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The 14 Best Inflatable Life Vests for 2021

Best Overall Choice

Onyx M16 Inflatable Life Vest

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Best Budget Choice

Wacool Inflatable Life Vest

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Best Premium Choice

Mustang Survival Khimera

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Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on June 9, 2021.

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When the weather turns hot, you want to hit the beach. Boating, fishing, paddle boarding and more, all need to be done safely. If you don’t like the bulk of a typical PFD, then inflatable life jackets are a great option. Let’s check out some of the best inflatable life vests on the market.

Best Overall Choice

1. Onyx M16 Inflatable Life Vest

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When you want an unobtrusive inflatable life vest, this is one of the best you will find. It provides a lightweight alternative to many bulkier inflatable vests. You need to manually inflate the vest by pulling the cord. Once inflated with the CO2 canister, you have 17 lb of buoyancy. That’s on the low end of the spectrum for most inflatable life vests. That said, there’s also an oral inflation tube. When you use that you can boost the buoyancy up to 26.5 lb.

Once it’s been used, it’s fairly easy to get the life vest back in the belt. It rolls up simple and you can stash it away again. The M16 manual inflatable is U.S. Coast Guard approved. Just remember, because it’s manual, you’ll need to activate it yourself. That also means you need to pull it over your own head once you’re in the water. If you’re not a strong swimmer, this might not be a good idea for you.

The big selling point for this particular PFD is the convenience. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t like having to wear a life vest all the time, this is a great alternative. If your boat trip goes smoothly, you never need to worry about it. But if something does happen, you have it right there when you need it. We recommend this for activities like paddle boarding or kayaking. Something where space is at a premium and you need freedom of movement. We think this is one of the best inflatable life jackets available.

2. Absolute Outdoor Onyx Inflatable Life Vest

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The Absolute Outdoor inflatable life jacket from Onyx is one of the best. If an emergency arises, you can inflate it with the easy to pull handle. However, it’s also set up for automatic inflation as well. When you hit the water wearing this vest, the CO2 cartridge will inflate. That’s going to give you 22.5 pounds of buoyancy, which is enough for almost anyone.

The harness design is simple and comfortable. It’s lightweight, and it doesn’t constrict your movement. Be careful with some of the straps around the chest and groin area, however. If not put on right, it can become uncomfortable. The crotch strap in particular can bind.

Onyx recommends this only be used by people who are over 16 years of age or 80 lbs in weight. So this is definitely not one for the kids. It is U.S. Coast Guard approved type III Performance. You’ll need to keep this on you all the time when you’re on the water. If you don’t wear it all the time, you’ll need to have another approved PFD.

3. Eyson Auto/Manual Inflatable Life Vest

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This automatic inflation / manual inflation life jacket is another good choice. And you can get it for a reasonable price. The automatic mechanism works thanks to a melting tablet built into the structure. The moment it becomes immersed in water this tablet dissolves. That will release has a pin on the CO2 canister. That immediately inflates the life jacket with CO2 gas in three to five seconds. Of course there’s also the manual option as well. You pull the tab and the same pin will set off a CO2 canister.

We are recommending Eyson because these are high-quality inflatable life jackets. But we do need to stress that they are not certified by the United States Coast Guard. So this can’t be your only flotation devices if you’re going boating in US Waters. That said, there’s definitely a lot of advantages to using one of these. It’s made from top-quality materials. It also features high quality reflective strips that’ll keep you visible in the dark. They’re lightweight, comfortable, and easy to adjust to any body size.

It comes with two tubes for oral inflation and reflective bands. It has one CO2 cylinder and the safety whistle is included as well. You are going to want to pay attention to sizes when you order one though. They tend to size these a little small so you may need a larger size than you think. Compared to similar vests on the market, the price point is pretty good here. Again, just remember this is not a Coast Guard approved life jacket.

Best Budget Choice

4. Wacool Inflatable Life Vest

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The Wacool inflatable It’s a great low-cost option. It comes in several colors. It is ideal for snorkeling. There is an oral inflation tube included on the airbag. For the price, the construction is pretty solid. It should handle your flotation needs when you are snorkeling well. with a good quality snorkel mask and some fins, you can have a great day at the beach.

There’s one strap to secure it around your waist and one goes down the back to secure under the groin. This one can get a little uncomfortable if you don’t have it set right. Make sure you adjust it so that it’s comfortable when you’re swimming. If this one is in place, the vest is going to ride up on you when you’re in the water. That means it’s going to push against your snorkel which could get annoying.

