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US Coast Guard Requirements: Boat Safety Equipment
US Coast Guard Requirements: Boat Safety Equipment

US Coast Guard Requirements: Boat Safety Equipment

All vessels, regardless of length, are required to comply with federal and state laws regarding boating safety equipment. The specific equipment needed varies depending on the length of the boat. However, this article focuses on providing the minimum federal boat safety equipment requirements as directed and enforced by the US Coast Guard for vessels under 40 feet in length. Some states and localities have additional boat safety requirements, so always stay abreast of any mandates specific to your area.

When accidents happen while boating, it can take longer for help to arrive, the only things you have to stay safe are the items you carry within your boat until it does.

Table 1: At-a-Glance US Coast Guard Boat Safety Equipment Requirements for vessels less than 40 ft. Click to enlarge.

Why Should Boaters Follow These Boat Safety Regulations?

Boating on various waterways is similar to automobiles out on the roads and highways—safety devices are designed to keep people safe. Thousands of accidents occur, many of which have a high probability of injury and a substantial number of cases resulting in death.

Specifically, in 2020 the Coast Guard counted 5,265 recreational boating accidents resulting in 767 deaths, 3,191 injuries, and approximately $62.5 million of property damage. Where the cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86% were not wearing a life jacket.

Since most accidents occur unexpectedly, there may not be sufficient time to put on a life jacket, especially when stowed away in a locker. In cases where a person is thrown overboard, it is harder than you think to get them back on board, which can be assisted with proper equipment. Always be sure personal floatation devices (PFDs) are in good and serviceable condition. For extra protection, equip your PFDs with a whistle and emergency light.

How About a More Detailed Look at Boat Safety Equipment?

Life jackets and Personal Floatation Devices

The best life jacket is the one you will wear, but adults are not required to wear their life jackets at all times. This said, \a US Coast Guard-approved life jacket is required on board for each person. Lifejacket regulations for children may vary by state; however, in states with no children’s life jacket law, a US Coast Guard interim rule requires children under 13 on moving boats to wear a well-fitting US Coast Guard-approved life jacket. For information on how to properly fit a kid’s life jacket, check out our detailed blog here.

Lifejackets must be:

  • The appropriate size for the intended user,
  • Suitable for the intended activity,
  • In good and serviceable condition, and
  • US Coast Guard approved to meet carriage requirements.

Additionally, you must have a throwable (a square cushion, also called a Type 4 PFD) onboard if the boat is over 16 feet. A PFD like a ring buoy also meets this requirement.

Finally, for those who like to bring their dog along for the adventure: we recommend suiting up your pup as well. Dog life jackets aren’t a USCG requirement, but they are recommended— especially for certain breeds, such as greyhounds, whippets, dobermans, bulldogs, and many more. Learn about how to choose the best dog life jacket here.

Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguisher requirements will depend on the age of the vessel, its size, and whether or not a fire extinguishing system is in place.

For Boats 2018 & Newer:

For powerboats less than 26′, you need a minimum of one 5-B or 20-B rated fire extinguishers that are date stamped. Vessels between 26′ – 40′ require two of these. This applies to boats without an existing fire extinguishing system.

If your boat has a fire extinguishing system built-in, you may reduce the requirement by one unit. So, in this case, a powerboat with a fire extinguishing system that measures less than 26′ would need no additional fire extinguishers, while boats measuring 26′ – 40′ would require only one.

For Boats Made between 1953 – 2017:

For powerboats less than 26′, you need at least one B-1 fire extinguisher (a 5-pound fire extinguisher) on board. Boats 26′ – 40′ must carry a minimum of two B-1 fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers have expiration dates, so boaters need to be mindful of that. This rule applies to boats without an existing fire extinguishing system.

If your boat has a fire extinguishing system built-in, you may again reduce the requirement by one unit. So, in this case, a powerboat with a fire extinguishing system that measures less than 26′ would need no additional fire extinguishers, while boats measuring 26′ – 40′ would require only one.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals are designed to assure that boaters have a way of attracting attention, securing assistance, and finding a boat in need of help more quickly.

Electric or Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signaling Devices

Must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and stowed to be readily accessible. If they are marked with a date showing the serviceable life, this date must not have passed. Launchers produced before Jan. 1, 1981, intended for use with approved signals are not required to be Coast Guard Approved.

USCG Approved Pyrotechnic and Electric Visual Distress Signals and Associated Devices include:

  • Pyrotechnic red flares, handheld or aerial
  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, handheld or floating
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares
  • Electric distress light (night use only)

SOS Electric Distress Light

An SOS electric distress light is an LED visual distress signal device that meets US Coast Guard requirements and completely replaces traditional pyrotechnic flares. Electronic flares never expire (pyrotechnic flares must be less than 42 months old) and also solve flare disposal problems. Also, an LED electric distress light flashes for up to 60 hours, whereas traditional flares last minutes or less. These lights flash only the SOS sequence, per USCG requirements, and are visible up to 10 nautical miles.


