How To Choose A Life Raft For Your Boat

Last Updated 24 Apr 2024 by Fiona Perisone

No one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, but emergency situation preparedness is critical for boaters. Capsizing, burning, sinking, colliding with a floating object, piracy, or running out of fuel are just a few examples of potential hazards when venturing into open water. Specifically designed in case of emergency, making sure you have a functioning and fully capable life raft should be at the top of your priority list.

Before you shop for a life raft for your boat, it's best to understand what you should be looking for and need. In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to check to ensure your life raft is best suited to your boating needs. We'll go over life raft classification, the size of your boat, the storage space available, your budget, the size of your crew, raft capacity, the water temperature and condition, the type of container the raft comes in, and servicing requirements. Let's dive in.

How to Choose a Life Raft for Your Boat

Materials

Life rafts are typically made of natural rubber, butyl rubber, polyurethane, neoprene, or PVC. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Rubber materials have a strong odor but are resistant to abuse and have a longer service life but are more resistant to degradation from the element. PU is more puncture and abrasion resistant but has a shorter life span. PVC material is very popular because its the least expensive and light in weight, but it has the shortest life span compared to the other two materials. Ultimately, you will want to ensure the life raft is made from strong and durable material with heat sealing to keep it inflated.

One important part of a life raft is the buoyancy tubes, which keep a life raft afloat. You will want to ensure this part is made from strong and durable material.

Inflation Mechanism

Every second counts during an emergency, and how fast a life raft can inflate can be relevant to survival. The life raft will need to be ready as quickly as possible. With an automatic inflation system, the life raft will inflate automatically and fill the raft with CO2 within seconds, so knowing how fast your life raft can inflate is critical. Some life boat have manual inflation and will require using a pump, and this type of mechanism will take longer and should take into account when considering which life raft is best for you.

Life Raft Classification

There are two main types of life rafts: coastal and offshore. Before settling on a life raft, consider what environment you normally recreate in.

Coastal Life Raft

Coastal life rafts are intended for use closer to shore and in calmer waters (lakes etc.). They are typically smaller and less expensive than offshore life rafts. Coastal life rafts are not built to withstand rough seas and prolonged exposure to the elements.

Offshore Life Raft

On the other hand, offshore life rafts are built to handle rough seas and long periods of elemental exposure, and they are typically larger and more durable than coastal life rafts.

The highest level standards for life rafts are those recognized by the ISO (International Standards Organization) for marine safety equipment. ISO's are technically a type of offshore life raft as well, designed to provide a high level of safety and comfort.

In general, offshore life rafts offer the highest level of protection for water emergencies. Coastal life rafts are suitable for use in calmer waters and closer to shore because your anticipated rescue times are less. ISO-rated life rafts meet the highest standards for safety and comfort.

Boat Size

If you have a larger boat with plenty of storage space, you may be able to accommodate a larger life raft. However, if you have a smaller boat with limited storage space, you should pick a more compact option.

Capacity Ratings

In addition to the size of your boat, you'll also need to consider your crew size and life raft capacity. Make sure the raft you choose is large enough to accommodate everyone onboard in the event of an emergency. That said, the bigger the crew, the bigger the rating and the cost.

Budget

Budget is another important factor to consider, as life rafts can range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the size and features of the raft. Determine how much you are willing to spend on a life raft and look for options that fit within your budget.

Water Temperature/Condition

In colder waters, you'll want a raft with an insulated floor to reduce the speed of hypothermia and a canopy to provide additional protection from the elements. A raft with a self-draining floor and plenty of ventilation may be more appropriate in warmer waters.

Canister or Soft Valise Container

Life rafts also come in different types of containers, including canisters and valise containers.

Canister

Canister-style life rafts are more durable and weather-resistant. However, they can be difficult to store on a boat because they must be permanently mounted in an on-deck cradle.

Valise Container

Valise containers are more compact and easier to store but less durable than canisters. They must also be protected from UV rays, heat, and moisture.

Think about weight as well. The bigger the life raft, the heavier it will be. An ISO rating of six or higher for an offshore life raft can weigh more than 100 pounds! It's very helpful to keep in mind life raft placement and what will work best in a pinch. Generally, the higher the chance for hazardous conditions, the quicker you're going to want access to the raft.

Servicing Requirements

Finally, you'll need to consider the servicing requirements of the life raft. All life rafts have expiration dates, warranties, and services. While doing your search, it's best to know this information.

Most life rafts require periodic inspections and maintenance to ensure they are in good working order (about every three years or so). Make sure you understand the servicing needs of the life raft because proper maintenance helps guarantee functionality. The right raft will save your life, but only if you take care of it.

On a side note, the gear that comes pre-packaged with your raft is intended for MAINTAINING your raft, not your people. This means, in addition to the raft requirements, you need to build a go-bag with everything you and your crew need to survive while waiting for a rescue.

Testing

To feel confident about a product that will keep you alive in an emergency, consider getting one that meets the highest standard. It's important to know the testing the manufacturer has performed and the quality of the life raft. For example, you should know the details of what kind of standard and testing the manufacturer has performed, from raw materials to finished products.

One way to feel confident about the life raft is to see if it complies with ISO 9001:2015. Using independent test standards helps ease any doubts that you may have. You can also search for US Coast Guard–approved or meets SOLAS standards rafts.

Summary

Emergencies while boating can get very serious very quickly. An easy way to mitigate possible effects is to choose the right life raft for your boat. Once you do, keep the following points in mind.

Proper placement and maintenance help guarantee that the life raft will work when you need it most. It's important to consider each of the other factors discussed above and match them to your future endeavors.

By carefully considering the steps in this guide, you're ensuring that the life raft you choose will be the right one for emergencies. Limited budgets aside, it's ALWAYS better to be safe than sorry.

About the Author

Fiona is a veteran travel consultant, photographer and travel writer at planetrider.com. She has spent many years as a corporate travel consultant and decided to actually live the life rather than plan it for others!

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