Boat Emergency Kits: How to Build Your Own (with Shopping List)

Boat Emergency Kits

No matter where you plan to go boating, you need to have an emergency kit for any predicaments you may get into. Whether you are going for a weekend float on the lake or a grand voyage, having the right supplies will keep any issues that arise from turning into a nightmare.

What should you put in a boat emergency kit? Your boat emergency kit should include the following:

  • Survival Gear
  • Signaling Devices
  • First Aid Supplies

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg—figurately speaking, of course. A well-built boat emergency kit will have supplies that will hopefully never be needed but are there just in case. There are some essentials that every boater should have, but there is a lot of room to personalize your kit for your specific needs. Many of the items that you pack will depend on where and when you are going on your excursion.

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Safety Regulations for Boating

Federal regulations are in place to help ensure all boaters have a safe and fun experience. The US Coast Guard and Homeland Security have created a pamphlet that includes boating regulations, checklists, and safety tips.

The items listed below are required to have onboard recreational boats but should be part of your emergency kit anyway. The exact requirements depend on the size and type of vessel you have and the time of day that you are on the water, so look over the regulations to be sure you comply.

Flotation Devices

It is required to have one life jacket for each person on board all recreational boats. If your boat is over 16 feet, then you also need a throwable flotation device.

Picking out and buying a life jacket can be a headache. There are standard ones, inflatable ones, and even hybrids. Not only that, but just having a life jacket on board isn’t quite enough. Each person needs to have a life jacket that fits properly. It’s the right fit that makes a life jacket life-saving.

REI’s guide, How to Choose Life Jackets (PDF), can help you decide on the best type of life jacket for your recreation plans and determine if you have the right size.

Visual Distress Signals (VDS)

All recreational vessels under 16 feet need to have night signaling devices. For larger boats, day signaling devices are also required.

Visual Distress Signals come in different types, including:

  • Pyrotechnic: red flares, smoke flares, meteor flares
  • Non-Pyrotechnic: flags, flashlights

When purchasing a VDS, make sure it is US Coast Guard approved.

Sound Distress Signal

If you are in distress at night or in foul weather, your visual signals might not be seen. Many things can be used to make noise such as pots and pans, but it is required to have an actual sound-producing device. For most recreational boats, a bell, whistle, or air horn is sufficient.

Fire Extinguisher

On boats where a fire might occur, it is required to have a minimum of one B-1 marine fire extinguisher. For larger vessels, multiple fire extinguishers may be required.

There are different classifications of fires, and not all fire extinguishers put out every type of fire. When you purchase your extinguisher, be sure to check the label to know which type of fires it can be used on. Some only put out one kind, while others can be used on several types.

For more information about fire extinguishers and how to use them take a look at Safewise’s Be Prepared: How to Properly Use a Fire Extinguisher.

Building Your Boat Emergency Kit

Building your own boat emergency kit is wise. Already assembled kits can have lower quality items, things you don’t know how to use, and stuff you don’t need. By building your own kit, you become more conscious of possible situations, such as a sudden storm, a galley fire, or the need to abandon ship. Being aware of different types of emergencies will help you decide what to pack in your kit.

Every time you plan a boating excursion, it is best that you reassess your emergency kit. A good emergency kit is dynamic and is prepared specifically for each trip. What you pack in your emergency kit for a fishing trip to Alaska is probably going to be different than what you bring for a relaxing weekend on the lake.

The following are a few key items you should have in your boat emergency kit, no matter where or when you plan on hitting the water:

Waterproof Container

For an emergency kit to be effective, everything needs to be together in one place. A waterproof bag or box makes storage easier and keeps everything dry. Purchasing one in a bright color is an excellent option in case you need to locate your kit in the dark.

There are some items you might not always keep in your emergency kit, such as binoculars. If you don’t keep everything in one container, be sure to know where it is in case you need it ASAP.

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit is a must-have when boating, but it’s not enough to just have one. First aid materials are useless unless you know how to use them. Consider taking a first aid and CPR class, so in an emergency, you know what to do. American Red Cross offers courses on first aid basics, CPR, water safety, and more.

Purchasing an already assembled first aid kit is an excellent place to start, but it may be necessary to personalize it. Some things to consider adding to preassembled kit include:

  • Prescription Medications
  • Relief for Motion Sickness
  • Sunscreen
  • Aloe Vera

VHF Radio

Very high frequency (VHF) radios are a key item to have on board. If an emergency occurs, these radios can be used to communicate between your boat and other boats or you and the shore. Channel 16 on a VHF radio is designated as an international distress frequency. The US Coast Guard provides information on proper VHF radio procedures so that you can effectively get help.

VHF radios can have a fixed mount or can be portable. The benefits of a fixed mount are that they have a more reliable power source and have higher transmission power. A portable radio can be carried around, though, including if you need to evacuate the boat.

A VHF radio should be sufficient for most recreational boaters. If you plan on going further than 20 miles from a USCG station, then a VHF radio will not be enough, and you should consider purchasing a satellite telephone.

Flashlight and Batteries

A flashlight is handing for both emergencies and non-emergencies. It can be used for simple things like finding a dropped key or as a signaling tool. Flashlights and boats don’t always get along, though. Whether it’s corrosion from salty marine weather, water in general, or the impact of rolling around, flashlights don’t always last long on boats.