When it’s uninflated, the life vest takes up very little room. It’s easy to store and carry with you when you’re travelling. This is a great option for those who want to snorkel but don’t have exceptional swimming skills. It provides enough buoyancy to keep you afloat and feeling safer in the water. Remember, however, that this is not a safety device. It’s not recommended for, or even designed for, being an actual PFD. We recommend this only for people who want to have a more enjoyable time snorkeling.

Best Premium Choice

5. Mustang Survival Khimera

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The Mustang Survival Khimera is a dual flotation PFD. This one is extremely unique in that it adds inflation plus standard flotation. There is foam inside of this life vest which can offer 7.5 lb of buoyancy on its own. Once you have inflated it you add another 12.5 lb of buoyancy. That gives you 20 lb total, which should be good enough for most people. The foam buoyancy gives you that stability you need to deploy the inflatable part. Unlike other manual vests, you would be less disoriented when you use this in the water. Because it also has the inflatable aspect, it’s smaller than a non inflatable vest. Basically, it’s the best of both worlds.

The adjustable belt ensures that this fits all body types. Mustang recommends users be over 90 lb if they’re going to wear the life vest, however. The low profile design here makes it ideal for active people. It shouldn’t get in your way when you’re boating or doing any water sports.

We recommend this one for people who aren’t super confident swimmers. Many typical manual inflation vests require solid swimming abilities. You need to pull the cord and then slip the vest over your own head. If you’re not a good swimmer, this could be very dangerous. Mustang’s design means you’ll be floating thanks to the foam inserts already. You’ll have the time to orient yourself and pull the cord to inflate.

Another added bonus is that this is incredibly brightly colored. It’s almost impossible to miss this thing in the water.

6. Scubapro Inflatable Snorkeling Vest

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The Scubapro inflatable snorkeling vest is ideal for maintaining buoyancy when snorkeling. You need something that can keep you afloat. It also needs to give you the ability to keep your head under the water so you can see what you’re doing. That’s where a snorkeling vest differs from a typical life jacket. Anytime you see a snorkeling vest, it’s not a life-saving personal flotation device. So you need to keep that in mind when you see one of these.

If you do need an inflatable vest that can help us scuba diving, this one is easy to use and looks great as well. It has an oral inflator so you can increase volume as necessary. It’s also good about keeping your back covered and out of the sun. Just keep your eye out for how it’s secured on your body. The vest does have a tendency to move up your body when you are swimming with it. You’ll find yourself pulling it down to a more comfortable position.

We recommend the Scubapro vest for people who want to have a boost when snorkeling. If you like to get out on the water but aren’t confident in your swimming skills, this is a good option. Just remember this is not a personal flotation device. This should never stand in as a substitute for any kind of life-saving device. That’s not what it’s designed to do. It won’t offer the buoyancy needed to keep someone afloat in a dangerous situation. And it also doesn’t offer the head support that will keep you upright.

7. Bluestorm Gear Inflatable Life Vest

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The Blue Storm Gear Cirrus 26 inflatable life jacket is a great, low-profile life vest. The harness look is discrete and doesn’t get in your way. When you pull the cord to inflate, it expands quickly and smoothly. This is a U.S. Coast Guard approved type III performance inflatable life jacket. It will inflate automatically once it hits the water. And the pull cord manual inflation works as a backup. Once it is fully inflated there is an oral inflation tube as well.

The company recommends this for anyone over the age of 16. It can fit users with a chest up to 56 inches. If you’re towards the higher end of that scale, proceed with caution, however. It says it can handle 56 inches but that will probably be pretty tight. A person with a larger body type may want to check out a different option. We have some larger recommendations.

You’re going to get 26 pounds of buoyancy as well, which should keep you very comfortable floating. The jacket itself is very comfortable to wear. It doesn’t have a lot of bulk to get in your way and make you feel confined. The mesh fabric also allows for good airflow. So if you’re on the boat and then it gets hot, this isn’t going to make you sweat too badly.

8. Eyson Inflatable Life Vest

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The Eyson Inflatable life Jacket is another nice streamlined design. It’s top quality for an automatic inflatable life jacket. The harness and straps are simple and to the point. It’s designed to automatically inflate once you get into some water. And it has the option for manual inflation as well.

The CO2 cartridge responds quickly once you go overboard. You’re looking at full inflation in about 3 seconds. The back supports your neck so that your head stays above water. There’s also an oral inflation tube in case you need to increase air to add buoyancy.

