Life Jackets & PFDs for Surfing: 9 Things You Need to Know

Surfing most often takes place in the ocean and with endless variables to think about, including, waves, tides, rip tides, rip currents, undertows and wildlife, it is important to consider the risks before going surfing.

One of the most common questions I receive is, “Why don’t Surfers wear a Life Jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when they go surfing?”

So, I talked to some surfer friends and did a little research to help answer the question and share some things you should know.

For surfing in North America, life jackets and PFDs are not required by law. As well, experienced surfers don’t typically wear Life Jackets or PFDs because they have strong swimming skills, are knowledgeable about water safety and comfortable in the ocean.

Before I go any farther, we should get the disclaimer out of the way.


Use the information in this article at your own risk. The author or anyone else connected with cannot be held responsible for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages. Do not go surfing without supervision if you are a weak swimmer, you can’t swim or you are uncomfortable in the ocean.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s review the 9 Things You Must Know about Wearing a Life Jacket or PFD When Surfing, so keep reading!

1. Laws related to wearing a Life Jacket or PFD when Surfing

I think it’s important to mention that surfers in North America (Canada & USA) are not required by law to wear Life Jackets or PFDs when surfing.

The laws for requiring Life Jackets or PFDs are related to boats, personal water crafts and vessels etc., but not surfboards.

2. What is the difference between a Life Jacket and a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)?

The answer is…it depends!

If you live in Canada, Transport Canada explains the difference as follows:

  • Life Jackets provide more flotation and are intended to turn an unconscious person to a face up position in the water, while
  • PFDs typically provide less flotation than life jackets and have limited capability to turn an unconscious person to a face up position.

If you would like more information, review Transport Canada’s: Choosing lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs)

If you live in the United States, the term Life Jacket and PFD are used somewhat interchangeably and there are 5 different PFD types according to the United States Coast Guard.

  • Type I PFD – For rough or remote waters. The most buoyant and is intended to turn an unconscious person to a face up position in the water. .
  • Type II PFD – For near shore waters. This is intended to turn some unconscious people to a face up position.
  • Type III PFD – Flotation aid for inland waters. This PFD will provide flotation but will not turn an unconscious person face up in the water.
  • Type IV PFD – Device. Provides flotation and is designed to be thrown to a person in the water.
  • Type V PFD – Special Use Device – Are approved for specific activities (ex. Board sailing) and can only be used for those activities. Some Type V are designed to be inflatable.

If you would like more information, review the United States Coast Guard’s: How to Chose the Right Life Jacket.

*To make things simpler, I will use the term PFD from this point forward in this article.

3. PFDs and Safety

PFDs provide buoyancy and reduce the likelihood of drowning but you can still drown when wearing a PFD.

Most Surf Schools allow PFDs to be worn by participants as a means of promoting safety and piece of mind.

That being said, if you need to wear a PFD when surfing, you shouldn’t be going surfing alone or without supervision by a surfing instructor. PFDs may also a false sense of security related to the hazards that may be encountered in the ocean, including rip currents and breaking waves.

4. Wearing a PFD when Surfing is not a substitute for Strong Swimming Skills

A PFD should not be used as a substitute for self sufficiency, which is a very important safety skill in the sport of surfing. Surfers should be strong swimmers and be able to take care of themselves in the ocean to deal with any unforeseen challenges without needing assistance. A good lifesaving rule: Save yourself first!

Because of the risks associated with surfing, beginner surfers should understand ocean safety, develop competent swimming skills and take part in a supervised lesson.

5. Buoyancy of PFDs is not necessary for Experienced Surfers

For many experienced surfers, the additional buoyancy provided by a PFD is not necessary.

Most surfers are strong swimmers and choose to go into the ocean to catch waves. Surfers have the swimming skills necessary to navigate under, over and around the breaking waves.

Surfers often wear wetsuits which provide a small amount of buoyancy but they are not a flotation device.

6. PFDs make it challenging for Surfers to Duck Dive

PFD’s can make it more challenging to duck dive because of the additional buoyancy.

Duck diving is when a surfer paddles towards an oncoming wave and dives under it so that forward progress isn’t lost on the way to the line up of surfers.

Duck diving takes time to learn and buoyancy will impact how deep a surfer can get under the oncoming wave.

7. PFDs can impact Surfers’ Balance & Agility

Balance is one of the most important aspects of surfing and a PFD adds bulk and weight to the top half of your body, which may impact balance.

Most PFDs are not designed to support the surfing related movements, including, paddling, duck diving and standing up on a surfboard.

Agility is the ability to move quickly, freely and easily. Surf related clothing and wetsuits are designed so that they won’t hinder your movements when surfing. A PFD may impact your ability to move freely when surfing.

8. Comfort

Many surfers find that PFDs are uncomfortable for surfing and not designed for lying on a surfboard, popping up and riding waves.

Certain styles are more cumbersome than others, and PFDs can get in the way of surfing related movements.

9. Innovation

One of the biggest innovations in surfing in the last number of years has been the invention of inflatable PFDs primarily for big wave surfing (waves over 20 feet high). If a surfer falls when surfing big waves, they may be pushed deep below the water and required to hold their breath for long periods of time.

Inflatable vests are used as a last resort, where the surfer can manually inflate the vest by pulling a control tab to activate canisters filled with carbon dioxide that will inflate the vest. As a result, the increased buoyancy will help the surfer float to the surface. See an example in the Video below.

But it is important to point out that inflatable vests are most often used by expert level surfers. As well, they usually have additional people in charge of water safety nearby on jet skis ready to assist if they get in trouble when surfing big waves.

Inflatable vests must be manually activated which requires significant coordination, skill and practice.

In conclusion: If you feel like you need a PFD to be safe in the ocean when surfing, don’t go surfing alone or without supervision by a surf instructor.

I would recommend some of the following options to improve skills:

  • Become a competent swimmer by taking lessons or joining a swimming group before you go surfing
  • Take surf lessons or hire a surfing instructor and have someone teach you the basics while staying safe.
  • Take a course to help with improving ocean knowledge, identifying hazards and learning tips for staying safe. I recently took the Ocean Warrior – Free Course, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to check it out.

If you are interested in reading more useful information, clink on the link to my article titled, 11 Must-Knows if you Want To Learn To Surf But Can’t Swim


I am the person behind Surfers Footprint. Thank you for taking the time to read through the post! If you want to know more about our story, scroll down and click on ABOUT SURFERS FOOTPRINT at the bottom of the HomePage.

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