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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

Shopping guide for best inflatable life jackets

Last Updated March 2019

The number one safety item to have when you’re out for a day of fun on the water is a life jacket. For some activities, traditional life jackets are just too bulky and uncomfortable. Inflatable life jackets offer those who are more experienced around water a way to remain safe while enjoying boating, water skiing, fishing, snorkeling, and other aquatic pastimes.

Inflatable life jackets are available across a variety of USCG-approved types and are a perfect choice for calm water or near-shore activities. Unlike traditional padded life jackets, inflatables feature a chamber that can be inflated either through a CO₂ canister or by mouth. In addition to a more comfortable feel, they provide better freedom of movement and up to 45 percent more buoyancy, which can help you float higher in the water.

When in the market for an inflatable life jacket, there are a number of factors to consider. These include the jacket’s method of inflation, buoyancy, comfort, pricing, and other features. This guide will walk you through everything you should know before buying an inflatable life jacket. We also highlight our recommended picks.

The majority of inflatable life jackets are unisex, although some companies do sell women-specific life jackets.

How is it inflated?

There are two basic types of inflation methods when dealing with these life jackets: those that use some form of compressed air, and those that you need to blow up orally using a blow tube.

Compressed air: This inflation method can either be done manually or automatically. Both involve a canister of compressed air (single-use) that is used to inflate the jacket.

Manual inflation is achieved via a tab or handle that you pull to inflate the jacket. Automatic inflation takes advantage of either a dissolving capsule or a pressure sensor that will trigger inflation when exposed to water. In other words, if you fall into the water, it automatically inflates. Automatic inflation jackets should also include a handle so you can manually inflate the jacket, if you so choose.

Oral inflation: This do-it-yourself method involves you blowing into a tube which then inflates the jacket. These should be present on all vests you buy — even those that use compressed air — as this is also the primary way to deflate the vest. All blow-up tubes should have a sturdy cap to stop air leakage. Oral inflators can not only be used to inflate or deflate the jacket, but also adjust the level of inflation.

How buoyant is it?

Rated in pounds, buoyancy is basically the degree to which the life jacket holds you up. The more air that’s in it, the more buoyant it is, and the higher your head is out of the water.

The buoyancy for these types of life jackets varies anywhere from 15 to 35 pounds. Since this may be a bit too abstract for some, you can also check to verify the weight limit of the life vest. The majority of these start out around 80 pounds, making this product unsuitable for children. Verify that any jacket you buy is rated for your weight.

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Europeans measure floatation buoyancy in Newtons instead of pounds.

Construction and appearance

Any life jacket you are considering should offer a rugged construction and the ability to hold up to some fairly rough treatment. PVC bladders surrounded by either a durable polyester or tear-resistant nylon are popular options.

The life jacket should also be attractive enough that you will want to wear it. For extra safety, consider purchasing a jacket in a bright fluorescent color, as this will improve its visibility on the water.

Comfort and fastening

One of the top reasons for choosing an inflatable life jacket in the first place is its comfort. It should be lightweight and breathable. The jacket should be adjustable both in terms of weight and height, and any strapping or buckles used for adjustment should be rugged and easy to use.

Something like a soft neoprene fabric around the neck and other exposed areas of skin can help tremendously to cut down on chafing.

The majority of orally-inflated life jackets are easily slipped on over your head. Some pricier models — particularly compressed air ones — are zippered, which can offer more security. Just verify that the zipper is high quality and won’t split open or break down over time. Crotch straps can also be used to offer more security and prevent the jacket from riding up.

How portable is it?

Another plus of inflatable life jackets is their portability. Any jacket you consider should fold up into a compact shape that is easier to pack and travel with. Some include carry bags for easy transport and storage.

The USCG recognizes five different types of life jackets that cover everything from padded and inflatable jackets to rings and other floatation devices that can be thrown.

Status indicators

Available on a variety of compressed air inflatable life jackets, status indicators help you to tell at a glance that your compressed air cylinder is charged up and ready for activation.

