Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison | Boating Magazine

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

We test inflatable life jackets to help you find the best ones for you and your crew.

One of BoatingLAB’s first tests was of the one thing boaters can’t leave port without: a life jacket. While all automatic inflatable life jackets can be inflated manually, designs have improved. Plus, there are new players in the marketplace, so we put a passel of them through their paces in this month’s LAB test.

How to Use Inflatables
Inflatable life jackets only satisfy U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements when they are worn under very specific conditions as follows:

  • They must be worn to satisfy carriage requirements.
  • Users must be over 16 years of age.
  • Users must weigh at least 80 pounds.
  • Inflatable life jackets need to be “rearmed” annually, which requires buying a kit that includes a new CO2 cartridge and a trigger device costing between $20 to $120 each.
  • They are not allowed for watersports.
  • They are not recommended for non-swimmers.
  • They are not recommended for freezing waters.

Safety Note
Be aware: Inflatable life jackets are usually shipped unarmed, so install the CO2 cartridge.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Mustang Survival Elite 38 Model MD5283 | Buy It Now

Zach Stovall

Mustang Survival Elite 38 Model MD5283

Mustang Survival has been in the rescue business since 1967 and is the brand on which many commercial mariners rely. That they are pricier is immediately apparent and supported in style and design. Foremost, the hydrostatic trigger inflates the air bladder the moment it sinks 4 inches below the water, which is when hydrostatic pressure triggers it. Finely woven nylon fabric is tough, the cut minimizes chaffing around the face and neck, and rubber reinforcement protects the most exposed areas. The back is wide and soft for support and comfort and ventilated for warm-weather wear.

Pros: Hydrostatic inflaters are the fastest inflaters and can’t be triggered by rain or spray. The provided 38 pounds of buoyancy is enough to right an unconscious person and hold their face out of the water in the roughest conditions.

Cons: The trigger system is heavier and bulkier and costs $100 or more than lighter-weight but slower-dissolving bobbin-triggered devices.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Padded mesh back webbing is a newer design feature adding comfort to the Mustang lineup.

Zach Stovall

Buoyancy: 38 lb.
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 52 in.
Trigger: Hydrostatic
Closure: Nylon zipper
Rearm: Annually
Cost: $260

Test Results
The hydrostatic trigger activated almost immediately after being dunked and surfaced in our test almost immediately.

Rearming: The CO2 cartridge and trigger are fixed together, and the cartridge fits inside the air bladder. The process is tricky; once accomplished, it’s easily repeated.

Conclusions: Hydrostatic triggers won’t deploy because of dampness caused by rain and don’t rely on a dissolving bobbin.

Best For: These are the most expensive devices, and the rearming kits include a new hydrostatic sensor, so we recommend them for serious offshore boaters or professionals who are accustomed to detailed maintenance of all their gear.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Spinlock Deckvest Lite Model 170N | Buy It Now

Zach Stovall

Spinlock Deckvest Lite Model 170N

Spinlock is designed and manufactured in the U.K. for serious sailors and powerboaters. The Deckvest Lite features all the company’s built-in safety features but is designed for more casual boating. Thread-dyed ripstop nylon provides a smooth housing, and nylon zippers close it around the bladder. Securing straps meet the collar in weight-distributing webs at the abdomen and center of the shoulders, spreading the strain of the straps, and buckles are protected in the webs. The fabric against the body is a soft, widely woven mesh for quick drying.

Pros: Spinlock is the only brand that supplied a hook-and-loop-fastener strap to secure the extra webbing after adjustment.

Cons: The plough-collar design seems bulkier than others, but it’s actually more comfortable, giving more clearance around the neck and chin than competitors. The crotch strap is inconvenient to attach but adds safer support in the water.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Waist strap is supported by cummerbund-style strap supports for comfort.

Zach Stovall

Buoyancy: 38 lb.
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 52 in.
Trigger: Dissolving bobbin
Closure: Zipper
Rearm: Annually
Cost: $190

Test Results
The Spinlock device also has a dissolving bobbin that deploys a bit slower than hydrostatic devices. But in our tests, it deployed almost as fast as the hydrostatic Mustang.

Rearming: We fumbled rezipping the bladder pouch, and the zipper snagged and broke as we struggled to free it. It’s a hazard of any zipper. Care must be taken.

Conclusions: Because of the device’s comfort when worn, we would choose it in spite of our zipper mishap due to its neck and face clearance during everyday wear.

Best For: Big-water boaters and professionals who are fastidious about maintaining gear.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Onyx A/33 Impulse Model 2042A-Z | Buy It Now

Zach Stovall

Onyx A/33 Impulse Model 2042A-Z

The Onyx A/33 offered excellent clearance around the neck, similar to the Spinlock design. However, the Onyx design included a zippered front closure, simplifying putting it on and adjusting it to size. The Onyx design includes a wide collar for good neck clearance and a heavily padded cape and yoke arrangement on the back to distribute the light weight of the vest or to better cradle the user in the water when suspended beneath the flotation. After zipping the vest in the front, adjust the back strap snugly by pulling out on the straps at either side of the cummerbund. To widen the fit, press forward on the waist adjustment buckles.

