Boat Safety Checklist – Must Haves

Last updated on May 10, 2021

boat safety checklist

Boating is one of the most exciting recreational activities in the world. In the US alone, more than 83 million Americans undertake boating activities every year. From cruising to surfing, water skiing, fishing, and so many others; I mean who wouldn’t like to spend a day on the water with family and friends.

For all the excitement that being on the water brings it is accompanied by risk as boating accidents do happen. If you are a boater, it’s crucial that you understand the risks of operating a boat, especially if you have passengers on board.

The most important thing to remember is that you are no longer responsible just for your own life but also for the other lives on your boat. It can seem like an enormous responsibility, but once you take the necessary precautions, you will know that you and your passengers are prepared should the worst happen.

Why is Boating Safety Important?

Did you know that 13% of all boating accidents end with fatalities? While still a small number taking precautions and being prepared ensures that you and your passengers will not become a statistic.

The ocean or lake is calm, serene, and beautiful but the weather can change at any moment leaving you exposed to the elements. Even worse there can be other boaters who are unprepared or impaired that can cause an accident that involves your boat. That’s where boating safety comes in. It helps reduce the risk of personal injury and damage to property.

As a boater, you will keep yourself safe along with passengers aboard your boat. Boating safety involves learning boating etiquette, boating operation, rules, and safety procedures.

Boating Equipment Checklist:

The right boating equipment can make the difference between a memorable excursion and a frustrating boating experience. Whether you are operating a private or public water vessel, your boat should be stocked with the proper boating equipment.


The US Coast Guard has stipulated guidelines on life jackets. Also known as personal floatation devices (PFDs), each boat that is 16ft and longer must always have one wearable type I, II, III, or V (more on the types later) life jacket for each person aboard the vessel.

Requirements for life jackets:

All children younger than 13 years must be in a fitting life jacket at all times aboard a recreational vessel. This requirement does not apply when the child is in an enclosed section of the boat or below deck.

  • Each PFD must be US Coast Guard Approved
  • It must be in good wearable and serviceable condition
  • Must be the correct size for the intended user; this means that a child should not wear an adult size life jacket and vice versa.
  • Must be worn at all times when the boat is underway
  • Must be stowed in an accessible area

The US Coast Guard (USCG) has specific life jacket requirements for various water activities.

You should always be in a USCG approved life jacket designed for the specific activity at hand. This goes for activities like water skiing, sail boarding, whitewater boating activities, and other towing activities, and while operating a personal watercraft.

It’s also important that you check the laws that apply to your state.


Every vessel operating on US waters from coastal waters to the great lakes, territorial seas, and waters that connect waterways that are less than 2 nautical miles must be equipped with a USCG Visual Distress Signal for day and night use.

However, there are some exceptions for carrying day signals for the boats below, but they must bring night signals when they are operating from sunset to sunrise.

  • Open sailboats less than 26ft and not equipped with propulsion machinery
  • Recreational boats less than 16ft long
  • Vessels taking part in organized events like marine parades
  • Boats that are propelled manually


Sound signals can be used under specific circumstances like reduced visibility and while at anchor. Sound signals are required when overtaking, meeting, and crossing situations. Examples of sound signal equipment include bells, whistles, and gongs.

All vessels operating on federal waters must carry an efficient sound producing device. For boats that are 65.6ft and longer, they must bring a bell and whistle which must be heard for 1 nautical mile.


Backfire Flame Controls are devices used to prevent vapor gases from igniting in case the engine backfires. All motorboats and motor vessels with gasoline engines installed after 1940 must always have a USCG approved Backfire Flame Arrestor. The BFA must be in good serviceable condition. It must also comply with UL111 and SAE J-1928 standards.

The Backfire Flame Arrestor must be well maintained by cleaning it periodically and checking for damages.


Recreational vessels must display navigation lights when operating between sunrise and sunset. Navigation lights also apply in times of low visibility due to weather like fog, rain, haze, mist, falling snow, etc.

Power-driven vessels must follow the regulations stipulated for displaying navigation lights according to their length.


