What Is the Best Type of Life Jacket for Paddle Boarding?
The most important thing to look for when buying a life jacket for paddle boarding is getting one that is USCG (United States Coast Guard) approved.
According to USCG regulations, there are four different types or levels of life jackets.
They are classified as type I, II, III, and V. Type III life jackets are the most common type of life jacket and the best for paddle boarders.
For more information about USCG life jacket laws, check out this article.
Most of the time you have to at least have a Type III life jacket on the paddle board with you.
Any of the life jackets in this article are a good option to either wear or store on your paddle board.
If you want to wear a life jacket all the time but don’t like how bulky they are you can use an inflatable life jacket instead.
Best Life Jacket
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USCG Approved Life Jacket Reviews & Info
Stearns life jackets for adults are a classic style. There’s nothing fancy about them and they are very affordable. These are an excellent choice if you need a life jacket to have on your paddle board with you and don’t plan on wearing it all the time.
The life jacket is a Type III and approved for personal watercraft which is the category paddle boards fall under. They are also USCG approved.
You have two size options: Universal for chest sizes from 30-52 inches and oversized for chest sizes from 52-62 inches.
There are 3 buckles that are adjustable for a snug secure fit. The outside fabric is the classic tough nylon and the inside is filled with foam.
Stearns Classic Series Life Vest are very simple but effective for keeping you safe while on the water. The only downside to them when it comes to paddle boarding is there are only two sizes and you need to be able to move your arms comfortably when paddling.
But if that isn’t a concern for you or you just need a few affordable life jackets that are USCG approved Stearns is a fantastic option.
- USCG Approved
- Adjustable Straps
Stohlquist is another classic life jacket with a bit more of a tailored fit. The arms are much more open than a standard life jacket and therefore better for paddle boarders and kayakers.
The PFD is a Type III, rated for paddling and USCG approved.
There is only one size that fits chest measurements from 30-52 inches.
There are 3 buckles and adjustable straps and the outer shell is made of 200D nylon. There is also a loop on the back so you can easily hang the vest.
The lower sides are wider than other classic life jackets so the straps won’t be rubbing on your side. The floatation foam is thinner than most making the vest more comfortable when you are sitting on a boat or kayaking.
The Stohlquist Fit Life Jacket (PFD) is a great affordable option for those who want a more custom fit and less interference on their arms while paddling.
Stohlquist has been making PFD’s since 1977 and is known for its high quality and well-designed life jackets. This is an awesome choice for an onboard jacket you will be wearing some of the time.
- Large Arm Holes For Mobility
- Thin Floatation Foam
- USCG Approved
Now it’s time to start getting into the more specialized life jackets designed for a comfortable fit and movement.
The O’Neill Superlite is made for watersports such as waterskiing, tubing, and swimming. It has large armholes so you can move freely and it’s perfect for paddle boarding.
It is a Type III life jacket and USCG approved. The thing that really sets these life vests apart from the traditional bulky ones is the sizing.
Instead of just two sizes to choose from the O’Neill Superlites have different life jackets for men and women with multiple size options for a custom fit.
The men’s Superlite life vest has 7 size options ranging from S-4XL.
The women’s O’Neill Superlite life vest has all the same features as the men’s version but has a more custom fit to women and comes in 4 sizes.
Both the men’s and women’s vests are said to run a little small so if you are in between sizes make sure to buy a size up.
O’Neill Superlite life jackets have 4 buckles and have a coated polyester shell for a durable exterior.
The inner floatation foam is polyethylene which is slim and lightweight.
Because these are geared towards water skiing there is a safety tab installed on the bottom to attaches the waterski’s “kill cord” which shuts off the engine if you fall off.
This tab is a useful place to hang your keys when paddle boarding.
The O’Neill Superlite Life Vests are a great choice for people who want a comfortable, custom fitting life jacket.
The safest way to use a life jacket is to wear it. A lot of people don’t wear life jackets when paddle boarding and I think the main reason is they are known for being uncomfortable.
Getting a higher-quality life jacket that is a perfect fit can be worth it in the long run because you might actually wear it, which is the safest option especially when you paddle in the ocean or far from the shore.
- Men & Women Sizes
- Multiple Color Options
- USCG Approved
- Comfortable To Wear
- Lightweight & Fast Drying
O’Brien neoprene life jackets are known for their flexibility and ultra-comfortable fit. The Flex V-Back for men is a work of art and one of the best life jackets you can buy for paddle boarding.
The V-back is a Type III USCG approved life jacket that is made for watersports such as waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing and is perfect for paddle boarding.
The outer fabric is neoprene which is soft, fast-drying, and flexible. It molds to your body and moves with you.
The V-back has the foam placed in panels with a stretchy fabric on the back so the jacket moves with you.
The armholes are large and don’t get in the way when you paddle. The foam is lightweight and slim.
Of all the life jackets on this list, this is the one that will be the least noticeable when you wear it.
The vest closes with a zipper and has two buckles on the bottom half for a secure, snug fit.
There are 7 size options for men and 4 colors to choose from. These jackets can run a little small so getting a size larger can be a good idea.
The O’Brien Women’s V-Back Life Jacket is the same as the Men’s version in material, slim-fit, and comfort but is made for women’s body type.
There are 4 sizes to choose from: S (Chest 32″-36″), M (Chest 36″-40″), L (Chest 40″-44″), and XL (Chest 44″-48″). These also run a little small so if you are in-between sizes get a size larger.
The O’Brien Flex V-Back Neoprene Life Jackets are some of the best life jackets you can buy for any kind of water activity.
They’re especially good for paddle boarders because they dry fast so you can go for a swim then get back on your board and be comfortable.
The extra-large armholes are a must-have for paddle boarders and O’Brien makes some of the most well-built life jackets on the market today.
- Wide Armholes For Unrestricted Movement
- Close With Zipper For Snug Fit
- Men & Women Jackets
- Sectioned Foam For Movement
- USCG Approved
Onyx makes some of my favorite kinds of PFD’s, their paddle sports life vest is perfect for paddle boarders and kayakers because of the open mesh back.
It’s a good option for paddle boarders who like to use the optional seat attachment which basically turns a SUP into a kayak.
The MoveVent is made with a 200D nylon outer shell, with a mesh lower back, and adjustable neoprene shoulder pads which you can place where the life jacket sits on your shoulders for extra cushion.
Onyx added reflective material for extra safety if you end up paddling at night.
Unlike other life jackets, the MoveVent doesn’t have any adjustable buckles, it closes with a zipper instead. There is an adjustable side belt on each side so the life jacket can be adjusted a little.
Make sure you get one that fits snug and properly for comfort and safety. There are 3 size options.
The Onyx Paddlers’ life jacket has a pocket on the front and a tab you can strap and clip things to.
You get a whistle that clips onto the pocket which is a nice touch since a whistle is an important safety feature for paddlers in case you need help or have to warn other boaters of your presence.
The Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest is a USCG approved Type III jacket.
There are ultra open armholes for comfortable arm movement and the mesh back creates airflow so the vest dries quickly. It’s a great option for kayakers and paddle boarders.
- 3 Size Options
- Open Mesh Back For Comfort When Seated
- Front Pocket
- Includes A Whistle
- Reflective Material
- USCG Approved
My Recommendation For Best Coast Guard Approved Life Jacket
Neoprene is the most comfortable life jacket material and O’Brien has taken comfort and movability one step further with their V-Back life jackets by sectioning the foam to make the entire jacket stretch and form to your body’s movements.
The V-back is perfect for paddle boarding because of the slim custom fit that is out of the way but keeps you safe when you are in the water.
What I really like about this life jacket is it’s good for almost any watersport so you are not just limited to paddle sports.
It also has a separate version for women and there are lots of size options for the best fit, no matter what your body type and size is.
O’Brien is known for its high-quality water sports products and their jackets are built to last.
Having a good life jacket can save your life and this life jacket is dependable and comfortable, the two most important things to look for when buying a life jacket.
See Also: Best Life Jackets (PFD) For Dogs
Frequently Asked Questions About Coast Guard Approved Life Jackets
How to clean life jackets.
The foam inside a life jacket is very sensitive and it is important to keep the foam intact so the life jacket continues to work properly.
Machine washing a life jacket can damage the foam so they should only be hand washed in cold water.
When washing use a mild detergent or even dish soap, harsh chemicals can break down the foam and should never be used on a life jacket.
When washing, use a soft brush to remove any dirt or molds. Then soak it in soapy cold water, you can gently agitate it with your hands to get the soap working on the life jacket. Use a sponge to wipe down the outer shell of the jacket.
Once cleaned rinse off the jacket and soak it in clean water to remove the soap in the inner foam. Once all the soap has been removed from the life jacket you can now hang it in a shaded well-ventilated area. It’s best to clean life jackets on a hot day so it has time to dry all the way.
How do life jackets work?
Life jackets work by using strategically placed floatation foam to help your body float in water.
There are different types of life jackets that are made to help your body float in different ways. For more information on the different types of life jackets and what they are meant to do check out this article here.
You may be wondering why a 200 lbs person can wear the same life jacket as a 125 lbs person. Body fat also floats and life jackets work by adding the small amount of extra floatation needed to keep your head above water.
Someone with lower body fat is going to weigh more in water than someone with higher body fat.
The average person is not going to have low enough body fat and a high enough bodyweight to sink in a standard Type III life jacket which has to have at least 15.5 lbs of buoyancy.
If you think you may be such a person you can use this equation to figure out how much you weigh in water.
Body Weight X 80%= how many lbs of water your body has
Body Weight X Your Body Fat % = How many lbs of fat your body has
Take your body weight – the lbs of water your body has – the lbs of fat your body has
The leftover weight will be how heavy you are in water.
As an example here is the weight in water of a person weighing 200 lbs with only 15% body fat.
200 lbs X 80% = 160 lbs water
200 lbs x 15% = 30 lbs fat
200-160-30= 10 lbs
This person weighs only 10 lbs in water and a Type III life jacket is rated to take at least 15.5 lbs.
Some life jackets have a higher weight rating than the minimum 15.5 lbs so make sure you check that if you weigh more than 15.5 lbs in water.
What are life jackets made of?
Most life jackets are made of a nylon or neoprene outer shell with a soft polyethylene foam inside.
How long do life jackets last?
Over time the foam in life jackets starts to break down from regular use and being wet.
A properly cared for life jacket can last up to 10 years. If a life jacket gets a tear in it the lifespan will be much less.
Make sure you inspect your life jacket before use and if it’s starting to get old test it out in shallow water to make sure it takes your weight before heading away from the shore.
How to store life jackets?
Life jackets are meant to get wet but that doesn’t mean they like being wet all the time.
When you are done using your life jacket make sure you hang it up in a shaded area away from direct sunlight. The best way to store a life jacket is to leave it hanging in a well-ventilated area away from the sun.
If you need to place it in a container for the winter make sure the life jacket is 100% dry before you store it for the winter especially if the container is airtight.
Mold is very damaging to life jackets and can shorten the life of the floatation foam inside.
Can life jackets be washed in the washing machine?
The foam inside life jackets can be sensitive and break down in a washing machine. It is recommended to hand wash life jackets only.
Can life jackets keep you afloat?
Yes, life jackets keep you afloat. There are different types of life jackets that are meant for different water activities.
Some types of life jackets will keep you more afloat than others. For more information about the different types of life jackets check out this article here.
Can life jackets expire?
There is no set expiration date on foam life jackets because the amount of time they will last depends on how well they are cared for, how often they are used, and what kind of water they are mostly worn in (saltwater is more damaging than freshwater).
If a life jacket is well cared for and has no rips or holes it can last up to 10 years even with regular use.
The air canister on inflatable life jackets does expire. Normally they last 2-3 years. The good news is most inflatable PFD’s can be re-armed so you don’t have to buy a new inflatable life jacket every 3 years all you need to do is buy a re-arming kit.
Can life jackets fail?
A foam life jacket in good condition that is rated for your bodyweight will never fail.
Inflatable life jackets have more risk of failure. If the air canister has expired it may not inflate your PFD, most inflatable life jackets have a way to inflate them manually but in an emergency, you may not have time.
