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Which inflatable life jacket is best?

The most important piece of safety equipment you need for a day of aquatic fun is a life vest. Even though most understand the importance of a flotation device when out on the water, many people find a life vest uncomfortable or too bulky and leave it behind.

If this sounds like you, check out the Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket. It has a slimmer construction for less bulk and more comfort while offering U.S. Coast Guard-approved protection.

What to know before you buy an inflatable life jacket

Method of inflation

Inflatable life jackets fill with air in one of two ways.

  • Compressed air: This method inflates the vest with a single-use canister of air. It can be activated automatically when the vest hits the water, or it can be manually triggered.
  • Oral inflation: Oral inflation involves blowing into a tube to fill the vest. This means you’ll need to wear the vest inflated.


Buoyancy is the measure of how supported and inflated life jackets will be. It ranges from 15 to 200 pounds. If you aren’t sure which buoyancy is best for you, cross-check the buoyancy rating with its maximum weight capacity.


Life jackets can take some rough treatment, so they need to be constructed durably out of tough materials. Look for polyvinyl chloride air bladders with an outer shell of ripstop nylon or polyester.

What to look for in a quality inflatable life jacket

Bright colors

In an emergency, it’s critical that you are easy to spot in the water. Although darker colors might match your swimsuit and towel, vibrant neon hues are best.

Comfortable fasteners and construction

Some life jackets are slipped over the head, while others are secured with zippers or buckles. These fasteners should not pinch or squeeze any exposed skin and should operate smoothly even in saltwater.

Additionally, look for comfortable rolled collars or padding wherever the life jacket touches your skin. Prolonged rubbing in the water can chafe and cause sores or scratches.

Secure fit

A secure fit means your life jacket feels snug but not tight around your body and does not ride up. Waist buckles and straps that run between your legs help with this.

Compressed air monitors

Another convenient feature for life vests that inflate using compressed air is an at-a-glance compressed air monitor. These let you check whether or not the vest has been inflated previously and if it’s time to buy a new canister.

Pockets and D-rings

Most advise against placing important items like keys and identification in your life vest. However, if you like to keep these things on you always, look for pockets that zip.

If you don’t need a pocket but want to carry an emergency whistle or flashlight, a D-ring lets you clip those securely to your vest.

How much you can expect to spend on an inflatable life jacket

Inflatable life jackets are a piece of safety gear you cannot afford to skip. Expect to spend $20-$200, with compressed air vests on the higher end of that range.

Getting the best from your life vest

  • Rinse the life jacket after each use and store it in dark and dry conditions.
  • Inflate your vest every now and then to make sure the bladder is still holding air. If it loses air overnight, it’s time for a new one.
  • Use a vest with a higher buoyancy rating in rough water.
  • Time yourself as you orally inflate your life jacket. It should take no more than 15 seconds.
  • Read the manufacturer’s instructions for operation carefully before use.

Inflatable life jacket FAQ

Is an inflatable life jacket better than a padded one?

A. That depends. An inflatable life jacket takes up less space and is often more comfortable than a padded one. However, it would be best if you stayed calm to inflate your life jacket in the event of an emergency, and some people prefer not to have to worry about it. Inflatable life jackets are also not recommended for children under 16.

Do compressed air canisters last for a long time?

A. They need to be replaced after each use. Even if you do not use them, check them every three months to ensure they are full and ready to go.

What’s the best inflatable life jacket to buy?

Top inflatable life jacket

Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Absolute Outdoor Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

What you need to know: This streamlined flotation device is approved by the US Coast Guard. 

What you’ll love: It is easily inflated when immersed in water or by pulling a handle. There’s a backup inflation tube. A simple color code indicates that your compressed air canister is ready to go. Its sleek style is perfect for the summer. 

What you should consider: It may self-inflate if left outside in the sun. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

Top inflatable life jacket for the money

Inflatable Snorkel Vest

Inflatable Snorkel Vest

What you need to know: It is durable and works well for more than just snorkeling. 

What you’ll love: Waist and groin straps keep the vest in place. It inflates quickly. The vest slips easily over your head and is available in five bright colors for easy visibility. 

What you should consider: Make sure the groin and waist straps are snug to prevent riding up. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Phantom Aquatics Snorkel Vest

Phantom Aquatics Snorkel Vest

What you need to know: Reflective tape means you will be very visible, even in bad weather or dark water. 

What you’ll love: The rolled collar is comfortable, and the adjustable flaps let you customize the fit. It zips securely up two fronts and can be inflated with an oral inflation tube. This vest has pockets and comes in three bright colors.

What you should consider: This vest runs large and may not work for smaller adults or children. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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Suzannah Kolbeck writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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