We’re Trail Testers for @dogsthathike! We get a quarterly box of goodies to test out, and we report back with what’s great and what isn’t. We got this Outward Hound Neoprene Life Vest last fall after the cool weather set in, and during that time it seems to have been updated as the Dawson Swim Life Jacket in bright red, but with no obvious design changes.
Price: The last-season orange model is selling for $23.99 – $35.99, while the new red color is priced $39.99 – $59.99.
Sizing and colors: XS (5-15lb) – XL (85-100lb) in red (new) and orange (old).
The water is still cold where we live in SoCal, but on our Florida getaway we had the chance to test out Robin’s Outward Hound life jacket! While he can swim well, he doesn’t get a lot of practice – he doesn’t like cold water, nor waves, and he’ll only swim a certain distance from shore – so I always make sure we have a good dog PFD in the gear chest for water adventures. If you’re taking your pup swimming, boating, paddleboarding or kayaking, you should definitely use a dog life vest. While most dogs can swim, here are a few reasons why life vests are important:
- Most dogs don’t swim regularly, so they can quickly tire out especially if they are “panic swimming” and there’s no shore or accessible boat nearby.
- If you both fall in, your dog may try to climb you out of fear, and the extra buoyancy will help reduce his weight.
- The assistance handle will help you lift your pup back onto the boat in case of a spill and stabilize him if you go over rough water. (Note: a handle is not a substitute for proper, gentle introduction of new activities!)
A good dog life jacket must meet 4 key criteria:
- adequate flotation
- a sturdy grab handle
- proper belly support (both for support during lifting, and to keep the dog well anchored into the life jacket, since generally the back panel is the most buoyant part)
- reliable retainment system (standard seems to be a velcro-closure belly panel backed up by two side release buckles)
Comfort, flexibility and style are all also important (in that order) but less critical to basic safety. In addition to Outward Hound, we’ve also used four other life jackets, so we’ll be making comparisons to those throughout the review. Briefly, here’s how the others stack up with the above criteria (and if you just want the info on the Outward Hound, scroll down for the review):
Alcott Mariner Life Jacket:
$26.99 – 34.99
Flotation: Yes, plenty of foam on back panels.
Grab handle: Yes, though I’d prefer that it use integrated girth straps for better response/extra strength.
Belly support: Yes, more than adequate since Robin was slightly small for his jacket.
Reliable retainment: Yes, though I’d prefer higher-quality buckles for better reliability and full-girth straps to back up the belly neoprene/velcro.
Other factors: Comfortable belly panel but overall less flexible because it was too big for Robin. Reasonably good looking. Overall a great budget option, but better for occasional use due to material quality.
Ruffwear Portage Float Coat:
Flotation: Yes, the entire jacket is made of foam (sides and belly included).
Grab handle: Yes
Belly support: No – there’s no actual belly panel to wrap under the belly, so depending on your dog’s size relative to the life jacket’s girth range, his belly might be supported just by two thin webbing straps.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Ruffwear uses good buckles and full-circumference girth straps for reliability.
Other factors: Flat sided design is stiff and uncomfortable for Robin. Nice looking and sturdy. A good option for dogs that are slim enough to fit.
Hurtta Life Jacket:
Flotation: Yes, the back/side panel is all foam
Grab handle: Yes, front end sewn under girth strap
Belly support: Yes, comfortable wraparound neoprene belly panels.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Hurtta uses really good buckles and one girth strap is a full circumference.
Other factors: Super comfortable and no excess bulk and length in the back – previously our favorite life jacket.
Hurtta Life Savior:
Flotation: Yes, made of low-bulk separated floaters (Robin actually bobs immediately to the surface when jumping in)
Grab handle: Yes, front end sewn under girth strap and back end securely anchored.
Belly support: Yes, thin low-bulk no-stretch panels.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Hurtta uses really good buckles and one girth strap is a full circumference.
Other factors: Even more comfortable and flexible than our older Hurtta jacket, plus it has less bulk – Robin was comfortable running around in it. Our new favorite.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Outward Hound bowl we reviewed recently, so I was hopeful about this life jacket. Outward Hound considers this their “sleek and sporty” model and it’s their only full-neoprene life jacket (and the only neoprene one we’ve tried, as well).
I’ll be real here. A life jacket, more so than almost all the other gear we might use, is a safety item. Design flaws that might just be inconvenient or ugly in other gear could actually compromise your dog’s safety in a life vest. If you don’t care about safety, then you don’t need a life vest for your dog – just toss him in the water and have at it.
The Outward Hound Neoprene life vest is not a safe vest, and that’s too bad because it’s actually pretty well made otherwise.