A natural ventilation system is required for all vessels that use gasoline for propulsion, mechanical power, or electrical generation. Natural ventilation systems are required for boats with compartments that:

  • Have a non-metallic gas tank
  • Contains fuel tank that vents into that particular compartment
  • Have a permanently installed gasoline engine
  • Have a permanent fuel tank alongside an electrical component that’s not protected from ignition
  • Sits next to a cabin that needs ventilation

The natural ventilation system must contain at least two ducts/cowls connected to the outside air, or connected to a ventilated compartment, or come from a compartment that is open to the outside air.

The natural ventilation must also have an exhaust duct opening into a ventilated compartment or to the outside atmosphere.


Every boat that poses a fire hazard from engines or fuel system must carry a USCG approved marine-type fire extinguisher.

Fire extinguishers have labels that use a number and letter as the symbols. The number indicates the amount of flame retardant agent in the fire extinguisher while the letter indicates the type of fire it is intended to extinguish.

For example, Type B fire extinguishers are designed to put out fires from flammable liquids like gasoline.

USCG-approved fire extinguishers must be hand-portable and carry a type B-I or B-II classification. The fire extinguisher must be supplied with a mounting bracket. They must also be readily accessible and stored in places where fires are not likely to start.

VHF Marine Radio

A VHF marine radio is a crucial communication device in case of emergency. You can visit our list of the best vhf marine radios to find out what radio best suits your boating needs.


Life jackets are described according to the kind of floatation. They can be inherently buoyant or inflatables. The US Coast Guard specifies PFDs into five categories.

Best life jackets for kids
Type I- Inherently Buoyant Life Jackets

These life jackets are made primarily from foam or other synthetic substances. They have a minimum buoyancy of 22lbs for adults and 11lbs for child’s size. Type I life jackets are intended for use when fishing offshore, cruising, racing, in stormy conditions and when boating alone.

Type I life jackets are best for rough and open water or in remote waters. They are best for retaining the body’s heat and also keeping your head above water. They are useful for turning any unconscious wearer face-up while in the water.

However, Type I PFDs are bulky and can feel uncomfortable because of the additional foam and fabric.

Type II-Inherently Buoyant Life Jackets

These life jackets are intended for use in light crafts, fishing, cruising, and sailing. They have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5lbs for adults, and thus are more comfortable than Type I PFDs. They are suitable for near shore inland waters and in protected areas where you have high chances of rescue.

As such, they are not ideal for use in remote areas. They perform poorly in rough waters since you will be required to tread water to keep your head above water. Even so, they will only turn SOME unconscious wearers face up in the water.

Type II-Inflatable PFDs

This type of PFDs can be manual or automatic. They have a minimum buoyancy rating of 34lbs for adult size, and they are not to be worn by children under 16 years of age. These life jackets are buoyant and more comfortable than inherently buoyant Type II PFDs. But they can be expensive.

Type III-Inherently Buoyant PFDs

With a minimum buoyancy rating of 15.5lbs for adult size, these PFDs are intended for supervised water activities like water skiing, canoeing, sailing regattas, fishing, dinghy races, personal watercraft operations, and kayaking. They are also suitable for areas where chances of rescue are high. They are not the best for rough waters or extended use.

Type III flotation devices are more comfortable than Type I inflatables or Type II PFDs, but they have lesser buoyancy than type I inherently buoyant PFDs.

Type III-Inflatable PFDs

These life jackets are also for supervised activities, but they have a minimum buoyancy rating of 22.5lbs for adult size. They are more comfortable than inherently buoyant type III PFDs but are not to be worn by kids under 16 years of age. These life jackets have a manual inflation mechanism only.

Type IV-Throwable Device

These devices are not to be worn. They are designed to be thrown overboard to a victim or supplement your buoyancy while overboard. They can be a ring buoy with a minimum buoyancy of 16.5lbs. They can also be square style boat cushions with a rating of 18lbs.

Type V Special Jackets

These jackets are restricted to the use for which they are intended. They have a minimum buoyancy rating of 15.5 to 22 lbs. Their intended purpose can be as a deck suit, float coats, commercial whitewater vest, sailboard harness, or deck harness. These types of life jackets must be worn as a requirement by the USCG.

