Boat Safety Equipment: 15 Things People Often Forget (Checklist)

There is a lot of different boating equipment that you’ll need to keep yourself safe out there on the water.

Here are fifteen different items you should have on your boat at all times – and the reasons you should have them!

1. A VHF Radio

cb radio transceiver station and loud speaker holding on air on white background use for ham connection and amateur Radio Gear theme

A VHF radio is a marine radio that allows boaters to communicate with one another and stay informed on local weather, distress calls, safety and special navigation information.

The base monitoring and emergency channel is channel 16, and boaters are not supposed to use that channel for communicating with other boats. In fact, if you talk too long on that channel, the US Coast Guard might even chime in and order you to stop.

A VHF radio is an excellent device to have onboard your boat, however. It is the most reliable technology for communicating on the water, even more so than cell phones. If you were to find yourself in an emergency situation on the water, you could use your VHF radio to send out a distress signal.  The Coast Guard monitors that channel on all the coasts of the US.

In a lot of cases, a VHF radio was the reason boaters survived their accidents or other incidents.

However, bear in mind that it is illegal to use a VHF radio to send out a false distress signal. If you send out a distress signal and then the situation is resolved, you must take the necessary steps to cancel that distress call. If you don’t, you could find yourself in some serious trouble with the US Coast Guard.

2. Sound-Producing Devices

Imagine you’re driving your car down the highway and on your left, a car starts veering into your lane. Your alarm builds as you realize they’re trying to get into your lane, but they don’t see you!

So, you hit your horn to alert them!

Except it doesn’t work! So what happens? They ram into you. There’s been an accident and now you might be injured. Even if you aren’t, you still have to stop your day to speak with the police, exchange insurance information, and then you’ll need to take your car into a repair shop later.

And all this could have been avoided had your horn worked. This is how it is on the water, as well. So make sure that, in addition to your horn, you have other sound-producing devices aboard your vessel. This can be a bell, and air horn, or a whistle. You could have all three if you wanted to play it as safe as possible.

If you decide to use an air horn, then make sure you keep spare cans of compressed air on board as well.

Accidents between ships on the water can be much more dangerous than accidents on land, on the road. Could you imagine if a cruise ship didn’t see you and ran into your little cabin cruiser? It’s even dangerous when two equally sized ships get into an accident.

A lot of times, the hulls can be breached which could result in the boats sinking.

To circumvent these dark scenarios, make sure you have as many tools at your disposable as you can to alert others of your presence on the water.

3. Float Plan

A float plan is an important emergency protocol for any boat owner.

This is how you can be saved if you run into an emergency on the water and have no way of contacting anyone for assistance. It may not be necessary for short trips where you won’t be taking your vessel far from the coast, but you should still let someone know where you’re going for safety’s sake.

A float plan is absolutely critical if you intend to go on a long voyage, however.

If you’re thinking of taking a trip with your boat for your vacation, then you’ll definitely need a float plan. This should include information like your expected destination, your estimated date of arrival, a description of your boat, a list of your passengers, and an inventory list of the safety equipment you have brought aboard for the trip.

Once you have a float plan, leave it with someone you trust with instructions to alert the Coast Guard if you have not returned by a certain day. If your plans change while you’re on the water, then make sure to notify this person. Otherwise, you might find yourself being rescued when you have no need of rescuing!

4. Ventilation

You might not think it’s too important, but without proper ventilation, you could run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Even if you avoid that danger, other kinds of fumes can make you sick, dizzy, or otherwise disoriented.

This poses a danger to both you and your passengers. If the captain loses consciousness or isn’t alert while manning the boat, then it could result in serious injury for anyone on board.

To avoid this, make sure to run the blower on your vessel for a few minutes before you switch on the engine. If you can still smell fumes, then it could mean that there is a leak somewhere. This is another good reason to check for proper ventilation before a trip.

If you’re leaking fuel, it’s better to find out while you’re still docked instead of while you’re on the water.

5. Battery Care

Just like a car, your boat’s battery is vital to its operation.

You should make sure that it’s fully charged before leaving on any journey, not just the longer voyages. The battery is responsible for your gauges, lights, ignition, fuel pump, and navigation equipment! If it goes dead while you’re far from shore, the rest of your vacation might be spent trying to get a tow back to the docks.

In addition to ensuring that your main battery is fully charged, you may also want to pack a spare.

You can help conserve your essential battery this way because you can use the backup batteries to charge things like your cell phone, tablet, or other devices.

Make sure that you bring the appropriate batteries for flashlights, handheld radios, or any other smaller items as well.

6. Weather Forecasts

On the ocean or even lakes, the weather can be more severe and dangerous than on land.

Make sure to check the weather before you set sail to ensure that you won’t be running into any bad weather while you’re out on the water. And while you’re on the water, stay updated on the weather by checking in on your vhf fixed or handheld radio.

If a storm is coming, you’ll need to know so that you can prepare in advance.

7. Tools and Spares

Just as you would with a car, you want to make sure you have spares and the appropriate tools to make repairs with you at all times. For shorter journeys, you may not need to worry about having a full inventory as much. For example, with cars, you typically only carry a spare tire and a tire iron every day.

But for longer journeys, you want to make sure you’re stocked well.

This includes things like light bulbs, fuses, fuel filters, and so on.

This is even more true with a boat. On road trips, you can usually find an auto shop and purchase a spare part. On a boat, however, there is nowhere around to help. You are on your own in most cases, so make sure you have everything you need in case of emergencies.

8. Emergency Boat Operation

At home, you probably have plans drawn up in case of an emergency, like what to do in case of a fire or a tornado or a flood. In that same way, you should have similar emergency procedures in place for your boat.

