Make Sure a Life Jacket Is on Your Gear Check List Before Paddling This Summer

This article was produced under a grant from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard.

You’ve probably given in to the urge to splurge on a big purchase while shopping for something totally unrelated. It’s cool; it happens. But, depending on the item, spending a bunch of dough for something fun and exciting can cloud your judgement on making sure you have all the proper gear to enjoy your new toy safely and responsibly. It often happens with newbie motorcycle buyers—they get a fast bike and helmet (usually required by law) but neglect to drop money on proper riding gear like an armored jacket and pants, Kevlar-lined gloves, and sturdy boots.

The same goes for recreational watercrafts like canoes, kayaks, and even standup paddleboards. You get the boat and a paddle, but may leave out buying other important safety items like a dry bag, first-aid kit, or, most essential of all, a life jacket. Also called a personal flotation device (PFD), getting a life jacket that fits well and is high quality (approved by the United States Coast Guard) should be on the same receipt as the one that has your new boat and paddle.

There are a few different types of life jackets you can buy, from bulky and less expensive to minimal and fairly pricey, so it’s good to know how and where you’ll use your new watercraft to dial in your purchase.

A standard life jacket is simply a textile outer shell shaped like a vest that’s stuffed with an inherently buoyant material, like foam. The advantages of these are the lower cost, low maintenance, reliable buoyancy, versatility, and larger surface area for pockets and lash points. Disadvantages include being bulky and getting in the way when doing more active paddling, and trapping heat in warmer weather.

The other life jacket type is an inflatable life jacket, which looks like a set of wide suspenders, or a tiny vest, that uses a CO2 gas cartridge that can fill up the vest almost instantly. They come in two versions: those that are manually operated by pulling a cord and those that automatically inflate when an internal sensor hits water. These slim life jackets are great because they’re light and unobtrusive, making a day on the water more comfortable while still being super safe. The cons include the expense, need for maintenance, and replacing the CO2 cartridge after use (note: with the manual vest, you must operate it yourself, so it won’t save you if you’re unconscious). They’re also not quite as versatile since you’d want to use a manual one versus an automatic inflator when doing activities where you’re most likely to get wet, like paddleboarding or whitewater sports.

Either life jacket will work to keep you safer on the water, so make sure to include one when you pick up a canoe, kayak, or SUP this summer. And if you already have a watercraft but neglected to put down the money to add a life jacket (or one for each occupant in your boat), now’s the perfect time to put a life jacket on your list of gear for you next water adventure.

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