Do Surfers Wear Life Jackets? (Safety Equipment or Potential Risk?)

do surfers wear life jackets

No, most surfers do not wear life jackets when they’re paddling and riding waves in the ocean. Some big wave surfers will wear inflatable buoyancy vests that look very similar in appearance to a life jacket but only inflate when activated.

With life jackets and PFDs (personal flotation devices) playing an integral role in water and ocean safety, it’s surprising surfers don’t add them to their list of essential surfing equipment and gear.

Let’s take a closer look at the question ‘do surfers wear life jackets?’, explain some of the reasons they don’t and a few specific cases when a life jacket could be helpful in the surf.

do surfers wear life jackets

Why don’t surfers wear life jackets in the waves?

We’ll walk you through all of the reasons you’re going to want to ditch the flotation if you’re heading out to surf.

Life jackets add unnecessary buoyancy while you’re surfing

Life jackets and PFDs provide extra buoyancy and help you to float when you’re out in the water.

You’re surfboard, bodyboard or paddleboard all perform exactly the same function, as long as you’re a confident swimmer a life jacket is pretty useless.

Life jackets restrict your paddling range of movement and your pop-up

Paddling on a surfboard requires you to take deep strokes to travel through the water. Add 6 inches of life jacket to your chest and you’ll be reducing the depth of your stroke.

Worse yet, a life jacket is going to restrict the movement in your shoulders, making paddling more strenuous and with all that added weight and bulk you’re going to find popping up on your board a real test.

Performing tricks and manoeuvres on the wave is harder with a life jacket

Much like your pop-up, your snaps, carves and any other turn will all be much harder with a life jacket stuck firmly around your upper body.

Don’t miss our definitive list of surf tricks and manoeuvres to find out everything that’s possible on the face of a wave.

It’s an unnecessary cost

Surfing is not cheap, once you add up your surfboard, wetsuit, surf wax, leash, fins, the list goes on. Adding a life jacket is a completely unnecessary cost for a cash-strapped surfer.

Life jackets are dangerous when you surfing big waves

Believe it or not when the waves start to get overhead (6ft+) a life jacket can be detrimental to water safety. Surviving big waves is not an easy task and adding extra buoyancy could get you into a dangerous situation if you’re not careful.

The large quantities of moving water will drag your buoyant life jacket like a rag doll in a washing machine and any chance of diving down to escape the forceful undercurrents will be immediately stopped by the extra float added by your jacket.

Wetsuits provide some additional buoyancy while you surf

Do surfers wear life jackets? Well, any surfer that surfs in a colder climate is already getting a helping hand on the buoyancy front.

Your wetsuit actually provides some buoyancy when you’re out in the ocean. The buoyancy increases quite a bit from 3mm to 5mm wetsuits so you can always rely on your trusty rubber when your leash snaps miles out at sea.

The majority of surfers are strong swimmers

Most experienced surfers will have developed fairly strong swimming skills. Just by the necessity of paddling for long periods, you’re going to train a lot of the same muscles and techniques as a swimmer would.

This means in the majority of cases surfers are more than capable of getting themselves out of what would be for many a dangerous situation, like losing your board and having to swim to shore.

When do surfers wear life jackets?

There are a few rare cases when surfing with a life jacket or something similar is not a bad idea.

Very young children

If you’re out teaching small children to surf and you’re pushing them into waves then a life jacket could be a great option.

This is primarily for safety with young children who aren’t strong swimmers and. It’s advised you stay in shallow water and push them gently into waves eliminating a lot of the issues with paddling on your surfboard encumbered with a life jacket.

Big wave surfing

Do surfers wear life jackets in big waves? Well not exactly.

Some big wave surfers will opt to wear flotation vests which are packed full of small carbon dioxide canisters.

After a nasty wipeout, a surfer can activate their floatation vest to quickly shoot to the surface providing them with the precious air they need.

While common in the big wave surfing community and big wave surfing competitions you’ll rarely see any surfers in flotation jackets until the waves get well overhead.


So to answer the question do surfers wear life jackets, not really but there are a few rare occasions when a life jacket could be useful for a young beginner.

Don’t miss our other surfing guides below packed with helpful tips and advice on how you can up your surfing game.