Essential Boating Safety Equipment & Checklist

Having a boating safety checklist is just plain smart.
Checking a fire extinguisher
Check the pressure gauges on all of your boat’s fire extinguishers to make sure they read in the green “full” zone. Bill Doster

Every boater wants their day of aquatic fun to be safe, so developing a boating safety checklist is a no-brainer. Naturally, different types of boats and boating activities will require slightly different safety gear. And Coast Guard requirements for boats over 16 feet, smaller boats, and boats significantly larger have some differences. So, you’ll want to create a safety checklist and a boating safety-equipment checklist of your own. By the time your eyes reach the end of this article, that should be no problem.

Article at a glance:

Safety Gear All Boaters Should Have On Board

Boating safety gear can break down into what is required and what is suggested. Some boaters simply meet the requirements and stop there, but having additional safety gear aboard is always a good call. Remember that whenever you have a question about safety gear for your boat, the USCG has the final word.

Life Jackets

When to check gear: Make sure they’re aboard every outing; check the straps and fabrics monthly for deterioration.

The law requires you to have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket in good condition aboard and readily accessible for each and every passenger. In most states, children under age 13 are required to wear life jackets when underway (check the law in your state).

There are many different types of life jackets (see the US Coast Guard PFD Selection webpage to learn more). Some are better than others for specific purposes, so be sure to research the different types before outfitting your boat. Also, make sure you have the correct sizes for everyone aboard; ill-fitting life jackets can be overly restrictive, ride up on the user, or even slip off.

Follow these guidelines to make sure your life jacket looks good, stays comfortable and works when you need it.

Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

Signaling Devices

When to check gear: Make sure they’re aboard every outing; check annually for serviceability. Remember that flares are stamped with an expiration date and must be replaced regularly.

All boats need to have sound-producing devices and visual distress signals. Whistles and horns are the most common audible signals, while flares and electronic flares are good choices for visual distress signals.


When to check gear: Every outing upon departure.

Electronics aren’t required safety gear, but they certainly add a huge level of safety to every trip. Chart plotters help prevent navigational errors that lead to accidents; satellite messengers, EPIRBS and PLBs let you send an SOS to search and rescue personnel at the press of a button; and VHF radios allow you to maintain communications with other boats, marinas and authorities. Of all these items, the VHF is generally considered the most important for all boats to carry because you can alert the Coast Guard of an emergency and establish communication at a moment’s notice. The cellphone in your pocket can add another communications layer, but remember that it should never be relied upon for emergency communications on a boat.

Satellite beacons such as EPIRBs or PLBs allow boaters to transmit distress signals and their exact coordinates from anywhere on the planet, no cell service required. It may be the best $400 you ever spend.

Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

First-Aid Kit

When to check gear: Seasonally

A first-aid kit is another item that isn’t required but most certainly recommended. It’s best to buy one specifically designed for marine use, which will come in a waterproof box or case. Along with all the usual basics, it also includes items appropriate for emergency situations at sea, like an emergency blanket that can be used to treat hypothermia.

Fire Extinguishers

When to check gear: Monthly

Depending on the size, configuration and type of boat you have, one or multiple fire extinguishers may be required. Even if not required, keeping a fire extinguisher aboard is always a good idea. They should be in the mount provided with the extinguisher, located in an area with easy access, and must be replaced within 12 years of manufacture. Note that Class B fire extinguishers (which can put out flammable liquid fires like gasoline or oil) are needed for boats, and most safety experts recommend having a “tri-class” extinguisher (A, B and C), which puts out ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids and electrical fires.

Nighttime Boating Safety Gear

When to check gear: Monthly, or prior to any outing expected to include boating in the dark.

All boats operating at night require some form of illumination, as specified in the USCG regulations. Beyond that, you can increase your boating safety margin while navigating at night with radar. There are also several night-vision camera and scope options available.

The Importance of a Vessel Safety Check

No matter how careful you are working up your Coast Guard-approved boat safety kit and developing your own boat safety-equipment checklist, people make mistakes. It’s always a good idea to have a second set of eyes check things over. Fortunately, it’s easy (and free) to set up a vessel safety check, also known as a courtesy safety check. These are performed by a Coast Guard-approved vessel examiner. This way, you’ll find out ahead of time if anything is missing or amiss, which not only boosts your safety level but also means you won’t get a ticket if your boat gets inspected randomly by the authorities while out on the water. Plus, you get a decal to put on your boat, so when Coast Guard or marine police personnel see the boat out on the water, they know it’s already been inspected.

Creating a Boating Safety Checklist

OK, are you ready to make your boating safety checklist? Start by visiting the USCG website and determining the specific required gear for your boat. Then scan back through this article and add the optional items you believe are important for the way you use your boat. Remember that a safety checklist is a living document you’ll want to update annually, as well as when you get a new boat or take up a new activity.

Digital Select Calling (DSC) allows you to transmit your precise location with the press of a button. Make sure your VHF radio is DSC capable and don’t forget to get your MMSI number. It might just save your life.

Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

Closing Remarks & FAQ

You and your family are about to have fantastic experiences aboard your boat, and as long as you keep safe, you’ll all keep smiling. Your boating safety checklist will help ensure that’s exactly what happens for many years to come.

  1. What are the essential safety-gear items that boaters should have on their boat?
    All boats must carry the appropriate life jackets for everyone aboard, a signaling device, and the required lighting, if operated at night. Some boats have additional requirements, such as fire extinguishers. And it’s smart to also carry optional safety gear, like a first-aid kit and communications devices.
  2. How often should these gear items be checked or replaced?
    It varies by the specific item.
  3. What checks should be made prior to heading out on the water to ensure safety?
    Check to make sure life jackets and signaling devices are aboard, and test electronics to make sure they function properly. If you’ll be out after dark, also check all your navigational lights.
  4. What is a vessel safety check, and how can it be scheduled?
    A vessel safety check is a free inspection of your safety gear by a Coast Guard-approved vessel examiner. Visit the USCG Auxiliary Vessel Safety Check webpage to schedule one.
  5. Are certain items needed when boating at night?
    When boating at night, you’ll need the illumination called for by the Coast Guard regulations for your specific type of boat. You’ll also need a visual distress signal approved for nighttime use.
  6. How should a boater create their checklist, and where should they keep it?
    You can start developing your checklist right now, using this article and the links we’ve provided. Where you keep it is your call, just make sure it’s handy before every trip.