Stand-up paddleboarding has been a notoriously non-PFD water sport. It came out of the surfing tradition—where the board is considered by its users as the flotation device.
But a concerted effort is being made by the Coast Guard, the ABA (American Boating Association) and others to raise awareness of the need for PFDs for SUPers.
What does the law say?
The US Coast Guard has mandated Type III personal flotation devices (PFDs) be with you on your paddleboard (along with a light and a whistle) when you’re outside the surf zone (the surf zone is where waves are breaking) in Coast Guard waters.
Each state also has its own laws regulating wearing PFDs on various vessels, including stand-up paddleboards. What do the laws of your state say? If you don’t know, you need to!
Have a Safety-First Mindset
The Coast Guard regulation technically doesn’t require you to have your PFD on—just with you. But if you have a safety-first mindset, you’ll agree wearing it makes a lot more sense than just having with you. It can be very difficult to put it on safely if the wind and weather pick up in mid-paddle.
This is especially true if you’re not a strong swimmer and if you’re in water that would be considered treacherous: cold enough to cause rapid hypothermia, strong currents, or deep and far from shore.
Types of PFDs Suitable for Standup Paddleboarding
TRADITIONAL VEST (Inherently Buoyant)—The lower price and high availability make this type appealing and most common. However, you get what you pay for here.
The cheapest vests, while they will keep you afloat, are bulky and uncomfortable while paddling. The more you can invest, the less bulky, better fitting and more comfortable it’ll be.
The obvious advantage of these over the inflatable PFDs is it’s good-to-go as soon as you buckle it on. You don’t have to worry about pulling a cord after you’ve gone under water and may be disoriented. And you don’t have to recharge it once you’ve used it.
SELF-INFLATING VEST—Worn over the neck like a traditional vest, these inflate with a Co2 canister. Since there’s no bulk unless it’s inflated, this type is great for those who want to forget they have a PFD on.
Some styles have the option of self-inflating should you fall in the water. They all have a manual pull-cord. Once used, the canister needs to be recharged.
INFLATABLE BELT—The least obtrusive PFD, this looks like a fanny pack. It’ll self-inflate with a manual pull-cord and its Co2 canister. It’s very low profile, which makes it the PFD of choice for many SUPers.
If you choose an inflatable belt, be sure you’ve practiced the cord pull beforehand in case you need it. Once used, the canister needs to be recharged.
Whichever PFD style you choose, be part of the effort to raise awareness by actually wearing it!
(PFD photos courtesy US Coast Guard brochure