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Updated June 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
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.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best life rafts

Of all the types of boats available for purchase, none are more versatile and inexpensive than the life raft. These inflatable watercraft can be used to weather hurricanes and floods. They can be kept on a larger boat in case of emergencies or used recreationally to fish or just paddle around your favorite pool, lake, or river. They are extremely stable on the water and can be quickly deflated and folded for easy storage between boating sessions.

When shopping for a life raft, you will find a wide variety of options. This guide introduces some of the features and factors you will need to consider when buying a life raft. We examine raft capacity, portability, and size, diving into common features such as oars, grab ropes, and pumps.

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Life rafts are known by a variety of names, including inflatable rafts, inflatable boats, inflatable tenders, and zodiac boats.

Key considerations

Capacity

Life rafts are usually rated by the amount of weight they can support and the number of people that they can hold. In terms of poundage, less-expensive rafts start with limits of around 250 pounds. Larger, pricier rafts may hold up to 800 pounds. The average number of people a life raft can hold ranges from one to four, depending on the size of the boat.

Size

Related to capacity is overall size when the boat is fully inflated. This usually ranges from 70 inches to over 120 inches long. In general, the larger the life raft, the more weight and people it can hold.

Where it can be used

Some life rafts can handle rough water, such as rapids or waves. Others do better on calm enclosed bodies of water, such as ponds or lakes. Carefully read any operating instructions that come with your purchase before venturing out on rougher waters. The majority of life rafts are geared toward recreational use and are limited to use in calm water.

Portability

One of the benefits of an inflatable life raft over other boat types is that when you are done using it, you can deflate it and store it away. Deflated, these can range from under 1 pound to over 100 pounds. Some life rafts fold so small that they can fit inside a 1-liter bottle.

The lighter and smaller a life raft is when deflated, the easier it will be to transport, whether you are driving to the lake or fitting it into a backpack. To keep a stored life raft safe and secure, we suggest purchasing one that comes with its own carrying bag or obtaining a carrier expressly for that purpose.

Appearance

Some life rafts have a flashy appearance while others are more neutral. A color like bright orange can help your raft stand out visually amongst other boating traffic.

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Did You Know?
In an emergency situation, a life raft provides a good visual target for rescuers. It also creates a substantial radar image.
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Features

Materials

While some of these watercraft are made from plastic/PVC, the majority of recreational life rafts are made of sturdy vinyl. More durable rafts will be crafted of several layers of vinyl, which will allow them to withstand exposure to sharp gravel, sticks, and other water hazards from the bottom — and objects like a dog’s sharp nails from the top.

High-end life rafts are often made of a rubber-based fabric known as Hypalon, which can last longer than vinyl and provide more resistance to UV damage.

Seats

Some life rafts include inflatable seats, which can help to increase comfort on the water and provide greater leverage when engaging in activities such as fishing and rowing.

Oars

Speaking of rowing, oars are standard with the majority of life rafts, but some purchases do not include them. While the oars included with higher-priced rafts usually offer decent durability, those that ship with lower-priced life rafts may leave a bit to be desired. If you plan to use your life raft sporadically, inexpensive oars may meet your needs. If you plan to take to the water frequently, however, you may decide to upgrade to a more rugged pair of oars.

A necessary addition to any life raft you plan to row is a set of rings built into either side of the raft. The oars slip into these rings, creating a pivot point for rowing. Rings are standard on the majority of life rafts. Some rafts have more than one set of rings so you can row from a variety of positions.

Grab ropes and handles

Standard on life rafts is grab robes, which you can use to carry the boat when it is not in the water. Grab ropes are particularly valuable on heavier rafts, which may also include carrying handles on the front and back ends.

In addition to grab ropes, some life rafts include a tow rope on the front so you can drag the raft behind a larger boat.

Extras

Life rafts can ship with a variety of extras. Note that not all purchases come with the following, but some do.

Pump: A hand or foot pump to help you inflate the raft is a common inclusion.

Patch kit: Accidents happen, and in the case of life rafts, accidents can result in punctures or tears. Vinyl responds well to patching and keeping a patch kit handy could end up saving your boating day. If your raft did not include a patch kit, we recommend picking one up just to be on the safe side.

Carry bag: Included with some life rafts, a carry bag can be used to safely store your raft when it is not in use.

For faster inflation and deflation, consider a raft with dual-port Boston valves.

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Life raft prices

Inexpensive: Life rafts under $50 tend to have a lower capacity in terms of people and pounds; a maximum weight limit of 250 pounds is often seen here. Extras like an air pump may not be included. If you want something inexpensive for calm waters, this may be the right price range for you.

Mid-range: Between $50 and $200, life rafts are more durable and have a higher capacity than the sub-$50 group. Often, the weight limit is as high as 400 pounds. Extras may be included with your purchase. Notably, rafts in this price range are still generally intended for calm lake and river use.

Expensive: If you are in search of higher capacity and greater longevity in a watercraft, consider life rafts that cost between $200 and $600. These rafts tend to be larger and more stable if used in rough water (though you should still read the manufacturer’s recommendations to be sure). Some life rafts in this range can be fitted with a motor. In our research, we have seen some inflatable boats that surpass the $1,000 mark. Often, these boats can also be used as inflatable fishing boats or inflatable kayaks.

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Caution
Avoid storing a deflated life raft at extremely high and low temperatures, and do not store it in direct sunlight.
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Tips

  • Before taking to the water, check for leaks. One of the best ways to do this is to partially inflate the raft and hold it under water. If you notice bubbles, this suggests that a leak needs fixing.
  • Inflating a life raft can be done with a foot pump or a compact air compressor. If you are buying a larger raft, the convenience of an air compressor could save you considerable time and aggravation.
  • A life raft with an inflatable keel provides added control and improved handling on the water. If you will be taking your raft onto a larger lake or body of water, this can be particularly helpful.
  • If you plan to fish with your life raft, select one that includes fishing rod holders. While fairly rare in boats of this type, durable rod holders can free up your hands for other tasks, such as rowing.
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While life rafts are rated for the number of people they can hold, you should lower this number if you will be taking along a sizable amount of gear.

FAQ

Q. Can I use a motor with my life raft?

A. It depends on the raft. Some pricier life rafts are designed to accommodate a motor mount on the back. These boats usually include a battery pouch too in case the motor you wish to attach is an electric trolling motor.

If adding a motor to your life raft is something you are interested in, contact the manufacturer or seller for more information. Motor mounts are accessories that are usually sold separately, a fact worth taking into account when budgeting for a life raft. Also note that some states require you to license or register your raft once you attach a motor to it.

Q. How safe is a life raft?

A. Several smart design elements can actually make a life raft safer than some other types of boats. They are quite hard to capsize (particularly larger life rafts), and they are also difficult to sink thanks to the separate air chambers usually found within. Life rafts often have three or four separate chambers that you fill with air, so even if one chamber fails, the remaining chambers can help keep the boat afloat.

Q. What is the best way to clean a life raft?

A. Life rafts can get dirty and odiferous, particularly if you use them for activities like fishing. Thankfully, they are easy to clean with a bit of warm, soapy water and a soft cloth. Wash the raft completely, hosing off all traces of soap. Plan to do this periodically to keep your life raft looking and smelling like new.

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