Do Surfers Wear Life Jackets? (7 Reasons Why They Don’t)

Robert Elgar

We often relate life jackets with extreme water sports such as surfing, wakeboarding, and kiteboarding.

However, the automatic relation we make between life jackets and these sports is not always accurate.

Although surfing is at times a dangerous water sport, you may be surprised to hear that surfers do not make use of life jackets.

You may find that some beginners choose to wear a buoyant jacket during their first few surf sessions, but as they progress and make their way towards the backline, they will need to remove them.

Let’s discuss the relationship between life jackets and surfing when they could be used, and whether you should make use of one while you surf.

Are Life Jackets Required for Surfing?

Life jackets are not a requirement for surfing and are not recommended to use.

You may be considering a life jacket because you are not a strong swimmer, but this is not a good idea.

Although life jackets can save you from drowning, it is never a good idea to get into the ocean if you cannot swim.

The ocean is an incredibly dangerous playground with its waves, changing tides, and strong rip currents.

You should not attempt to surf if you can’t swim, even if you have a life jacket.

7 Reasons Why Surfers Don’t Wear a Life Jacket

Life jackets are used to add safety to a water sport, but with surfing, this is not true.

There are multiple reasons why surfers do not use them, with both safety and inconvenience included.

1. Life Jackets Prevent Duck Diving

To get past the break it is essential to learn how to duck dive.

Duck diving is simple in theory – you push yourself and your board under the water to let an oncoming wave pass over you.

If this is not done then the waves will constantly push you back to the shore and you will make no progress.

Although the theory is simple, in practice it is slightly harder.

Because surfboards are buoyant, they are difficult to push under the water.

This becomes even harder as the surfboard gets bigger, which is why we turtle roll with a longboard and not duck dive.

When adding a life jacket to this situation, duck diving becomes even harder to near impossible.

Not being able to duck dive can be dangerous, especially in large swells.

Furthermore, there are times when you may get stuck in the impact zone and need to leave your board and swim as far down as possible to avoid getting crushed by the waves.

Wearing a life jacket will prevent you from being able to do this.

2. Life Jackets Restrict Paddling

Paddling makes up a large part of surfing. In fact, the majority of your time spent in the water will be either paddling towards the backline or paddling onto a wave.

In order to efficiently paddle, you need to dig your arms deep into the water with each stroke.

The more surface area you paddle with, the faster you will move forward.

When you wear a life jacket your shoulders will be further from the surface of the water, and therefore reduce how deep you can submerge your arms.

Life jackets will also restrict shoulder movement and often prevent a full range of motion.

3. Life Jackets Are Bulky and Restrict Movement

Surfing is a high-intensity sport that requires fast reflexes and movements. 

The fast movements allow us to carve up waves, change direction quickly, and get out of the way of potential dangers by kicking out.

Because life jackets are bulky, they slow down these movements and can at times restrict us from getting our bodies into positions that we need.

This can be simply annoying, but also dangerous when trying to avoid objects.

4. Surfers Are Good Swimmers

Most surfers are strong swimmers and those that are not, tend to spend their time in smaller surf that is closer to the shore.

As surfers are comfortable swimming, we do not feel the need for a life jacket.

5. Surfers Understand the Way the Ocean Works

To stay safe in the water while surfing, it is important to understand the way that the ocean works.

Knowing when the tides change, where the rip currents are, how to use rip currents, where the waves break, and where to paddle out are all important aspects for a surfer.

If you as a surfer understand all of these dynamics in the spot you are surfing, then your confidence will rise and you will likely not feel the need for a life jacket.

6. Wetsuits are buoyant

Neoprene, the material that is used to make wetsuits, is already buoyant. This is especially true with thicker wetsuits.

If you are wearing a wetsuit you will find it easy to float on the surface of the ocean with little to no effort.

7. Life Jackets Make You Look Like a Kook

Although it is not the main reason surfers do not wear life jackets, surfers often worry about their image in the water.

Surfing can be a very egoistic sport, which is why there are often problems with locals and newbies.

Wearing a life jacket indicates that you are new to surfing and that you likely do not know what you are doing.

This can cause other surfers to look down on you and take advantage of your lack of knowledge.

