Putting together a ditch bag takes some time and a lot of thought. Here's what's in ours for coastal cruising.

The Ditch Bag

One of our bigger safety projects this summer has been to build our ditch bag. This is one of those things that we really hope we’ve wasted a bunch of money on. But should we ever need it, we want it to have exactly what we need!

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all ditch bag. Everyone’s is different, depending on where they boat, what the likely rescue scenarios are and the budget. Just because this is what we have does not mean it’s right for you — particularly if you are planning to go offshore.

Right now, we’re cruising southern Florida and the Keys and the Bahamas. We’re not planning any multi-day passages or major offshore trips. We don’t have a lift raft; with our present cruising plans, the dinghy is our evacuation vessel. Our dinghy always has two life jackets, an anchor and a solar light aboard, so these are not part of our ditch kit.

We chose the contents of our ditch bag for:

  • Communication – notifying other boats and the Coast Guard of our predicament and making sure they can find us.
  • Injuries – people are often seriously injured in situations where a boat has to be evacuated. Burns, major bleeding and broken bones are the primary things we’re worried about.
  • Keeping ourselves alive – food and water are the big items, along with our daily medications.
  • Necessary items – if the boat is lost what would we need immediately?

Below is a simple list of our gear with links to what we bought from wherever we bought it. I plan to write some additional posts on specific pieces of gear and why we chose the model we did. Where I’ve already written about something, I include that link also.

First is the basic gear:

  • Ditch bag. We got our floating ditch bag free with our EPIRB. You can also use a waterproof bag, sealed 5-gallon bucket or all sorts of other things.
  • Waterproof crank/solar flashlight. Disasters always seem to happen at night and you need to be able to see. Tied onto the bag where it’s easy to find first of anything.
  • SOLAS Reflexite reflective tape. I put tape on everything I could, paying particular attention to the “critical” gear. If it should go in the water at night, I want to be able to find it.
  • Spare glasses. I’m blind without them.
  • Lock & Lock waterproof containers. Much of the gear needs to be kept as dry as possible — and organized. I got two of these from (they fit the old Orion flares and are waterproof vs. the round flare container in the photo above) and already had one of these (for papers). Some of the others that I bought seem to no longer be made/sold, but you can see all the Lock & Lock containers available from Amazon here (Amazon seems to usually have the most sizes). The airspace inside these will also help the bag to float.
  • Duct tape — as much as there’s room for (wrap some around a pencil if you need to make a small roll).
  • Swim noodle, cut into chunks. The ditch bag says it will float 25 pounds of gear but we want to be sure it will float if we miss getting it into the dinghy. Air in the Lock & Lock boxes will help, but I also took a swim noodle and cut it into chunks to put into every nook and cranny I could.

Communication is the first key since we are near other boats and the Coast Guard (assuming we can’t make it to shore under our own power, which is also a possibility with the dinghy). We believe that with the following, we would be found within 72 hours (actually, less than that, but for food purposes . . .):

  • Solar charger for VHF and phone (and cords!) — it doesn’t do any good to have electronics and no power
  • Handheld GPS (and 8 sets of extra batteries) — ours is 10 years old but still works; lithium batteries hold their power in storage. Phone has GPS too for backup but we want to be able to tell rescuers exactly where we are.
  • Greatland green laser flare* and 4 extra batteries
  • All the old flares on the boat (red and smoke) — don’t meet USCG requirements since out of date but in an emergency I want all the flares I can get my hands on!
  • Gloves to hold flares — slag will drip from burning flares and everyone who has ever fired one off says “have gloves!”
  • Cyalume sticks — these are the sticks that night divers use — bend it and it lights up even in water
  • Day signal flag — it was on the boat; frankly doubt anyone would see it since it’s less than a yard square
  • 2 ACR C-light strobes (use same batteries as GPS) — got a special deal or we wouldn’t have gotten them; we have strobes on our PFDs
  • Whistles (the kind that work when wet)

UPDATE:  About a month after we packed the ditch bag, the Sirius Signal electronic flares came out (see them on Amazon). We love the idea of not having burning slag and now have one in the bag, too. Since we think it’s impossible to have too many signalling devices, we left the other flares in, too. We carry extra batteries for the Sirius Signal — it comes with 3 “C” batteries and we carry 12 extra.

