Life Jackets For Your Smartphone

By Tux Turkel

Just because you take it boating doesn't mean your smartphone is up for a plunge. Be prepared for when the unexpected happens.

Photo of water droplets on iPhonePhoto: Thinkstock

We're navigating with our mobile devices, communicating with them, checking the weather, and shooting videos. We're swiping and tapping and rocking our modern life. Everything is groovy, until a big wave slams into the boat and sends the tablet crashing to the deck. Or maybe one of the kids didn't realize you shouldn't put a smartphone down on a sandy beach. Perhaps you leaned over just a bit too far in the kayak to get that great picture and — oh, no! — your fancy new phone is now an underwater camera.

Until recently, many of us made do on the water with a Ziploc-style sandwich bag and a prayer. Better than nothing. But we knew deep down that what we really needed was a serious PFD — Protection For (our) Device.

Just in time, the aftermarket has stepped up with dozens of solutions that promise to protect your expensive mini-computer without compromising functionality. Styles and prices vary, but they typically fall into three broad categories.


These are the most common and tend to be the most expensive. Prices range from $70 for a phone to $130 for a tablet. They're typically made of polycarbonate plastic that seals your device in a watertight cocoon. They're specifically sized, chiefly for Apple and Samsung products. Check that what you want will exactly fit what you have.

You also might see claims that a phone or tablet can be dropped from a certain height, without damage. In the marketing literature, you may notice that the case meets Military Standard 810. That standard includes a series of tests, such as dropping a device 26 times on different edges from four feet high, and even surviving gunfire vibration (hopefully you won't need that).

Case makers also tout waterproof standards, and it's common to see claims that a device can stay dry for a certain period of time at a specific depth. This is a reference to IP-68, an international standard that translates to submerging a device one hour in two meters of water, or 6.6 feet. It also means a high level of protection from dust and debris.

Can you count on these standards to protect a sophisticated piece of electronics costing hundreds of dollars? Probably, but defects do happen. Prudent buyers should test their new cases first by placing a piece of cotton or tissue paper inside, and maybe a couple of batteries for weight. Then drop it into a bathtub, or maybe a swimming pool.


Cases that can survive a battle zone are fine for the military, but we're boat people. We're going to drop stuff overboard, and we want to get it back. So it has to float.

One solution is a buoyant foam accessory that fits over the protective case. It also adds another level of shock resistance. The most common group of floating products is the pouch style. Pouches aren't as form fitting as a hard case, but they tend to be less expensive, starting at $10.

Photo of man checking smartphone on boatHave some sort of protection in place in case your phone goes splash. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Polyurethane pouches feature some sort of zip seal and often have a lanyard for more secure toting. Make sure the one you want has a clear back or cutout for the camera lens on your phone or tablet. Otherwise, it's useless for taking pictures.

Pouch makers say you can operate function keys and touch screens through the thin plastic, but check it out yourself with your device. And don't buy the old-style "dry packs" made for VHF radios and handheld GPS units. The poly is too thick.

Four Cases Worth Checking Out

  • Photo of otterbox waterproof smartphone case

    OtterBox Preserver

    The Preserver features a two-piece padded, polycarbonate shell that snaps together. Submersible to 6 feet, 6 inches depth and drop-tested from the same height. Dust and debris proof to industry standards. Camera lens and flash openings; hinged port for charger. Comes with wrist lanyard. For iPhone 5 and 5S, and Galaxy S4. Cost: $89 |

    Photo of E-Merse Dry Audio

    Seattle Sports E-Merse

    With an updated design this year, E-Merse is a floating polyurethane pouch that uses slide-lock closures to seal out water up to 10 feet deep. The new models have a lower-profile slide bar, and the Dry Audio version, which features a waterproof headphone jack, has been reoriented to accommodate larger smartphones, such as the Galaxy S4. Comes with a breakaway lanyard. Cost: $15-$20 |

Snow Lizard SLXtreme

The SLXtreme hits a lot of bases. It meets the industry waterproof, shockproof, and dustproof standards, with a polycarbonate case and rubberized grips. It also integrates a 2,000-milliamp battery that claims to double the battery life of an iPhone, with up to seven hours of talk time. The battery can receive a trickle charge for a small solar panel in the back. Cost: $130

LifeProof LifeJacket

Designed to complement the LifeProof frë smartphone case ($80), the LifeJacket is a high-visibility orange surround made of soft, buoyant foam. Allows access to side keys and controls. Corners have a mounting eyelet for lanyard and wrist strap. Has camera lens and flash opening on the back. Designed for iPhone 5/5S/5C. Cost: $40 |


Devices always seem to be running out of juice, just when we're far away from a power outlet. Some case makers have responded by integrating tiny batteries inside their products. At least one case uses the sun's rays to help charge the battery and costs roughly $130.

This is a niche category but may evolve with improved battery technology and consumer demand. For now, it's about aligning expectation with reality. In-phone chargers prolong battery life and solar cells can revive a dead device. But don't expect the rapid recovery time you get from a wall outlet or 12-volt plug-in.

Speaking of expectations, it's fair to say that all these cases involve some degree of compromise. Some may muffle your speaker or ringtone. Others may impair your ability to press all the function keys or perform swipes, especially at the edges of the screen, where the case may intrude. It's possible that third-party cables won't fit through the charging port. Maybe these are things you can live with for your peace of mind on the water. At the same time, you'll want the ability to test a case and return it, if it's not suitable. 

Tux Turkel has been exploring the Maine coast in small boats for 20-plus years.

— Published: June/July 2014

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