This post on Low Profile Life Jackets came about from a recent class in the tidal rapids at Deception Pass north of Seattle. I always require all students to wear vest style life jackets for any whitewater paddling.

Once in the rapids, two students who were around 300 pounds couldn’t get back on their boards as their vest life jackets (PFDs) were too bulky against their chest to get a good grab-hold of the SUP and to climb on.

Essentially, the vests shortened their arm reach thus they couldn’t reach the deck handle or get a good grip of the rail. We were able to use the flip rescue to get both back on their boards.  We tried to use my Stirrup rescue but the water was too chaotic to establish a solid foot-hold in the aerated whitewater.

That evening, I began to research PFDs for a low profile product that would still be safe for use in whitewater or flat water for large folks.

Here’s what I found..

Type 3 Inflatable PFDs – 
Normally I’m not a fan of inflatable PFDs especially for beginner paddlers or those that haven’t water tested the devices.

We’ve seen beginners panic when they hit the water.  Without practice they may not pull the handle choosing to nervously tread water or swim to the shore or to their board. But in the experience above the vest style PFDs were too bulky for climbing back on and didn’t fit comfortably.

Test Before Using Inflatable PFDs

With a waist inflatable style PFD, try on deflated before you get on the water to make sure the removed PFD will extend comfortably from the waist to your shoulders (an extendable strap connects the two sections).

Then in shallow water, pull the handle and learn how to put it on before going in deep water offshore.  Also learn how to manually inflate the vest (by blowing).

Always learn to get on your board in shallow water before going offshore.

Inflatable PFD Products

I noticed that Canadian SUP instructor Norman Hann had on a simple looking PFD. I inquired and he’s stoked about his slim shaped Khimera Dual Floatation PFD from Mustang Survival. This smart PFD has both foam and C02 flotation. The foam is just enough to float you but doesn’t have the bulk as many traditional vest style life jackets. Then pull the lever to add more floatation via the C02 cartridge if needed.

As always, get a bright color to be seen by paddlers, boaters and from shore.

Khimera Dual Floatation PFD







Waist Style Inflatable PFD

NRS Zephyr Inflatable Waist PFD

Most common with SUP paddlers are the waist style PFDs which are the most minimalist style. Much like the others, there’s a Co2 cartridge that when the tab is pulled, is fired thus blows up the bladder. You can also manually blow in air if that fails or you forget your cartridge.




In the USA, the USCG approves it if worn on the front of your body, but most slide it behind them as our forward stroke would lean over the bag. For the waist style to work properly work, once the tab is pulled, the PFD bladder must be pulled to the front, then placed over your head.  Tip: I recommend practicing with this in shallow water with an extra cartridge and/or by manually blowing it up.

Pictured here is the NRS Zephyr Inflatable PFD

Yoke Style Inflatables

Yoke Style Inflatables are common with boaters than paddlers as your paddling arms may brush against the sides of the PFD. Like the Khimera it’s already on your body and only need to be inflated. The NRS Matik Inflatable is an example of a yoke style.

Some fire the cartridge upon entry in the water, but with some paddlers this may be an issue of they are regularly in the water, planned or not.  The Matik PFD is USCG approved, is low profile and has a 58″ chest.

Essential Tips for Inflatables:

  • With an inflated PFD, try to swim. While these do a great job of holding your head above water, peripheral vision is limited and the PFD will bounce around your shoulders while swimming.
  • Try to climb on your board with the inflated PFD.
  • Practice repacking the PFDs, it’s not easy.
  • Prior to purchase, make sure the waist belt is wide enough for you.
  • Check your cartridge often, sometimes they rust.
  • Not all cartridges fit every PFD. Check yours and only order that cartridge.
  • Note: When you travel, TSA often removes cartridges. 


3 Minimalist Foam Non-Inflatable PFDs

NRS ION – This vest is thin in width, comfortable, comes in cool colors and has a good pocket for carrying stuff. A few of my students use it.  NRS has it on close-out, so maybe it’s being discontinued? Here’s the link, check it out.  I believe the ION isn’t being manufactured anymore, but there’s a few at time of writing on their site in clearance.

Vaikobi VXP Race PFD – This one was recommended by surf ski friends. Also minimalist like the Wingman, this one is not a C02 but has floatation, but isn’t approved by the US Coast Guard (from what I can tell).  And it looks like it has a max chest width of 36″.  But it is colorful.

Vaikobi Race PFD







Vaikobi Hi-Vis Ocean Racing PFD – A similar design to the Vaikobi Race PFD, is high visibility and this one is available in XXL with a max chest width of 55″.

Vaikobi Hi-Vis Ocean Racing PFD

Vaikobi Hi-Vis Ocean Racing PFD

Extra Inflatable PFD Info

Care for your C02 PFD

Repacking your C02 PFD

Read More from my Blog:

Big People Tips for Climbing Back on your Board

The Flip Rescue – Helping others get back on their board

How to Safely Fall and Climb Back on a SUP


About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” He is also the founder of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association.

Rob owns SUP, kayak and surf ski school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races throughout the year. Check out his Online SUP Courses.

Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips

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