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Foam vs. Inflatable Life Jackets

Posted By Gail Kulp, Thursday, October 15, 2020
Updated: Monday, October 12, 2020

Foam vs. Inflatable Life Jackets


No matter what you are doing to enjoy your time on the water: boating, paddle sports, fishing, personal watercraft and more, there is a life jacket to best fit the situation, your body type and your age.


While there are hundreds of different styles and types of life jackets, there are essentially two versions to choose from: foam and inflatables. But do you really know what would work best for you? For some insight into the topic of foam v. inflatable life jackets, the Sea Tow Foundation spoke to its partners at Absolute Outdoor and its affiliate brand Onyx, who have supplied more than 65,000 life jackets for the Sea Tow Foundation’s Life Jacket Loaner Program. A chart is included below with an easy side-by side breakdown of the differences between foam and inflatable life jackets.


No matter what life jacket you buy and wear, storing it properly can make all the difference in terms of how long it will last. Absolute Outdoor recommends storing life jackets in a shaded, indoor location to prevent fading and weakening of material. In addition, life jackets should be thoroughly dried before being stored to prevent mold and mildew. If treated well, a life jacket can last 7-10 years.


The U.S. Coast Guard requires at least one life jacket for each person be readily available on a recreational boat. And the life jacket must be the proper sizes for the people on the boat. Through our Life Jacket Loaner Stations, we work to provide boaters with easy access to life jackets that can be borrowed and returned free of charge.


“We are incredibly pleased to partner with the Sea Tow Foundation in providing life jackets for their nationwide life jacket loaner stations,” said Len Nelson, Director of Sales – Commercial & Industrial at Absolute Outdoor. “Our goal is to see people wearing life jackets – not just having them on board, and the Foundation has done a wonderful job providing quality jackets for people to use and enjoy on their day on the water in their nationwide life jacket loaner program.”


No one ever thinks that they will be in a situation where a life jacket is necessary. Being a strong swimmer will not make a difference if you unexpectedly are forced into the water. Rarely will a boating accident allow you the time to put on a life jacket if you were not already wearing one.


Ultimately, the best life jacket is the one that you are going to wear the moment you get on or near the water. Wearing a life jacket can give you and your family the peace of mind for a safe and fun day on the water.


Share with us which life jacket you prefer to use and why. Feel free to include a photo of you in your life jacket on our Facebook page and tag @SeaTowFoundation and include #VestFriends.


In the chart below, you’ll find an easy side-by-side breakdown of the differences between foam and inflatable life jackets.






Good for all ages, sizes, swimming ability. Ideal for most water activities.

Lightweight, and not bulky.

Very buoyant.


Not always comfortable.

Can restrict movement.

Can get hot in the summer.

Not recommended for those under 16 or under 80 lbs.

Not approved for personal watercraft use or sports such as tubing, skiing, wakeboarding, etc.

Wearer must be a confident swimmer.

Must be worn to count for carriage requirements.


Will float without any additional steps.

Must inflate manually to activate flotation.

Some have automatic mechanism that cause inflation as soon as the life jacket comes in contact with the water.

Once the CO2 cartridge has been used, it must be replaced before wearing the life jacket again.


Minimum requirement: 15.5 lbs.

Minimum requirement: 22.5 lbs.


Visual inspection before each use.

Manually inflate to check all components at least once each year and visually inspect before each use.


Cost varies, but is relatively inexpensive. Can range from $15-100 depending on the style and size.

Cost varies depending on style, but is generally more expensive than a foam life jacket. Costs can range from $50-200

Absolute Outdoor Best Seller

Adult General Purpose Vest (Blue)

A/M 24 – Suspender-style inflatable life jacket

M16 – Belt pack-style inflatable life jacket

Types of Life Jacket Styles

Offshore or Rough Waters
Near Shore or Inland Waters

See more information:

Inflatable life jackets can be Manually or Automatically inflated. (See Activation section above.)


Tags:  Absolute Outdoor  best life jacket  foam vs. inflatable  Life Jacket  Onyx Outdoor  types of life jackets 

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