Do Surfers Wear Life Jackets? (Why Most Don’t)

do surfers wear life jackets

Whether you’re snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, or kayaking, most sports that take place in the water are done while wearing some kind of life jacket or personal flotation device. Yet, you basically never see a surfer wear a life jacket – why is that?

Even though it may seem like a good idea for a surfer to wear a life jacket since there is a risk of drowning, there are actually many reasons why life jackets are more often than not an impediment to surfers.

Other than the fact that they look bad, the main reason why surfers don’t wear life jackets is that they get in the way. With a PFD on, it will be harder to paddle and duck dive. Furthermore, surfers are literally standing on a big PFD – their surfboards – which are attached to their legs with a rope.

Plus, most surfers already have strong swimming skills and a decent knowledge of the ocean, so they know how to avoid dangerous situations. With that said, big wave surfers will wear life jackets due to the extreme danger of their sport.

Life jackets offer very little benefit to surfers and may actually hinder them. If you are a stickler for safety, it’s better to learn the right of way rules and to stay close to the lineup. There is safety in numbers and honestly, you’ll find that life jackets are not really necessary unless you have literally no experience in the water.

In this article, we’ll go into the main reasons why most surfers don’t wear life jackets, the times when it would be a good idea to wear a life jacket while surfing, as well as discuss the positives of wearing a life jacket while surfing in case you want to do it anyways.

Shouldn’t surfers wear life jackets to stay safe?

Let’s do a thought experiment and ponder this hypothetical question: shouldn’t all cyclists use training wheels? I mean, you hear stories about cyclists suffering nasty falls all the time, so wouldn’t it be better if they never took off their training wheels?

Sorry if the above question seems facetious or condescending, but I think the obvious answer makes my point. The answer to the above question, just to be clear, is that once you have better control of your bike, training wheels actually get in the way and make it harder to ride your bike, and this answer is surprisingly similar to why surfers don’t wear life jackets (replace “training wheels” with “life jacket”, and “bike” with “surfboard”).

Yes, there is a risk of drowning just like there is a risk of falling off your bike and hitting your head, but you would have to be doing something reckless for that to happen (plus falling into water is different than falling on land). Just like how there have been people cycling for decades with no serious accidents, so too are there surfers who have gone decades without wearing a life jacket.

A life jacket should be worn in the ocean if you don’t know how to swim. The ocean is extremely dangerous and unforgiving, that much is true. However, this begs the question: if you can’t be in the water without a life jacket, why are you trying to surf in the first place? Learn how to swim first before learning how to surf, and by then you won’t need a life jacket.

Still not convinced by this argument? Not to worry, we’ve only just gotten started.

Why (most) surfers don’t wear life jackets

Surfboards are a giant PFD

Surfboards are necessarily buoyant, otherwise you couldn’t stand on them. Furthermore, they are literally attached to the surfboard, so in some respect you technically are “wearing” a flotation device. This also means that, if you need to rest up, just lay on top of your board.

With that said, the term “life-saving” device has a specific meaning. It’s life-saving in that it is designed to keep your head above water even if your body is completely limp from losing consciousness. Life jackets are designed to this standard, whereas surfboards and many PFDs aren’t, so surfboards aren’t nearly as foolproof.

Assuming that you are a competent swimmer, a surfboard should be more than adequate as a flotation device. Even if you fall off your board, it should not be too difficult for you to swim to it and get on top of it for the next wave.

An exception to this is in big wave surfing, where life jackets are worn. In this situation, being attached to your surfboard can be seen as a hindrance because in the event of a wipeout, their board can get tossed around by the waves while they are still attached to it, creating a dangerous situation where they are getting ragdolled all over the place. Big wave surfers would rather just forgo the leg rope and wear a life jacket instead.

Surfers are strong swimmers

Even though swimming is a sport all its own, you must have a baseline level of proficiency at swimming to be able to safely participate in any water sport, surfing included.

Though surfers are probably not as good at swimming as a swimmer is, I think most surfers would categorize themselves as “strong” swimmers. Honestly, if you do not think you are a strong swimmer, you should not be surfing. Take some swimming lessons first, not surf lessons.

What the heck is a “strong” swimmer anyways? This is subjective, however I think that the minimum swimming proficiency to attain the basic SCUBA certification is a good reference point.

In the Open Water Diver test, you need to be able to tread water for 10 minutes and swim a distance of 200 m (656 ft) without the assistance of a PFD. This is the minimum, and it’s for a sport that relies on a flotation device to help them ascend and descend (called the BCD). How much higher should the standard be for surfers?

