About USCG Safety Equipment for Smaller Boats


When going out on your inflatable boat, Jon Boat, small center console, or any boat measuring less than 16 feet in length, it is important to be fully equipped. Know the proper Coast Guard required  safety equipment for small boats before going out.


Having the proper equipment will:

1) Result in a safer adventure.

2) Will give you and your boating companions an increased feeling of safety, security, and preparedness.

3) Will help you pass that inevitable boat inspection by law enforcement officers.



The information in this article is intended to be helpful information that will get a new boater started in the right direction towards understanding some basic requirements for equipping a small boat under 16-foot-long with US Coast Guard required safety gear. U.S. Coast Guard safety equipment requirements are complex and can be intimidating when first reviewed. This article is intended to consolidate some of the more important information thus making it easier to understand. It is not a replacement of the U.S. Coast Guard safety gear requirements documents. Read this article first in its entirety so you are partially familiar with just some of their basics as they relate to smaller boats, then study the U.S. Coast Guard safety equipment requirements in their entirety. Additional disclaimers are at the bottom of this article.

Personal Flotation Devices.

Make sure to have a good quality US Coast Guard approved wearable flotation device, carry one wearable life jacket for each person on board. Make sure the life vest fits properly and is in good condition. They are required to be stored in an area where they are easily accessible, This means they should not be locked in a box, tied up in a bag, or stored under other items. Most people are not required to wear one when the boat is underway, but the coast guard does recommend that you wear one at all times when the boat is underway. Kids under 13 years old are required to wear one unless they are below the deck or in a cabin. Also, any persons involved in whitewater rafting type activities should wear one according to the USCG regulations and may be required to wear one depending on your state’s regulations.


Throwable Floatation Devices

Only boats that are 16-foot-long or longer are required to have a throwable (Type IV) device.


Visual Distress Signals

Do you plan on taking your inflatable boat or other small watercraft onto open waters? Open waters include bodies of water that are two nautical miles wide or wider. We do not recommend smaller boats go too far out because storms and large waves can appear suddenly and without warning. Before you have time to get back to safety a small boat can get into a lot of trouble if far from safety. In instances where smaller watercraft venture out into open water they are required to be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals. Some of the most common visual distress signaling devices would include red flairs for daytime or nighttime use, or flashlights and other electrical lights for nighttime use only.

You will need three daytime signals and three night time signals. If your night time device is a flashlight you will not need three. One flashlight will suffice to meet night time signaling requirements as long as it is an approved type and properly working. Inexpensive water-resistant head lamps are popular among fishermen because they allow one to have both hands free while providing a stream of light while fishing at night. Many of these devices have a setting that enable them to flash once per second. Such a device may or may not be effective at signaling others that you need help in an emergency, however, such devices do not typically fulfill USCG carry requirements. Headlamps are not typically marked with an indication that they meet such requirements.

In order for such a blinking light to meet USCG Visual Distress Signal carriage requirements, it must be actually marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 161 .013.

What about day time signaling devices for smaller boats under 16 foot? If you are operating a smaller recreational watercraft then you are not required to carry day signals.

Fire Extinguishers

U.S. Coast Guard-approved marine fire extinguishers may not be required on smaller boats such as inflatables, small aluminum fishing boats, and others because such boats do not have an inboard engine, are typically smaller than 26 foot in length, and often do not have a permanently installed fuel tank. However, because such boats often have an outboard motor and a fuel source that can be a potential fire hazard then it would be a good idea for you to have an approved marine fire extinguisher. If your fuel tank is not movable because it is too heavy, or because you fixed it in place, then you will be required to have an extinguisher.

If you are going to carry one the label on the extinguisher will be marked with a USCG approval number, and also be classified as Marine USCC Type B-I. Type B-I extinguishers are rated for boats up to 26-foot-long. B-II or B-III are larger than what the owner of a small boat will be required to carry.

Fire extinguishers must also have a mounting bracket. Making use of that mounting bracket by mounting your extinguisher is not required but mounting in a readily accessible location is recommended. In case of a fire the last thing you want to do is spend precious seconds looking for your fire extinguisher. Even smaller boats including rigid inflatable boats, and fully inflatable boats with aluminum floor boards can often be retrofitted with a steering helm where an extinguisher can be mounted.


Sound Producing Devices

Sound producing devices are to be used when overcoming other boats, crossing paths with other boat, or meeting other boats, they are also intended to be used in poor visibility conditions such as fog, heavy rain, or darkness etc.

A whistle or air horn will suffice for smaller boats under 16 foot. Human produced noises do not suffice.


Navigation Lights

Watercraft must use navigation lights between sunset and sunrise, such lights must also be used during poor visibility such as during fog or rain. For smaller boats you will need a green light shining out to the port side or (right side) of your boat when facing forward, and a red light shining towards the starboard or left side of the boat when facing forward. The light should be at the bow or (front end) of your boat. Alternatively, smaller boats can opt for an all-round white light sometimes called a masthead light, this is typically suspended on a pole above the boat.

Sidelights are a good idea but not required. The masthead light must be one meter above the sidelights if they are used. Anchored boats must also use a masthead light.

Even boats that are rowed or paddled such as rafts without motors must at a minimum have a white light such as a flashlight that shall be used in enough time to prevent boat collisions. And navigation rules require boats that are restricted in their ability to maneuver, such as dive boats for example, to display appropriate day shapes (ball/diamond/ball) or lights.



In addition to Coast Guard required equipment you should also have some extra safety equipment as followed:

A tow rope.
A first aid kit.
An anchor.
Food and Water.
Don’t forget your | wallet and cell phone in a waterproof container.


If your cellphone battery is dead, or your phone is out of signal range An EPIRM or PLB will be extremely reassuring to have. EPIRB’s and PLB’s are a little expensive but can be extremely effective safety tools. In an emergency, if it is absolutely necessary to contact emergency responders, an EPIRB or PLB can be deployed. These devices will send an emergency signal to a satellite, the satellite then sends a signal to rescue personal. When using an EPIRB the signal is sent to the Coast Guard, these devices signal for 48 hours. If you use a PLB they will signal for 24 hours. The PLB signal is sent via satellite to an Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. Regardless of which device you chose to purchase, make sure such devices are registered, this way the rescuers will know who you are, and will even have the description of your boat that you put into your registration form. Registration makes the rescuers job easier as they can focus on looking for your boat only, and will not waste time looking at other boats in the vicinity.


The information in this article is based on 2019 US Coast Guard requirements. Your local state requirements may take precedence over some of these requirements, and U.S. Coast Guard requirements may change over time. Also, this information applies to smaller boats under 16 foot and is not intended to be an all-inclusive, extensive, list of requirements for smaller boats. By reading this information you agree to use it as limited introductory information. You are hereby advised to consult with and learn USCG documents and other applicable documents. Consult with your local marine law enforcement agency, and local marine supply dealers for updated requirements. Additional disclaimers are at the top of this article.

The coast guard has a detailed breakdown of requirements in this link: https://www.uscgboating.org/images/420.PDF

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