Re: Inflatable Life Jackets

First, how about a gear forum. People loves them gear forums : ).

Over at BPL, there was a post about lightweight life jackets with the MTI Livery coming in at less than one pound, if I remember correctly. Ryan Jordan said his inflatable was around 9 ounces. He seems to hate using it though. It would seem easy to make a jacket out of closed cell foam with straps attached. I know they would not be approved, but what is the likelihood of a ranger ticketing you in the Alaska wilderness? It would be better than nothing and it could be used as a sleep pad too maybe. Hig is using his modified thermarest on their current trip.

Brad said:
When faced with the choice of carrying a heavy and bulky PFD or “boating naked” many packrafters choose the latter. There is a safer alternative, though. Stearns makes a compact, lightweight inflatable PFD that weighs approximately 1 pound and compresses to the size of a softball. The item is called the “Stearns Inflata-Vest Manual Inflatable PFD” and is available in Anchorage at B&J’s for $70. It is Coast Guard approved as a Type V PFD, but it is not intended for whitewater boating. It is vulnerable to puncture, so it may not be an ideal choice for a river with lots of sweepers. But it is far better than no PFD at all.

Brad Meiklejohn

The thing with those types of inflatable PFDs is that for packrafting use in white-water you’d want them to be already inflated before you flip. So you’d be paddling with a giant, inflated collar type thing. For flatwater you could keep them uninflated with a CO2 cartridge.

“Boating naked” in class III does seem like one of more dangerous wilderness activities you could do. You can use a good foam PFD as your sleeping pad and the weight penalty would probably be a few ounces. I’ve thought that an inflatable PFD would be great for reducing pack volume, but a good one (which doesn’t seem to exist) probably wouldn’t be much lighter than foam.

Also from the BPL discussion are these:,127.htm,
They seem to be the lightest PFD (1lb.) suitable for white-water, but they’re discontinued.

I find that the real problem with closed cell foam is that it doesn’t pack well. You can make a Hig-esque therm-a-rest PFD with an iron, scissors, strapping + buckles, and a way to sew it all on. The best way he’s found is to cut arm notches in one side, so your can wrap it around your body. He tried “tunic style” with a head-hole, but it wasn’t so good. Be warned, of course, about getting too close to the fire with your life vest on as such, because the clue will delaminate off the foam inside, and give you embarassing sleeping-pad-bubbles.

There’s viable front-country option: wear a pair of neoprene chest waders (NOT coated nylon - that’s the fisherman’s death suit. They must be neoprene). The neoprene floats, and a full set of chest waders won’t hold you upright like a PFD, but works great for maintaining a river-swimming position. Couple of key points:

  1. You want a belt. If they don’t come with a belt, add it. Yes, the waders will balloon out with water when you go in the drink, but this will be inconvenient with a belt, vs. make you michelin man in the water without one.
  2. You can add a PFD over the waders if you like (I do sometimes, in bigger water). The waders never provide a lot of buoyancy, but it’s enough.
  3. If you don’t go overboard, you’ll stay really dry: the chest waters, as long as they don’t have holes, keep you dry and warm (neoprene = insulates) even when the boat is swamped.
  4. Wear shoes over the built-in feet, so you don’t put holes in them.
  5. If you do get a pinhole, just fix it with aquaseal and duct tape.
  6. You’re basically wearing an open-topped wetsuit. If you spill and it floods, you’ll be fine and stay relatively warm in the boat (neoprene insulates, and you heat the water), but once you’re on shore again, you’ll discover you’ve got about 30 pounds of water in the suit. You’ll need to put your feet on a tree and do a little handstand to dump it out.
  7. I like to swim, so sometimes I launch over the back, and swim underneath my boat for a minute, in a calm river. I’ve notice that the “scoop” effect of the open top waders, when I don’t have anything over them, slows my swimming a bit.

If you want to be really spiffy, you can add a kayaker’s drytop over the waders, making the “poor man’s drysuit.”

Cost: $70. Mine are “Hodgemans” brand, which I got at a fishing store.

I have made a few inflatable PFDs which have all worked well, and weight less than 300g each . The inflatable chambers are made from wine cask bladders, housed in an outer shell of lightweight nylon. Some pictures of the PFDs in use are available on snapfish - I can’t remember the exact internet site, but my posting in the NZ and Australia site has a link to my Fiordland Rafting photos in which we are using the vests.

The red vest uses 2 x 10l bladders, one at the front, and one at the back, folded to the shape of the vest, inside a 1.1 oz nylon shell, using a zipper at the bottom of the back and front to allow the bladders to be removed/filled etc. A 10l bladder also makes a great pillow, and a water bag for camp. The blue one shown was the prototype, and uses 2 x 4l bladders at the front (one on each side), and a 3l one behind the head, and will float an adult face up in water. The 4l bladders are fine for water around camp, but too small for a pillow.