Pockets and accessories

While pockets are not usually included on inflatable life jackets, some do offer them, particularly at higher price points. Pockets provide an easy way to keep track of sunglasses, waterproof cameras, and other items like sunscreen when you’re on the water. Any pockets should be secured via a quality zipper. D-rings are also included on some inflated life jackets, providing a simple way to carry around items such as flashlights or emergency whistles.

Inflatable life jacket prices

Inflatable life jackets start out around $20 and can run into the $200 range or higher. The majority will be found in the lower range, however, with higher price points reserved for jackets of exceptional build quality and with advanced features.

Compressed air inflatable life jackets will tend to be more expensive than simple oral-inflated and cost you more in the long run, particularly if you go through a fair amount of compressed air canisters.

Check whether a life jacket includes a warranty, and don’t be afraid to pay a bit more for improved durability and peace of mind.

EXPERT TIP

Inflatable life jackets are designed for quick rescue, not extended survival purposes.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • All life jackets should be stored in dry conditions away from direct sunlight. Constant moisture and sunlight can do long-term damage to life jackets.
  • To test the bladder of your inflatable life jacket, periodically blow it up and allow it to set overnight. If you notice diminished air pressure the next morning, the jacket has a leak and should be replaced.
  • You will need more buoyancy if you find yourself in rough water conditions or are wearing excessive clothing.
  • It should take you no more than 12 to 15 seconds to completely inflate your life jacket if using orally-inflatable tubes.
  • Inflatable belt packs are a special type of inflatable that offer a lower profile and more comfort than traditional inflatable jackets.
  • If you are going to be on the water at night, consider a jacket that has reflective strips or trim built into it for improved visibility.
  • Read the manual that comes with your inflatable life jacket carefully before you hit the water to familiarize yourself with all aspects of using and wearing it.
  • Some inflatable life jackets feature a loop in the back that can be used to attach a helmet or hat.

Other products we considered

We wanted to mention a few other inflatable life jackets that caught our attention. The Onyx Deluxe Inflatable Life Jacket features fleece-lined pockets for gear, in addition to a D-ring. We love the fact that you can toggle the automatic inflation option on or off, depending on what you’re doing. Also from Onyx is the Belt Pack Life Jacket, a super low-profile belt life jacket that offers complete range of motion and manual CO₂ inflation. Finally, snorkelers on a budget should consider the inexpensive orally-inflated Inflatable Snorkeling Jacket by Faxpot.

Hybrid inflatable PFDs are available that combine elements of both inflated and foam padded vests, providing optimum comfort and safety for those engaging in paddle sports.

FAQ

Q. What are some disadvantages of an inflatable life jacket?
A. 
Unlike a padded life jacket, you will need to remember to blow up an inflatable (unless you purchase one that automatically inflates). Inflatables are a little more high maintenance and offer little in the way of protection from cold water. Inflatables are also not recommended for non-swimmers or kids under the age of 16.


Q. How long will a compressed gas canister last?
A.
Generally speaking, you will need to replace the canister after every use. Any existing canisters that have not been used should also be checked every three months to assure they are still viable.


Q. Is an automatic-inflation life jacket right for me?
A. 
Auto-inflation is a helpful safety feature to have, as it will inflate your vest even if you are knocked unconscious and fall in the water. While a great choice for boaters, others who are a little closer to the water — including paddlers and those who wade-fish — chance setting off the automatic inflation mechanism too easily.


Q. Can I fly with these?
A.
While orally-inflated jackets are no problem, compressed air life jackets may prove a bit more difficult. At the moment, the Transportation Safety Administration says you can fly with CO₂ life vests, but there are some restrictions, including the number of canisters you can bring on board with you. Visit this link for the latest rules.

The team that worked on this review
  • Allen
    Allen
    Writer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Katherine
    Katherine
    Editor
  • Linsay
    Linsay
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Rich
    Rich
    Writer

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