Although it’s easy to buy a pre-made boating safety kit and stuff it in a cabinet on board your boat, if you don’t know why you should have the items on board, you could be leaving yourself open to increased risk.

In order to minimize this risk and to save precious moments during an emergency when every second really counts, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the rules and regulations for operating a vessel on open water and familiarize yourself with how and when to use the items in your safety kit before your next trip on the water.

Pro Tip: The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offer free voluntary boat safety checks for any small boat in order to verify all safety equipment is on board and in good working condition. If you want be sure your kit is in tip-top condition, give them a call.


The following items should be on board your vessel in order to keep all passengers protected. Some items listed below are the minimum required by the U.S. Coast Guard or the state of Minnesota, while others are just a good idea to have on board to make sure your days (and nights) out on the boat are safe and fun.

Navigation Rules

All boats over 40 feet are required to have a current copy of the ISDOT ISCG International – Inland Navigational Rules aboard.

Life Jackets

There must be a readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III or V life jacket or life vest per person on board. These personal flotation devices must be easily accessible, in good working condition, and fit properly. Type IV, throwable floatation devices cannot be your primary onboard life-saving devices. The state of Minnesota has a Mandatory Child Life Jacket Wear Law. For specifics on the regulations governing children’s life jackets, visit the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Throwable Floatation Devices

All vessels 16 feet or longer are required to have one throwable floatation device – Type IV – like a ring buoy or buoyant cushion immediately available.

Fire Extinguishers

All boats are required and highly recommended to have fire extinguishers aboard. The type and number vary dependent upon vessel size:

26 feet or less: Required to have at least one B-1 type Coast Guard-approved hand portable fire extinguisher. This is the minimum.

26 to 40 feet: Must have two B-1 type or one of the B-2 type USCG approved extinguishers.
40 to 65 feet: Need three B-1 extinguishers or one B-1 and one B-2 USCG approved fire extinguisher.
Over 65 feet: Requires a minimum of 3 and as many as 8 (depending on vessel weight) of the B-2 USCG approved fire extinguishers on board and in tandem with a fixed system in the machinery space.
Loud and Clear: Audible Distress Signals

All boats should have a working sounding device such as a horn or whistle for your protection. The minimum requirements are that you have a hand, mouth, or power-operated whistle or horn capable of producing a continuous sound for two seconds and audible for at least one-half mile of the craft. The type of sounding device (hand, mouth or power-operated) varies with the size of vessel. Remember, only government patrol craft boat may carry a siren.

Can You See Me? Visual Distress Signals

Either white lanterns, flashlights or night signals (depending upon the size and type of boat) must be carried on-board as visual distress signals while in coastal waters and the Great Lakes.


It’s a good idea to have several different kinds of visual signals, including handheld orange smoke, flags, sea marker dye, and flares on hand in your safety kit. Flares and flare guns can be highly effective distress signals. If you decide to add flares to your safety kit, be sure all of your flares are stamped with a manufacture date.

Though the Coast Guard reports a flare’s shelf life is 3 years, the American Boating Association recommends keeping flares in the 3 to 6 year range aboard as backups, since they’re still likely to work. After 6 years, these flares must be disposed of properly by contacting your local fire department, sanitation department, or EPA office to learn the local hazardous waste disposal rules.


First Aid Kit: Accidents happen; be prepared with bandages, antiseptic and burn cream ointments and other first aid essentials.
Water: It’s important to stay hydrated when you’re out on the water in the summer sun.
Tool Kit: Make sure your kit is well equipped for a variety of boating repair needs.
Sun Protection: Sunscreen, hats, cover-ups and sunglasses.

VHF Radio
Extra Fuel
Bailer Bucket: In case your boat begins to take on water, a bailer bucket can help keep you afloat until you can make a repair or get some help.
Oars or Paddles
Anchor and Enough Chain: Depending on where you are boating, usually 5x depth.
Before each boating season, you should do a safety check on your boat to make sure all the above items are present, current, and in good working order before taking your boat out.

Knowing what is required and making sure you’re in compliance will not only keep you and your passengers safe, but will also help to reduce liability and keep you in good standing with the U.S. Coast Guard and your boat insurance company.

*To really be prepared for a safe boating season, pair this list with our article on Boating Safety 101 for tips to avoiding boating accidents and liability.