Paddle Board Tips for Big People – 7 Low Profile Lifejackets

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. Being on 6″ thick inflatables added to the difficulty of climbing on.

Essentially, the vest PFDs 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..

7 Flat Fronted Foam Vest PFDs:

The Mustang Survival Khimera PFD: 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 (pictured) 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.

Mustang Khimera PFD






Vaikobi V3 Hi-Vis Ocean Racing PFD– A similar design to the Vaikobi Race PFD but zipper on the front and two side pockets, is high visibility and this one is available in XXL with a max chest width of 55″. Also not USCG approved.

Vaikobi Hi-Vis Ocean Racing PFD

Vaikobi V3 Ocean Racing PFD


The Mocke Racing PFD– Similar design as the VXP as it goes over your head and has a front pocket, but also the rear hydration bladder pocket. Only on hi-vis orange.


The NRS Women’s Siren PFD – Flat fronted with a front pocket, comes in bright colors for visibility





The NRS ION PFD – Same design as the Siren above but for men. I do recommend Men’s PFDs for larger folks since he size are larger.





The Waist Belt Pack PFD:

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 vest style PFDs are too bulky for climbing back on and doesn’t fit comfortably, then inflatable PFDs are better than nothing.

Most common with SUP paddlers seeking minimalism on-water are the waist style PFDs. There’s a Co2 cartridge 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.

The NRS Zephyr Inflatable PFD (pictured)

How it Works:

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.

  • Slide PFD bag to your front side

    NRS Zephyr Belt PFD

  • Pull tab
  • Put PFD over your head and secure the tie to keep it snug.  Take your hat off as it won’t fit in the hole.
  • If it doesn’t fire due to an expired or no cartridge, you’ll have to self-inflate the bladder.
  • While doing all this, secure you paddle and board if not leashed, another reason to use a leash.
  • Tip: Buy a few cartridges and practice firing it off to be ready for any situation


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.  Test in-water prior to use.

** Essential Safety 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. 


Bonus PFD Essentials:

How to Put on Your Inflatable Belt PFD

Getting on Inflatable SUPs

ABC’s of PFDS from NRS

How to Choose your PFD

How to Fit a 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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