By Carla King
Baja, land of seaside adventures. I always carry a mask and snorkel, fins, and a small inflatable lifejacket with me on my travels, even when I’m riding down on my motorcycle. Why? Experience has taught me that opportunities for seaside adventures abound. A spontaneous trip in a leaky boat to go clamming on an island. A friendly loan of a paddleboard or kayak. An invitation to go skiing on a dubiously maintained boat. A quick ride out on a fisherman’s panga to see the whale sharks. I want to be ready for anything.
In Mexico as well as the USA, the law requires a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) for each person on a boat and, if you’re paddling, windsurfing, or jet skiing beyond the surf zone, you’re required to have one, too. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this safety practice disregarded more times than not.
Anything can happen
Let me tell you a story. Last year one of my neighbors was thrown from his boat when the steering column froze. He was just on a quick trip to ferry friends to a picnic on a near island. He hadn’t been wearing the kill switch lanyard so the boat kept going in circles round and round at 40 mph, so he couldn’t catch it. Where was his lifejacket? In the boat. A fisherman happened by to rescue him just in the nick of time.
But what if you’ve booked a kayak or boat tour? Don’t they include all the gear you need? Yes and no. Even if they do, the quality and fit may not be ideal. Be safe, be comfortable, and bring your own gear if you can, especially if you’re going on a long trip, if you’re an odd size, or if you’re sensitive to chafing.
Take it and leave it
You don’t have to bring your gear back with you. You might be able to sell it to the company at the end of the trip, sell it to another tourist, leave it with a secondhand shop, or donate it to a fisherman with a leaky boat. Some of these guys don’t even know how to swim, believe it or not. Wetsuits, snorkels, and other gear are always appreciated.
Choosing the right PFD for the right sport
There are many types of PFDs to choose from. This post will help you choose the right PFD for the right sport, motorcycling excepted, haha. (Not to distract you, but I just thought you’d enjoy this photo. And there are PFD-type inflatable vests for motorcyclists now and I’ve seen them work. Check it out.)
Okay, now seriously, folks…
Waist-pack PFDs for short, easy boat trips
Waist-pack PFDs are perfect for short trips near shore and I take one along with me when I’m paddleboarding, kayaking, skiing, or wakeboarding, near shore. It would also be great for fishing. It’s small, lightweight, and doesn’t get in the way. It’s inflated by a pull that activates the CO2 cartridge. Bring spares with you!
In the small zippered pocket of my waist pack PFD, I carry an extra cartridge, enough pesos to pay a fisherman for gas (if needed, which I have done once when a piston in my boat engine blew), It occurs to me that I should also carry a laminated copy of my address in Baja and my California driver’s license.
Some of these extremely low-profile models, as pictured above, come with an arming indicator window, a whistle, and even water bottle attachment points.
Some inflate to full, over-the-neck lifejackets and others inflate as a pillow. This ONYX inflates as a pillow.
I also wear an ankle leash when I’m SUPing on my inflatable paddleboard. Even in the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez, the wind can pick up. Plus, if I decide to snorkel (here’s my gear), I can use it to pull the board behind me as I go.
Some of these small PFDs are Coast Guard approved and some are not. This Eyson inflatable ($89.99) is not Coast Guard approved but you can see why it’s so popular. Eyeson also makes a more affordable version ($54.99).
Also, see models from Onyx ($50-$89.99). I hope that my neighbor who got tossed from his boat wears one of these.
PFDs for snorkeling and swimming
In Cabo Pulmo and other natural marine parks, you are required by law to wear a lifejacket when you are snorkeling without a guide.
See this visitor’s complaint about being reprimanded by park guards (during Semana Santa, when there’s more vigilance by law enforcement) when he was caught not wearing a jacket. There are reasons for this; coral protection among them.
Personally, I have never worn a jacket while snorkeling and as an “advanced” snorkeler, I think it would feel awkward. But at least they leave the level of inflation up to you. The horseshoe-shaped design is supposed to be comfortable and also stays out of the way when swimming. This unisex jacket is only $12.99. A children’s version also available.
