Whether you’re headed for one of the 10 best party coves in America, casting for walleye from a freshwater fishing boat, or going offshore powerboat racing, there are certain items you need to have aboard every boat. These things should be on each and every boater’s checklist:

  1. United States Coast Guard required safety gear

  2. Additional safety gear appropriate to the type of boating you do

  3. Legal documentation for the boat and captain

  4. A basic first aid kit

  5. Extra food and water

  6. An anchor and rode (line)

  7. Basic tools or at least a multi-tool

  8. A full fuel tank

Don’t laugh at that last one—you’d be amazed at how many people run out of fuel in their boat. In fact, Sea Tow lists running out of fuel as one of the top mistakes that lead to a tow.

Always, always, always make sure a full tank of fuel is on your must-have boating checklist.

United States Coast Guard Required Safety Gear

We’re pretty sure everyone can understand why having all the safety gear legally required by the USCG is a must. The exact requirements you need to fulfill will vary depending on where you do your boating, and the size of your boat. Boats that head out into the ocean to go fishing for tuna, for example, have a different set of requirements than a kayak you launch in a peaceful pond. We look in detail at the different items your boat is likely to need in Boat Safety Gear You Need Aboard to Avoid a Ticket, but remember that the must-haves are only the very basic, legally-mandated items. As any experienced boater can attest, the more safety gear you carry, the better off you are.

For the full listing of all USCG rules and regs regarding recreational boats, see A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.

Additional Safety Gear Appropriate to the Type of Boating You Do

Let’s use the example of that boater who sets off in search of pelagic gamefish in the ocean, once again. There’s no rule or law that says he or she must have a VHF radio. But it would be foolhardy to leave sight of land without one. And if the boat is heading beyond VHF range it would be just as inappropriate to go out without some form of satellite messenger, EPIRB, PLB, or other emergency signaling device. Read Communications Choices: VHF Radios, Satellite Messengers, and Cell Phones, to learn more about your options when it comes to these devices.

Satellite messengers, like this SPOT, are small, inexpensive, and can send out an SOS from almost anywhere on Earth.

Legal Documentation for the Boat and Captain

The law requires you to have legal documentation in order, before launching your boat on the public waterways. That means a state registration (or less commonly USCG federal documentation) for the boat. If you’re not 100-percent sure you already have this taken care of, click through to Boat Registration in USA to get a full listing of state agencies and how to apply for registration. In most areas the captain or owner of the boat is also required to carry some form of photo ID. But that’s just the bare minimum. In many places, captains under a certain age who weren’t grandfathered in under state law will also be required to carry proof of completion of a safe boating course. If you’re fishing from a boat, you’ll also need to carry your fishing license. And in certain circumstances federal permits may also be required. Be sure to do your homework before leaving shore, and have all the necessary paperwork in order. Tip: put your paperwork in a watertight bag or compartment, especially on small, open boats.

A Basic First Aid Kit

You might guess that a first aid kit would fall under those required safety items we mentioned earlier, but it doesn’t. Still, the reasons for having one on your must-have checklist are obvious – out on the water, you don’t always have fast and easy access to help. In fact, we feel keeping a first aid kit aboard is so important, it ranks among the top three safety suggestions for all boaters.

A first aid kit belongs aboard every boat – period.

Extra Food and Water

Again, the reason this is important is because you never know how long it may take to get assistance if there’s a problem out on the water. A simple day of cruising at the lake or meandering down the river can turn into an unexpected overnight camping trip, thanks to mechanical breakdown. Water is particularly important to keep on hand, since it’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re in the sun and out on the boat. Of course, the best way to avoid tapping into that emergency supply is to make it back home in the first place. Be sure to read Emergency Quick Fix: 10 Tricks That Will Get You Home, to minimize the chance of having one of those unexpected camping trips of your own.

An Anchor and Rode

Many people don’t think an anchor is a must-have, but they’re wrong. Anchors should be considered safety gear, because in some situations when you lose power, the wind drops, or a strong current takes control, setting an anchor can prevent you from drifting into dangerous waters. Added bonus: by always having an anchor and rode on the boat, by default you also always have some spare line aboard.

If you’re not sure of how to anchor your boat, be sure to watch Boating Tips: How to Anchor Your Boat. And if you don’t know which type of anchor to choose for your boat, check out our video How to Choose the Best Anchor.

Basic Tools (or at least a multitool)

Even if you’re not particularly handy, keeping some basic tools aboard your boat is a must. A pair of pliers, an adjustable wrench, and a screwdriver will be necessary for even the simplest of repairs. And being able to tighten that nut back up or loosen that screw up could make the difference between getting home on your own, or having to call for help. Even on very small, simple boats like skiffs and kayaks, you should still at least keep a multitool on hand.

A multitool isn’t as good as having a full tool kit on hand, but it can be used to save the day.

A Full Fuel Tank

We already mentioned that boaters running out of fuel is all too common and we don’t want to belabor the point. But it’s worth pointing out that it’s very easy to avoid this problem, but it can be very difficult to resolve once a lack of fuel becomes an issue. Unfortunately, the fuel gauges in many boats are rather unreliable. If yours leaves you guessing, you may want to consider installing a fuel flow meter so you can constantly keep an eye on your fuel consumption.

There you have it folks – a complete boat item checklist for you to use each and every time you run your boat. Like the say on TV: But there’s more! What boating checklist article would be complete, without a checklist of all the different articles with checklists we mariners need to know about? Be sure to read:

Written by: Lenny Rudow
With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.