The good: The materials that went into this vest are solid for the price point. It features two “bubbles” of flotation foam on either side, encased in a squishy, flexible orange neoprene vest with reflectors (granted, oversized logo reflectors). The neoprene backs up the foam and improves the buoyancy without a lot of bulk. The vest has a generous, lightly padded grab handle that’s box-stitched on either end, decent quality, snappy side release buckles, good quality straps. The exposed stitching around the foam, while not perfect and not my favorite aesthetically, is tight and snag-free. While I initially thought the box-stitching on the strap attachment points looked a bit flimsy, when comparing to our other life jackets they’re not too different.
The bad: The belly support is abysmal. Our other life jackets (excluding discontinued Ruffwear) have a wide, integrated belly panel that wraps fully around the belly, secures with velcro, and is backed up by side-release buckles, usually with one full-circumference girth strap for total security. Outward Hound’s other models even have the same design. This vest instead features a small square of neoprene that floats under the belly based on the adjustment of four straps (two buckles on the left side, two sliders on the right). There’s nothing backing up either the buckles or the slides, and the strap is a little thin for the plastic hardware, so it slips easily. Worse, the flexible strap attachment points allow the panel to slip backward when the dog is lifted, cutting painfully into the lower rib/groin area rather than sitting safely over the sturdier chest area. Even during swimming, a minimal belly panel is a concern because if not snug, it won’t adequately anchor the dog’s body into the buoyant back panel, meaning that the dog is basically hanging in the straps.
The discomfort caused by the belly panel slippage is compounded by the lack of support in the life jacket’s spine during lifting. All the other life jackets we’ve tried were structured in the spine, so that the back portion of the life jacket stays straight and provides support. The Neoprene Life Vest is very flexible, so the back of the jacket goes concave during lifting, which puts extra strain on the handle attachment points, increases tension on the neck and the groin area, and reduces response time when the dog is lifted, since the jacket has to extend and stretch fully before the dog is actually lifted.
Finally, the already tiny chest/chin pad is forced to the side by the design of the front buckle. Most life jackets use thick wraparound foam panels that velcro and buckle together for extra padding and comfort in this area. That tiny pad is so small it does nothing to help with front flotation or protect the dog’s neck from the strap.
One point for decent materials, one for adequate flotation and half a point for a sturdy grab handle, but half a point lost for the lack of support in the spine and two full points lost for inadequate retainment system and poor belly panel design.
It’s hard to judge fit accurately, since I don’t think the life jacket works as intended for water activities, but just for moving around, the life jacket is very comfortable for Robin. He runs and jumps as normal, the minimal structure and flexible construction don’t impede him, and he doesn’t get fussy about wearing it.
However, Robin weighs 18lb and he’s wearing the S for 15-30lb. I do not think this size jacket would be suitable for a 30lb dog, either in flotation or size. When trying to sink it manually, it feels comparable in flotation to Robin’s 10-20lb Hurtta life jackets, which makes the weight rating extremely generous. If I did recommend purchasing the Outward Hound, I would say to go by fit and consider sizing up, but since I don’t believe it’s sufficient for basic safety, this point is pretty much moot.
On the beach, Robin did not want to actually swim in this jacket (though he swam naked, and he swam in his other one). For whatever reason, he just didn’t feel comfortable and was willing to let the waves claim his toy.
After seeing how the Neoprene Life Vest worked on the beach, I was not comfortable using it for paddleboarding the next morning. With the handle’s slow response time and the uncomfortable/dangerous position of the belly panel, I wasn’t confident that I could quickly and reliably hoist Robin back onto the board if he slipped off. Safety aside, paddleboarding is a new activity for us and one that I want to be as comfortable and fun for him as possible, so struggling with substandard gear was not an option. I was extremely glad I opted to bring along a better life jacket because he did actually slip off the board this trip, and I was able to immediately hoist him right back on without a break in the momentum.
I’m disappointed in the shortcomings of the design, because the construction and materials are actually decent otherwise, and the neoprene has one HUGE benefit that our new favorite Hurtta life jacket falls short on – it does not hold sand at all, and shakes clean after a beach romp.
If it were to have wraparound belly panels backed up by side release buckles (the industry standard, and one that Outward Hound appears to use on their five other life jacket styles), this jacket would be a good value at its discounted price, though the floppy spine would still be a concern. However, without functional belly support, and with an unreliable restraint system, this is solidly in the “don’t buy” category. For reference, while our favorite life jacket costs $75 and is clearly in a different class of design, we were also happy with our $26.99 – $34.99 Alcott Mariner life jacket for its safety, comfort and design features at that price point, so there’s no need to settle for an unsafe safety item.
Unfortunately, while the Outward Hound Neoprene Life Vest uses an interesting construction and material, I can’t get behind a safety product that is lacking in 2.5 of 4 critical areas for safety. I do not believe this is a good buy.
Best for: Not recommended due to poor belly panel and retention system.
Not ideal for: Dog safety in the water.