Packing a Ditch Bag 101 – What to Carry at All Times

Ditch bags, also called a go-bag or bail-bag, and what's packed inside can spell the difference between life or death

It’s something you hope to never need. Yet, it’s smart not to head out on the water without one. Ditch bags, also called a go-bag or bail-bag, and what’s packed inside can spell the difference between life or death if you need to abandon vessel and wait for help to arrive. With this importance underscored, and because of the need for a ditch bag to be small and light enough to hoist and carry, what should you put in it? How should the contents vary by the type of boating you do? Where should you stow a ditch bag for easy access? We asked these three questions to a trio of boating safety professionals for their expert advice.

An example of some of the items that are ideal to pack in a well-equipped ditch bag. Most importantly is for boaters to customize ditch bag contents to meet their needs.
An example of some of the items that are ideal to pack in a well-equipped ditch bag. Most importantly is for boaters to customize ditch bag contents to meet their needs.

What should you pack in a Ditch Bag?

“Pack as much as practical. Pack more than you need. Redundancy is good,” says Ted Sensenbrenner, assistant director of boating safety programs for the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland. “The kit should include things to SIGNAL for help (EPIRB and PLB, flares, meteors, and smoke, mirror, light signals, distress light, laser flare, strobing distress light and dye markers).  The kit should include things to COMMUNICATE to rescuers/would be rescuers (handheld VHF, tracking and texting devices aka Satellite Emergency Notification Device (SENDs), satellite phone, cell phone). It should include SURVIVAL items (this list can be extremely lengthy and personal, but survival items should include the following; food and water, medical supplies, fishing gear and rain water collection/water purifier, prescription meds/eyeglasses (if needed), documentation like passports, ID and ship’s papers, navigation equipment like a chart, handheld GPS, compass.

How much is Too Much in a Ditch Bag?

Some people pack really comprehensive ditch bags and some only pack the essentials, says Brian Kinsella Sr, national yachting sales manager for the Americas for Viking Life-Saving Equipment, Inc., based in Miami, Florida. “A knife, radar reflector, sunscreen, lip balm, garden gloves for flare handling and space blankets or TPAs (thermal protective aids), are items I usually recommend.”

The essential point is that a ditch bag should be personalized to suit individual needs. This can mean buying each item separately and assembling a bag from scratch. Or, buying a ready-made ditch bag, scanning the inventory included and adding additional items to customize as desired. This tailoring should also be based on whether boating trips are predominantly inshore or offshore.

What about an Inshore Ditch Bag?

If operating inshore expendable items or your one-and-done items like food, water, flares should be increased based on your cruising, explains Timothy Hazen, the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida-based Southeast, Gulf Coast, & Caribbean Regional Sales Manager for the Survitec Group Ltd. “For example, inshore you may carry 3 extra flares, if offshore you should consider 6. In recreational boating the USCG does a great job at outlining what we should carry. We as the boaters need to take these requirements as minimums and not items to simply pass an inspection. If the USCG requires 3 or an item there is no harm in carrying 6, there is no such thing as being “too safe” at 2 am, in 12′ seas off shore and no visibility.

Hazen adds, “I think the difference is in how long you have to wait to be found. Open ocean sailors might have to wait a little longer than inshore sailors, especially if they are outside the shipping lanes. An EPIRB or PLB greatly reduces the amount of time a stranded sailor has to wait to be rescued.”

What are the Criteria of a Good Ditch Bag?

Items in a ditch bag are ideally packed in something that will float and has a strap for easy carrying while still retaining the use of both hands. It should be readily accessible. Inside the companion way or a cockpit locker are the best places to keep a ditch bag. If you can’t reach it, find it, or carry it, then consider it useless.

Most importantly, says Viking Life-Saving Equipment‘s Kinsella, “The owner or captain is responsible for letting everyone on board know where any safety equipment is located, i.e. Life raft, EPIRB and ditch bag.”

Carol_Bareuther
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.