Boating Safety Equipment & Gear Essentials

Accidents and emergencies happen to boats of all sizes, with a large percentage of annual incidents involving recreational boats. Boating accidents and emergencies don’t just happen in open waters either. 

Boating safety equipment guide

Static inland waters such as lakes and ponds have seen their share of boating catastrophes as well. Preventing boating mishaps from happening altogether is impossible, but carrying the right safety equipment onboard helps reduce the chances your boat and/or its passengers will become part of a statistic. With that in mind, here’s our guide to essential boating safety equipment and gear.

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Life Jackets & PFDs

Federal law dictates that you must have at least one personal flotation device (PFD) onboard for each person on your boat. Your state’s laws may also impose additional requirements regarding the type of PFDs you must carry onboard.

Boating safety gear guide life jackets

There are several types of PFDs, and if you own a boat, you need to know what they are and when they’re needed.

  • Type I: USCG-approved for offshore use, considered suitable for all waters.
  • Type II: USCG-approved for near-shore use, considered suitable for coastal and inland waters.
  • Type III: USCG-approved for calm waters within sight of the shore.
  • Type IV: USCG-approved throwable devices that aren’t worn, but act as additional buoyancy aids.
  • Type V: USCG-approved devices for specified activities such as waterskiing and wakeboarding. Must be worn only for the specified activity, and can’t substitute Type I - III PFDs.

When shopping for personal flotation devices, keep in mind that all PFDs must be USCG-certified. Choose PFDs best suited to the type of waters you regularly boat in, and buy sizes that properly fit each intended user.

Boating safety gear life jackets

VHF Radio

The US Coast Guard Navigation Center website says: “Before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio.” VHF radios are an essential means of communication out on the water. Not only does a VHF radio allow for emergency communication, but it also enables  communication with other boats, marinas and bridges. Never rely solely on cellphones when boating, as they’re only useful within range of a cell tower. Also, unlike cellphones, VHF transmissions are monitored by the USCG and other boaters.

Essential boating safety gear VHF radio

There are two main types of VHF radios:

Fixed-mount VHF radios: Greater transmitting power and range, but require space to be mounted within the boat.

Handheld VHF radios: Lesser transmitting power and range, but small enough to fit anywhere. 

Boating safety equipment guide VHF radios

Handheld VHF radios come in handy if the boat loses power or you’re ejected from the boat, so keep that in mind when shopping. Make sure your handheld models are buoyant and waterproof, and consider buying a VHF radio with built-in GPS for added safety. 

Fire Extinguishers

Having a fire onboard is many a boat owners’ greatest fear, since fires spread fast and are hard to escape. Boat fires account for millions in damages and losses to boat owners each year. 

Boat safety equipment fire suppression

There are three main types of marine fires, classified as follows:

  • Class A: Involve solid combustibles including paper, wood, fabric and plastics.
  • Class B: Involve liquid and gas combustibles like fuel, solvents, oils, propane and butane.
  • Class C: Involve energized electrical equipment that could shock a person.

Fire extinguishers are classified according to the types of fires they're used on. For example, AB fire extinguishers put out burning solids and liquids, but shouldn’t be used on Class C fires. ABC fire extinguishers can handle virtually any type of boat fire. Extinguishers also have UL rating numbers before the class letter that indicate the effectiveness of the extinguisher at putting out each type of fire. 

Boat safety equipment fire extinguisher

Marine fire extinguishers also have USCG classifications. Unlike the UL classification based on the extinguisher’s performance, the USCG classification is based on the amount of extinguishing agent contained in the extinguisher.

B-I fire extinguishers contain 1.25 gallons of foam, or 4lbs of CO2, or 2lbs of dry chemicals, or 2.5lbs of halon.

B-II fire extinguishers contain 2.5 gallons of foam, or 15lbs of CO2, or 10lbs of dry chemicals, or 10lbs of halon.

The USCG requires boats up to 26-feet to carry one B-I fire extinguisher; boats up to 40-feet to carry two B-I fire extinguishers or one B-II fire extinguisher; and boats up to 65-feet to carry three B-I fire extinguishers, or one B-I and one B-II fire extinguisher. Choose an AB fire extinguisher if your boat has no electrical equipment, and an ABC fire extinguisher if it does.