I’m sure a thermarest works OK, however you then have to sleep on a wet thermarest, and I suppose you need to take the thermarest in the first place, heavy as it is. I use the insulmat designed to fit the base of the raft as a sleeping mat, and a section of 2mm closed cell foam over the top, so that even if the insulmat is wet, the foam keeps my bag dry.

I also found an interesting inflatable vest designed as an emergency insulating vest, I think on the BPL site. It weighed even less. I have the link somewhere else, but due to the vaguaries of my PC, am unable to access it whilst doing this response!

If anyone would like more information, or photos, my email is

Lastly, given the technology around to make inflatable items with thermarest type valves in them (including montbell pillows and dry bags with valves), I just don’t get why someone doesn’t make a lightweight inflatable PFD commercially, unless theres some fear of litigation there.

Andrew Allan

For the best of both worlds check out the Stormy Seas ultra light vest

As an inflatable it is light and packable but much more durable and reliable then one of those useless yellow horse colors. It is not coast guard approved for whitewater. However, I have tested it in whitewater more then I like to admit and it performed great.

One thing to be mindful of with these inflatable PFD’s (they are not “life jackets”) is that they need to be tempered in cold water just like your boat. If you blow yours up using the mouth tube and your breath is as hot as mine, the vest will lose floatation on contact with cold water. I dunk the vest in cold water after inflation and then top it off and keep it as full as I can make it.

On the Stormy Seas life jacket you can ditch the CO2 canister and fill it manually. If needed, extra air can be added manually while you are wearing it.

On the litigation fears of making a PFD:

You’re right, Andrew. There’s a big legal fear around making PFDs, for obvious reasons. Alpacka might go there in the future (Sheri & I had some fun playing with that idea, in the shop), but a commercial PFD probably exists in a legal world of its own that I - for one - don’t understand yet. That hamburger’s only for eating in its own good time. Fortunately, legally a “PFD” is not a “life preserver.” There’s a lot that you can do one your own with some valves, heat-seal fabric, and webbing. I’ve got a home-made two-chamber PFD that hooks to a modular webbing belt off my backback, and the PFD part can’t weigh more than 300 grams, either.

If you’re going to heat-seal something up yourself, here’s a tip I learned from Sheri: get an iron with a good, hard edge, not a rolled/rounded edge. Use that hard edge to make a sharp, indented heat-seal contact along the inside of the sealed edge. (i.e., a hard, sealed “dent” where the air inside the chamber pushes up against the seal). That hard sealed edge is stronger and peels less than the “soft” sealed edge you get without it.

I can almost cope with the heat sealing , but the valve bit has me stumped. I’ve looked extensively for valves in Oz, hoping that a “thermarest type” valve was available, in which case I’d glue it in, but I can’t find one - the best I can find here is a wine cask valve, which needs a circular heat sealer to join it to the plastic bladder, in which case one may as well just use a wine cask bladder as the base for the PFD. whilst on the subject of heat sealing, what types of coatings on nylon can be heat sealed properly - I think I have already failed on PVC coated nylon - does PU coating seal well? With the basic facts, I’m sure i could make an even lighter PFD than i have , but I’m struggling with acquiring the right materials here.

Andrew A

On technical challenges:

Polyurethane does often heat-weld well, and works great with the right adhesive film. What you really want is a valve that you can attach in the same way. The best ones I’ve found are the ones that Sheri puts in the rafts themselves - those elbow-joint twist valves. If you want to do homebrew projects, you might try just contacting Alpacka and ask her if she could toss a couple old cut-out mouth valves in the mail. She’s super-busy right now, so it might be a nice gesture to force her to accept beer money for the courtesy even if she tries to decline.

She’d just be providing general heat-sealing information and some valves to play with, of course. She stays well clear PFDs for now. What you’d do with all that is totally your own universe. :wink:

Please help me !! I’m looking for a lightweight inflatable life jacket that can be inflated by mouth ( no CO2 canister )
Have you the link to manufacturers ?

Almost all inflatable life jackets have a manual inflation option. You can purchase an inflatable life jacket and discard the C02 cartridge. I usually enjoy using it the first time (once it didn’t work!). I then discard the C02 canister and just use the manual inflation valve. There does not need to be a C02 canister attached.

Keep in mind that no inflatable life jackets have been Coast Guard approved for swiftwater. The ultra-light horse collars, like the S.O.S. models, are best worn under your dry top or paddle jacket.

For a better inflatable life jacket that is more likely to stay on and less likely to be punctured consider

Sorry to ressurect an old thread.

Does anyone have any actual weights of the Stormy Seas inflatables? Something like the SV100 perhaps? (appears to be the lightest)

I use an inflatable one, and am aware of the risks. It’s a compromise.
But I don’t paddle Grade 5 (yet)

My SV100 size M is weighing 434 grams (15.3 oz) without the C02 cartridge.


Hi Harald,

Thank you for the weight! That helps a lot.

I believe I’ve heard of lighter ones … the Sospender Scout I believe, but not sure if it’s made anymore.

Does anyone know of any lighter inflatables?

The lightest-