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We always advocate staying safe while enjoying paddleboarding – it’s easy to do and doesn’t spoil the excitement or fun you can have. If anything, taking a few precautions can be looked at as your insurance policy to make sure you can keep returning to the water and the sport we love!
We all fall off (or jump in!) from time to time, and when this happens it’s usually no problem to get back on the board. Sometimes it’s not straightforward, the water’s particularly choppy or you’re exhausted and get into difficulties. This is when wearing a lifejacket can literally save your life. For us paddleboarders a fully fledged lifejacket is a cumbersome beast and not an option proportional to the regular risks. So, for everyday use a more appropriate choice can be the personal floatation device (PFD). Today’s PFDs come in an attractive range of designs and colors, often with features and storage options that make them a very useful piece of kit indeed (besides their life-protecting aim of course!)
Staying safe is also staying legal!
The US Coast Guard (USCG) classes stand-up paddleboards as ‘vessels’ when used on non-surfing/swimming/bathing areas. To keep yourself legal:
• Paddlers aged 13 years or older must have a USCG-approved Type I, II, III, or appropriate Type V (see below) life jacket.
• A UCSG-approved Type V jacket can be used as long as it’s appropriate for the activity.
• A child aged 12 years or younger must wear their USCG-approved life jacket.
• You need a whistle (and a flashlight if paddleboarding at night!) to alert other boaters
Knowing which Type to go for
This article gives a breakdown of the different types of PFD – take a look to help you choose what PFD rating you need for your chosen activity.
Before you go on the water
We always recommend you try on the PFDs before going on the water – they can take a little bit of practice with the straps to get a good, comfortable fit.
Let’s take a look at some of our favorite PFDs.
The Driftsun is a fantastic manual inflating PFD for those on a low budget or those looking for a great PFD at a low price. It’s classed as a ‘universal fit’ belt for adults and all our reviewers (of varying shape!) had no trouble adjusting the straps for a good fit. Wearing the belt is comfortable as it has little bulk and doesn’t really hamper your range of movement. It has a 300D Nylon Oxford protective cover which we know to be very resilient and unlikely to be torn or damaged during normal use. Its belt keepers help securely fasten the belt in place when you’re wearing it. To inflate the belt you just need to pull on the T-cord to trigger the replaceable 24g CO2 canister (included).
The bright yellow inflated belt also has reflective strips to help improve visibility. Should you need to increase or decrease your buoyancy there is an oral inflation tube supplied. The Driftsun includes a whistle but should you wish to paddleboard at night you will need to take a flashlight with you. For convenient storage of small items there is a zippered pocket.
The package comes in a reusable mesh storage bag. Overall we are very impressed with the Driftsun PFD.
Editor’s Choice The Driftsun PFD receives its Editor’s Choice for being a well-priced PFD package that ticks all the right boxes with good value for money.
Paying a few more bucks gets you the Lifesaving Pro. Its advantage over the Driftsun is its automatic inflation – once it gets submerged a tablet dissolves in three seconds causing a pin to pierce the CO2 canister which rapidly inflates the belt. You can manually inflate it too of course with the pull-cord. We like its performance in low light/dark too with its CE certificated/SOLAS approved USA 3M reflectors making it really visible at night.
The Lifesaving Pro is an attractive mustard yellow and lightweight belt which we found easy fit with its adjustable straps. It’s made from durable nylon+TPU with neoprene and polyester. The belt is advertised as being suitable for children and adults which is another plus – up to a weight of 240 lbs. The belt is reusable, washable (careful with the tablet area!) and straightforward to re-pack. There is a zippered pocket suitable for one or two small items such as a waterproof camera. It includes a whistle and an oral inflation tube.
In the same price bracket as the Lifesaving Pro comes the Coast Guard approved Stearns Sospenders blue and gray PFD. It’s a manual-only operation belt with a pull-cord to trigger inflation by a CO2 gas canister. It comes with an oral inflation tube too. We found this compact belt to be comfortable to wear and not particularly obstructive to movement. Whether paddling or fishing, the belt was hardly noticeable and didn’t inhibit our range of motion. The gas canister is replaceable with a re-arming kit – we always advise buying at least one spare re-arming kit to save you time and hassle later. The kits are often specific to each model or brand so purchasing a spare at the outset will be money well spent.
