Can You Go Kayaking Without A Life Jacket? Is It Illegal?

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As a kayak guide, I see people on the water without life jackets all the time.

While many places don’t require adults to wear one of the best kayak life vests at all times, there are some very good reasons you should do so.

Can you go kayaking without a life jacket? Sure. Is it illegal? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

But the only good argument against wearing a proper-fitting PFD while kayaking is that you don’t think it looks cool.

However, we must ask ourselves: is looking cool worth sacrificing our safety and the safety of anyone else we’re paddling around?

In our opinion, that clear answer to that question is no, but every year we hear more stories of kayakers that neglected to utilize the life jacket that was sitting right on the front or back of their kayak.

So, in this guide, we’re going to provide some important information on the legality (or illegality) of kayaking without a life jacket.

We’ll also provide clear-cut reasons why you should wear a life jacket on all of your kayaking adventures.

*As a brief disclaimer, we’ll use the terms ‘PFD’ (personal flotation device) and ‘life jacket’ interchangeably throughout this article. 

Can You Go Kayaking Without A Life Jacket?

The short answer to this question is yes. In most locations, there’s not going to be ‘life jacket police’ waiting at the shoreline to make sure you’re wearing a PFD before you enter your kayak and start paddling out.

But any good list of kayak safety equipment starts with a personal flotation device.

It’s the best way to avoid an accidental capsize from becoming a much bigger problem than just you unexpectedly getting wet.

So, can you go kayaking without a life jacket? Yes. Should you? We don’t recommend it!

Is It Illegal?

When it comes to legality, policies differ depending on where exactly you do most of your kayaking.

If you travel to explore new coastal or inland waterways, you should know that the policy where you’re heading could be much different than where you’re coming from.

According to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), each state has different rules and regulations for who must wear a PFD and the circumstances for which they are required.

They also have different policies regarding the penalties for violating their life jacket laws.

For example, California’s law states that violations can result in an infraction that carries a fine of no more than $150.

On the stricter side, Missouri’s law states that violations can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and no more than a year of jail time.

As you can see, that’s quite the spectrum, which is why it’s so important to be aware of the boating laws in your area.

For the most part, almost all states require that you have enough life jackets on a personal watercraft (such as a kayak) for all persons onboard.

Not all states require that everyone must be wearing a life jacket at all times, but they must be accessible in case of any emergency.

That being said, many states have a minimum age requirement that states that minors and children under a certain age must be wearing a life jacket at all times while on a personal watercraft (PWC).

The specific age requirement will vary state-by-state, and some places actually require all persons on board to wear a PFD for the entire duration that the watercraft is underway.

So, is it illegal to kayak without a life jacket? It depends on your age and the state in which you’re paddling.

Why You Should Wear A Life Jacket While Kayaking

Even if you live in a state or territory with relatively relaxed life jacket laws, we advise you to wear a life jacket at all times while kayaking.

Here are a few great reasons why we wholeheartedly believe in the safety of life jackets:

It Saves Lives

Every year, unfortunate and unprepared kayakers suffer the ultimate price because they weren’t wearing a life jacket.

Even the best swimmers can succumb to a number of environmental factors when they fall out of a kayak without wearing a PFD.

To help illustrate our point, we’ll cite some information on kayaking accidents that was gathered by the United States Coast Guard in 2018.

In that year, there were 128 kayakers and canoers that died resulting from accidents on the water.

Of those 128 deceased kayakers, the primary cause of death for 109 of them (roughly 85%) was drowning.

And out of those 109 deaths, only 24 (roughly 22%) were found to be wearing their life jacket at the time of the accident.

When you add in the statistics for all boating accidents (motorized and non-motorized alike) it was found that only 15% of all drowning victims were wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident.

Life jackets save lives. It’s really that simple.

It Makes Rescues Easier

On a personal note, I love wearing my PFD while kayaking because it makes life so much easier when I have to be rescued or perform a rescue.

When guiding beginners, it’s much easier to help pull someone back into their kayak when you have the shoulder straps of their PFD to grab onto.

Additionally, I don’t have to expend energy just keeping myself afloat as I set up for a self-rescue or enter the water to help rescue a third-party.

Instead, I can trust that my PFD is going to keep me afloat while I focus on other pressing matters.

We should also point out that certain types of kayaks are easier to re-enter in deep water than others.

While most of the best sit-on-top kayaks can be re-entered in a matter of seconds if the kayaker has experience doing so, re-entering a sit-inside kayak can require a bit more time.

Some sit-inside kayaks require the use of a paddle float to create a sort of outrigger that will help you elevate your body out of the water and slide back into the cockpit of your kayak.

