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Inflatable life vests and PFDs that I have seen so far are meant to be inflated in emergency (either by mouth or CO2 cartridge). I didn't use them myself but they don't look like they could be deflated and then reused (or at least I think they were not designed with that in mind).

Are there any vests that are suitable for reusing multiple times (on one trip, so without access to services, heavy tools, etc.)? Bonus points for mouth inflation, sturdiness and low weight.

To clarify my intentions: I'm planning to use it for packrafting, so I would inflate it on the shore, not if I happen to fall into the water.

  • Amazing! I was thinking to ask the exact question. I hope we also hear from someone who has had experience with a CO2-equipped PFD re. its usefulness without the CO2 cartridge. – Martin F May 1 '18 at 3:08
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    Sounds like you're after a Inflatable PFD - a quick google shows the exist in a reusable state but not a lot of detail on them. A PDF and Life Vest/Jackets are different -simcoemuskokahealth.org/Topics/InjuryPrevention/WaterSafety/… – Aravona May 1 '18 at 9:12
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Yes, pretty much every Inflatable PFD is designed like this. To give some indication, have a look at this model: Mustang Elite 38 and its owner's manual. (Note: this answer is not intended to be an advert, just an illustration of the concepts. I needed a specific model to be able to point out these features.)

Take note of the fact that in the photos, there is a mouth tube on the side, in addition to the CO2 cartridge. This allows you to add air after inflating, or to inflate completely without using the CO2 at all. On page 7 of the manual, we read:

  1. To deflate your inflatable PFD, reverse the oral inflation tube dust cap and insert it into the valve (Fig. 8). The dust cap will not lock the valve in the deflate position so it is necessary to hold it in place.
  2. Gently squeeze your inflatable PFD until all air or CO2 has been expelled.
  3. Return the oral inflation tube dust cap to its stowed position on the oral inflation tube (Fig. 8).

So we see that the tube can be used to deflate the PFD, and allow it to be put back in its flat and folded configuration. Pages 11 to 13 show us how to re-pack the PFD.

Note that the CO2 cartridges are one-time. Once the nozzle is punctured, the cartridge will release all of its pressure. Likewise, the trigger mechanism is broken in the act of pulling the cord, and if you have an automatic one, there is a tablet that will dissolve in water releasing the spring-loaded trigger, and thus need replacing. Most brands sell re-arming kits, and some dealers will do the re-arming for a nominal fee. Instructions are on pages 8 through 10 of the manual.

Finally, I think the strongest evidence that these things are designed for re-use, is the simple fact that all manufactures recommended annually testing them. Starting on page 16:

HOW AND WHY TO TEST YOUR PFD

Inflate your PFD and try it out in the water to:

  1. Make sure it floats you:
    • Comfortably (When worn properly)
    • Adequately for expected wave conditions (Body shapes/densities affect performance)
  2. Make sure it works:
    • A flow of bubbles should not appear (see "Inspecting your inflatable PFD" on page 14 for leak tests)
    • It should inflate quickly and easily
  3. Learn how it works by:
    • Activating the CO2 inflation system
    • Rearming the CO2 inflation system
    • Using the Oral inflation tube

Followed by instruction for how to do so.

I've owned at least one for several years, and each has been inflated multiple times, although so far only once in the water, and not using the CO2.


Having provided this answer, I absolutely do not recommend an inflatable style for your intended use-case. These are good for fishermen or sailors who desire more freedom of movement of their arms to handle nets, poles, sheets, winches, what have you. Foam-kapok style PFDs are often a little bulky or restrictive, and a folded-up inflatable is far less so. Further, these users only expect to inflate the PFD if they happen to fall overboard, and will subsequently lay still until their colleagues haul them back up.

If you wear this while inflated, it will be extremely bulky and very restrictive of arm movements. Further, rivers are full of sharp rocks and tree branches. While inflatable PFDs are made for rough wear, they are not puncture-proof. Finally, even though the test procedure suggests leaving it inflated for 24 hours to ensure it remains fully inflated, these do loose some air over time, and all the bouncing around will accelerate that.

Find yourself a high-quality foam-kapok Type III designed especially for your activity, and try it on for comfort before purchasing.

  • +1 for recommending against using it. – paparazzo May 1 '18 at 17:14
  • Thanks for the answer and the warning. Regarding movement restrictions - would it make it hard to swim? I'm not planning to use my packraft beyond small lakes and slow moving rivers. I'm more worried about getting shock or muscle cramp in cold scandinavian waters. – robaki May 1 '18 at 22:43
  • I'm still not certain that the device can be used without a CO2 cartridge present. – Martin F May 6 '18 at 22:20
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    @MartinF - I assure you it can, at least both of the models I currently own. If you are thinking that air will leak through the trigger valve if the cartridge is not there to seal it, that makes sense. But for mine, this appears to be a one-way valve, and I would be surprised if any other models were not similar. – cobaltduck May 6 '18 at 22:42

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