ANOTHER UPDATE: We also now have a DeLorme inReach SE satellite tracker/communicator (Garmin bought inReach and here’s the link to the new version). We really got it to show where we are online and for the text communication ability, but it would be invaluable in an emergency. On passage, it’ll be hooked onto the ditch bag “just in case.”

Injuries — we figure that a fire, explosion or holing the boat are the most likely reasons we’d have to abandon ship. Consequently, our ditch bag contains what I call our “oh shit!” medical supplies to deal with burns, major bleeding and broken bones, along with a few more everyday items. You may have different needs or feel different products are best. This is one area where you just can’t take everything, so figure out what you are most likely to need that would be life-saving.

  • QuikClot (2) – clotting sponge
  • Israeli Battle Dressing (1 4″ and 1 6″ size)- very effective pressure bandage
  • Telfa pads – 3″ x 4″
  • Cohesive elastic bandage – sticks to itself; holds bandages on; doubles as compression bandage for breaks and sprains
  • WaterJel – for burns
  • Second Skin Burn Pads – for burns – several sizes
  • Bacitracin – antibiotic ointment that is particularly good for burns
  • SAM splint
  • Ace bandage – 3″ (if space is a problem, I’d drop this since we have the cohesive bandages)
  • Regular and extra-large Band-Aids (can be held on with the cohesive bandages); butterfly bandages
  • Aspirin – few in case of a heart attack
  • OTC pain meds
  • Stong prescription pain meds
  • Prescription muscle relaxant – in case of strained back or broken ribs
  • Epi-pen and steroids for anaphalytic allergic reactions
  • Mylar emergency blankets (5) — retain heat, provide shade, signalling

Staying Alive — we are coastal cruising and with our communication devices we plan (hope!) that help will arrive within three days. Hence, no fishing gear or watermaking capability.

  • Water — four ounces per person per day is considered the absolute minimum. I can’t imagine that in the heat of south Florida at certain times of the year. Instead of the little pouches (expensive!) I bought a package of 12 12-ounce water bottles for just a couple bucks at the grocery!
  • Dog water dish — Paz is small so we just use a silicone muffin cup as her travel water bowl. I stuck an extra one in the ditch bag.
  • SOS Emergency Food Rations — 1200 calories per person per day, with a tiny bit given to Paz (she eats less than 100 calories a day). 5 year shelf life and food that won’t make you thirsty. Supposedly doesn’t taste too bad.
  • Sunscreen — if you’ve just had to abandon the boat, sunscreen isn’t at the top of your list. But in south Florida, you’re going to burn fast!
  • Sun hats — not the prettiest, but it’ll keep us more comfortable and help avoid dehydration. Plus you can wet it with salt water and stick it on your head for major cooling action! Got the white (milk) as it’ll be coolest in the sun.
  • Daily medications – a 5-day supply and we change it out every month.

Necessary when we reach shore — with luck, our phone will be with us and still working. But pretty much everything else we own is on the boat. What will we need in those first few days?

  • ID – copies of our passports and drivers licenses
  • Health insurance cards (copies) — chances are good that we’ll need medical care in an abandon ship scenario.
  • Car keys – since we are coastal cruising and have a car, we’re want to be able to use it to put our lives back together. Easier than calling a locksmith and having a new key made.
  • Boat documentation and insurance (copies)
  • Credit card copies — some companies will issue an extra card, which is even better
  • Cash

Note that this is emphatically not an offshore ditch bag. We are coastal cruising in an area with good rescue services. This is what we feel will serve us where we are going in the near future. It’s possible that we’re wrong. I hope we never find out if we did it right!

  • Karen Ulakovic Drass
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    Great article. Thanks!

  • Jim Allen
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    What would be different for an offshore ditch bag. Seems you have everything you would need???

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

      Ability to “create” water — either a hand watermaker or a solar still. More food and fishing gear. More medical. If crossing an ocean, maybe a satphone in waterproof container. Even if signalling works perfectly, I’d assume it could be longer than 3 days to be rescued.

  • Monique Bordeaux Wilson Labarre
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    Steve Labarre

  • Frances Liz Fernandez
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    Excellent article. We’ve had to modify from recent offshore to inshore needs. Extra glasses was a good take away.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

      Even if you don’t wear glasses, a pair of polarized sun glasses would be a big help.

