What Safety Equipment is Required on a Boat?

Sometimes there's just nothing better than spending an enjoyable day out on your boat. The sun, the sea, the salty breeze, and the people you like best all having a great time on your vessel is just the makings of a great time, but you can’t focus only on the fun stuff. While boats offer unique and fun experiences, they can also be pretty dangerous if you don’t observe certain precautions. Even if you are a strong swimmer or an expert at sailing, there is a lot you need to know before boarding a boat alone or with passengers. In the U.S., the Coast Guard has a number of rules and requirements to ensure that every voyage is a safe one, and with these rules come certain safety equipment that you should always have on board no matter what. Not sure what safety items are mandatory and which are up to you? We’ll cover what safety equipment you should have onboard so that you’re complying with the law as well as keeping yourself and your passengers safe.



Boat Safety Laws by State and Length

It is important to note that some boat safety laws and equipment requirements will vary depending on where you live. Some states will have requirements that others won’t have, and vice versa. Here, we’ll focus on general boating safety equipment, meaning those recognized across the United States. To learn what your specific state has to say about safety equipment on your boat, do a quick search and browse the results. Most all states have a specific page or pdf that offers all the information you need on boat safety per state. For example, here are the specific requirements for Freshly Salted’s home state, California. You can also learn about your state’s safety requirements here.


In addition to specific state requirements, there are also different safety equipment requirements depending on the length of your boat. Longer boats will have different requirements than shorter boats, and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has specific rules for each boat type, ranging through these categories: Under 16 ft, 16ft-Under 26ft, 26ft-Under 40 ft, and 40ft-Under 65ft.


Below, we’ll run through al you need to know about your boat’s safety equipment requirements depending on length.


Your Safety Equipment Checklist: By Boat Length

Now that we’ve got the specifics out of the way, what safety equipment are you required to have regardless of your home state? This checklist (adapted from the USCG and Boat US) will help you ensure that you have everything you should next time you set sail:


Under 16ft

As part of the laws and minimum equipment requirements set forth by the USCG, your water vessel under 16 feet in length should have the following items:

  • Personal Floatation Devices (PFD/Life Jackets): All recreational boats must carry PFDs approved by the USCG. Each flotation device should be the right size for all intended users and can be used on children as young as four years old and younger. The Floatation Devices must be stored where they are easily accessible, ideally on hooks in an open area. You should never store your PFD in a locker, closet, or other closed compartment and they should not have anything stored with them or on top of them that will hinder your ability to reach them. Of the PFDs, you should have one Type I, II, III or V on board for each person, especially when engaging in water sports like skiing. You must also have one Type IV devices in the event that someone falls overboard. Note that throwable PFDS and wearable ones may not be used interchangeably - you must have both types on board.
  • Fire Extinguisher: You should have an appropriate, portable fire extinguisher on board at all times. At least one B-1 type USCG approved should will meet the safety equipment requirement. On certain boats (i.e. motorboats less than 26 feet long that are built to avoid explosions, entrapment, flammable gases and vapor, etc, and that are not carrying passengers) are not required to have a fire extinguisher aboard. Ensure fire extinguishers are stored properly at all times.
  • Visual Distress Signals: All recreational and commercial boats under 16 ft must carry a visual distress signal for nighttime use. The signal must be be Coast Guard approved.
  • Sound Producing Device: All boats under 40 feet have to carry a sound producing device in case of emergency. This can be a whistle, horn, or other like object that produces a strong, clear noise.


  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: This requirement is for all boats with a carburetor or gasoline engine installed after April 25, 1940. It is not required for outboard motors. Ensure that the device is marked to show approval and compliance with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 Standards.
    • Boats Built Before August 1980:  Boats built before this date must have at least two ventilation ducts with fitted cowls to ensure proper and efficient ventilation of the bilges of every closed engine and fuel tank compartment.
    • Boats Built After August 1980: Boats built after this date must have at least two ventilation ducts that will efficiently ventilate any closed compartment where a gasoline engine or tank is present. If the tank is installed, vented, and located outside of the boat and contains no electrical devices, ventilation is not required.



16 ft to Under 26 ft

For slightly longer boats, the requirements are as follows:

  • Personal Floatation Devices (PFD/Life Jackets): All recreational boats 16ft to 26 ft must carry PFDs approved by the USCG.The PFD should be in good condition, the right size for its user (adults, teens, kids, and young children aged four or younger), and readily accessible in case of an emergency. The Floatation Devices must be stored in an open area where they can be accessed without issue. PFDs should never be stored in a locker, closet, or other closed compartment and they should not have anything stored with them or on top of them. You should have one Type I, II, III or V PFD on board for each person, especially when engaging in water sports like skiing. You must also have one Type IV devices in the event that someone falls overboard. Note that throwable PFDS and wearable ones may not be used interchangeably - you must have both types on board.
  • Fire Extinguisher: At least one B-1 type USCG approved fire extinguisher should be present on board at all times. Motorboats less than 26 feet long that are built to avoid explosions, entrapment, flammable gases and vapor, etc, and that are not carrying passengers) are not required to have a fire extinguisher aboard.
  • Visual Distress Signals: For longer boats, visual distress signals must be carried for use both in the daytime and nighttime. You should have at least three pyrotechnic devices on board, either aerial or handheld flares, orange smoke either handheld or aerial, and launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares. You may also have any combination of the mentioned visual distress signals so long as they total three for daytime use and three for nighttime use (so six overall!). All visual distress signals must be in good, serviceable condition, stowed in an easily accessible area, and far from their expiration date.
  • Sound Producing Device: All boats under 40 feet have to carry a sound producing device in case of emergency. This can be a whistle, horn, or other like object that produces a strong, clear noise.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: This requirement is for all boats with a carburetor or gasoline engine installed after April 25, 1940. It is not required for outboard motors. Ensure that the device is marked to show approval and compliance with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 Standards.
  • Ventilation:
    • Boats Built Before August 1980:  Boats built before this date must have at least two ventilation ducts with fitted cowls to ensure proper and efficient ventilation of the bilges of every closed engine and fuel tank compartment.
    • Boats Built After August 1980: Boats built after this date must have at least two ventilation ducts that will efficiently ventilate any closed compartment where a gasoline engine or tank is present. If the tank is installed, vented, and located outside of the boat and contains no electrical devices, ventilation is not required.