The size of this life vest is pretty diverse. The adjustable straps and shoulder straps can handle up to a 62 in chest. That means most people should be able to wear this life jacket comfortably. Just make sure you’re fastening the belts properly so that it sits comfortably on your body. Watch that adjustable crotch strap as well.

Once deployed, the airbag has some extra safety features on it. There’s a rescue strap so that you can be pulled into a boat. They’re also reflective strips so that you can be seen in the darkness. And it has a safety whistle attached so the person wearing it can signal for help. That’s a great touch that most other life vests don’t include.

The company puts these through rigorous testing. They’ve actually kept people in the water wearing these for over 24 hours to make sure they can last.

There’s one thing that you need to be aware of before looking into buying this particular life vest. It’s approved for use in Europe and China. However, it has not been approved by the US Coast Guard. That means that this is considered a reliable life jacket. But it’s not suitable for boating in the United States. The Coast Guard will not recognize this as a proper personal flotation device.

9. Stearns Boating Stole

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One of the best things about the Stearns inflatable life vest is the appearance. You’ll notice most of these life jackets are extremely brightly colored. Obviously that’s a safety feature for when you’re on a boat and go overboard. But not every inflatable life vest needs to be designed for boating in the open ocean. This is a great vest for fishing. A good automatic vest should be a part of your fishing gear if you do kayak fishing. If you want some added safety, this one from Stearns is great.

Available in camouflage, the Stearns inflatable life jacket is lightweight and unobtrusive. Under 2 lb, you’ll barely notice you have it on. The camo pattern won’t make you stand out like other life jackets when you’re casting your line, either. It’s automatically inflatable once it hits the water. Of course there’s also the manual option by pulling the ripcord. The harness like design gives your arms lots of freedom of movement. You won’t feel like you’re being restricted when casting your rod. It’s US Coast Guard approved, so you can rest assured that it will keep you afloat and safe if you need it.
Some anglers feel a standard life jacket is too bulky. And most life jackets look too bright. So Stearns may offer the best life vest for you. It’s the perfect life jacket for a fisherman who wants that extra safety.

10. NRS Zephyr Inflatable Life Vest

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If you’re a fan of something like stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking, check out the NRS Zephyr. It’s another inflatable belt style life jacket. It’s extremely easy to use, putting it away as a breeze as well. The waist strap is wider than many so it won’t dig into your back when you have it on. It’s also well-padded. One of the smartest design features of the Zephyr is the pull strap that you use to inflate it. If you seen other belts you’ll notice it’s often set right in the middle. This makes sense from a design standpoint because it’s easily accessible. But from a practical standpoint it can be annoying. Especially if you’re kayaking, then the pull tab get stuck between your legs. There’s been more than one kayaker who pulled it by accident trying to get it out of the way. The Zephyr has it off to the side so you’re likely only to come in contact with it when you need it.

When you use a manual inflatable life jacket, you’re going to need to slip the inflated life jacket over your head. That means you need to be confident in the water before you invest in a PFD like this. If you’re not sure of your swimming skills, you don’t want to be fumbling with this and then securing on your body.

11. Mad Dog Inflatable Belt Pack

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Made for West Marine, the Mad Dog inflatable belt pack is small but effective. This inflatable life jacket only weighs one pound, so it’s easy to keep with you. The Mad Dog will manually inflate and comes with one CO2 cartridge. Just pull the cord and it inflates instantly. If the cord fails you can switch to the oral inflation backup method. When inflated, it has a typical life jacket look but it’s yellow as opposed to the blue belt.

This one has US Coast Guard approved type III performance. This is ideal if you find normal vests restrictive and uncomfortable. It’s very low key when you have it on. Remember, as a manual life jacket, this is less effective in emergency situations. If you get knocked overboard, you’ll need to be able to reach the cord to pull it. You also need to manually put it over your head after it’s been inflated. Because of that, you shouldn’t use this unless you have strong swimming skills.

12. Mustang Survival Auto PFD

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With 26 lbs of buoyancy, the Mustang MIT 100 survival vest is a top quality choice. It’s one-size fits all so it should be versatile enough for most users. Just be careful when checking measurements. Larger or smaller body types may find it uncomfortable. Most people should be fine, though.

As with any good life vest, this one is US Coast Guard approved. Automatic inflation triggers within 10 seconds of being in the water. Once inflated, the life jacket is self-righting. You shouldn’t have to worry about going under once the canister inflates the jacket.

Mustang is good about making comfortable and high quality inflating life jackets. Even on a hot day this won’t make you feel gross. That’s something you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever been in a sticky, hot life jacket before.