Type V-Automatic Inflation Life Jackets

These life jackets have minimum buoyancy from 22.5 to 34lbs. They are restricted for use with a float coat, deck suit, or belt pack.

Type V- Hybrid Inflation Life Jackets

These are life jackets intended for use with most boating activities where rescue will be fast. They have a minimum buoyancy of 7.5lbs, but they can be inflated to 22lbs. They are not useful for unconscious overboard victims.

Best Life Jackets for Adults:

1. O’Neill Wetsuits Men’s Superlite USCG Life Vest

Oneill Mens Life Vest

Best Overall Life Jacket

This PFD is one of our favorites. It is a type III USCG-approved life jacket with a construction from lightweight polyethylene foam. It gives you minimal bulk to allow full mobility when enjoying your favorite water sports from water skiing, wake sports, tubing, and swimming.

This life jacket boasts a high level of comfort as it is soft and all body types can wear it. It explores a sleek, yet safe design thanks to the quick release buckles. You have a life jacket from one of the most trusted brands, and we believe it will be a good choice for you.

2. Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest

Stearns Adult Life Vest

Best Life Jacket on a Budget

Perhaps the most reliable life jacket for kayaking, swimming, and fishing is the Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest. It is suitable for you if you have a chest size between 30 and 62 inches which fits nearly all adults.

Built with a durable 200 denier nylon shell, it is designed to last through all your boating excursions. You have the assurance of a secure fit thanks to the adjustable straps that use buckle closures. The soft polyurethane foam provides floatation while being comfortable. And the sides are open so that it remains breathable.

3. Flowt Ak-1 Type II Life Jacket

Flowt Adult Life Jacket

Best Type II Life Jacket

This adjustable life jacket is an ideal choice for every boater. It provides minimum buoyancy and is designed to help turn an unconscious wearer head up in the water. This PFD meets the requirements by US Coast Guard for all states. It can fit adults over 90 lbs with a chest size from 30-52 inches.

This model is a necessary life jacket, offering high visibility both day and night. However, this PFD will not be suitable for everyone for all day wearing as it is a bit restrictive due to the size.

4. ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Jacket

MoveVent PFD

Best for Active Water Sports

For all your paddling adventures, we believe the ONYX MoveVent Dynamic Life will be a great choice. It conforms to your body  giving you a comfortable fit while allowing plenty of ventilation. It will keep you cool on all-day paddling expeditions.

Looking at the design, this device uses soft floatation foam in a sculpted design that sits securely on the body. You’ll like it for the lower back mesh as it is ideal for riding on sit on top kayaks or in high back seats. The zippered pockets are expandable, and they feature mesh drainage. Don’t go without this PFD; as it will keep you safe and comfortable  during your day filled with excitement.

5. Kent ONYX General Purpose Boating Vest

Onyx General Purpose Boating Vest

Best General Purpose PFD

The ONYX General Purpose Boating Vest is a Type III USCG-approved PFD. It is an ideal floatation device when you don’t want something that will weigh or slow you down while having fun on the water. It comes in an adult size, with large armholes, and a flexible design that moves with you.

This way, you will have full body movement to paddle or fish without restrictions. As much as you want to be safe, you also don’t want to keep adjusting the life jacket for it to be comfortable.

6. Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD Life Jacket

Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD

Best Inflatable Life Jacket

From a company that knows all about outdoor sports and marine life, Eyson gives you this slim inflatable life vest. It is a CE certified vest that works to keep you buoyant while operating a watercraft, and undertaking other activities like sailboarding. It features a soft neoprene neckline, and it is lightweight for all-day comfort.

This device covers a wide range of wearers as it will fit all adults under 330lbs. It has the convenience of being washable and it’s easy to dry. Whether you are boating for a day or a week, you can feel safe wearing the Eyson Slim Inflatable PFD.