Not only that, but some surfers do breath hold training so they can stay underwater for longer in case it’s not safe to surface right away. To be fair, this is something only an enthusiast or a professional would do, but anyone can increase their breath hold capacity if they feel like it.

If your swimming skills are this proficient, I bet you’d feel a bit silly wearing a life jacket unless you’re surfing the biggest waves (more on that later).

Wetsuits are already quite buoyant in saltwater

Most surfers don’t wear life jackets, but many surfers do wear wetsuits. In some respects, a wetsuit is kind of like a personal flotation device because you are more buoyant with one than without one.

We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty. In layman’s terms, the material that wetsuits are made from, neoprene, has air bubbles trapped inside. Their main purpose is actually to trap heat to help surfers stay warm when it gets colder, but the added benefit is that these bubbles are positively buoyant.

Add on to that the fact that saltwater is more buoyant than most other sources of water, and you have yourself a winning combination if your goal is to stay afloat more easily.

Wearing a life jacket on top of that is just overkill for most surfers.

Life jackets get in the way

Now, arguably the main reason why most surfers don’t wear life jackets is that they get in the way both in terms of fun and, ironically, in the way of safety as well.

One thing you cannot do anymore with a life jacket on is duck dive. Sometimes, you might be in a situation where the safest option is to duck dive to avoid a collision or a broken wave. By finding safety underwater, you can wait until the chaos above you passes by and surface when it’s safe.

With a life jacket on, you will have to fight against the life jacket’s buoyancy and you will likely get hit by the full force of the wave or collide with the other surfer. We’re not saying that it’s impossible to duck dive with a life jacket, but it will definitely waste a lot of energy and slow you down in these crucial moments.

As for how life jackets get in the way of fun, well for one thing they are worn on your torso and are big and bulky so they definitely restrict your movement. Specifically, life jackets will make it harder to paddle. You’ll probably spend more time paddling than surfing, so anything that impedes that action is a big no-no.

Wetsuits already make it more difficult to paddle, but they are a necessary evil because we would be too cold to surf otherwise. However, most surfers do not need a life jacket the way they need a wetsuit, and they also don’t want to restrict their movements any more than they already have.

You’re not far from shore

Whether you’re surfing a beach break, reef break, or point break, you will not be far from shore. No matter your starting point, you don’t need to paddle far to the break. This means that, should something go wrong, land is not that far away.

Returning to shore is as simple as catching a wave in or paddling to shore on your surfboard. It’s not like you’re stuck on your surfboard in the middle of the ocean waiting to be rescued. Assuming you are a strong swimmer, just swim back to land, no life jacket necessary.

Life jackets are not fashionable

Okay, this is not a good reason not to wear a life jacket, but it’s still a huge deal breaker for a lot of surfers. In fact, I bet this is one of the major reasons why life jackets aren’t used more often and helmets are also avoided for similar reasons.

Unfortunately, looking fashionable is often a higher priority than staying safe, however in this case there are actually some legitimate reasons to not wear a life jacket unless you’re a big wave surfer.

When you notice that you’re the only surfer wearing a life jacket and it’s making it hard for you to paddle and catch a wave, you will start to feel very self-conscious and frustrated. Plus, there may even be looks or rude comments made by cheeky surfers that can get under your skin.

With that said, at the end of the day, you should do whatever it is you need to do to feel safe and comfortable in the water. You may have a medical issue, an injury, or you just like to wear a life jacket. You don’t owe anyone an explanation and you should just do what makes you happy even if it makes you stand out from the norm.

Benefits of wearing a life jacket while surfing

As you can see, there are many reasons not to wear a life jacket while surfing, which is why you usually don’t see anyone wearing them. However, do they really have no merits? In this section, we’ll discuss the positives of wearing a life jacket.

They can save your life

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: if you feel that you may be at risk of drowning for any reason, you should wear a life jacket. That’s what they are designed to do.

Unlike other personal flotation devices, life jackets will keep your head above water even if you lose consciousness and your body goes limp. People who would benefit the most from wearing life jackets are big wave surfers, young children and the elderly, and people who have medical conditions. With that said, anyone can wear a life jacket if they want.

They can calm your nerves

You may be an inexperienced surfer, or you have a strong fear of the water and drowning, or you may have a medical condition or injury that you are afraid can flare up at a moment’s notice.

With these things on your mind, it can be very hard to enjoy surfing. Why not provide some assurances to yourself by wearing a life jacket? That way, even in the worst case scenario, you will still be able to stay afloat.

Another point: life jackets are usually very bright and even reflective so that you are easy to spot. If you ever find yourself in a situation that you need to be rescued from, a life jacket will keep you afloat until you are found.

