How to Decide Between a Paddle Vest and a Life Jacket

A life jacket, paddle vest, or other personal flotation device (PFD) is one of the most important on-the-water safety tools that you’ll own. So, you need to pick one that fits properly and won’t ride up, while also being comfortable enough to wear for long kayaking trips. There are plenty of PFDs on the market and we’re going to compare two of the most popular here: paddle vest vs life jacket.

paddle vest vs life jacket

Some people say that the best life jacket is the one that you’re wearing when you need it the most, but you’re much more likely to be wearing a life jacket when it fits you well and comfortably.

The good news is that with all the paddle vests and life jackets on the market today, you’re bound to find one that works best for you.

What Is a Paddle Vest?

A paddle vest is a type of PFD that is comfortable to wear for long periods of time when kayaking.

When picking out a paddle life vest for kayaking, there are a few design features you want to keep an eye out for. The first one being large arm holes that won’t restrict your range of motion.

If you have a paddle vest that has large arm holes, you’ll be able to move your arms enough to paddle effectively. This is one of the major differences between a paddle vest and a life jacket.

Your paddle vest should fit comfortably but snug. It should fit snug enough to ensure when you fall into the water, it will stay on you. However, you also want to make sure that you can wear the PFD for the entirety of your kayaking trip.

To ensure that the paddle vest works for you, it needs to be put on correctly. Follow these steps to ensure that your paddle vest is on the right way:

  1. Starting from the bottom, buckle the straps.
  2. Working your way, continue buckling the straps. They should fit nice and snugly.
  3. Once the straps are tight, take your thumbs and try to pull the paddle vest up from your shoulders. If it moves, then the vest is too loose. If it doesn’t, you’re good.

Some other features to consider are extra zippered pockets to store items such as snacks, signal mirrors and whistles. You might also consider finding one that has small D-rings so you can attach it to other pieces of equipment.

There are even some paddle vests that have pouches for hydration bladders, which allow you to stay hydrated while kayaking.

One final thing to remember is to find a brightly colored paddle vest because they contrast well against the water and can be seen by other boaters.

paddle vest vs life jacket
Source: Unsplash

What Is a Life Jacket?

A life jacket is designed to provide extra buoyancy to help keep you afloat when you’re in the water. There are several types of life jackets, each of which has its own intended use. There are four wearable types of life jackets that are approved by the US Coast Guard, the fifth is a throwable device.

Life jackets also come in various sizes, so you can always find a size that will fit you. If your life jacket doesn’t fit right, it might not be effective at saving your life.

A life jacket should fit comfortably, snugly and shouldn’t move around when you’re wearing it.

Most kayakers will go for a US Coast Guard approved Type III or Type V life jacket for their kayaking adventures. The vast majority of kayaking life jackets that you’re going to find are Type III jackets.

When you search for a good life jacket, you need to find one that has large arm holes and several adjustment straps. This will ensure that you can move your arms and adjust the life jacket when necessary to ensure that it fits properly. You also want to find a life jacket with pockets, this will allow you to store extra gear on your body.

To put on a life jacket, loosen every adjustment strap before putting the jacket on. Once on, cinch the lower adjustment strap just below the rib cage, this anchors the life jacket and prevents it from riding up. Then move on up the jacket, snugly fitting the straps to your body. Lastly, tighten the shoulder straps.

Once this is done, have someone lift the shoulder straps. If the life jacket rides up, you should tighten the lower strap or find a different life jacket with a better fit.

When to Use a Paddle Vest vs Life Jacket

A PFD should be worn whenever you’re going to be on the water, this includes for kayak fishing, recreational watersport and boating safety. It’s important you pick the right PFD type for the activity you’re engaging in.

For many recreational activities (i.e., kayaking), wearing a Type I or II life jacket is advisable. Type I life jackets are generally recommended for offshore boating and rough water conditions where help can be far away. It can turn the unconscious wearer face up in the water until help arrives.

A paddle vest is best worn while paddle boarding or during stand up paddle boarding and can help with flotation and serve as a buoyancy aid if you fall into the water.

For children under the age of 13, the federal requirement is that they must always wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket at all times on a moving vessel.

Bottom Line

Knowing when you can wear a paddle vest vs life jacket can be challenging and knowing how to shop for a paddle vest or life jacket is even harder. Remember, life jackets are PFDs but not all PFDs are life jackets.

Hopefully, this guide has helped you understand when you can wear a paddle vest, a life jacket and what to look for in a PFD. Our hope is that you now know how to test to see if your life jacket fits you properly too.

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