The Essential Ditch Bag Guide

When it comes to sailing, being prepared for emergencies is paramount.

The challenge often lies in understanding what essentials to pack in a ditch bag, how to organize them effectively, and where to store them.

Drawing on extensive sailing experience, I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to emergency ditch bags (grab bags).

I’ve also ensured that the explanations are both detailed for the experts and accessible for those new to the world of marine safety.

As a fellow mariner, I understand the importance of being prepared for any situation. So let’s take a quick look at the key points to take away from this guide.

At a Glance:

1️⃣ The bag should be easily accessible and kept in reach to grab if it is needed in an emergency.

2️⃣ The categories of ditch bag contents should include food and water, medical equipment communication, navigation, signaling equipment, and paperwork.

3️⃣ A ditch bag is not a legal requirement, but many of the contents are.

4️⃣ A purpose-made ditch bag is the best solution.

🛄 Essential Ditch Bag Contents

An EPIRB, flare kits, handheld radio with extra batteries, flashlights, glow sticks, and a First Aid kit are non-negotiable must-haves.

After that, think about your priorities and how long you may be in the life raft. For more ideas on what to include in your ditch bag, check out this guide on ditch bag contents.

If in Long Island Sound, for example, it may only be an hour or so before you’re rescued, but halfway to Bermuda or in the Pacific, it could be days.

If you cruise offshore, a proper abandon-ship bag keeps survival gear where it’s quick to grab.

Ditch bags should be packed slightly differently if the boat is used in coastal waters (or inland) instead of offshore, where rescue may take longer.

It’s a conscientious and responsible act to have a ditch bag in your boat, but it is just as important to ensure that it is packed with all the essentials that you will need if you are forced to abandon ship.

To help you prepare the ditch bag for your vessel, the following itemizes the necessary equipment by the different categories. 

Food And Water Stocks

It goes without saying that food and water are essential for survival and to prevent dehydration.

Water Stocks

The body needs at least ½ a gallon of water per day to survive and 1 ½ gallons per day to prevent feeling thirsty.

A store of emergency water is essential to include in the ditch bag.

Adding an electrolyte to the mix is worthwhile. When we sweat, we lose sodium and ultimately begin to dehydrate.

Sodium helps the body retain fluids; therefore, keeping a sodium-based electrolyte as a water additive in the ditch bag will reduce the amount of fluid loss.

At least two to three days of water supplies in coastal waters should be kept per person.

Food Supplies

The recommended calories consumed daily are 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men.

Although people can go for many days without food, carrying some emergency food supplies in a ditch bag is worthwhile.

Energy bars are also useful and take up little space in the ditch bag.

Medical Equipment

The medical first aid kit should carry the following products:

  • A first-aid instruction book.
  • A broad-spectrum antibiotic as prescribed by your doctor (the antibiotic should not be Penicillin because some people are allergic – ask your doctor for advice.)
  • Headache pills.
  • Seasickness pills.
  • Antiseptic cream.
  • Medicated rash cream.
  • Medication to stop diarrhea.
  • Medication to stop constipation.
  • Bandages are contained in sealed packets.
  • Plasters to cover small cuts or blisters.
  • Sun cream.
  • If any boat’s occupants use chronic medication for a life-threatening condition, ensure that supplies are kept in the First Aid Kit.
  • Emergency Space Blankets
  • Caps for all of the occupants (to help prevent sunstroke.)
  • A Spare Pair Of Reading Glasses if the captain requires them.

Communication, Navigation, An Signaling Equipment

Two important communication devices should be carried in a ditch bag (whether legally required or not).

An EBIRP Device (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)

An EPIRB is a vital piece of equipment to include in your essential ditch bag. Even if your boat is not legally required to carry an EBIRP Device, it is recommended that you have one.

These devices form part of an emergency protocol that 38 countries have signed.

It is an apolitical system, and even feuding states are required to assist their “enemies” citizens if the incident happens in their jurisdiction.

The two categories of EBIRP devices are differentiated on whether they activate automatically or manually.

  • Category one devices activate automatically when the device comes into contact with water.
  • Category two devices are switched on manually.

When the EBIRP is activated, the signal is received by satellite and redirected to one of the 38 Local User Terminals (LUT) worldwide.

The facility processes the signal, identifies the location of the transmitting EBIRP, and sends it to the nearest Mission control center (MCC).

The MCC collates the other satellite messages and directs the information-rich signal to the most appropriate national Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). This organization proceeds with the rescue.

Understanding how an EPIRB works can be crucial when assembling your essential ditch bag.

