Do you need a life jacket when kayaking?


Written by David Myers

October 10, 2019
kayaking with doggo

Photo of the week!

One of the most common questions we’re asked is whether or not you need a life jacket or a personal flotation device (PFD) when kayaking.

And before I start I will say that at the end of the day, it’s personal preference. There’s no law in the UK that requires that you wear a life jacket while kayaking, but regardless of the legal status, it is a good idea. Like how it’s best to wear a helmet when cycling, or shin pads when playing football. It’s just a good common-sense safety measure to make sure you’re as safe as you possibly can be on the water.

I know we all love kayaking, but I’m guessing most of us aren’t willing to die for it!

USA Laws

PFD laws can vary depending on the state. Federal law states that a child under the age of 13 must wear a personal flotation device. We recommend that you check the laws on your state to be on the safe side.

United Kingdom Laws

There are no laws in the UK that make a life jacket or buoyancy aid mandatory. But we highly recommend wearing one.

But I’m a strong swimmer. I don’t need to wear a life jacket, right?

While being a strong swimmer certainly helps when it comes to not drowning, it’s not the be-all and end-all of water safety. It’s more of a starting point if anything.

And even if you think you’re very strong, there’s almost nothing on earth stronger than a large body of fast-moving water. Even Michael Phelps would die if caught in a strong current, and no amount of Olympic medals could save him! Thinking about it, they’d weigh him down most likely.

I’ve never heard of someone dying from Kayaking..

Well, 70{f58552f1b452d1b85ac9d8facb6cf148c6ab2440ae06435485202b0d82e1ccf5} of deaths that happen on boats are caused by drowning, and 85{f58552f1b452d1b85ac9d8facb6cf148c6ab2440ae06435485202b0d82e1ccf5} of those who drowned weren’t wearing a life jacket. Those statistics from the BoatUS Foundation aren’t kayaking specific, but it’s fair to say that having a life jacket on has a proven track record for saving people’s lives.

Much like seatbelts and bicycle helmets have had a demonstrable positive impact on the survival rate in car crashes or cycling accidents.

What do the experts say?

The RNLI (Royal national lifeboat institution) has asked that all kayak users wear life jackets after 18 kayak deaths were reported in just a few years. The RNLI we called out to kayak related rescues 172 times in just four years. They rescued 61 people and saved 16 lives.

A life jacket or buoyancy aid, what’s the difference?

They look very similar, but they function in very different ways. It’s important to know which one to use and when because if you use the wrong one it can mean the difference between life and death.

A buoyancy aid helps keep you afloat while you swim. This can be useful in kayaking as you can often find yourself outside of the kayak and needing to swim back. If you’re a strong swimmer, this is probably what you want to be wearing when you go kayaking. The drawback, however, is if for whatever reason you’re incapacitated it will not keep your head out of the water.

If you’re not a strong swimmer or kitting out a child, or you’re just worried to might be incapacitated (knocked out, have a seizer, etc) then you’ll want to get a life jacket as this not only helps you float, it also keeps your head out of the water until rescue arrives. The disadvantage is that they’re a bit harder to swim in.

Final thoughts

So the conventional advice from experts and generally accepted wisdom in the kayaking community is that you absolutely want to be wearing some form of protection when kayaking.

The RNLI suggests a full life jacket, but many in the kayaking community opt for just a buoyancy aid. Which you pick will be mostly personal preference, and you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of each.

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