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Debate: Life Jacket vs Belt Pack for Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Updated on November 21, 2014

The Debate: Which type of PFD is better?

The sport of stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is growing exponentially as more people discover the sport and how easy it is to do. Its hard to deny the amazing feeling of "walking on water" and the fact that beginners can jump on and be standing and paddling within minutes just propels the activity to new levels of users.

Add in the ever-growing rental and tour businesses in every country that has access to semi-calm (and normally warm) water, and you'll realize it's a world-wide phenomenon.

But with this growing popularity comes more regulations and safety proceedures.

In many countries you now need a PFD while on a SUP, and as law enforcement groups try to catch up, we'll be seeing some harsher penalities for not wearing a PFD.

Which brings us to this debate: which type is the best PFD while you SUP?

Read on and make the decision. Comments are welcome.

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Life-saving Advantage

Let's jump right into the most important part of wearing a PFD: saving your life. How do the two types: Jacket vs Belt weigh in?

Life Jacket/Vest

The most common type of PFD, and the type you wore as a child, a life jacket is literally made to keep you above the water. The fact that the jacket is all set and ready to work from the beginning is a major bonus. Its built to keep your head and upper body above the water, no matter how to enter the water. Another key feature is that even if you're unconscious, it will still work to the point of keeping you above water. There are many shapes and sizes available for the entire family.

Belt Packs

A 'new kid' in PFDs, belt packs are more and more common to see. The operate on an instant-inflate mechanism, where they have a part that is pulled to initiate the inflation. The belt packs test well in terms of flotation once deployed, according to US Coast Guard tests, with a good range body types using the pack in the water. The difficulty comes into play when you're panicking or unconscious. The belt pack does work well, but only if you can inflate it when needed. There are higher-end packs that auto-inflate when you're under water, but for the most part, you need to pull the cord yourself.

Picking the Right PFD

Here's a great video from NRS about picking the best life preserver for you. They don't get into Belt Packs, but touch on some great points about paddling jackets.

Note, I am in NO WAY affliated with this company, its just a good basic video for showing the different kinds of PFDs available.

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Comfort/Mobility

Life Jackets

The modern lifejacket has definitely become a more versatile life-saving device to wear, from the clunky, over-sized kind that you wore as a child. Modern jackets can be slim, sleek and allows you to move more freely. The up-and-coming 'paddling life jackets' give you more freedom to move as well. That being said, you will find that even the better basic life jackets are still too clunky compared to the more expensive paddling jackets, so its a decision on if a better paddling life jacket is worth the extra cash, but you will definitely feel the difference once you're paddling.

Belt Packs

Belt packs are becoming popular due to the fact that they don't get in your way. Its literally a belt with a pouch on it, so you can move around your board/boat with very little constraint, and you almost don't even know that you have it on. The belt packs are made to be worn on the front, and not shoved behind you, since the overall idea is to be able to grab a cord on the pack quickly, but even with it in front of you, paddling and maneuvering is easy. These also have the advantage of being really adjustable, as compared to life jackets that are in actual sizes. Belt packs allow for a wide range of people to use, so if you plan on having friends use your board, a belt pack is a great way to go.

Infographics Are Great

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Reusing

There is one major disadvantage to inflating belt packs compared to regular life jackets, and that is the 'repacking' issue. A regular life jacket needs little prep work in between uses. If you wear it and fall in the water, you can get right back up and keep going, with only really needing to let it dry when you're done using it (to protect against mold!)

When you use a belt pack PFD, and you have to inflate it, there is a very rigerous process to pack it back in, and that probably won't happen while you are standing back up on your SUP. This also creates an issue if you're planning a day out in the water, and you need to inflate it early in the day. It means the next person can't use it without re-packing. And they are definitely not made for long hours of paddling once inflated, since it is in the way.

Some also require a 'rearming kit' which will contain some sort of compressed air container. Below is a video from Onyx, one of the leading companies in inflatable belt pack PFDs, showing how to rearm their pack.

Final Thoughts

You most definitely need a Personal Flotation Device while on a SUP, whether its the law or not. This is especially important if you're far away from shore.

Which type of PFD you choose is up to you. If you're really looking for freedom on your SUP, and to keep away from tan lines, a belt pack may work for you. If you're not a confident swimmer, or you're planning on a trip far away from shore, or in waves, then a paddling life jacket may be your best option, as it keeps your arms freely moving, but still is safe all the time.

What are your thoughts? Which would you wear while Stand Up Paddle Boarding?

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