Lake Minnetonka WEATHER
kid and life jacket

Life Jacket Care: Maintaining the Most Important Safety Gear on Your Boat

In 2022, a sobering number of boating fatalities–averaging 636 nationwide–loomed over the joy of recreational boating, reveals a Coast Guard report. Digging deeper into the cause, in a whopping 75% of fatal incidents, drowning was the perpetrator. Moreover, a distressing 85% of these victims (where life jacket usage was reported) shockingly were not wearing this crucial safety gear.  

Undoubtedly, life jackets are indispensable for a safe outing on Lake Minnetonka. However, effective life jacket use doesn’t stop at donning one. It extends to the meticulous upkeep of these life-saving floatation devices. Therefore, understanding the ins and outs of cleaning, every-day maintenance, and the tell-tale signs of when it’s time to bid used jackets goodbye is paramount. Here’s why keeping your life jacket clean and cared for is a vital aspect of water safety.

The value of regular upkeep

Overlooking the proper care and upkeep of your life jacket can have significant consequences down the line, particularly regarding safety. “Many people come back tired from a paddling trip and simply throw their life jackets in the corner of their garage or in the bottom of their boat,” says Lili Colby, the Chief PSDiva at MTI Adventurewear. Doing this can result in the growth of mildew, which can break down both fabric and flotation and affect both the performance and wearability of the device. “It’s all about how well you take care of it,” says Colby, who goes on to stress the importance of rinsing out a life jacket after each use due to the impact that salt from sweat can have on the device’s lifespan.

A functional life jacket is imperative when boating, especially when considering the many different situations in which one may be needed. It is a core element of your commitment to safety while you fish. While there’s a low chance of a fish rocking your boat enough to knock you out of it, the chances are never zero. In fact, large lake fish are likely to be attracted to boats — especially if the boat doesn’t have a motor running. Whether out of curiosity for the sake of simply finding out what the boat is, smaller fish may also be attracted to boats in hopes of finding food nearby. While Lake Minnetonka is home to plenty of different fish, there could be a particularly large one lurking beneath the water. Dubbed ‘Lou,’ the fish is rumored to be particularly massive.  Mark Gjengdahl, a spear fisherman, recounted what he saw when using a video camera while fishing underwater. “There is clear evidence that it was a sturgeon,” he said of the fish, which according to him, appeared to be five feet long and about 80 pounds. With that in mind, life jacket safety should always be a priority.

Cleaning your life jacket — the basics

Inspecting your life jacket regularly for signs of wear and tear is essential when keeping safety in check, though it’s imperative to make time to thoroughly clean the jacket, too. When looking to effectively clean your life jacket, you’ll need a few tools — including heavy duty laundry detergent, a plastic bucket, soft bristle brush, water hose, and a drying rack (or clothesline). According to The Spruce, life jackets should be cleaned immediately if stains like mud, food, or sunscreen are visible. “Even those that “look clean” should be cleaned monthly or at the end of the season.” This is largely due to the fact that every wear can leave oil from skin, as well as products like sunscreen on the fabric of the jacket. 

The Spruce goes on to detail how to properly clean life jackets, step by step. First, it’s advised to fill a bucket with cool water, adding in about two tablespoons of liquid laundry detergent. Laying out a tarp or drop cloth will serve as a cleaning area when cleaning outdoors, and will keep the surrounding grass and mud at bay. “Place the life jackets, with all straps and hardware unfastened, on the tarp and using the detergent solution and soft brush, scrub each side of the jacket.” From there, simply work in the solution with the brush and allow the jacket to sit for at least 15 minutes before rinsing. Afterwards, hang the life jacket out to dry, paying special attention to ensure that it isn’t in direct sunlight (never put your life jacket in the dryer either). Always making sure that the vest is completely dry before storing, and that it is safe from the elements to prevent overexposure.

Knowing when to replace

Keeping your life jacket clean and well stored is a fantastic way to ensure optimal performance and extend it’s life, though there is a point when life jackets should be replaced in order to ensure maximum efficiency. According to Paddling Magazine, loss of buoyancy and exposure to the elements are just two major concerns that can impede how well the PFD works. According to Jim Stohlquist, founder of Stohlquist WaterWare, replacing a PFD is the right move if there is any bagginess inside the foam envelope where the foam used to be, as well as if there are any rips, holes, or tears that expose the underlying foam

Checking to ensure that the buckles and adjustments are working properly is another point to look out for, in addition to ensuring that all webbing attachment points are adequate (and not fraying, etc.). If a jacket that is infested with mold or has any alteration to the foam (hard or brittle foam, for example), it should be replaced. Paddling Magazine goes on to point out that while there isn’t a set expiration date on PFDs, the rule of thumb used at Astral is that a PFD should be replaced “every five years or after 300 days of use,” according to Kevin Mulligan from Astral Designs.

Maintaining your life jacket is an essential part of safety when out on Lake Minnetonka. From regular cleanings to checking for wear and tear and knowing when to replace your life jacket, you can ensure that you’re ready for a safe trip out on the lake.

Special thanks and credit go to Nina Lawson for providing this article.