A Handheld VHF Transmitter

A 6-watt handheld VHF radio allows the survivors to contact rescue authorities or another nearby vessel.

Remember the correct procedures when talking on a VHF in an emergency situation. A laminated card in your ditch bag is a failsafe.

The radio should have a GPS-enabled function that tags the GPS coordinates to the distress signal.

Navigation Equipment

If the EBIRP is GPS enabled, it will provide the coordinates to the system.

As a backup, a small standalone GPS should be kept in the ditch bag.

It is a good practice to carry an “old school” compass in the ditch bag.

Signaling Equipment

Packing twice the amount of handheld pyrotechnic flares required by the US Coastguard is recommended.

Flare types include handheld flares, parachute flares, and orange smoke canisters.

Additionally, you should carry a signaling mirror, sea dye marker, an air horn, and a signal locator beacon.


Keep the following documents in the ditch bag:

  • Vessel registration.
  • The operator’s driver’s license.
  • A safe boating course or master’s certificate.

If traveling offshore in other countries’ territorial waters, the following should also be kept in the ditch bag:

  • Photocopies of passports.
  • All your immunization records.
  • All visas are used on the trip.
  • Small Denominations of US dollar bills (cash) in a sealed, waterproof bag.
  • Traveler’s checks.
  • Credit cards.
  • The vessel’s documents and insurance information.
  • Names and dosages of all medication requirements.
  • Phone numbers.

📦 Packaging And Storage

Having a system in place when you pack a ditch bag is a very good practice.

  • Each category of equipment should be kept in its own internal compartments.
  • Spare batteries should be kept in sealed plastic bags.
  • The EBIRP should be kept in an external pocket so that the main bag does not need to be opened to access it.
  • Use the bag with internal straps to keep the contents secure.
  • Store the Signaling Equipment in separate, waterproof sections.

To comply with US Coastguard requirements (relating to flares and other emergency signaling equipment), the bag must be kept in a location that is easy to find and is close at hand when required.

I recommend keeping the ditch bag in a clean, dry, and cool storage locker.

📜 Regulations And Requirements

There is no rule requiring that you carry a ditch bag.

There are legal requirements that flares be carried in a vessel (the number varies by boat type and application.)

If the flares are kept in the ditch bag, the storage location must comply with these regulations.

The US Coast Guard requires the following equipment to be kept on board:

  • Life Jackets and personal floatation devices.
  • Fire Extinguishers.
  • Bells and Whistles.
  • Visual Distress Signals

The US Coastguard can issue a fine of up to $1,100 if the boat does not comply with equipment requirements.

🎯 Choosing the Right Ditch Bag 

The most appropriate ditch bags are specifically designed for this use and have the following specifications:

  • They have sewn-in buoyancy panels that make them waterproof.
  • They are brightly colored (yellow, red, or orange) and are more easily seen from above.
  • They have a strap and handle to make carrying easy.
  • An external lanyard can connect the bag to the user or life raft.
  • They have several internal lanyards to keep all of the contents secure.
  • They have multiple pockets and divisions inside to separate the different content categories.

I suggest using smaller waterproof bags to store the different categories of content, which can then be placed in the ditch bag.

These provide an additional waterproof layer.

🔑 Key Takeaways

A ditch bag is an essential part of a boat’s safety protocol and is just as important as life jackets. A purpose-made ditch bag is the best solution.

The ditch bag should contain food and water, medical equipment, communication equipment, navigation equipment, signaling equipment, and the vessel’s regulatory paperwork.

1️⃣ The contents of a ditch bag should be carefully selected based on the specific needs of your voyage and potential emergency scenarios. It’s also important to pack the bag in a way that keeps items secure and easily accessible.

2️⃣ While there’s no legal requirement to carry a ditch bag, many of its contents are legally required, and the bag itself can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation.

3️⃣ Choosing a purpose-made ditch bag that is waterproof, brightly colored, and easy to carry can enhance its effectiveness and visibility in an emergency.

When preparing your ditch bag, I would suggest going an extra step further and consider including a personal locator beacon.

❓ FAQs

How often should I check and update the contents of my ditch bag?

It’s recommended to check and update the contents of your ditch bag at least once a year. However, if you’re planning a long voyage or if there have been significant changes in your sailing conditions or crew, it’s a good idea to check and update it more frequently.

Can I use a regular backpack or duffel bag as a ditch bag?

While it’s possible to use a regular backpack or duffel bag as a ditch bag, it’s generally recommended to use a purpose-made ditch bag. These are designed to be waterproof, buoyant, and highly visible, and they often have features like internal compartments and external lanyards that can be useful in an emergency.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.