Ruffwear Portage Float Coat

Update: Since the date of this review, Ruffwear released a new edition of their life jacket called simply the “Float Coat”. They’re available in teal, red and orange, while the previous version, the “K-9 Float Coat”, was available in red and yellow. This review references the K-9 Float Coat but the redesign does not appear to be significantly different.

Price: originally $49.95, generally available new or used on eBay for $20-30.

Sizing and colors: XXS (12″-19″ girth) – XL (35″ – 48″ girth) in Sunset Orange and Fern Green

“Dogs already know how to swim!” Generally, this is true, but life jackets help dogs feel more confident in the water, keep your them afloat when the shore isn’t close by (like in a paddleboard upset in the middle of the lake) and make it possible for you to assist them out of the water. Robin’s an on-again, off-again swimmer but he’s done his biggest swim distances (by far!) in a life jacket.

The Portage Float Coat was Robin’s first life jacket. Please note that this is a discontinued life jacket style: because the Portage (often mislabeled) is still very prevalent on eBay, I think it’s worth putting a review out there. We ended up passing ours on when we upgraded to the neoprene-belly Alcott life jacket, but it’s a good value for the current price, so as always, here’s the breakdown.

The Portage float coat was the everyday/recreational life jacket model at a time when Ruffwear carried two life jacket lines (the more expensive model was called the Big Eddy and looked similar to the modern day K9 Float Coat). I bought the Portage on eBay thinking I got a sweet deal on the new life jacket and then realized it was an old model.

Playing in the waves in the Portage Float Coat

There seem to be three Ruffwear life jacket styles in circulation:

  • The Portage, in Fern Green and Dandelion Yellow, with the modern yellow Ruffwear logo and black belly straps/handle
  • Assorted really early life jackets bearing the old-style multicolored Ruffwear logo, in all red or with black panels on the sides rather than two-tone coloring.
  • The current K-9 float coat, which comes in red or yellow with a matching handle and gray webbing (including two visible bands of gray webbing on each side). It’s also the only model with a low-profile telescoping neck strap rather than a hook-and-loop closure with a buckle.

(The Big Eddy seems to have totally disappeared – I’ve never seen one for sale. If you see a red or yellow life jacket similar to the modern day K-9 Float Coat, but with black webbing instead of gray, black belly panels, and a modern Ruffwear logo toward the rump, that’s it.)

Interestingly, the sizing on the Portage is different from modern sizing, with slightly more overlap:

(Portage size chart from REI and Backcountry K9)

Portage Float Coat K-9 Float Coat
XXS 12 – 19 in 13 – 17 in
XS 17 – 24 in 17 – 22 in
S 23 – 30 in 22 – 27 in
M 27 – 32 in 27 – 32 in
L 31 – 40 in 32 – 36 in
XL 35 – 48 in 36 – 42 in

Design: 4/5

The Portage float coat is bare-bones and streamlined in design, a good thing because you don’t want extraneous floaty flaps or giant handles getting snagged on the boat or underwater branches. Its flotation foam is contained in a single-piece, tough nylon body and the different foam panels are sewn in place. It has a fold-flat design with a fold along the back (vs. the current Float Coat, which is more cylindrical in shape) with two small belly panels that meet (or don’t) under the belly. The jacket is cut fairly short in the back. I originally thought this was a downside, but I later realized the back and rump area wouldn’t help the dog stay afloat anyway because the hind legs aren’t held into the life jacket.

Assistance handles are a critical feature of dog life jackets. They’re important not just for water rescues, but also for helping the dog back into a boat or kayak, or even reassuring a nervous swimmer. This handle is basic black webbing, with a leash attachment ring underneath (Ruffwear says this limits snagging on obstacles) and it’s sturdily sewn into the back of the jacket.

The Portage fastens with hook and loop and a buckle under the chin, and with two narrow black nylon straps under the belly. Ruffwear life jacket straps include an ingenious roll-up closure to wrap up extra belly strap ends. Unfortunately, despite the smart system for dealing with loose strap, the life jacket isn’t well designed in the belly area. I’ll discuss this further in the fit section, but because the belly panels are stiff, rather than made of neoprene like our Alcott and Hurtta life jackets, they can’t be overlapped without a lot of bulk, and they’re inflexible and uncomfortable when out of the water.

I really like the Portage colors (more than the current float coat colors, since the red is pretty dark for water visibility). The bright green is equally visible in the pool and on the beach.

Fit: 2/5

Robin hated this life jacket. The foam is particularly stiff, at least on his size, and to make the belly panels meet I had to make it pretty snug. Because it’s constructed with two flat side panels (unlike his new Hurtta life jacket, which has a single panel that curves around the back), he always looked like his sides were being squeezed inwards. Judging from photos, larger dogs seem to round out this life jacket better.

More importantly, despite being toward the lower end of the XS 17-24″ size range at 19.5″ girth, Robin was the absolute maximum girth that should use that size. The two belly panels barely met under his belly, and on slightly bigger days, they didn’t meet, meaning that when he was lifted by the handle, his whole weight was supported just by two thin, unpadded nylon straps.

The gap between the belly panels is visible here. When lifted, Robin’s belly was supported by those two thin unpadded straps.

Function: 4/5

Though Robin swam well in the Portage Float Coat, he was more willing to swim without it and would try to hide when he saw it. He’s been much less unhappy about subsequent life jackets. I think with a softer belly panel, this one would have worked a lot better. The flotation and cut were adequate and the handle was easy to grab as he swam by.

Because of the stiff belly panels, this jacket is best suited for swimming-heavy activities, while I’d recommend a life jacket with a stretchy neoprene belly for dogs that will mostly be sitting on the beach or boat.

Build quality: 4/5

Considering that we were the second owners of this particular life jacket and it still looked new when we sent it to its third, I can definitely praise its durability. The nylon shell, webbing and foam were all in great condition and washed up well. Neither the outer shell nor the lining took on sand, so it was easy to rinse off after a beach trip. For long term reliability I would have liked to see better quality webbing and sturdier buckles – they were adequate and we never had any problems, but they’re on the thinner side.

Overall: 3.5/5

If you’re looking for a durable life jacket on a budget, and your pup is close to the bottom of the size range, this one may be worth a try. Most life jackets at this price point are the terrible pet store ones that are designed for looks, not function. A friend has one from Outward Hound or similar that entraps his dog’s front paws the moment she starts swimming – and she ends up immobilized, keeled slightly to one side. The Portage, by contrast, is sleek and durable and designed with active dogs in mind. If you’re doing serious water sports, look for the newer version or try our new favorite, the Hurtta Life Savior (review coming soon).

Best for: Casual users, good life jacket on a budget, swimming

Not ideal for: Dogs above the midpoint of the size range, heavy users, boat/paddleboard focus (due to stiff belly, it’s uncomfortable when sitting)


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