  • Relinda Ted Broom
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    Don’t forget to have a copy of your pet(s) paperwork in the overboard. The one other thing we do is to check the dates on any batteries used and to keep batteries separate if we can.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

      Thanks! I’d forgotten Paz’s rabies cert. I plan to do a post on *packing* the ditch bag, but we use lithium batteries (10 year shelf life) and put them in several different containers so that if one gets flooded or lost, we haven’t lost all our batteries.

  • The Cynical Sailor & His Salty Sidekick
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    Fantastic article! This is one of the projects on my to-do list and this is a great resource for thinking it through.

  • Jenn Cole
    Posted at 24 August 2015 Reply

    I always enjoy your articles. Theu help me think through so many things, thanks 🙂

  • Alex
    Posted at 25 August 2015 Reply

    Awesome, as usual. Where do you keep your original passports and DL? I wouldn’t want my passport to go down with the ship, as I was born abroad, I can’t easily prove my citizenship with a duplicate birth certificate. (Hint, you can have an extra original driver’s license if you “lose” one and get a replacement. This can be done online in many states now that photos are digital.)

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 25 August 2015 Reply

      Funny that you mention that. Dave and I were just talking over breakfast and saying that maybe we should put the original docs (passport, boat docs, etc.) in the ditch bag and consider that as their regular home. If we need them for something, it’s just as easy to get them out of there as out of a file drawer on the boat. Obviously, we’d keep them all in a waterproof Lock & Lock box.

  • Paul
    Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

    Brilliant article. We are moving aboard next spring, and this article will help us sort out our own “Grab Bag” as it’s called in UK.
    Keep up the good work.
    Paul & Jan
    SY Nourishment

  • kyla
    Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

    I know you mentioned sunscreen and hats, but how about something to create some sort of shade? I wonder what could be packed but still be small…

    • Alex
      Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

      The mylar blankets could be good for that. Maybe light folding tent poles for support.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

      Yep, Alex is right — that’s one of the big purposes of the 5 Mylar blankets that I have. No poles — that baag is pretty heavy as is!

  • Mary Mathisson
    Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the article! I was thinking of adding a flash drive with various documents saved there, e.g. passports, photocopies of credit cards, etc. I like the tip about housing the actual passports/docs in the ditch bag too.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

      Instead of (or maybe in addition to) send an email to yourself with those document scans. Good idea!

  • Hugh Otterburn
    Posted at 11 February 2016 Reply

    LOVE your website.
    Apart from the galley info the Marine articles are so very useful

  • David mauney
    Posted at 11 May 2016 Reply

    Thanks for a great article. I am modifying my bag now to add the electronic flares and copies of documents. I also added several survival tricks that are very cost effective that can be purchased at Walmart. Such as water purifying and camp survival tools.

  • Steven Zang
    Posted at 19 May 2016 Reply

    Great article!
    I would consider adding diphenhydramine (benadryl) as your epi-pen effects will wear off fast. I would also consider swapping your quikclot for something similar but not exothermic (i.e. celox). http://amzn.to/2g7ilg2

    Thanks again for all you do. I really enjoy the articles and feel connected as I lived near you growing up. My uncle actually lived at Lake Mattoon. I hope to follow your footsteps when I retire.

  • Kim Young King
    Posted at 24 August 2016 Reply

    Ken King

  • Vanita VanFleet Fowden
    Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

    Great list! Thank you.

  • Cheryl Nelson Bourg
    Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

    Do you always have this packed? If there are items you use all the time (handheld BHF, etc), do you get extras of these items?

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

      We do keep it packed all the time and the things that we use daily we simply keep in the ditch bag when they’re not in use (or, as with the VHF, being charged) and double check before we get underway that they’re in place.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

      I should have added that by using those items on a regular basis, we keep them charged and know they’re working. We also try to go through the whole bag and check items about a month before we’re going to leave on a major trip (that is, when we were leaving the US for the Bahamas, not every leg of the time in the Bahamas) — while we’re in a place with access to stores and online shopping — to make sure everything works, everything is there, batteries are up to date, etc. Meds and documents are especially important to check.

  • Greg Banks
    Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

    You should include water making equipment and fishing stuff. It is easy to go from “off shore” to “out to sea” in a bad storm.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 25 August 2016 Reply

      Ours is a coastal cruising ditch bag. If we were doing more open water stuff, we would add that. I think those are two of the biggest differences between a coastal and offshore ditch bag, along with obviously needing more food and medical supplies.