Overall, this is a lightweight jacket. It doesn’t feel like it gets in your way, either.

13. Mustang Survival Work Vest

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Another Mustang Survival Corp product, the Survival Work Vest is ideal for workers. If you’re putting in hours on a boat, you need a reliable life vest. Their work vest is bright orange like a traditional safety vest you’ll see on a construction worker. It also offers up to 35 lbs of buoyancy. That should be enough to keep a 700 lb human afloat.

The bright orange color adds increased visibility. So do the reflective tape patches. This is key in case of a man overboard situation. It makes use of hydrostatic inflator technology. That means it can handle normal rain and spray with no trouble. Once it becomes immersed in water it will go off, though.

Because this is also a work vest, it’s not bulky or constricting. There’s a lot of freedom and movement here. But at the same time it closes surprisingly securely. Don’t worry about this coming undone or slipping off. It’s also comfortable in high heat or humidity. This is the best inflatable life jacket for serious work on the water.

14. Namsam Dog Life Jacket

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Let’s face it, you’re not the only one who’s going swimming. Many of us enjoy taking our dogs out on the water. And as great as dogs can be at swimming, they need to be kept safe, too. The Namsam dog inflatable life jacket is a great option. If a traditional life jacket for your dog is a little too bulky, then this version just might do the trick.

There’s a leash loop on the back and it hooks underneath like a traditional harness. Velcro straps will ensure your pup doesn’t slip out. There’s an inflatable bladder inside to add buoyancy. It’s perfect for dogs of any size. Make sure you check their measurements chart to make sure it’ll fit. We found the small wasn’t really ideal for a very small dog. If you have a teacup anything, like a very small chihuahua, this may not work. That said, it should comfortably fit most other dogs.

When the bladder is deflated, the vest rolls up easily. It can be stored just about anywhere so no worry about it taking up space.

Things to Remember About Inflatable Life Vests

Not all life vests are created equally. Some of them are intended for snorkeling and not necessarily life-saving purposes. Not all inflatable life jackets inflate the same way either. Some inflatable life jackets will expand automatically. Other kinds of life jackets are inflated manually. You’ll need to make sure you look at all of the information before you can pick the one that is right for you.

Inflatable Life Jacket Buoyancy

The buoyancy of an inflatable life jacket is obviously an important factor. When see ratings on inflatable life jackets can be hard to understand at first. For instance, you may come across a life jacket that says it offers 15 pounds of buoyancy. If you weigh 190 lb, how does that help you? You need to understand how buoyancy works. this will allow you to buy the correct inflatable life jacket to meet your needs.

The first thing you need to remember about buoyancy is that you are mostly made of water. People are inherently buoyant. The human body is around 80% water. Since water doesn’t sink in water, you don’t need to calculate that weight. That leaves you at 20% of your waste in terms of calculating buoyancy. However, it doesn’t end there. Another 15% of the average human body is fat. That actually floats in water. That means you don’t need to calculate that late either.

If we use a 200 lb man as an example we can calculate the buoyancy needed in an inflatable life jacket.

  • 200 lb x 80% water equals 160. That means 160 lb of water that we don’t need to factor into our buoyancy equation.
  • 200 lb x 15% fat equals 30. That’s another 30 pounds of fat that you don’t need to worry about.
  • 160 + 30 equals 190. 200 – 190 equals 10. That means you need to keep 10 lb of your body floating in the water.
  • So what you need is inflatable life vest that offers 10 lb of buoyancy. Now when you look at a life vest that says it has 15 pounds of buoyancy, you know it can keep you afloat.

This calculation isn’t one hundred percent perfect, of course. For instance, if you are a very physically fit person the numbers will be skewed. Unfortunately, the lower body fat you have, the less buoyant you are. So if you have a low percentage of body fat you’ll need the higher rated life jacket. For instance, if you have 10% body fat at 200 times. That’s going to give you an extra 10 lb of weight in the water. That means a life jacket rated at 15 lb will no longer do. You’ll need to get one rated for 20 pounds of buoyancy.

Most inflatable life jackets offer higher buoyancy than on inflatable life jackets. This is the result of the CO2 canisters that are included. Often you will get over 30 pounds of buoyancy. That is usually enough to keep most people afloat. Always double-check before you put on a life jacket, however.

We recommend that you get an inflatable life vest that provides 22 pounds of buoyancy at a bare minimum. If you plan on hitting rough waters, that needs to increase. At this point you’ll want to have at least 33 lb of buoyancy.