Visual Distress Signaling Flags

Visual distress signaling flags must carry the manufacturer’s certification that they meet Coast Guard requirements. They must be in serviceable condition and stowed to be readily accessible.

Sound Producing Devices

A horn or whistle is recommended for vessels 26′ or less to signal intentions or signal position. However, for boats 26′ – 40′, a horn or whistle is required to sign intentions or signal position.


A US Coast Guard-standard system is required on gasoline-powered vessels with enclosed engine compartments on vessels built after August 1980.

Backfire Flame Arrestor

One Coast Guard-approved device is required on each carburetor of all gasoline-powered engines that are built after August 1980. Outboard motors are an exception to this. This applies to vessels up to 40’, except kayaks and canoes.

Oil & Garbage Placards

A 5″ x 8″ oil discharge placard and 4″ x 9″ waste discharge placard is required for boats between 26’ – 40’. Newer boats will come with this placard; however, a placard might need to be purchased for an older boat.

Marine Sanitation Device

Boats with installed toilet facilities must have an operable, US Coast Guard-certified Type I, II, or III marine sanitation device (MSD). These devices are also subject to local laws.

Navigation Lights

Recreational boats operating at night must display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise. The basic rule is that sidelights, masthead, and stern lights are required. However, please refer to the US Coast Guard’s “A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boaters” for details.

What Other Boat Safety Equipment Should You Have on Hand?

When out on the water, the only items you have are the ones you bring. People often forget about the possibility of minor injuries, but some additional preparedness will have you ready for anything.

  • Bring a first aid kit along for all outings. This is especially important when fishing.
  • Since the sun reflects off the water, it is wise to consistently apply proper sun protection to make sure you don’t get burned. Sun protective clothing is a smart choice— it provides all-day protection that doesn’t need reapplying. Pro-tip: some sunscreen is toxic for the marine environment and repels fish, who can smell even trace amounts on bait. For any part of your body not covered by UPF clothing, use a sunscreen that’s both reef-safe and fish-friendly.
  • While some boats are simply too large for this to be practical, carrying a paddle or two on board is a good idea in many cases. Even if you can’t paddle all the way back to a marina or dock when your engine goes, you may be able to reach the closest bit of land and wait for help. A good anchor with enough chain will also be helpful.
  • We’ve written extensively on the importance of a VHF radio, but it simply can’t be overstated. Cell phones aren’t enough in many areas, and you’ll be glad to have the security.
  • Be alert to changing conditions on the water and aware of weather that can change quickly. The danger of boating in a storm is no joke!
  • Finally, bring plenty of drinking water for everyone on board to stay hydrated. In the face of unexpected problems, you don’t want to be caught stuck on your boat with an insufficient water supply.

Check Your Boat Safety Equipment Regularly

Never tamper with a safety device. Check your equipment regularly to make sure it is always in good working condition. If in doubt, it is better to have it repaired or replaced. As good as the devices are, they are only as good as knowing how to use them effectively.

It’s also smart to keep your boat clean and organized. This is the single best way to avoid unnecessary trip hazards. It is best to thoroughly understand your boat by knowing how it operates and handles on the water. Always pay attention to your surroundings and other boaters. You are the primary key to keeping you, your family, and others safe aboard your vessel.

Still Not Sure if You Have Enough Boat Safety Knowledge?

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary and the United States Power Squadrons® offer a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) as a free public service. These volunteer organizations assist the US Coast Guard by promoting boating safety. Check with them if you are unsure about whether you are in compliance with the safety requirements for your vessel. Having the proper education also ensures safer boating.

PartsVu offers more than 200,000 parts and products, including boating essentials, to help you to safety enjoy your time on the water.


Hello Scott,

Regulations regarding small vessel licenses or any other licensing requirements can vary by country, state, or jurisdiction, and they can change over time. What state are you boating in? Perhaps we can help you find the correct information.


Mario Alvarez,

Thank you for your support. We are just doing our part to keep boaters boating! The best fun is safe fun.

Mario Alvarez,

Hello Mayte,

Hello Mayte,

Thank you for reaching out as I am happy to assist. US coast guard requires 26 to 40ft Vessels to have the following lifejackets and floatation devices. Type I, II, III, or V for Each Person on Board and 1 Type IV Throwable. Some states and localities have additional boat safety requirements, so always stay abreast of any mandates specific to your area.


Mario Alvarez,

Very informative blog.Really thank you! Cool.


The news says I don’t need a small vessel license if you’re over 50, yet I’m unable to verify that. ?

Scott Hesson,

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