The Sospenders is for adults only with a recommended size guide of 30” – 52” chest. The belt has a clip on it that can be used to stow away excess strapping if you have a small waist. Other features include a pocket with a Velcro fastening and a D-clip to hang something like a keychain from. The package includes a breathable, mesh zippered-bag which is convenient to stow your belt in between trips.
While wearing it we found that the belt remained comfortable for several hours and it didn’t cause any problems such as chafing. We also liked the look of the Stearns and would happily consider this brand on its looks alone.
Editor’s Choice In a very competitive market, the Sospenders stands out for its automatic inflation technology. While it seems straightforward to pull on a cord to inflate your PFD, the psychological stress of suddenly finding yourself in water can make you panic and forget.
The Onyx M-24 is a Type V life vest PFD designed for adults. It’s a manual inflatable using a pull-cord. As a Type V it’s not rated for whitewater paddleboarding so bear this in mind of you decide to purchase one. Additionally, if you aren’t a confident swimmer then you should be looking at a Type II or Type I. Our test model was the gray/green combination and it’s a look we rather like. It’s very well-made and comfortable to wear; resembling a fanny pack more than a regular PFD. Our only complaint against this is that there are no plain instructions on how to re-fold it after deployment. What instructions there are, are printed on the bladder but these aren’t particularly clear when you get down to the last fold.
The M-24 comes with a CO2 gas canister and is replaceable with an Onyx re-arming pack. The minimum wearer weight is 80 lbs. Rider sizes go from a 30” – 52” chest with a 24” – 52” waist.
For your small belongings there is a zippered pocket which is big enough to accommodate a waterproof camera. A D-ring helps you attach small accessories. The Onyx package also includes an oral inflation tube should you need to inflate it further or if you want to inflate it without using the CO2 canister.
This universal-size PFD is rated as a Type III by the USCG. Despite claims of being low-profile it’s one of the chunkier ones on test but this doesn’t mean it’s uncomfortable. The Stearns is compact and unobtrusive to wear and is suitable for adults with a waist-size of 30” – 52” weighing more than 80 lbs. It’s a reusable belt too with a re-arming kit readily available.
Once triggered by a jerk on the pull-cord, the life jacket will inflate within seconds. It features an adjustable neck strap that will help you get a better fit for more stability should you need it.
The Stearns has a clear window which lets you see if the canister is correctly primed and ready to be triggered – it’s a neat feature to have.
Our only complaint against this PFD is that it doesn’t come with a whistle so you will need to spend a few extra bucks to make yourself legal.
The MTI Adventurewear is at the higher end of the PFD price range and is classed as a USCG Type III. Is it worth the premium? Well, it’s one of the best-looking belts on the market, a great ocean design with a built-in window that lets you see that the CO2 cylinder is connected and ready to fire. The inflation mechanism is a premium Halkey Robert one, something you don’t get on cheaper belts. In terms of comfort, this belt edges ahead of its competitors in what is already a very close-run contest. It’s a two-inch wide affair that starts at a 28” waist but can be opened up to accommodate a 50” waist. The mesh panel at the back and the tapered design all combine to form a body-hugging belt that spreads its weight evenly around your torso. The snug fit also lends itself well to not impeding your range of movement and we had no issues with chafing or wearing-fatigue.
The inflation is manual only and achieved through the usual tug on a pull-cord tab. Once inflated, you just pull the vest-style PFD over your head for maximum buoyancy. The belt features a zippered flap pocket which is big enough for a wallet or similar-sized items. There is a multi-loop system which is great for providing many attachment points on the belt for keys etc. The mini-carabineer helps secure the belt in place while you practice yoga for example – this is a useful feature and shows how safety equipment designers consider your need for flexibility when planning these products. It’s little touches like this and the fact that they have printed clear re-fold lines on the bladder so you can re-assemble it after deployment that make a big difference in your purchase satisfaction.
The MTI Fluid 2.0 is soft, cool and dries quickly making it great to wear and a cinch to clean and pack away for your next trip or vacation.
Editor’s Choice The MTI Adventurewear PFD is a well-specced, supremely comfortable PFD that earns it’s place as an Editor’s Choice.