way to be confident that the information you’re receiving is correct is to speak to your local accredited SUP School or SUP retailer. 

Similarly, although in many circumstances you may not be legally required to wear a lifejacket/PFD, there may be many situations or circumstances where you may consider wearing one. 

Man wearing Red Original personal floatation device
Three people paddle boarding in the sea wearing Red Original personal floatation devices
Man paddle boarding wearing Red Original personal floatation device with child wearing a life jacket

As a SUP Instructor, I always recommend a PFD for any paddlers who are not strong swimmers and for children. If you’re not a strong swimmer, this also means you’re probably going to enjoy your SUP experience a lot more knowing you will have the support of a PFD should you fall in. 

I have also found myself wanting a PFD when paddling in rough or exposed water conditions such as coastal locations over 400m from the shore. As a paddleboarder, there are so many aspects of your SUP experience that are beyond your control and your experience is heavily impacted by the environment you paddle in. We all recognise and accept those risks for our love of the sport, but it always pays to be prepared to minimise any potential risks to the safety of yourself and others. 

And finally, don’t forget your pets!! I am seeing more and more often that paddlers are taking their animals out for a paddle (both dogs and cats!!) and it would definitely be a more relaxing experience for all if your pooch is sitting safely in a PFD. Unfortunately, our much-loved animals can’t recognise a current or tidal change, so they will just jump on and off our SUPs when and where they like. Again, we can minimise the risk to them and us, by ensuring they wear a PFD.

So what kind of PFD should I be looking for?

As mentioned, full-body PFDs are good for kids and pets, but for adults, they can be at risk of interfering with a self-rescue and restrict your upper body movement impacting your technique and probably making you sweat if it’s a warm day or you’re on a fitness paddle. That’s why I choose to use a PFD belt such as the Red Paddle Co Airbelt PFD. They work in a similar way to the lifejackets you find on aeroplanes. They fasten around your waist meaning your upper body is unrestricted, and the PFD is deflated and folded up within the belt while you’re paddling. To deploy should you require it, simply pull the inflatable bladder out of the pocket, place over your head and inflate by pulling the inflation cord, with no adjustments required. 

There have been many situations where I have felt greater confidence on the water thanks to the PFD belt around my waist. I hope I will never need it, but knowing it’s there and knowing I’m prepared for anything makes me a confident and stronger paddler.

By Vikki Weston

Vikki is the founder of She SUPs, a Global Women’s SUP Community. She is also a Red Paddle Co AU Brand Ambassador and an ASI Level 2 SUP Instructor. For more information, please visit: www.shesups.com.au or follow @shesups_ on Instagram and Facebook.