In today’s big wave scene, it is rare to see chargers at Peahi or Half Moon Bay paddling out with courage and tenacity alone.
Equipment has become an utmost priority for guys like Kai Lenny who look to counteract the dangers of surfing massive waves with the help of modern technology, and the inflatable life vest is at the forefront of this safety revolution.
But big wave connoisseurs didn’t always have the luxury of air bladders to overcome the dangers of pursuing bigger and gnarlier waves.
History of Inflatable Life Vests
Before 2011, big wave surfers were still dancing with the threat of minute-long hold-downs as they pursued their quest for bigger and faster drops.
This would all change, however, when Shane Dorian would have a near-death encounter after a wipeout at Mavericks.
Torn between his safety and big wave ambitions, Shane would eventually consult with Billabong wetsuit designer, Hub Hubbard, to create the first inflatable life vest, changing the viability and safety of big wave surfing forever.
Today, there is a wide selection of inflatable life vests available for those wanting to surf big waves and choosing one can be a difficult task. When hunting for the perfect inflatable life vest, there are a few that you can’t go wrong with in ensuring your safety in the event of a big wave hold down.
The Best Inflatable Life Vests for Big Wave Surfing in 2024
Highline Pro Airlift
Initially released in 2017 by Quicksilver, The Highline Pro Airlift has cemented itself to be the most dependable and proven inflatable life vest on the market. From Peahi to Nazare, the Pro Airlift has been tested in the most formidable waves around the world.
Complete with four CO2 canisters, a pre-inflation oral valve, and a deflation tab, the Pro Airlift is the best of the best, designed by innovators of scuba diving gear at a military-grade level.
At $990, it is an expensive choice, but if quality is your bargain, then the Pro Airlift is an excellent buy.
Learn more about it here.
Patagonia PSI Vest
No inflatable life vests can rival the Patagonia PSI in terms of credentials. Being awarded a patent by the U.S Patent Office, the PSI Vest is universally recognized for its functionality and innovation.
Available to those who have completed Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG), it can be bought at Patagonia Haleiwa and FCD Surfboards in Ventura, California for $1,250. With two CO2 canisters attached to an air bladder that sits comfortably under your wetsuit, the PSI Vest is a tested and proven piece of equipment.
If you have the time and money, then the PSI Vest will assuredly keep you safe in any big wave situation.
Learn more about this inflatable vest option here.
Although the UP Vest by Blue Soap doesn’t have universal recognition as the Highline Airlift Pro, it is a great alternative for those who are looking for something marginally cheaper than other vests on the market.
With four CO2 canisters, a mouth inflation valve, and a deflation tab, it has all the specs as the Airlift Pro, and is perfect for surfers looking for extended time in the water, without having to constantly replace canisters.
For surfers on a tighter budget, the UN Vest by Blue Soap is another excellent choice.
With all the specs of the UP Vest, the UN Vest sits under your wetsuit and is slimmer than its former counterpart.
At just $700, the UN Vest may be a solution for penny-pinchers who seek to ensure their safety while chasing big waves on a budget.
Learn more about these options here.
Inflatable Life Vests for Big Wave Surfing
Choosing an inflatable life vest is a crucial part of preparation, but big wave experts will always tell you the same thing about buying a vest: prepare as if it's not there.
Surfing massive waves is a dangerous game, and before you even consider which inflatable life vest is for you, it is important to consider your breath-holding ability, physical conditioning, and flexibility.
When the time comes to make the purchase, however, you can’t go wrong with the inflatable life vests listed above.