Best Life Jackets for Kids:

Here is our list of recommended life jackets for kids:

1. Stearns Child Classic Series Vest

Stearns Child PFD

Best Type III- USCG- Approved Kid’s Life Jacket

Keeping your child safe in the water has been made easy with the Stearns Child Classic Series Vest. It is an approved model to ensure your children will always be safe as they enjoy various water sports. Whether they are water skiing or getting towed on a tube, you will see the smiles and know they are having a blast.

Designed using PE floatation foam and durable nylon, this device is best for kids weighing 30-50lbs. It comes with three chest belts that are adjustable to provide a custom fit. It also includes a leg strap which keeps the vest in position preventing it from riding up. Now you won't feel anxious when your children are getting in the water; at least not with the Stearns Child Classic Series Vest.

2. Stearns Paddle Jumper Deluxe Life Jacket

Stearns PDF For Children

Best Type V PFD for Kids

Does your family love boating and you want to bring kids with you? Then you will want to invest in the Stearns Puddle Jumper Deluxe Life Jacket. It is an approved type V life jacket made of premium soft polyester. It provides a comfortable fit for kids weighing between 30 and 50 pounds so they will feel safe as they explore the water world.

The Deluxe device is brightly colored to appeal to kids. It has many color choices so that your kids will have a variety to pick from. Kids who are learning to swim can use this device as it fits securely and snuggly. It is also constructed to ensure less chafing so that kids will not grow to dislike wearing this life jacket.

3. Stearns 7976 PFD

Kids PFD by Stearns

Best Type II Life jacket for Kids

It’s without a doubt that Stearns knows their way around life jackets. This particular PFD is suitable for kids weighing from 50-90lbs. It offers ample buoyancy for activities like sailboarding and light craft fishing. It uses highly durable materials to ensure you can rely on it year in and year out when out having an amazing experience with your kids.

Best Life Jackets for Pets:

If you are going to bring your four-legged friend out on the water with you, you’ll need to keep them safe. Although there are no requirements for life jackets for pets by the USCG, it’s vital that they are also in proper life jackets should the worst happen.

best life jacket for pets and dogs

1. Outward Hound Kyjen Dog Life Jacket

Dog PFD by Kyjen

Best Affordable Life Jacket for Pets

Does your dog love to swim? Almost all dogs do, and if you want to keep your pooch afloat, the Kyjen Outward Hound will deliver. It features bright colors, and reflectors for easy visibility and side and top grab handles to facilitate fast rescues from the water.

Kyjen is a popular brand when it comes to making durable and sturdy products. This life jacket is made using a ripstop material which is extra durable while providing sufficient buoyancy in the water. It also offers full movement while on land so your pet can play wherever they want to.

2. Paws Aboard Doggy Neoprene Life Jacket

Paws Aboard PFD

Best Premium Dog Life Jacket

If you need a life jacket that is reliable and yet comes in a fun design, you will find the Paws Aboard Doggy Life Jacket irresistible. It offers sufficient floatation and wearing comfort for your dog. It comes with reflective strips, a grab handle, adjustable nylon straps, and quick release buckles.

It is a heavy-duty life jacket which will fit securely around the dog’s belly and neck. Your dog will not have any movement restrictions so they too, can participate in fun activities.


As we indicated in the Sound producing devices section, bells and whistles are a requirement for specific situations. Vessels of 39.4ft to 65ft are no longer required to carry bells and whistles.

1. UST Hear-Me Whistle

UST Whistle

Best Marine Whistle

Owning an essential signaling device for your boat cannot be underestimated. The UST Hear-Me Whistle is a waterproof, ultralight whistle which emits a shrieking sound. People can hear it over long distance making it suitable for use in all weather. It can be heard over breaking waves meaning your chances of rescue will go up significantly. Other boaters will also hear it and help prevent a collision in foggy weather.

This is a reliable whistle as it comes with a clip that can be attached to gear or clothing. You’ll also like that it does not freeze, rust, or clog. It’s your go-to survival whistle.

2. Kwik Tek Whistle with Lanyard

Kwik Tek Whistle

Best Whistle with Floating Chain

This whistle will always be with you as it doubles as a keychain. It will be of great use during emergency situations or in times when you need to alert other boaters. It produces a high-pitch pea-less sound that is perfect for long-distance use. You can clip this whistle to a life jacket, lanyard, or use it as a floatation keychain.