Make sure to inform all your passengers of the emergency protocols before every voyage.

In addition to making these plans beforehand, you’ll also want to make sure that you have first-aid available on your vessel in case of injuries. Let all your passengers know where they can find these kits and make sure they are always stocked well. Check any medications you keep in the kits and be sure to replace them before they expire.

Having a VHF radio onboard and learning how to use it well would is part of an emergency plan, too. In some cases, it may be your only link to the outside world in an emergency situation.

9. Fuel and Oil

If you’ve ever run out of gas while on your way home from work, you understand the inconvenience and the struggle of getting back on the road again. You either have to call someone to come bring you more fuel or you have to hoof it to the nearest gas station (and hope it isn’t too far away).

And if you don’t check your oil on a regular basis? If you let your oil level get too low?

Well, that’s a whole other kind of disaster!

The same is true for your boat, but it’s often a more serious event when you run out of fuel on the water. You can’t just walk to the nearest gas station and it can be difficult to call someone to come with fuel to get you moving again,

So, before you leave shore, make sure that your oil and fuel levels are at the right levels. It can even be a good idea to bring extra fuel and oil on board, in case your plans for your trip take a turn. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, after all!

10. Distress Signals

Distress signals are the dearest friend of any shipwrecked crew, as the cast of Lost, Gilligan’s Island, and Cast Away would tell you.

If only Wilson had been a flare gun, then maybe Tom Hanks could have returned home a lot sooner!

But distress signals aren’t only for a wrecked vessel or when you are stranded on a deserted tropical island. They can also be for times when there’s an emergency on board and the weather results in low visibility. You can use a distress signal to alert search and rescue efforts of your position, which could mean the difference between life and death.

Make sure that passengers know where you keep your distress signals and that everyone on board knows how to use them. In the event that you are incapacitated, the passengers may need to use the signals in order to hail rescue efforts.

Wherever you decide to store your distress signals, keep them away from moisture. The best place to store them is a dry, uncluttered area that won’t require a lot of digging around to retrieve. Even though it’s rare that you would need to use these, you’ll need to access them quickly when an emergency arises.

11. Fire Extinguishers

If your boat catches fire on the ocean, do you have a plan? You might not have given it much thought since you’ll be surrounded by water anyway, right?

If you give it some extra consideration, though, you’ll realize how difficult it would be to use the water your boat sits on to put out a fire below the deck or in the navigator’s station.

The solution is to keep a fire extinguisher onboard.

In most cases, your boat might be required to carry an extinguisher approved the US Coast Guard. In either case, you want to make sure that you’ve mounted the extinguisher in a place where passengers can access it with relative ease.

You don’t want to stuff it into a cabinet or conceal it any way that would make it difficult for passengers to see it when they need to use it.

In addition to making sure it is mounted within full view, you should also keep track of its expiration date. An expired fire extinguisher kinda defeats the purpose, don’t you think? Inform all passengers of the fire extinguisher’s location and ensure that they all know how to use it should the necessity present itself.

12. Flotation Devices

Life jackets are a mainstay for any voyage, no matter how long or short your trip across the water. Life jackets must the US Coast Guard approved and you’ll need one per every passenger aboard your boat. If you are the only one on your boat, you’ll still need a minimum of two life jackets.

This is the law and you must comply.

In addition to it being law, there are more important reasons to follow this rule. If your ship were to sink far from shore, then a life jacket might be the only way you remain afloat after a long period of time.

You can only tread water for so long. Even if you sent out a distress signal before the ship went down, it might take search and rescue longer to reach you than you can stay above water on your own.

If your boat is longer than sixteen feet long, then you also have to follow another law. You’ll need to have a special floatation device that you can throw off the boat for someone who’s gone overboard.

For a complete list of laws regarding flotation devices, you can check the US Coast Guard site.

13. Anchoring

There are a lot of different variables that go into choosing the type of anchor you’ll need for your vessel. Experienced boaters encourage you to carry at least two different anchors on your boat at all times. The only exception is if your boat is very small, but even in a dinghy, at least a small anchor is recommended.

Why carry two anchors? The obvious first reason is in the event that you lose one while you’re out on the water. It’s always good to have a spare of everything you need onboard.

Another reason is that different kinds of sea beds require different types of anchors. Sand requires its own kind of anchor, as does mud and rocky sea floors.

Here’s a guide to exactly which anchor you need for each situation you might experience.

You’ll also want to inspect the anchor line before pushing off from the dock. Any fraying or other damage to the line should prompt you to replace the line. Make sure to keep extra on board in case of an emergency.

14. Lights

Before leaving the dock, make sure that all of your navigation lights are in good working order. Not only are their flawless operation required by the law, but they are also an important safety feature.

Navigation lights alert others on the water of your position and help to prevent collisions on the water. They are essential for night boating and invaluable during weather that results in decreased visibility, such as fog or rain.

Carrying a flashlight on board your vessel is also a smart move.

Flashlights can prove to be helpful in the event that your navigation lights become inoperable during a voyage or for many other purposes.

15. The Bilge Area

The bilge isn’t many people’s favorite part of their boat, but it’s a critical area of any ship. There’s plenty of important gear down there, like your pumps and wiring! Not maintaining your bilge area can result in much more serious issues than just causing standing water and an unpleasant smell.

It could actually result in your ship sinking!

To ensure that your boat is safe on the water, keep the bilge dry and clear of any clogs. Check that your bilge pump is working before every voyage.


With these fifteen items, you’ll find there aren’t many situations for which you’re unprepared. This isn’t a complete list of everything you’ll need, of course, but it’s a definite start! Safe travels, everyone!

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