Finding a flashlight that will last and work for you is essential. If you plan on only taking short day trips, then you probably don’t need to purchase the brightest flashlight out there, but you’ll still run into times when you’ll want to have one around.

Another thing to consider is batteries. If your flashlight requires batteries, keeping extras on hand is a must.

Navigation Tools

Navigating a boat on the water is not the same as navigating a car on land. While there are many great electronic navigation systems, having an analog system as backup is essential in the off-chance your electronics stop working. An analog navigation system includes:

  • A compass – a tool that shows the direction you are heading
  • Charts – charts are maps of waterways and include special markings for boaters
  • Parallel ruler – a tool used with a compass and chart to determine which direction to go
  • Divider – a tool to measure the distance between two points

If you are unfamiliar with water navigation or need a refresher, the BoatUS Foundation and USCG offer classes such as How to Use GPS and Modern Marine Navigation.

NOAA provides a list of companies that are NOAA-certified to sell paper navigation charts.

Manual Bilge Pump and Bailing Device

If your boat starts taking on water, you will want something to bail it out. Your vessel may or may not have an electric bilge pump, but even if it does, a manual device is good to have on hand.

Depending on the size of your boat, you can use different things to get the job done. For smaller craft, a plastic milk jug cut into a scoop may work. 5-gallon buckets are another option. If you have a larger boat, a manual bilge pump is probably best.

Tool Kit

When it comes to keeping tools on your boat, what is considered essential versus over the top is hotly debated. If you have high confidence in your fix-it ability, then having a wider variety of tools may be great. On the other hand, if you can’t tell the difference between a flat-head and a Phillips, then less is the way to go.

Starting with a small preassembled kit and adding to it is a good option. Check-out the toolkit list from BoatUS to get an idea of what to begin with.


In an emergency, a mirror is quite valuable. It can be used for locating a dropped screw or to signal for help. You can purchase a signal mirror, but in a pinch, any mirror will do. Many compasses have built-in signal mirrors.

You can learn about using a mirror in an emergency from How to Use a Signal Mirror by How Stuff Works.


Binoculars are great to have on board, even if they don’t live in your emergency kit. While they are useful for wildlife watching and stargazing, in an emergency, they can be used to spot land or signal to a nearby vessel.


When you are out on the water, the weather can change fast. Think about keeping some gear in your emergency kit for an unexpected downpour, low temperatures, or even a surprising amount of sunshine. You can buy new gear specifically for your boat emergency kit, but if you have extra stuff lying around the house, that works too. Consider keeping the following in your kit:

  • Raincoat or Poncho
  • Fleece Jacket
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses


Many people overlook packing emergency food in their kit. Even if you brought sandwiches for lunch and snacks for the afternoon, your emergency kit should include food for when your trip unexpectedly lasts an extra day or two.

Think about how many people will be on the boat and pack enough food for several days. Reading the food labels will give you an idea of how many calories you are packing.

Remember, this food is for emergencies and doesn’t need to be gourmet. You want to pack the most calories possible into the smallest size; the goal is survival, not satisfaction. Some great options are freeze-dried meals, high-calorie energy bars, or jerky. More food ideas can be found at


One of the most critical items in your emergency kit is a water filtration or desalination device. If you are stranded in the middle of the ocean with the sun beating down and no way to drink water, nothing else in your emergency kit is going to matter.

You can keep bottled water onboard, but overtime, chemicals from the plastic may leach into the water, you might drink it and forget to replace it, or it could spring a leak. Instead of packing water, think about packing a water system. A simple outdoor recreation water filter can be used if you are boating on a lake or river, but if you are ever boating in a marine environment, then you need a desalination system.

Comfort Items

A boat emergency can be a traumatizing event for anyone. While comfort items are not vital to surviving in a crisis, they can certainly be beneficial to your mental wellbeing. Consider packing one or more of the following, especially if you will be with children:

  • Family Photo
  • Small Stuffed Animal
  • Favorite Candy
  • Paper and Pen
  • Deck of Cards

Ultimate Boat Emergency Kit Shopping List

A boat emergency kit is meant to help you survive the unimaginable; expect the best, but be prepared for the worst. Below is an example shopping list that will work for most boating adventures, but remember that your emergency kit should be dynamic and looking through it before each outing is a smart move.

Final Tip: Be Prepared for Emergencies

Owning a boat comes with responsibility. By educating yourself, you can help keep everyone on your boat safe and lower the chance that an emergency ever occurs. There several organizations that provide information, educational resources, and more for boaters. These organizations include:

  • Foundation: A nonprofit focused on “promoting safe, clean, and responsible boating.”
  • BoatEd: A private organization providing educational materials and certifications.
  • A private organization providing educational materials and certifications.
  • US Coast Guard: The Boating Safety Division provides information on laws and regulations, safety, and other resources.
  • NASBLA: The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators provides information on state boating agencies.

The US Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Mobile App is a great tool to use. The app is a hub for state information, safety checklists, calling features to report pollution and suspicious activity, and more.


Perhaps you have a well-loved aluminum fishing boat that goes with you to the lake every Saturday or a brand-new Bayliner that you’re itching to take out for a week. Regardless of the type of boat you have, the goal is to be out on the water. So, go pack your emergency boating kit and get out there!