3. Whitewater 1792BC Chrome-Plated Brass Ship Bell

Chome Plated Ship Bell For Boating

Best Bell for Boating

The Whitewater 1792BC Ship Bell comes complete with the internal mechanism. It is a 6-inch bell which is ideal for signaling a change of watch or alerting other boaters while out in open water. It can also be a great emergency tool for a situation when you need to alert everyone aboard about impending danger.

The chrome-plated brass construction produces a sustained sound that reaches out to far distances. It is a high-quality device that you may never have to change for a really long time.


Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signaling Devices:

These devices include red flares aerial signals and handheld devices. There are also orange smoke devices which can be handheld or floating devices. They also include parachute flares and launchers for aerial red meteors. 

Non-Pyrotechnic devices include electric distress lights or an orange distress flag. Note that a minimum of three visual distress signaling devices must be carried. They must not be expired meaning they have are not 42 months old from the manufacturer's date. 

boat visual distress signal

1. Cyalume SnapLight Red Glow Sticks

SnightLight Distress Signal Glow Sticks

Best Red Glow Distress Signal

These are industrial grade sticks which can glow for up to 12 hours. They use high-quality formulations which produce high light output that anyone can see from a distance. These sticks are waterproof, non-toxic, non-flammable and they have a shelf life of 5 years. You can keep them for a very long until the need arises to use them.

2. Goglobe Distress Flag for Boating, Kayaking, and Climbing

Boating Distress Flag

Best Distress Flag

Anything can happen in the outdoors. The Goglobe Distress Flag provides daytime visual is very useful in bright sunlight thanks to the bright orange color. It has a black square and ball which will alert people, especially when waved from a boat. It is large in size; thus ideal for hanging on the rear and front of a vessel for extensive coverage.

3. Shoreline Marine S.O.S Distress Flag

This distress flag is a nice signaling device to keep in your vessel. It gives you a feeling of security when boating with friends or alone. It comes in a functional design which involves a black square and black ball against an orange background. It meets USCG requirements for day signaling hence you will have a product that can easily put out a distress signal in case you need help.

4. Weems and Plath SOS Distress Light LED Electronic Flare Light

Weems and Plath SOS LED Flare Light

Best Distress Light

This distress light is USCG compliant for both daytime and night use. It can flash for up to 60 hours using three C-cell batteries. This model can replace pyrotechnic flares since it will never expire. You only need to replace the batteries and it ready for use. It flashes the SOS sequence and is visible for 10 nautical miles. This unit is also supplied with a distress flag which you can combine with this LED distress light.


Requirements for carrying Fire Extinguishers:

· Boats of 26ft or less should have at least one BI fire extinguisher
· Boats between 26ft and 40ft must have a type BII or two BI fire extinguishers
· Boats that are between 40ft and 60ft should have two BII or three BI fire extinguishers

1. Family Guard Rechargeable 2.5 Pound Fire Extinguisher

This fire extinguisher has a UL rating of 1-A:10-B:C. This means it will be able to extinguish fire across the three classes where class A stands for combustible fuel sources like wood and paper while B stands for flammable liquids, and C stands for electrical fires. It is USCG-approved for boating purposes. It has a secure mounting bracket and a pull-pin alongside a safety seal.


1. Attwood Blower

The Attwood Blower provides natural ventilation for engine compartments. It is built using a patented in-line design which installs easily using no.10 fasteners. This blower will come in handy to prevent the risk of gas poisoning especially from carbon monoxide gas which is odorless.


We cannot put enough emphasis on boating safety. This article has highlighted a checklist of boating equipment that is designed to keep you safe in the water. Boating and being on the water are can bring some of life's greatest experiences and knowing that you and your friends and family.

About the author  Robert Finn

Robert has over 20 years of experience boating and selling boat equipment. His passion for the latest and greatest gear helps our clients find what they need. His favorite boating place is the Florida Keys.