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Inflatable Life Jackets Keep You Safe on the Water

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

Updated:

February 3, 2021
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Life jackets hanging on boat
Satisfy safety requirements and protect your crew by keeping the proper life jackets on board. Pexels/Igor Starkov

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. We put a collection of them through their paces to compare capabilities and features.

Mustang Survival inflatable PFD

Immediate Inflation

This option is comfortable to wear and fills up quickly. Zach Stovall

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.

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

Spinlock Deckvest Lite Model 170N

Comfortable Fit

Casual boaters will appreciate the soft fabric. Zach Stovall

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.

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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.

Onyx A/33 Impulse Model 2042A-Z life jacket

Customize the Fit

Built for those seeking a life jacket that’s easy to adjust. Zach Stovall

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.

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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.

West Marine Deepwater Automatic Inflatable PFD Model T1F life jacket

Sturdy Build

This vest mixes a rugged design with features made for all-day comfort. Zach Stovall

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.

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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.

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