26 ft to Under 40 ft

If you own a between 26 feet in length and under 40 ft, these requirements are for you:

  • Personal Floatation Devices (PFD/Life Jackets): PFDs approved by the USCG are required on board at all times. Each flotation device should be in good condition, easily accessible, and the right size for all intended users (children, teens, and adults). Never store your PFD in a locker, closet, or other closed compartment and they should not have anything stored with them or on top of them that will hinder your ability to reach them. You should have one Type I, II, III or V PFD on board for each person, especially when engaging in water sports. You must also have one Type IV devices in the event that someone falls overboard. Note that throwable PFDS and wearable ones may not be used interchangeably - you must have both types on board.
  • Fire Extinguisher: Boats 26 ft to under 40 ft should have at least two B-1 type USCG approved fire extinguishers on board, or one B-2 type extinguisher.
  • Visual Distress Signals:  LIke the 26ft and under boats, visual distress signals must be carried for use both in the daytime and nighttime on your 26ft to under 40 ft boat. You should have at least three pyrotechnic devices on board, either aerial or handheld flares, orange smoke either handheld or aerial, and launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares. You may also have any combination of the mentioned visual distress signals so long as they total three for daytime use and three for nighttime use (so six overall!). All visual distress signals must be in good, serviceable condition, stowed in an easily accessible area, and far from their expiration date.
  • Sound Producing Device: All boats under 40 feet have to carry a sound producing device in case of emergency. This can be a whistle, horn, siren or other like object that produces a strong, clear noise that lasts for 4 seconds and can be heard from up to half a mile away.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: This requirement is for all boats with a carburetor or gasoline engine installed after April 25, 1940. It is not required for outboard motors. Ensure that the device is marked to show approval and compliance with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 Standards. 
  • Ventilation:
    • Boats Built Before August 1980:  Boats built before this date must have at least two ventilation ducts with fitted cowls to ensure proper and efficient ventilation of the bilges of every closed engine and fuel tank compartment.
    • Boats Built After August 1980: Boats built after this date must have at least two ventilation ducts that will efficiently ventilate any closed compartment where a gasoline engine or tank is present. If the tank is installed, vented, and located outside of the boat and contains no electrical devices, ventilation is not required.
  • Placards: All boats 26 feet or larger must display both garbage and oil placards.

Under 40 ft to 65 ft

If you own a boat within the longest length range, this is what you’ll need:

  • Personal Floatation Devices (PFD/Life Jackets): PFDs approved by the USCG are required on board at all times. Each flotation device should be in good condition, easily accessible, and the right size for all intended users (children, teens, and adults). Never store your PFD in a locker, closet, or other closed compartment and they should not have anything stored with them or on top of them that will hinder your ability to reach them. You should have one Type I, II, III or V PFD on board for each person, especially when engaging in water sports. You must also have one Type IV devices in the event that someone falls overboard. Note that throwable PFDS and wearable ones may not be used interchangeably - you must have both types on board.


  • Fire Extinguisher: Boats 40 ft to under 65 feet should have at least three B-1 type USCG approved fire extinguishers on board, or a single B-1 Type along with a B-2 type extinguisher.
  • Visual Distress Signals:  LIke the 26ft and under boats, visual distress signals must be carried for use both in the daytime and nighttime on your 40ft to under 65ft boat. You should have at least three pyrotechnic devices on board, either aerial or handheld flares, orange smoke either handheld or aerial, and launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares. You may also have any combination of the mentioned visual distress signals so long as they total three for daytime use and three for nighttime use (so six overall!). All visual distress signals must be in good, serviceable condition, stowed in an easily accessible area, and far from their expiration date.
  • Sound Producing Device: All boats under 40 feet have to carry a sound producing device in case of emergency. This can be a whistle, horn, siren or other like object that produces a strong, clear noise that lasts for 4 seconds and can be heard from up to half a mile away.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: This requirement is for all boats with a carburetor or gasoline engine installed after April 25, 1940. It is not required for outboard motors. Ensure that the device is marked to show approval and compliance with SAE J-1928 or UL 1111 Standards.
  • Ventilation:
    • Boats Built Before August 1980:  Boats built before this date must have at least two ventilation ducts with fitted cowls to ensure proper and efficient ventilation of the bilges of every closed engine and fuel tank compartment.
    • Boats Built After August 1980: Boats built after this date must have at least two ventilation ducts that will efficiently ventilate any closed compartment where a gasoline engine or tank is present. If the tank is installed, vented, and located outside of the boat and contains no electrical devices, ventilation is not required.
  • Placards: All boats 26 feet or larger must display both garbage and oil placards.

Why It All Matters

It goes without saying that these safety equipment requirements are put in place for you safety, the safety of your passengers, and the safety of others at sea. When going out on the water, you want to have a good time, and this requirements ensure a safe time as well. To learn more about boat safety in the US, you can continue reading here. Happy Sailing!