When Do Surfers Wear Life Jackets?

Although surfers do not generally wear life jackets, there are a few exceptions to this rule.

Big Wave Surfing

Big wave surfers have started to wear inflatable jackets when surfing swell with a high potential of pinning them under the water for long periods.

These jackets, first released in 2011, are not like conventional life jackets as they are manually inflatable.

Inflatable life jackets are exactly what the name indicates. With a tug of a cord, CO2 is released into a pocket in the jacket which then inflates and brings the surfer to the surface.

The use of these inflatable jackets has become popular with big wave surfers and has helped to prevent multiple drownings.

Handicapped Surfing

There are numerous projects around the world that aid handicapped individuals to enjoy the ocean and its waves as the rest of the world does.

It is common to find that these projects provide life jackets and that the surfing that is done is of low intensity, close to the shore, and there are always multiple people in the ocean with the surfer.

New Surfers and Kids

When younger kids go surfing, their parents will often put life jackets on them.

This is done for obvious reasons and does not limit the kid because they are accompanied by an adult.

Because a young kid will likely not be paddling into waves, but instead be pushed, the jacket will not obstruct them.

This is similar with new and nervous surfers. Although not common, you will sometimes see a surfer taking a lesson with a life jacket on.

This is usually only done in the beginning stages while the surf instructor aids them in shallow water.

As the surfer gains confidence, the life jacket will be removed and the surfer will venture to the deeper waters.

Should I Wear a Life Jacket When Surfing?

Deciding whether to wear a life jacket or not needs to be a personal decision and should not be left in the hands of others.

You are responsible for your safety, and should therefore make choices accordingly.

That being said, you may want to consider wearing a life jacket if you are new to surfing, will remain close to the shore, and are feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Although the life jacket could add some confidence, it will make surfing harder and you may become frustrated.

As long as you stay close to shore and do not need to dive under the water, the life jacket should not cause too many problems.

However, if you intend to paddle to the backline through larger waves you should do so without the life jacket and only if you are 100% sure of your safety and capabilities.

3 Benefits of Wearing a Life Jacket for Surfing

As you likely gathered from the above information, there are not many benefits to wearing a life jacket while surfing, which is why surfers choose to not use them.

However, in certain situations, a life jacket could have some upsides.

1. Life Jackets Add Confidence

As someone new to surfing, a life jacket could add a small amount of confidence to your first few days in the ocean. 

Although it is not a long-term solution, a life jacket could help get a new surfer past their initial nerves.

2. Life Jackets Bring Surfers to the Surface

Life jackets are ideal for keeping individuals on the surface of the water.

Although it is for this reason that life jackets are not ideal for most surfers, they could help keep new surfers and younger people from drowning.

Furthermore, inflatable vests such as the one mentioned above can aid surfers in getting to the surface when being held underwater for long periods of time.

3. Life Jackets Are Easy to Spot

Because life jackets are bright and sometimes reflective, they can make a surfer easy to spot if they have been dragged out to sea.

However, if this is the reason you are interested in using a life jacket, then a simple reflective rash vest worn on the outside of your wetsuit will do a better job.

Are There Special Life Jackets Made for Surfing?

Apart from the inflatable jacket that is used by large wave surfers, life jackets are not specifically made for surfers.

This is because there is no demand for them.

However, if you are wanting to use a life jacket while surfing, certain designs will be better than others.

Using a cheap traditional life vest that you often find on boats will be too bulky and obstructive.

Instead, you should make use of life jackets that wakeboarders use, which are technically not life jackets but impact vests.

Although these vests tend to be less buoyant, they are thinner and usually have a tighter fit.

It is also a good idea to try and find a jacket that makes use of a zip and not multiple clips. Clips can make lying on your surfboard uncomfortable.

Conclusion

Surfing with a life jacket is not a common practice.

Life jackets make you less movable, make duck diving near impossible, and leave you looking like you have no idea what you are doing.

Although you may see surfers wearing life jackets from time to time, it is a good idea to avoid them and instead learn how the ocean works, as well as practice swimming.

Surfing can be dangerous, so if you feel as though you need a life jacket to enter the ocean, then it may be best to gain some confidence before taking up surfing as your newest hobby.

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