As you might imagine, inflating and setting up that paddle float takes time.

That amounts to a longer duration of time elapsing while you’re still in the water.

If you have to tread water or cling to the side of your kayak while you’re trying to locate, extract, install, and inflate a paddle float, you’re going to be expending a dangerous amount of energy that could severely impact your ability to get back into your kayak safely.

It Improves Your Visibility

If you paddle anywhere that also allows motorized vessels, your visibility is super important to your safety.

We’ve seen far too many scary videos of kayakers being hit by boaters and narrowly escaping serious personal injury and/or damage to their kayak (check out this video example below!).

Plus, some of the most magical times to kayak are at sunrise and sunset, and visibility at those times of the day is already less-than-ideal.

That’s why most kayaking life jackets are made with bright colors that will improve your visibility on the water.

Even if there aren’t any motorized vessels allowed where you paddle, improving your visibility can also be important if you ever find yourself in a search-and-rescue scenario.

You simply never know when you might need help on the water and, if you do, the extra visibility that a life jacket can provide can be the difference between rescuers finding you quickly or not.

Finally, visibility is arguably the most important for sea kayakers because you can often be hidden between swells.

If you live near the ocean and that’s where you do most of your paddling, a bright-colored PFD is highly recommended.

It’s Stylish

Okay, we apologize if this comes off as a little blunt, but we simply have to do away with the notion that kayaking life jackets don’t look cool.

There’s nothing inherently uncool about valuing your life and being smart about your own safety.

The good news is that today’s life jackets are so advanced that they can, indeed, be stylish.

Sure, some of them might impact your tan lines more than you’d like, but that’s not more important than compromising your safety on the water.

In fact, we’ve found that wearing a life jacket while kayaking will often inspire others around you to do the same.

You might be shocked when people come up to you and ask for kayak-related tips and suggestions (or ask questions about the best local places to paddle) because you look like you absolutely know what you’re doing.

It’s Functional

Today’s life jackets are also highly functional and they can serve a number of purposes in addition to saving your life or making rescue attempts easier if you fall overboard.

Those purposes will vary depending on the exact design of the PFD you choose.

Some of the best kayak fishing PFDs, for example, have large pockets that allow you to store small bait, hooks, or other useful fishing tools that you want to keep handy.

Most of them also have large enough pockets for your smartphone as well (as long as you have it in a waterproof phone case!).

In addition, many of these life jackets have a place for you to secure a utility knife (that’s the diamond-shaped, black patch on the PFD above).

These utility knives are well-known by whitewater kayakers because they help cut ropes and free lines in dangerous emergency rescue scenarios.

From a more relaxed and fun perspective, you’ll even find life jackets out there that come with zip-up beverage holders.

So you’ll be able to keep a can of Le Croix or coconut water handy to stay hydrated while you’re paddling!

How To Wear a Life Jacket Properly

To be honest, having a life jacket for kayaking is only the first step to improving your safety.

You also need to know how to wear a life jacket properly because wearing a life jacket improperly is hardly any better than wearing no life jacket at all.

For starters, you’ll need to make sure the zipper is secured (if applicable) and all straps are buckled straight across the PFD.

The straps should not be twisted at any spot and they should not cross so that they appear diagonal when buckled.

With the zipper and buckles secured, start by tightening the lowest straps first and then move your way up to the straps on top of your shoulders (if applicable).

Some life jackets don’t have shoulder straps, but you should always be careful to tighten all straps that are present on your PFD.

To check that your PFD is tight enough, grab the shoulder straps and lift them up.

If you can easily lift the straps above your ears (as you can see in the image above), you should further tighten your PFD until that is no longer possible.

This test simulates what will happen to your life jacket when you fall into the water.

A PFD that is too loose not only has the risk of coming off entirely, but it’s also going to make things much more difficult and uncomfortable when you’re trying to climb back into your kayak.

Final Thoughts

It’s simply better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health while kayaking.

Even experienced kayakers don’t often go out without wearing a proper-fitting PFD because they know that it’s impossible to predict everything that could happen while you’re on the water.

While we know that some PFDs can be a bit tight and uncomfortable (especially when the weather is at its hottest), we think that slight discomfort is a small price to pay in exchange for the peace of mind you’ll get knowing you’ll float if you unexpectedly find yourself in the water.

As always, the information we’ve shared today is meant to educate and inform kayakers to practice safe kayaking habits.

And we know that you’ll still have an enjoyable time on all of your kayaking adventures if you wear a life jacket!

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Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of KayakHelp.com. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.

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