Lifejacket Care: How to Stay Safe on the Water


Seasoned boaters can attest to just how important lifejackets are. No matter how much experience you have on the water, or how good of a swimmer you are, a lifejacket can save your life. However, lifejackets can only do their job if they're properly maintained.

What’s the right approach to using and maintaining your lifejackets?


First, understand that a lifejacket is only going to be effective if it appropriately fits. Each person on your vessel should have a well-fitting lifejacket. Lifejackets are designed to be snug, but comfortable; they should be somewhat tight on your chest and back, but not so restrictive that you don't have any wiggle room. All straps should be intact, and you should have a little bit of room for adjustment.

Storage and General Care

While lifejacket laws are usually forgiving for adults, it's a good idea to wear a lifejacket at any time the vehicle is in motion. While wearing the lifejacket, avoid making excessive adjustments or picking at the device to preserve its structural integrity. That said, lifejackets are designed to be worn – so don't worry about prematurely wearing one out just by having it on.

When you're not using the lifejacket, you need to store it properly. These devices should be kept out of the sun and out of the elements, preferably in a storage container. They should also not be exposed to extreme temperatures or extreme levels of dryness or humidity for long periods of time; if you're going to store lifejackets for months or longer (like in the winter), you can maximize their lifespan by controlling for both temperature and humidity. Temperature and humidity controls are optional if you're only storing them for a few days or a couple of weeks.

Additionally, you should avoid storing lifejackets with other materials that may impact or damage them. Don't stack heavy things on top of your lifejackets and avoid putting them in close proximity with anything that could jeopardize their structural integrity.

Regular Inspections

Before putting on any lifejacket, you should inspect it for potential damage. If a lifejacket is sufficiently damaged, it will be rendered unsafe – and you should replace it as soon as possible.

Look for the following during each inspection:

  • Stains. Stains may seem superficial, but if your life jacket is stained with food or another potentially nutritive substance, it could eventually host mould or mildew. Since mould and mildew can degrade your lifejacket, it's important to treat stains as soon as possible.
  • Functionality. Next, check to make sure each life jacket is functioning as intended. The foam should be completely intact and should be somewhat squishy to the touch. The straps should be fully adjustable and in complete working order. And of course, the device should float when put on water.
  • Rips, tears, and holes. Pay close attention to any rips, tears, or holes you find. If you find a small, barely noticeable pair, the lifejacket may still be serviceable. However, if the hole or rip is big enough to allow foam through it, the entire lifejacket may need to be replaced.
  • Inflator indicators. Much of this guide focuses on standard lifejackets, though most of the advice in it is applicable to inflatable ones as well. One extra step you need to take for inflatable lifejackets is inspecting the inflator indicator. On each inflatable lifejacket, you should see a full cylinder and all-green status indicator. Otherwise, the lifejacket may not be serviceable.


Cleaning is about more than just keeping your lifejacket clean and comfortable. It’s also about preserving the form and functionality of the device. Whenever your lifejackets are stained or exposed to the elements (like saltwater), you should clean them. You should also commit to cleaning them at least once or twice per year, depending on use.

Follow this process:

  • Rinse. Start by gently rinsing your devices with warm tap water. Don't put them into a washing machine.
  • Brush with detergent. Once the life jackets are wet, get a bucket with some water-diluted mild laundry detergent and a brush with soft bristles. Using the brush and the detergent, gently scrub the surface of the lifejacket, paying especially close attention to any stains that have appeared.
  • Drip dry. You shouldn't expose your lifejackets to high heat or excessive dryness, so never put them into a dryer. You also shouldn't expose them to the sun for prolonged periods of time. Instead, allow them to drip dry.

When to Replace Lifejackets

Every lifejacket has a finite lifespan, and that lifespan grows shorter with heavy use.

So, when do you replace them?

  • Significant tears. If you notice any significant tears, rips, or holes that could compromise the functionality of the device, get rid of it. You may be tempted to patch it with duct tape or something else, but this is still a safety hazard, especially if you're in the water.
  • Missing floatation material. Check to see if there's any missing flotation material. If the device has lost its core structure, it's not going to help you float adequately.
  • Brittle, hard, or broken foam. Feel the lifejacket with your fingers to check the condition of the flotation material. It should be somewhat soft, while still retaining its shape. If the material feels excessively brittle, hard, or broken, you'll need to replace the device.
  • Mould. It's not uncommon to see mould or mildew in a damp environment like a boat. But if your life jackets are home to these destructive fungi, you'll probably need to replace them – and preferably, before the mould has time to release spores and spread.

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