Inflatable Life Vest Use

How you intend to use your inflatable life jacket greatly affects which one will work best for you. If you’re doing some serious work on a boat like a commercial fisherman, you want a reliable life vest. If you’re just spending an afternoon snorkeling, you may not need something as intense.

There are inflatable snorkeling vests that look very similar to inflatable life jackets. We’ve recommended a couple above. An inflatable snorkeling vest is not an inflatable PFD. Inflatable snorkeling vests are not always intended to be life-saving devices. Instead, they are marketed as assistive devices for snorkeling. They provide limited buoyancy to make your snorkeling experience more fun. In an emergency they should never be relied on for life-saving if they’re not advertised as such.

You need to read product descriptions when you’re shopping for inflatable life vests. You’re going to find very often that snorkel vests are included with life vests all the time. The distinction is often not pointed out very clearly either. Make sure you’re looking for something that has a specific buoyancy listed. And ideally it will be certified by the US Coast Guard as well. Look for the word snorkel in the description. If you see it, it’s safe to assume that this is not designed to be a life-saving flotation device.

Keep in mind that automatic life vests could cause problems. It all depends on what you’re doing. For instance, if you are a kayaker, odds are you’re going to get wet. Some automatic life jackets have dissolving mechanisms. These will set the CO2 canister off when they are exposed to salt water. This would be very impractical. Make sure you are catering your life jacket to what you need it for. A self inflating life jacket that goes off when you get splashed is not helpful.

Size Restrictions for Inflatable Life Jackets

We have already addressed how buoyancy is calculated for an inflatable life jacket. You need to make sure you are paying attention to these numbers. If you wear an inflatable life vest that’s not designed for your weight, it won’t work. Likewise, many inflatable life vests are designed for people of a certain height and size. That is why there are typically children sizes and adult sizes. A child may be too small to properly make use of an adult size inflatable life vest. When the vest inflates it will not be able to float them correctly. So it may slip off entirely, or cause them to float incorrectly in the water. You don’t want to be caught in a situation where the life vest is actually forcing you face down in the water.

Make sure you check size restrictions before using any inflatable life vest.

Inflation Style

There are two ways that inflatable life jackets inflate. You can get an automatic inflatable life jacket, or a manual life vest. Manual inflatable life jackets require the user to get them inflated. That means pulling a manual inflation cord to release the CO2 canister. It can also mean using a tube to blow it up yourself. Obviously, both of these require you to be upright and awake in the water. If you were to get knocked overboard in a serious accident, then they may not be helpful at all.

if you are out sailing in the boom where to hit you in the head and knock you out, what then? Manual inflatable life jackets would offer no protection. That is why self inflating life jackets are often preferred. The force of falling in the water will cause these to go off. They inflate and provide buoyancy whether you are awake or not.

Some inflatable life jackets offer minimal buoyancy before inflation. This is a nice, extra layer of security. They do tend to be bulkier because they will have foam flotation panels in them already.

Fit

The way your inflatable life jacket fits is important. The way the straps fit on your body and how comfortable it is need to be considered. Some life jackets can pull very tight and certain parts of the body. When they inflate, this can become even more uncomfortable. Whenever possible you should try out an inflatable life jacket before buying it. If that’s not an option, make sure you’re checking the reviews.

This is especially true if you’re buying life jackets for people with larger body types. That also applies to smaller body types. If it’s not what’s considered “average” then it may offer an uncomfortable fit. The best bet is to find ones that are highly adjustable. One-size-fits-all life jackets are usually not a good idea.

USCG Certification

If you go to Amazon right now you could find hundreds of different kinds of inflatable life vests. Many inflatable life jackets of them look extremely similar. But it’s worth knowing that not every inflatable life jacket out there is created equally as we have said. Some of these are rated for use in Europe, for instance. The United States Coast Guard has not actually OK’d them as a life-saving device in the United States. You will come across PFDs that have not been certified by the United States Coast Guard. Don’t bother using them without backup.

Many of these will be cheaper than certified flotation devices. It will likely confirm this. somewhere in the description. Something to let you know it’s just meant as a snorkeling vest, or a recreational device. It’s not worth your time buying one if it’s not able to actually do the job you need it to do. Always make sure that your life jacket is USCG certified if you need it for boating.

We have recommended two life vests by Eyson above. These can’t be used as personal flotation devices when boating according to Coast Guard regulations. But they are well-made products so we do recommend them for other purposes.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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