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Buy boat engine kill switches

Engine Kill Switch

The law requires all new boats of 26 feet and under with motors capable of 115+ pounds of thrust to be fitted with an engine kill switch

Boat safety equipment engine kill switch

There are two types of boat engine kill switch:

Tethered: A cut-off switch which, when held open by a small clip, completes an electrical circuit to the motor and allows it to run. When the key is removed, the switch closes and the electrical circuit is broken. The clip is tethered to the helmsman by a cord or lanyard, so if the helmsman is separated from the boat’s controls, the clip is pulled free and the kill switch breaks the motor’s electrical circuit.

Wireless: Works like a tethered kill switch, except that the connection between switch and helmsman is wireless. The helmsman wears a small transponder, and the kill switch incorporates a transducer. When the helmsman is separated from the boat’s controls, the signal between the transponder and transducer is lost, and the kill switch breaks the motor’s electrical circuit.

Boat engine killswitch essential safety gear

A tethered killswitch is cheap and easy to install, but limits the helmsman’s movement while attached to the switch. A wireless killswitch, on the other hand, allows for more freedom of movement on board without activating the switch, but is considerably more expensive than a tethered switch. 

Depth Finder

Collisions with fixed objects cost boat owners millions in damages each year. Many of those collisions are boats that run aground at speed because the helmsman didn’t detect a change in depth. 

Boat safety equipment depth finder

Depth finders use a transducer to send and receive sonar, enabling it to determine how far below the hull the bottom is. By aiming the sonar in front of the boat, the depth finder gives advance warning of shallow waters or obstacles beneath the surface. Some fish finders also have depth detection, but are only effective at slower speeds, meaning their depth-finding capability will be compromised at higher speeds.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals are either combustible signals such as flares and smoke, or non-combustible signals such as orange distress flags, lights and mirrors. Federal law requires all recreational boats to carry visual distress signals in all USCG-patrolled waters. 

Boating emergency distress signal smoke

Boats of 16 feet or under must carry distress signals when operating between sunset and sunrise, and must include one electric distress light or three red flares. Any vessel 16 feet or over must carry distress signals at all times. These must be one orange distress flag and one electric distress light; three red flares; or three smoke signals and one electric distress light. Because some VDS are better for day use or night use, and some are more visible at longer range or closer range, it’s best to carry several types on board.

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Audio Distress Signals

There’s no legal requirement for smaller recreational boats to carry audio distress signals on board, but it’s better to have some horns and whistles available just in case.


A high-power searchlight is essential for night boating, since navigation lights aren’t bright enough to pick out hazards in the dark. Searchlights can also be rotated and aimed in any direction to pinpoint particular obstacles.

Boat safety equipment guide search light

First Aid Kit

It’s common sense to have at least one first aid kit on board at all times. Anything that can relieve cuts and abrasions, insect bites or sunburns will be worth its weight in gold when you’re many miles away from shore.

Boating Safety Course

No matter how much safety gear and equipment you have, nothing beats an education in proper boating safety practices and techniques.

Boating safety tips course

A large percentage of boating accident deaths are caused by boat operators with no education on boat operation or safety. Many states require the completion of a boating safety course to obtain a boating license. But whether your state requires it or not, you should take a boating safety course every few years to brush up on your skills, and to learn about new technologies and techniques.

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Other Safety Equipment and Tips

The USCG and some state laws require all recreational boats operating between sunset and sunrise to be equipped with navigation lights. These include a red port side light, a green starboard side light, and either a white masthead light and stern light or a white all-around light.

Boat safety equipment navigation lights

You should always have a toolkit on board as well, even if it’s a basic one with nothing but screwdrivers and pliers to get a problematic outboard or sterndrive running again and limp back to shore. The boating emergency toolkit should also include:

Add an anchor to your list of safety equipment. Anchors are vital to preventing a powerless boat from drifting into rocks or surf, and are very useful in non-emergency situations such as fishing or stopping for food.

Boat safety equipment tips anchor

Finally, when travelling more than a couple of miles offshore, you should include an emergency position indicating radio beacon or EPIRB to your list of safety equipment. And of course, you should always perform a safety inspection of your boat before setting out on the water. Check for water in the bilge and fuel leaks, and make sure there’s more than enough fuel to get you safely back to shore.




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