5 Ways to Inspect and Maintain an Inflatable Life Vest

Life Vest: photo credit Tim Allard

Inflatable life jackets or vests are popular items for anglers and boaters. Although easy to use, vests require ongoing care and maintenance to keep them in good working order throughout their lifespan.

shop life vest allWe spoke with industry experts Rob Morine, Absolute Outdoor Vice President, Sales from Absolute Outdoor Inc., manufacture of Onyx inflatable life jackets and Bass Pro Shops inflatable life jackets, and James Friedrich, Mustang Survival Product Manager, to learn more about inflatable life vest care and upkeep. While we can’t cover all the maintenance and inspection details for every product available, the following are highlights of some recommended tasks.

1. Check the Life Vest Before Use

An inflatable life vest should be inspected on a frequent basis, and ideally before every use. This includes but may not be limited to the following:

  • Verify the expiration date hasn’t passed for automatic or automatic / manual inflators; see your owner’s manual for specifics on this process.

  • Inspect the PFD’s exterior for damage, such as rips, tears, or punctures that may have pierced the flotation bladder. Seams, straps, and hardware should be secure and strong. Do not use a damaged PFD.

    life vest rearming kit
    Mustang Survival Inflatable Life Vest Rearming Kits
  • Ensure the CO2 cylinder in the inflator assembly and cartridge is puncture-free and without signs of rust or corrosion.

  • Verify the inflator status is displaying green on auto inflatable life vests.

  • Confirm the inflation pull-tab is out and exposed for manual inflatable vests.

  • Ensure the vest is not twisted and all closures (zippers, buckles) fasten properly and are in good working order.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: Morine and Friedrich emphasized the importance of reading the owner’s manual for detailed maintenance and usage instructions for specific models.


2. Do a Leak Test on the Life Vest

Checking the life vest for leaks is another important step. It should be done at the start of the season. Then again at least every two months.
The basic steps for a leak test include fully inflating the PFD using the oral tube, then leaving it for 16 hours. A device with a leak will not be able to maintain a firm inflation.

Don’t use a PFD with a leak. Contact the company or bring the product to the dealer for more information.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: A PFD’s oral inflation valve also requires regular testing. Consult the owner’s manual instructions.


3. Do an Inflator Mechanizm and C02 Cartridge Inspection

In addition to a quick check before each use, the CO2 cartridge, bobbin, and inflator mechanism also require ongoing detailed inspections throughout the PFD’s lifespan to ensure all is in good working order. Refer to the owner’s manual for details on the frequency and inspection procedures for your particular model.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: Morine suggests users become familiar and comfortable with their inflatable PFD’s operation and performance by testing its performance in shallow water. This requires buying and installing a re-arm kit to ready the PFD for future use.

bps inflatable life vest
Bass Pro Shops A/M 24 Auto/Manual Inflatable Life Vest

4. How to Properly Store a Life Vest

Store inflatable life vests in a dry place out of direct sunlight when not in use. The key word here is “dry”.

Case in point, a PFD that got wet from fishing in the rain, boat spray, or another moisture-related scenario should be hung to dry in an open environment before storage. Storing a wet, inflatable life vest in a closed environment, such as a boat compartment, could lead to moisture build-up, which in turn could deteriorate a dissolvable material found in the inflator mechanism of some auto-inflatable PFDs.

“If you’re not storing it properly that material can dissolve over time, or break down over time, and [cause the PFD to] go off when you don’t want it to, which ends up being more of a nuisance than anything,” Friedrich said.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: Make a habit of drying and storing PFDs in the same place so they’re organized and ready when needed.


tim allard mustang vest3b 
Author, Tim Allard, wearing a Mustang Survival inflatable life vest.

5. How to Clean a Life Vest

Through use, an inflatable life vest is going to get dirty, be it mustard from a messy sandwich, oily sunscreen, or something else. Clean it using a warm water and a mild soap solution applied with a damp cloth or sponge.

“Be very cautious that you’re not putting the inflation mechanism in the water,” Friedrich said.

After carefully rinsing off the soap, hang the life vest and allow it to air dry completely. Perform an inspection before using the PFD again.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: Sunscreen applied to the neck has a bad habit of finding its way onto inflatable PFDs. Wearing a collared shirt can help prevent smearing. A neck sun gaiter, like a BUFF, is another option.


Final Thoughts

“The number one thing is to wear them,” Friedrich said, speaking to the importance of wearing a PFD at all times given how quickly dangerous scenarios can arise on the water. And, given the comfort of today’s inflatable life vests, there’s no excuse not to wear a PFD at all times.

Morine agrees. He also emphasizes that while the owner’s manual is the definitive source for info on care and maintenance, individuals should also read it to become comfortable with the product’s operation. “It’s a technical piece and [you] have to understand how it works,” Morine said.

1 arrow pointExtra Tip: Visit Mustang Survival and Onyx Outdoor websites and YouTube channels for videos on various PFD-related topics, such as how to re-arm and repack an inflatable life vest. 


1 arrow pointExtra Tip Print: Learn facts and get more information about Life Jackets from the National Marine Manufactures Association (NMMA) - LINK