Background: Life jackets may prevent one in two drowning deaths, however, 85% of recreational boating-related drowning victims in the United States in 2012 did not wear a life jacket. This study explored behavioral factors and strategies to encourage consistent life jacket use among adult recreational boaters. Methods: We conducted a qualitative study among boat owners who boat regularly, and explored factors associated with life jacket use by adults and child or adolescent passengers. Sixteen boaters participated in four focus groups. Results: Most boaters reported inconsistent use of life jackets, using them only when conditions were poor. Each described episodes of unpredictable boating risk which occurred despite favorable conditions. Most required younger child passengers to wear a life jacket, but reported resistance among older children. Barriers to consistent life jacket use included discomfort and the belief that life jacket use indicated inexperience or poor swimming ability. Participants stated that laws requiring life jacket use would change behavior especially for children. The only demonstrated behavior change among group members was associated with use of inflatable life jacket devices. Conclusions: Boating risk is inherently unpredictable; therefore interventions should focus on strategies for increasing consistent use of life jackets. Passage and enforcement of life jacket legislation for older children and adults is likely a promising approach for behavior change. Designing more comfortable, better-fitting, more appealing life jackets will be paramount to encouraging consistent use.