  • Debbie Silck
    Posted at 26 August 2016 Reply

    Stay safe….tie down in the Cay…wish you the best

  • Laura Ann
    Posted at 18 April 2017 Reply

    Hi Carolyn,
    Great article and website! My husband and I are new to cruising and REALLY appreciate your experience and tips.
    I have a couple of suggestions for your medical kit. I taught trauma medicine in special operations for 10 years (served 26 total), husband did 16 years in SOF (3 wars, 600 combat rotations) and were both in a SMU – the only reason I give that background is to substantiate my comments.

    Quick clot “pads” are not as effective for stopping bleeding as something like Combat gauze (or a torn up t-shirt). Without going into a whole trauma lesson, “pads” cannot get into all the nooks and cranny’s that traumatic bleeding typically comes from. Packing (pressure) is what stops massive hemorrhage. The chemicals applied to these dressings are nice but not necessary – and they are expensive!
    Cohesive elastic bandage is great on dry land but doesn’t stick well after it gets wet (water or blood). It also becomes impossible to work with after it has been “squished” into a go-bag. So we got rid of it completely and started using 3″ Ace bandages entirely. Two great things: it can be reused and repositioned multiple times and works well when wet. One tip, throw away the metal clips that come with it, they never stay and usually end up in a knee, just tie the ends to itself to secure it.
    Sorry this got so long winded, I’m passionate about trauma medicine and “making do”.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 18 April 2017 Reply

      Thanks for the insight. Extremely helpful. So now I may change a few things . . .

  • Gretel
    Posted at 10 June 2017 Reply

    Great publication!

  • Amanda Searle
    Posted at 01 July 2017 Reply

    We have a couple of those cooling towels in ours. Takes up no room and are a godsend in the heat. Can be used with any water at any temperature, even sweat. We use ours all through the summer and for the ladies with menopause hot flashes….they are your best friend. This is not where I got mine but it gives you a good idea of what I’m talking about.


  • cyndyy
    Posted at 01 December 2017 Reply

    In reading this and preparing my bag I was wondering; your list contains “strong pain medications”. With doctors reluctant to give pain meds for major surgery, where did you find a Doctor that understands the need for these and willing to write a prescription??? [email protected]

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 01 December 2017 Reply

      We’ve usually had some left from am injury, dental procedure or surgery. We’ve had the opposite problem of doctors being overly willing to prescribe!

      • cyndy
        Posted at 01 December 2017 Reply

        I have to find new doctors! I have some Motrin (Ibuprofen). I had a root canal – through a crown – and I got Motrin. I had bladder cancer and got 20 pain pills (not enough!) I have severe migraines and get 25 Tylenol #3 to last 90 days.
        Go figure…

  • cyndy
    Posted at 01 December 2017 Reply

    Hello again. The links to the first 2 items in the Lock and Lock section no longer work. Could you update with new links please? I am helping a couple of other boats get their bags ready and made this mandatory reading (also I know that linked through your page helps the boat kitty)
    Thanks again!!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 02 December 2017 Reply

      Those two seem to be unavailable now but there are some new sizes — exactly which ones work best will depend on the bag used. I put a new link to all the ones available on Amazon. Thanks!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 10 February 2018 Reply

      Thanks. It seems that those particular sizes are not being made any longer. I made the links more generic to show what is currently available.

  • Morgana
    Posted at 10 February 2018 Reply

    I love your blog and your practical outlook! A change for your ditty bag, though. Those mylar blankets are useless in this situation and usually cause more deaths than they help prevent. Instead, get mylar “ditty bags” or sleeping bags. Strip out of your wet cotton clothing in hypothermic conditions and have bare skin next to the reflective surface. Bear in mind that your cotton boat clothing is a killer in cool, wet conditions. Acrylic sweaters are good, long enough to cover your core. Merino wool is the best. Death from hypothermia can arrive in 3 hours, Death from dehydration in 3 days, food in 3 weeks. So your first danger is being cold and wet. At a minimum have wool socks and hats in your bags and some inexpensive acrylic sweaters. Use those mylar blankets to collect water condensate to drink.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 10 February 2018 Reply

      Good point for cruising in cooler climates. Where I am in the tropics, the Mylar sheets will be mostly for sun protection, not warmth.

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