Can You Wear a Life Jacket While Surfing?

If you're coming from another water sport like whitewater kayaking or even paddle boarding you may be wondering if you can wear a life jacket while surfing and if you should bother.

You might be new to surfing and feel like you need to wear a life jacket to be safe or you may be surfing big waves and want something to keep you for being held under.

Yes you can wear a life jacket/PFD surfing however it's very uncommon and not recommended as it makes paddling and duck diving harder and can be dangerous if you're stuck in the impact zone and unable to swim down. The exception to this is big wave surfers who use inflatable life jackets with CO2 canisters.

There's also the fact that wearing a life jacket while surfing makes you look like a kook and will attract undue attention to yourself.

Why Don't Surfers Wear Life Jackets?

I've done a full article on why surfers don't usually wear life jackets so if you want a more detailed description check out that article.

But the basics of it are:

  • Your surfboard is already a big floatation device that you're strapped to and wetsuits make you more buoyant anyway
  • Surfers are generally strong swimmers and have strong ocean knowledge
  • Life jackets make ducking diving difficult and if stuck in the impact zone you can't swim under waves which can be dangerous
  • Life jackets make paddling harder
  • Life jackets make you look like a kook (an idiot)

Life Jackets For Child Surfers

Another exception to the rule is children learning to surf. If you're teaching your kids to swim and taking them out surfing and they aren't yet strong swimmers then a life jacket is an absolute must.

If you lose your child due to a wipe out or getting caught in the impact zone the absolute last thing you want is to be trying to find them under the white wash.

As a father who has taught 4 kids to surf I know the stress that comes with teaching someone who isn't a strong swimmer how to surf. Having a life vest means they'll float to the surface and be able to breath and it'll be easy for you to find them and come to their rescue quickly if you do get separated.

With kids the draw backs from wearing a life jacket (not being able to duck dive, harder to paddle, looking like a kook) all don't take effect.

You're not going to be doing duck diving. Chances are you'll be doing all the paddling not them and being super young means no one will judge them wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

Wearing a Life Jacket Big Wave Surfing

About 10 years ago inflatable surf vests were created for big wave surfers.

Unlike traditional life jackets these are specifically designed for big wave surfers needs.

They can be quickly inflated even when underwater by pulling on a CO2 canister and can also be quickly and easily deflated if the surfer needs to swim under the waves to avoid the massive impact of big waves.

Nowadays most big wave surfers will be using these life saving devices.

They don't come cheap and you're generally looking at $1,000+ for one of these inflatable vests. But if you're that serious about your surfing then you should also be that serious about your life.

If you're spending big money on boards and wetsuits then you should also be spending big money on something that is going to save your life.

These life vests can be purchased by anyone, however they aren't generally needed by your average local surfer.

Before You Surf Big Waves

A life jacket or inflatable PFD isn't the only thing you need in order to safely surf big waves.

To surf big waves safely you first need to aquire:

Strength and swimming skill, breath holding skills, flexibility and a deep knowledge of the ocean and the waves.

The inflatable vest is a supplement to all these things to make you safer. But if won't save you if you lack the knowledge, skill or breath holding skills needed to surf the biggest waves.

Better Option Than a Life Jacket: A Helmet

One of the major benefits of a life jacket is that if you get knocked unconscious you will float to the surface and be able to breathe.

But given everything we have talked about a life jacket might be more of a hinderance than a help when you're surfing.

A better option might be a helmet to actually prevent you from getting knocked out. Also surfing with companions or other people in the water means if you are to have a bad wipeout and black out then there are people around who could potentially help/save you.