Pros: The waist strap arrangement leaves little of the strap dangling to secure with Velcro straps and no buckles or doubled strap to pull through the back yoke, as are in other models.

Cons: It has small zippered pockets in either side of the cummerbund. They are barely large enough for keys or a lighter but could be handy for a whistle and reflecting mirror.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Wide at the shoulders, the Onyx opens at the bottom with a zipper for easier donning.

Zach Stovall

Buoyancy: 35 lb.
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 65 in.
Trigger: Dissolving bobbin
Closure: Zipper
Rearm: Annually
Cost: $270

Test Results
Our Onyx device was quick to inflate, lifting our crash-test dummy from the pool bottom in about five seconds.

Rearming: Arming the device was easy. The dissolving bobbin slipped in place quickly, and the bladder folded easily back into its zippered pouch.

Conclusions: We noticed that our test model used a similar arming device to the smaller A/28 model, generating 25 pounds of buoyancy. We found the arming kits, though properly labeled, were interchangeable, and so, a 28-gram CO2 cartridge could be installed to underinflate our larger air bladder.

Best For: Inshore or offshore boaters who want compact protection in an inflatable device that is easy and economical to maintain.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

West Marine Deepwater Automatic Inflatable PFD Model T1F | Buy It Now

Zach Stovall

West Marine Deepwater Automatic Inflatable PFD Model T1F

Designed especially for open waters and hardcore fishing, this life jacket is tough and able to stand up to the rigors of long storage periods, damp conditions and more. Its design is a nod to comfort and includes a wide mesh-web back strap to spread the tension of the center support strap. It meets at the waist, at the padded lumbar strap that prevents the straps from digging into the body. The 2-inch-wide waist web strap is sturdy and adjusts easily. A nylon clip can be positioned to hold the excess strap and prevent it from flapping. The bladder housing has padded mesh at the back of the neck for comfort.

Pros: There is a waterproof zippered pouch for small items in the left side of the bladder collar.

Cons: Smaller people will struggle to move the excess strapping at the waist through the protective padded waistband to secure it in a streamlined manner.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Ventilated mesh back distributes stress and gives breathability to the support system.

Zach Stovall

Buoyancy: 35 lb.
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 56 in.
Trigger: Dissolving bobbin
Closure: Hook-and-loop tape
Rearm: Annually
Cost: $190

Test Results
This comfortable device does have neck and cheek contact but is padded for comfort. It deployed and floated our victim to the surface in under five seconds, as is required by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rearming: The dissolving bobbin design is simple to recharge, and the bladder fits easily into the collar shell and returns nicely to its factory condition.

Conclusions: The adjustment issues noted in cons wouldn’t prevent us from relying on this device for safe boating.

Best For: We liked the device for inshore to coastal boating and felt its buoyancy level was ideal for rough-water rescues.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Bass Pro Shops A/24 In-Sight

Zach Stovall

Bass Pro Shops A/24 In-Sight

You wear an inflatable life jacket because it’s like not wearing one, but you still want them to look good. This one is styled up with contrasting colors, plus reflective patches that can be illuminated hundreds of yards from a light source. The neoprene collar adds comfort in the places it inevitably contacts the neck and face. A handy D-ring makes a good place to attach accessories and tools.

Pros: We like its look, feel, and the proven reliability of its trigger system. At 22.5 pounds of flotation, that’s almost 50 percent more buoyancy than a standard Type III life jacket.

Cons: The dissolving bobbin triggers take three to five seconds to inflate the vest — which is why they are only recommended for users who are swimmers.

Inflatable Life Jackets Comparison

Inspection window lets you know in advance if the life jacket is armed. This one is red and not armed. Green is ready.

Zach Stovall

Buoyancy: 22.5 lb.
Trigger: Dissolving bobbin
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 52 in.
Closure: Hook-and-loop tape (not speaking of the buckle)
Rearm: Annually or after use
Cost: $139.99

Test Results
In most of our tests, the crash-test dummy went straight down to the bottom, but in this trial, he fell sideways into the water, floundering at the surface. The inflatable bobbin trigger activated just as rapidly as it did in competitors and stabilized the victim.

Rearming: Velcro collar closures are easier to manage than zippers and were reliable in our testing. Choosing between them is a matter of preference.

Conclusions: Marketed for inland boaters, it still boasts over 20 pounds of buoyancy, more than standard offshore life jackets.

Best For: Because of its smaller bladder size, it is recommended for inland and inshore boating where rescue is apt to be faster and seas calmer.


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