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Choosing a comfortable, well-fitting personal flotation device (PFD) can be a task. However, it is a necessary purchase in order to stay safe and legal on the water. I personally had a difficult time finding my best paddle board life vest.
I had to try on a lot of different types until I stumbled upon one that gave me freedom of arm movement. No two vests fit the same, so it is imperative that you figure out what works for you before you get out in the water.
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Which is the Best Paddle Board Life Vest? Standard or Inflatable?
There are two main kinds of PFDs: standard and inflatable. You can’t go wrong with either, but each has its own pros and cons. Before I tell you what I eventually chose, here are some of the differences between the two.
Standard Life Vests
Standard PFDs are worn in kayaks, canoes, and on beginner boards such as the XTERRA 10’ Inflatable Paddle Board. These look like an actual vest and feature buoyant materials inside, usually foam. You can find these pretty much anywhere because they are the most common type.
- Pockets – Most standard life vests come with pockets. These are extremely handy for holding your sunscreen and other necessities while you are out on the water.
- Buoyant – There’s no need to add air to these PFDs to make them buoyant.
- Versatile – You can use your standard life vest for all other water sports.
- Easy to Clean – Just lay it out to dry in the sun when you are done!
- Repeatable use – If you plan on falling in a few times, or floating down a river, you want something that consistently does the job.
- Hot – On a warm and sunny day, the last thing you want is a vest on your upper body. Standard life vests make your life miserable when there isn’t a breeze.
- Bulky – PFDs are quite bulky. So bulky, they can get in the way of your arm movements. Standards are fine in a canoe or kayak, but paddleboarding requires more range of motion.
Inflatable Life Vests
I ended up choosing an inflatable PFD, and I’m sure you will find many other paddleboarders that swear by theirs. In fact, many people just use the minimalist inflatable waist pack PFDs to stay legal.
Since most SUPers aren’t trying to ride the rapids, they don’t really need a standard life vest. However, if you do, check out these expert tips on how to run whitewater.
There are two ways you can inflate these PFDs: automatically or manually. The automatic design is smart. It knows when you are in the water and it inflates without any effort from the user. Manual vests require you to pull a cord to activate the small CO2 tank.
We recommend the manual style for paddleboarders because the chances your inflatable will get wet SUPing are high.
- Cool – Unlike the standard PFDs, inflatables don’t cover your body unnecessarily.
- Better Range of Motion – Life vests you can inflate are better because they are only inhibiting your movements when they are needed.
- Comfort – No one wants to wear a thick, awkward vest around all day. Inflatables are slimmer.
- Not Bouyant – On their own, inflatable PFDs are not buoyant. They require something to set them off. So, if you have an accident with a manual waist pack you may not be able to inflate it.
- Higher Maintenance – When using a manual inflatable, you have to replace the CO2 cartridge after every use. This can get annoying and expensive. Not to mention it can be easy to forget.
- Not for Non-Swimmers – If you aren’t exactly comfortable swimming, you should go with a standard vest. Additionally, any high impact water activity will require a standard PFD for the utmost safety. Check out our article for more information on what to wear.
Still not sure if an inflatable PFD is right for you? Check out this video by the experts:
The 4 Best Paddle Board Life Vests
#1. Best Standard PFD: Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest
The Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest is one of the most popular standard PFDs in the market today. This vest is available in blue and red, and Coastguard approved. This Stearns is constructed of nylon and has 2 sizing choices: universal and oversized.
There is a 3-buckle design to make taking the vest on and off easy. The straps are made of 1-inch webbing and the inside is stuffed with buoyant PE foam. In the both PFDs, the sides are open to allow more airflow and person inside. The universal can even be made small enough for youth.
The Adult Classic Series Vest was given a type III PFD rating by the Coastguard.
#2. Best Manual Inflatable: Eyson Slim PFD Life Jacket
The best manual inflatable on this list is the Eyson Slim PFD Life Jacket. You’ll notice right away how minimalist this design is compared to the standard life vests. There are plenty of openings so your skin can enjoy being free in the sunshine and breeze.
Although a bit more expensive, this inflatable PFD will not let you down. It was made with high-quality nylon and TPU and covered with waterproof polyester oxford neoprene. From the time you pull the cord until the time your Eyson inflates is guaranteed to be between 3 and 5 seconds.
This is basically a one-size fits all made for any adult under 330 pounds. Reflectors are included just in case, and this inflatable will stay buoyant for longer than 48 hours. As added extras, you receive a whistle, CO2 cylinder, and oral tube.
#3. Best Automatic Inflatable: ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24
The ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 is the latest and greatest in automatic PFDs. It provides the same breezy design as the manual inflatable mentioned earlier. However, this life vest gives you the option of using it manually before you hit the water.
The Onyx is a Type V Life Jacket with a Type III performance and the manufacturer does not recommend it for non-swimmers or even weak swimmers. Anyone that knows how to swim well will appreciate the tear resistant fabric and comfortable neoprene neckline.
The A/M-24 was designed for those 80 pounds up to 330 pounds. It includes reflective stripes just in case you are floating at night. A gas cylinder is included, but we recommend keeping some on hand. This goes double if you are just learning how to iSUP.
#4. Best Waist PFD: Onyx M-16 Belt Pack Manual Inflatable Life Jacket
This Onyx M-16 Belt Pack was made specifically for use during stand up paddleboarding, fishing, and kayaking. Instead of the life vest design, this PFD looks like a fanny pack. When it is on, it is barely noticeable to you or anyone looking at you. The buckle and belt are 1-inch wide!
Since this is a manual, you will have to pull the string to inflate the PFD. Also included is an oral inflation tube that can add an additional 26.5 pounds of buoyancy. The material is a durable 200-denier nylon oxford.
The Onyx M-16 is a Type V with Type III performance and can be used by anyone over 80 pounds and 16 years of age. As long as your waist is up to 52 inches, you will be able to use this device.
Picking the perfect PFD for standup paddleboarding can be hard. There are different uses for both inflatable (often waist) PFDs and standard PFDs, or lifejackets. If you’re a competent swimmer, SUPing on lakes or the ocean a manual inflatable PFD waist pack is probably a good option. If you’re learning, not a competent swimmer, or plan on doing some river runs, then you need a good standard lifejacket style PFD.
What do you use?
Have a favorite we should know about?
Let us know below in the comments below!
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