Although this is not a long term solution, in the short term you can calm your nerves until you build up your skills and confidence.

Who should wear a life jacket while surfing?

There are two groups that should probably wear a life jacket while surfing and it’d be foolish if they tried without one: big wave surfers and vulnerable swimmers. If you don’t fall into either of these groups, well you can still wear a life jacket anyways if you want.

Big wave surfers

Big wave surfing is one of the most extreme types of surfing. Big wave surfers ride waves that are 50-100 feet high, and waves that big can easily pin you underwater if not outright kill you.

When a big wave crashes down on you, it’s like running into a brick wall; or, more accurately, a brick wall running through you. Surfers have lost consciousness, broken bones, gotten ragdolled and flung into rocks or pinned down until they drowned, all from a big wave crashing down on them.

While surfers don’t wear life vests (there are specific requirements for a device to be considered life saving), it’s not a surprise that big wave surfers wear special inflatable PFDs.

These devices contain carbon dioxide canisters that they can pull underwater to rapidly inflate their jacket and float them to the surface.

Conversely, these PFDs can also be quickly deflated if the surfer needs to dive under if they find themselves stuck in the impact zone of a wave.

The special PFDs that big wave surfers wear are designed to be as streamlined as possible compared to a traditional life jacket. Thus, they do not have the same downsides like the added bulk and restrictiveness of a life jacket.

PFDs for big wave riders are the norm. If you decide to brave the extreme conditions of big wave surfing without wearing a flotation device, you’re not being a daredevil; you’re just throwing your life away.

Vulnerable swimmers

Vulnerable swimmers are people who are either very young, old, or have an injury or medical condition that makes it hard for them to swim. I think it’s quite self-explanatory why people in this group would need a life jacket to surf.

Surfing is an incredibly fun hobby and may even become a lifelong passion for some people. If you’re a parent with children, maybe you want to get them started young so that they can learn how to surf and swim at the same time.

However, it would be extremely nerve-wracking to see your child fall off the board, and if they are not yet a strong swimmer, then it could truly be an emergency… unless your child is wearing a life jacket. Life vests will quickly lift their head to the surface and you can retrieve them or they can swim to the surfboard themselves.

At some point, your child will become a strong swimmer and outgrow their life jacket anyways. By then, the life jacket will have served its purpose, or it could be passed down to a younger sibling.

As for the elderly or sick, you might be wondering why they might go surfing if they are at risk. It could be to cross an item off their bucket list or to not let the cards they were dealt with get in the way of their enjoyment of this wonderful activity. As long as they are wearing a life jacket to stay safe, I say more power to them.

People who feel they need it

People who make fun of other surfers because they are wearing life jackets are elitists. What you are doing is none of their business. You’re not hurting anybody and you’re not doing anything illegal or against the rules, so you are free to wear a life jacket for literally any reason you want.

If you feel that you need to wear a life jacket, don’t let the elitist sentiment that “surfers don’t wear life jackets” put you in a position where you forgo one when you legitimately need one. If anyone heckles you for it, ignore them and do your own thing. The real fool would be someone who neglects their safety just because of some pressure from others.

With that said, let’s actually discuss how you can surf with a life jacket since it does complicate things a bit.

How to surf with a life jacket

Surfing with a life jacket presents some unique challenges. Rather than let this discourage you, you can learn and adapt to it pretty quickly. Follow the tips below to get an ideal of the steps you should do.

  • Read the instructions that come with the life vest. I hope you bought one that comfortably supports your weight and fits snug on your body. It’s better if a life jacket is too tight rather than too loose. A loose life jacket will rise up as your head sinks below the water. It will also bob around your head and block your vision.
  • Get used to the extra bulk as you lay on your surfboard and paddle out. Try to time your paddle out in between sets so you don’t need to duck dive.
  • You can push your board beneath the crests of waves before they break. Hopefully this lets you snake under the waves before they break. The goal here is to get out through the surf even though the vest doesn’t let you dive under waves easily.
  • Once you’ve made it to the lineup, turn around and look towards the beach as you wait for a set wave to arrive. When you feel one approaching, paddle hard and get ready to pop up. You will have to paddle with your arms wider than usual because the vest will be in the way.
  • Pop up with your arms to help you stand up. Staying low will make it easier to balance yourself before you stand up. Hoot and holler so other surfers know that you’re riding the wave to avoid collisions.
  • Once you’re riding the wave, the life jacket should be less of a hindrance. Use your back leg to drive and generate speed down line. Look where you want to go and focus on doing the maneuvers you want to do. The hard part is over.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Rowley, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons