How to Select the PFD for SUP

The personal floatation device (PFD), more commonly known as a life jacket, has come a long way since the block of orange covered foam that you’ve come to expect. They come in a variety of styles and are even designed with certain activities in mind. Fortunately, because of that, there is an ideal PFD out there that will serve you well when it comes to Stand-Up Paddleboarding. We’ll break down the different styles below so you can make the best choice for your needs.

Types of PFD

Personal floatation devices come in two broad categories that are ideal for SUP. These are standard and inflatable.

Standard PFDs

Standard PFDs are very much the ones you are familiar, but far better designed than the bricks of orange you may remember. These look more like a vest that you wear over your chest. The benefits of a Standard PFD are:

  • Low Maintenance--Keep it out of the sun, keep it clean, you’re done.
  • Instantly Buoyant--When you fall into the water, the PFD is ready to go with no warm up time.
  • Pockets--If you need to store something valuable, you’ll likely have a spot for it with a standard PFD.

Some cons of a standard PFD:

  • Bulky--All that buoyant foam has to go somewhere, and unfortunately, it goes right onto your chest. This can limit your movements when paddling if you get one that is too bulky.
  • Hot--The foam does not breathe very well, and can be very hot on a hot day.

Inflatable PFDs

Inflatable PFDs are a fairly new addition to the swim market, but come with some interesting benefits to them that you may not expect. One thing to note is that these are NOT the type you have to inflate by blowing air into a tube. Instead, they are either automatic and inflate when you hit the water, or they have a CO2 gas cartridge that you manually activate. These measures ensure a fast inflation when you need it.

Some benefits of an inflatable PFD are:

  • Comfort--When uninflated, the PFD is thin and comfortable to wear, and does not hinder your stroke when you paddle.
  • Cool--Because they are thin and cover less of your body when uninflated, they will keep your body cooler on a hot day.

Some cons of an inflatable PFD are:

  • Not Instantly Buoyant--The PFD will inflate quickly when needed, but only if it does so automatically when it hits the water. If you are injured and have to manually activate the inflate mechanism, you can see where the trouble would be.
  • Maintenance Required--You will need to replace CO2 canisters after you use them, or the jacket won’t inflate the next time you need it.


There are certain styles of PFD that are a combination of standard and inflatable, giving a “jack of all trades, master of none” style to the life jacket. If this is something you are interested in, note that they tend to be expensive.

Sizing and Fitting

Finding a good PFD that fits your body is important, as going too much in either direction could result in discomfort and limited mobility. A good starting point is to measure your chest, as that, rather than weight, will determine whether the jacket is a good fit for you. Once you have this number, use it along with the PFD manufacturer's recommendations to find the right one.

How to fit your PFD:

  1. Loosen all the straps and put the life jacket on. Once on, tighten them as well. If there are shoulder straps, tighten them last.
  2. If you are wearing a standard PFD, pull up on the device and try to get it over your head. If you can, it is too loose or even too big. Adjust until you cannot get it over your head.
  3. It should feel snug, but not uncomfortable. You should not be limited in your range of motion.

Further Tips:

  • Where the clothes you would wear while paddling to ensure it fits comfortably over them.
  • Check your movements and even perform a few mock paddles with the jacket on to ensure there will be no chafing.
  • The more straps it has, the more ways it can be adjusted to fit comfortably.
  • If you a woman, you may find women-specific PFDs more comfortable than unisex. They are designed slightly differently.
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