PFDs for high-risk water sports
I’d err on the side of safety when performing risky sports like kiteboarding, windsurfing, sailing, and big-wave surfing, by wearing a full-sized PFD. Even experts can get whacked by a spinning boom, or get lifted too high in the air, or tumbled under a big wave, risking an injury that can prevent you from getting back to land without added buoyancy. And sometimes an overzealous boat pilot can unintentionally put you in danger.
There are many good brands for women, men, and youth. The most interesting is the new Hyde Wingman Inflatable Life Jacket (as seen on Shark Tank!) priced for serious athletes at $199, with a surfers top layer ($59) to prevent accidental inflation when tumbling in the surf.
Here’s a video showing how the Wingman life jacket works.
Yes, there are lots of options, and in many expert opinions, you are better off going with the big brand names like O’Neill and ONYX. Going on a hardcore trip? Check out the Kokatat, which isn’t as bulky one that law enforcement uses, the MTI Adventurewear Headwater ($135) high-buoyancy rescue PFD. I’m told that the Mustang PFDs are popular with rescue teams, too.
PFDs for long-range paddling
If you’re planning a multi-day paddle, even when you’re renting from what seems like a reliable tour company, take your safety and comfort into your own hands and make sure they’re providing great gear.
My niece Justine works in river rescue in Portland, Oregon. She says she loves the Kokatat brand because their unisex sizes are truly unisex and they also have lots of women-specific models, too. She wears the professional “Guide” model at work, which costs $240 but recommends the Bahia for civilian use ($139) and she says it’s a good vest for swimming, too. Granted, Oregon has colder water so this may be too heavy for near-shore Sea of Cortez paddling, but for use on the Pacific it would be perfect.
This ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest ($40-$118.99) is highly rated.You can also see how the shape of the Astral Buoyancy YTV ($119) allows for a good range-of-motion for paddlers but is not good for swimming because of the bulk of at the bottom.
PFDs for general use and jetskiing, wakeboarding, and waterskiing
Maybe it’s just because I’m a Santa Cruz girl but I think O’Neill is a great brand for wetsuits and lifejackets and waterwear of all kinds. You’ll find a great selection of PFDs here and in the brand is stocked in many stores.
The O’Neill Men’s Superlite is popular for wakeboarding, and waterskiing and there are also models and sizes for women and kids.
O’Neill’s Irish cousin (just kidding) O’Brien makes the very popular and highly rated Women’s Impulse Neo Life Vest ($55-$75).
These vests also work just fine for other sports so if you want an all-in-one vest, look no further.
If you like pockets (and I understand that people who go fishing really like pockets) you’re going to love this NRS Chinook Mesh Back Fishing PFD ($110) for paddling and fishing. Long-distance paddlers might also love these pocketed versions of the paddling PFD.
PFDs for kids
Kids need special attention in the water and quality counts.
This highly-rated Stohlquist life jacket for infants and kids under 6 ($56) is Coast Guard approved. Note the double collar for infants who can’t hold their heads up yet, crotch strap (so it can’t pop off over their heads), and grab handle (my favorite feature).
Make sure it fits and also give the kids a test float to double check fit and to let them know how it feels so they don’t panic. Here’s a video that shows how to fit a kid with a life jacket.
PFDs for dogs
Consider the dog. It can paddle, but for how long? There are lots of lifejackets for dogs but a quality choice for keeping your pups safe is the Ruffwear K9 Float Coat for Dogs. ($79)
So there you go! What’s your favorite Baja watersport? Do you have a favorite PFD? Anything I missed? Advice? I’d love to hear about it in the comments, below.
A special thanks to my niece Justine Kilsby from Portland’s AMR River Rescue program for her contributions and review of this post.
About the author
Carla King is an adventure travel and technology writer and author. She lives part-time in Baja. Read more posts by Carla.