If you’re looking to gear up to paddle with friends or as part of a group at some point you’ll be looking at buying your own buoyancy aid. With a huge range of solid foam shapes and inflatable options it can be a little confusing to know what to buy.

The Palm Meander – a touring design featuring durable material, plenty of adjustment and a pocket

Let’s start with the difference between a buoyancy aid and a lifejacket. A buoyancy aid (or personal floatation device, PFD for those who like acronyms) will assist a conscious swimmer whereas a lifejacket will float an unconscious casualty on their back.  Lifejackets are not ideal for paddle boarding (SUP) as they are a lot bulkier and don’t usually offer the range of motion required for paddling. 

Buoyancy aids age over time and the foam can become less effective so it is not advisable to buy a second hand buoyancy aid especially if you do not know its history.  Buoyancy aids should be properly fitted to ensure they don’t ride up should you fall into the water and that they don’t hinder your paddling.  A good paddlesport shop will be able to advise you on suitable options as well as ensuring a correct fit.

There are a few different types of buoyancy aids with varying features and styles depending on what sort of paddling you want to do, your body shape and budget.  You can chose from a jacket style with a zip up the middle, a side entry which opens on one side panel and zips or clips together, or one that pulls over the head.  Recreational, touring and whitewater buoyancy aids are available in these styles.

Recreation buoyancy aids

This is many people’s first forray into buying paddleboarding equipment, and it may be all you ever need. Recreational buoyancy aids tend to be very simple with minimal features such as pockets.  They might not be as durable as specialist touring or whitewater PFDs, and may not have as much adjustment. Some come in sizes designed to fit a greater range of people – this can be great if you are buying one buoyancy for multiple people to be using but, if you are buying one for yourself, one that comes in different sizes would be more comfortable once you find the correct size for you.

Most children’s buoyancy aids come with straps between the legs to ensure it doesn’t ride up when in the water but despite this it is still essential to ensure a snug fit is achieved from the main part of the BA.

We recommend the Palm Quest as a good basic option. It comes in multiple sizes to fit kids to adults, and is durable and slimfitting – making it easy to get back on your board after a tumble.

Touring buoyancy aids

Touring buoyancy aids often have more pockets than recreational ones and some have features such as a mesh lining which makes the PFD more comfortable and less sweaty.  The placement of pockets is worth considering as you don’t want your PFD to hinder your ability to climb back onto your board. We often see people carrying all the rescue gear in a front pocket then struggle to remount – it’s definetely worth checking this out in calm water before taking your new PFD out on the river/sea.

A few touring models feature a large back pocket designed for carrying a water bladder – this can be useful if you’re planning on a long day on the water.  Other features you can expect include wraparound foam (for a more slimline fit), a dedicated knife pocket, and generally more durable materials.

Some models come in women’s specific fits.  Women’s fit can mean a range of things including a shorter torso length and foam being thinner or more flexible towards the top of the BA.  Some women may find a unisex BA is a better fit for them regardless.

Waist belt options

Another option is a waist belt PFD such as the Palm Glide or Red Airbelt. These are manually inflated and are operated by pulling a toggle and then placed over the head.  They can be re-armed after use and both feature a small pocket for essentials (a phone etc). 

Waistbelt PFDs can only be used only before re-arming with a new CO2 cartridge, so are better suited as an emergency PFD for situations where you are otherwise intending to stay on your board, such as a race. Having to manually inflate the PFD means they can’t really help against cold water shock (that gasp reflex followed by panic on falling into cold water – a top cause of drowning according to RLSS).

In our mind this makes them of limited use for novice paddlers. They’re more suited for experts in a race or fast touring environment where freedom of motion and breathability is key; times where they may otherwise consider not wearing a PFD at all.

The Palm Petyo is a front zip touring PFD with two large front pockets as well as a rear hydration pocket and fleece lined hand warmer areas.
The NRS Vapour is a side entry recreational PFD with the focus on comfort rather than features.

The Peak PS River Vest is a pull over the head style with numerous pockets but isn’t particularly bulky.
The Palm Quest is a simple recreational PFD that comes in sizes to fit the whole family
The Red Airbelt is a low profile inflatable option useful for racing

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The Palm Glide – another great inflatable waistbelt option

Top tips for finding the right PFD for you

When buying a buoyancy aid, it is important to try on different styles and sizes to see what works for you as all brands and models fit differently. If possible, it is worth trying on with a variety of layers to ensure it fits when paddling in the winter with lots of layers and in warmer weather when you may be wearing less layers.  You should also check that you still have a full range of motion and that it won’t affect your ability to paddle. 

It is worth considering the colour and any reflective detailing of your buoyancy aid and choosing something that will be visible should you get into any issues and need help on the water.

Finally, don’t forget your phone and leash

Finally, don’t forget to wear a leash with your PFD and take phone with you. A PFD can only help you so much if you fall off your board in the sea. In any amount of wind your board will blow off quickly without a leash, leaving you floating and waiting for rescue while you quickly cool down. The best protection against this is a well looked after leash attaching you securely to the board. If you’re not sure which sort of leash to use we recommend getting training – our Fundamentals course would be perfect – or checking guidance from British Canoeing or WSA.

Should the worst happen and your leash snaps when you fall off your board a phone in a dry case round your neck (or in your PFD) will be your friend. Always carry a phone and make sure it’s fully charged and ready to go should you need it.