It is important to check the air canister regularly to make sure it hasn’t expired. If it has expired you can re-arm it.
While inflatable life jackets are made with very durable material the risk for punctures and holes is still there. I recommend inflatable life jackets for people who can swim well and are with other people so they know they will get rescued right away.
On the occasion that I paddle board alone, I use my foam life jacket instead of my inflatable one just in case.
Which life jacket do I need?
The life jacket you need depends on what activity you will be doing.
Type III life jackets like the ones on this list are for general boating. They are also good for other activities like paddle boarding, water skiing, wakeboarding, canoeing, kayaking, and more.
The life jacket you buy will list the water activities it is made for on the label.
For more information on the types of life jackets and the activities and kinds of water they are used for, check out this article here.
Will I life jacket help in a rip current?
Yes, a life jacket will absolutely help in a rip current. In fact, if you see someone get caught in a rip current the procedure is to throw them a floatation device so they can stay afloat until they are able to swim out of it.
For more information about rip currents and how to survive them check out this article here.
Why is a life jacket important?
Water is a funny thing. We need it to survive and it can be fun to swim and play in. But at the same time, it can be very dangerous and has taken many lives.
Accidents happen every day on the water and a lot of times people who die in water could have been saved if they were wearing a life jacket.
No matter what you are doing out on the water whether it’s paddle boarding or boating there is always something that can go wrong.
The best thing you can do to stay safe on the water is wear a life jacket and always have other people with you.
If you are planning on going boating or paddle boarding alone wear a life jacket and make sure someone knows where you are.
When to wear a life jacket.
The United States Coast Guard states that if you are on a personal watercraft like a boat or paddle board and are 13 years or older you are not required to wear a life jacket you just have to have one on board with you.
That being said you should always wear a life jacket when you leave the shore and are on deep waters.
Coldwater wears you out faster so if you are on icy cold mountain lakes or the frigid parts of the ocean you should wear a life jacket no matter what. Also, rough water is a good reason to put a life jacket on.
And it goes without saying children and people who cannot swim well should always have a life jacket on even if they are in shallow water.
If you are an adult the decision to wear a life jacket is your own but it is highly recommended, especially if you swim or paddle alone.
Are life jackets comfortable?
The old-style traditional life jackets are not comfortable. But there are comfortable life jackets out there.
They make life jackets out of neoprene with sectioned foam that are very comfortable to wear and they even make slim-fitting inflatable life jackets and are very comfortable.
I wear an inflatable life jacket that is just a belt that goes around my waist. It is very comfortable and I hardly notice it when I’m paddle boarding.
What are life jacket ratings?
The United States Coast Guard requires life jackets to have certain ratings so you know what their function is and what they will do when you are in the water.
I’ve written a detailed article about life jacket ratings you can check out here.
What life jacket do I need for a jet ski?
Most Type III life jackets are ok for jet skiing. If you are unsure the life jacket will say what activity it is made for on the label.
Most of the life jackets on this list are approved for jet skiing except for the Onyx paddle sports life jacket. That one is for kayakers and paddle boarders.
What life jacket for a kayak?
Standard life jackets normally have a lot of foam on the back area which is uncomfortable to wear when you are seated in a kayak.
They make kayak specific life jackets (click to view on Amazon) that have a mesh back instead of foam so you can be seated with your back against the seat instead of foam.
They are more comfortable and have extra open armholes which are better for paddling as well.
How should a life jacket fit?
A life jacket should be comfortably snug.
If it’s too loose and you end up with the shoulder part up to your ears when you jump in the water it needs to be tightened.
Do adult life jackets work for children?
Life jackets are more about weight than age. A lot of adult life jackets are for people over 90 lbs.
So if your child or teen is over 90 lbs an adult life jacket is what they should be wearing.
Every life jacket is a little different and the minimum weight limit should be on the label.
What does USCG stand for?
United States Coast Guard.
What does PFD stand for?
Personal Flotation Device.
What does PWC stand for?
Have any more questions about USCG approved life jackets? Leave a comment below.