How Long Do Life Jackets Last?

Life jackets last approximately ten years. This is the average lifespan of a life jacket, be it foam or inflatable.

However, several factors may hamper your ability to keep your life vest for as long as you anticipated.

They are vital aboard any maritime vessel. Knowing how to look after your life jackets and when to replace them is key to ensuring your safety.

I will help you keep your head above water by investigating various types of life jackets and how their longevity may differ, along with what affects the life span, identifying when yours might need replacing, the best way to store them, and their buoyancy.

How Long Are Life Jackets Supposed To Last?

Technically speaking, they do not expire. But as time passes, they will become less effective than brand-new ones.

Life jackets are manufactured to last ten years and should be replaced, regardless of the lack of faults, once it has reached that mark.

Some jackets need to be replaced before then. Reasons may vary, which will be elaborated on when discussing what disrupts the longevity of your life jacket.

📋 Factors Affecting The Longevity Of A Life Jacket.

As mentioned before, there is no official replacement date regarding life jackets. The 10-year replacement is a loose guideline, but you will likely need to replace the jacket before that time.

Factors that will shorten the lifespan include:

1️⃣ How often do you use it?
2️⃣ Exposure to the elements such as saltwater, sea air, sunlight, and rough water.
3️⃣ Literal wear and tear
4️⃣ Growth or bodily changes. Suppose your jacket has an improper or uncomfortable fit. In that case, you risk your safety and the jacket’s efficiency.

Different Types Of Life Jackets

Life jackets are made of foam, or they require inflation. The inflatable ones are either manually or automatically inflated. 

These two types of life vests are further divided into five categories each. These five differ in their recommended use, size, and buoyancy. 

Here is a comprehensive and in-depth description of each type of life jacket to understand what kind of use each type is intended for.

🧪 How To Test The Effectiveness Of Your Old Life Jacket

To test the integrity of a foam life jacket, follow the tips below:

1️⃣ Make sure the jacket fits appropriately – if you are submerged in water, your life jacket should never rise above your shoulders. This indicates an improper fit. 

2️⃣ Investigate for any visible signs of physical damage from wear and tear. This includes fraying of straps, tearing in the material, molding, or stitching that may be coming undone.

3️⃣ Check the buoyancy – you can do this in a pool or calm space of waist-deep (or deeper) water. Yours should be able to keep you afloat once your feet no longer touch the bottom of the pool. You should be able to stay afloat on your back, as well as several other positions. If you need to tread water, then the life vest is no longer buoyant enough.

These should be tested once a year or more if utilized every week.

Inflatable Life Jacket Testing 

Inflatable life vests have more components that need to be maintained and inspected. Automatic inflatable life vests are inflated as soon as they are in the water. 

If this does not happen, it can be manually inflated. Both manual and automatic ones are inflated using a small CO2 canister

This canister needs to be carefully examined when testing the jacket. These canisters will have an expiration date, usually expiring three years after purchase. 

Another critical component of inflatable life jackets is the hydrostatic release unit (HRU). These components should be free of rust, corrosion, and punctures. 

Like the CO2 tanks, the HRU will have a definite expiry date, two years after it has been installed.

Testing them is a bit more technical and will need to be done more frequently. 

Apart from noting expiry dates on your carbon dioxide canister and HRU, the actual material and fitting of the life vest need to be tested.

🗳️ Storing And Caring For Your Life Jacket

Ensuring you get the most from your life jacket requires proper care and maintenance. The tips below will ensure that yours does not need replacing too soon.

  • All types should be stored in a cool, dry place when not in use, away from direct sunlight and excessive moisture.
  • After use, foam life jackets should be washed in tepid water with a mild detergent, rinsed thoroughly with cold water, and left to dry fully before being stored. Saltwater and sunscreen can cause corrosion on even the sturdiest materials.
  • Lay them flat and away from sharp objects, ensuring no twisted cables.

See also: The best place to store life jackets & PFDs


Do Old Life Jackets Lose Their Buoyancy?

As time passes and it has been exposed to the elements, the buoyancy will start to deteriorate. 

It may still be buoyant to an extent, but not enough to keep your entire body afloat. Inflatable ones won’t lose buoyancy, but the CO2 canister will need to be replaced after each use or when it expires. 

The material used for inflatable jackets will also degrade and require replacement every ten years or sooner if there has been structural damage.

When Should You Throw Your Life Jacket Away? 

The rule of thumb is that life jackets are replaced every ten years or sooner if they show signs of aging, hindering their effectiveness. Suppose you are unsure of the integrity of your life vest. 

In that case, you can perform the tests mentioned above to evaluate it. If it fails or doesn’t perform well enough on these tests, it’s time to bid farewell.

How Should You Dispose Of Old Life Jackets?

No matter the state of your lifejacket, it should never be thrown out with regular waste, where it will inevitably end up in a landfill. Instead, it should be recycled or donated if it’s only been “gently” worn.

🗣 Final Words

Life jackets are a vital safety measure when out at sea. It should make sense then that yours is USGC-approved and worn within their specifications.

Be sure to test yours appropriately yearly, and replace the necessary components when they expire.

A boat with in-date and working life-saving appliances and gear is a safe boat.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.