A buoyancy aid (BA) is a type of personal flotation device (PFD).

It is different to a lifejacket.

Where a lifejacket is bulky and is designed to keep you floating in a face-up position, a buoyancy aid is thinner, lacks neck support and is designed only to allow you to float, rather than rotating you to the face-up position.

The buoyancy aid is made with the idea that the person wearing one is still conscious and able to help themselves from trouble.

Where the leash is a critical ‘must-have’ piece of safety equipment, the buoyancy aid is optional and should be considered based on a number of personal factors.

It is important above all else, to be honest with yourself about your own ability and experience as a paddler, swimmer and knowledgeable water person.

The buoyancy aid is not a guarantee of safety and should not be seen as a ‘get out of danger free’ card.

Wearing a buoyancy aid /Not wearing a buoyancy aid

Who should wear a buoyancy aid?

If you recognise any of the following, then a buoyancy aid is a good choice.

  • Poor/beginner paddling technique
  • Lack of confidence on a SUP
  • Poor swimming strength
  • Lack of understanding in relation to weather and water flow
  • Lack of local waterways/ocean knowledge

Who can paddle without a buoyancy aid?

This largely flips the elements above.

  • Strong paddlers with good technique.
  • Confident and experienced SUP users.
  • Good swimming strength and fitness levels.
  • Good knowledge of underwater flow and the impact of wind.
  • Strong local knowledge of the paddling area.
  • An ability to be proactive rather than reactive.

We would suggest that this level of paddler can put the buoyancy aid aside as there is a greater need to wear it. Experience and ability offer far greater aid on the water than any personal flotation device ever could.

We would suggest wearing a buoyancy aid until you can become a stronger swimmer, or you become a more experienced efficient paddler. Spend time to educate yourself on the water and weather conditions and how that impacts you personally. Know your local waters in great detail, and then down the line make a decision on what works for you.

Take time to speak to experienced water people who have a deeper understanding and knowledge. They will generally be more than happy to explain the potential dangers.

Some key points regarding SUP

In most countries, people do not wear BAs when stand up paddling.

However, in the UK, this appears to be an emotional issue. What is important is to identify the facts on why BA’s are worn and when.

If a paddler does not wear a buoyancy aid in the surf, why would a paddler need to wear a buoyancy aid in calm flat water inland and coastal conditions?

They are also SUP surfing in the ocean in cold water conditions, but they wear appropriate wetsuits, booties, hoodies, gloves as applicable. So cold water shock would equally apply to flat water paddlers and SUP surfers in the ocean.

Problems with Wearing a Buoyancy Aid

In flat water paddling locations, it has been identified, that wearing a buoyancy aid affects the paddlers ability to get back onto the board, after they have fallen off.

It is an extra layer, between you and the board, that can make it difficult to climb back on. If you have a fuller figure, it can be impossible to get back onto your board.

As such, SUP Standards guidelines are that buoyancy aids are not required to be worn by participants for enclosed flat water and exposed waters paddling.


Stand up paddlers should abide by the below guidelines when paddling without a BA:

• Able to swim at least 50 metres without stopping, and tread water for 5 minutes.

• Are attached to your board with a leash, so you are close to board at all times and can climb back on and are not immersed in cold water.

• Wear appropriate clothing for the conditions, eg wetsuit, should you fall in cold water.

• In cold water locations, know about cold water shock, if you fall in. Not to panic, it will pass and to get quickly back onto their board.

• Know the correct way to fall so as not to injure yourself.

• Learn correct paddle technique to minimise falling in.

• Monitor the conditions at all times and go to your knees if there is a risk you can fall unexpectedly eg boat wake.

• Wear coiled ankle or waist leashes, to minimise risk of catching debri and unexpectedly falling off the board.

• ONLY paddle in environment conditions that are in remit. Abiding wind and water conditions and free of hazards.

SUP Surfing

A buoyancy aid is never worn in surf conditions as the SUP surfer needs to get under the wave so you don’t get dumped and to be able to negotiate through the waves. Wearing a BA in this case is dangerous.

Local Laws

Local laws may require the wearing of buoyancy aids in flat water and coastal environments (but not in breaking waves). If that is the case, you need to abide by the local laws.

Wearing Buoyancy Aids

If the local laws require you to wear a BA, in addition to the above guidelines:

• Paddle very close to the shore at all times. If you fall in, and can’t get back on, you may need to swim yourself and your board to the shore.

• Know the Walrus method (substitute method) to getting back onto your board. It is getting onto the board over the tail, however, you need to wary of the fins, so you don’t get fin chop.

• Wear protective clothing against the cold water. If you cannot get back onto your board, you run the risk of hypothermia if you are immersed in the water for too long.

• BA’s must comply with relevant country standards. Failure to do so can result in a fine.

• Must be fitted correctly. If you fall in, you do not want the BA coming loose, possibly over your head.

REMEMBER: wearing a buoyancy aid is not an excuse for no or poor swimming ability or lack of paddling skill.

Should I wear a lifejacket?

The simple answer would be – no. Lifejackets are much bulkier and make it incredibly difficult to get back onto your board after a fall and are difficult to paddle in.

Photo: ananacondastores.com

Inflatable personal flotation device (PFD)

This is another option. These are lightweight, can be worn around the waist and can be inflated as required.