A Paddling Emergency Ditch Kit

A common fear among paddlers is losing the boat or getting into a situation where the boat must be abandoned. Usually, along with the boat, the gear is lost too.  It happens. An example of it happing comes from Canoe Trip: Alone in the Maine Wilderness. The author David Curran finds himself on the wrong side of a flooded river upstream of a rapid that would likely mean his death. After getting to shore, he abandons his canoe in an attempt to walk back to his car. In the process, he leaves essential gear behind. Another example comes from Robert Pruden when his kayak was swept over an unexpected rapid. His kayak was destroyed and some of his gear lost. Luckily, he was within a short distance to safety and rescue. The tragic death of Andrew McAuley serves as a third example. He lost contact with his kayak and with it went his emergency gear. He died at sea. These serve as only a few of the many examples.

To address this fear, many paddlers attempt to put together a emergency kit–sometimes called a ditch kit or bail-out bag. The concept is to have everything needed to survive an emergency separation from the rest of your gear in one easy-to-grab location. When thinking about putting together a emergency ditch bag, I came up with three concerns that a ditch bag must address:

  1. It has to be small enough to be on person or attached to person without the risk of entrapment in the event that all other gear is lost. As the Coast Guard says, if it’s not on you, you don’t have it. In the above examples, none of the victims had emergency kits attached to them and even if a bail-out bag was kept behind the seat, it’s doubtful that it could have been grabbed–Curran later outlines how he addressed the lesson learned by using a fanny pack on future trips. In each case, essential items were either left behind or completely lost after the accident. In one case, it resulted in death. An additional concern with a bag that must be grabbed is that it ties up a hand when it may be important to have two hands free.
  2. An emergency ditch kit must contain everything needed to survive until rescue. This must necessarily vary based on the trip’s expected conditions.*
  3. It must contain a reliable way to signal a rescue.


Keep the Emergency Ditch Kit On You

The best place to keep the emergency ditch kit is on/in your life jacket, because when on the water, it should be worn. One only has to look at the 2008 U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics [pdf – 3.8MB] to realize how important it is to wear a vest; it shows that out of 114 canoe and kayak deaths for which we have life jacket data 93 victims were not wearing a life jacket  In addition, life jackets are designed to stay on your person until you take them off, and they have lash-points and pockets to store gear in.

Additional gear that doesn’t fit within can be carried externally in a worn fanny pack or within a PFD mounted hydration pack.

Emergency Ditch Kit Survival Gear

To address the second concern, enough gear must be assembled to also answer these survival needs:

  1. First aid.
  2. Fire.
  3. Shelter.
  4. Water.

First Aid

The emergency ditch kit’s first aid component should be kept minimal to work in conjunction with a larger first aid kit. In my opinion, the emergency ditch kit’s first aid component must be able to stop bleeding, bandage and help stabilize injuries. Carrying a roll of vet wrap, a few band-aids, butterfly closure bandages, and gauze goes a long way toward being able to improvise what is needed to stop bleeding, bandage and stabilize. Maybe throw in a couple of doses of ibuprofen. Remember, ideally you are going to be quickly rescued and the kit has to fit within a waterproof baggy on your life jacket. I’d include band-aids to make the kit serve double-duty as an easily accessible kit to use while paddling and to be replenished in camp. Some may want to include a ventilation device, like a NuMask. If you don’t like making your own first aid kit, a small kit, like Adventure Medical Kits UltraLight .3 First-Aid Kit, would be reasonable enough to carry. Additionally, I recommend Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness Advanced First Aid, or Wilderness First Responder training. Base your ditch kit’s first aid on your personal requirements.

Fire Starting

For fire, carry a lightweight fire starter, like the reliable, waterproof, and approved for use by the International Survival Instructors Association Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel Mini. This kind of fire starter isn’t limited to the number of matches on hand, nor is fire starting with it significantly hindered by cold hands, like a lighter is. Maybe throw in a couple Ultimate Survival Technologies WetFire Tinder cubes to help get your fire going quickly.

Shelter Construction

The shelter concern is more complicated, because it can be constructed out of natural materials found in the woods. But, it’s much easier to build a shelter if man-made materials are available. Because of that, carrying an
emergency blanket
goes a long way towards making this task easier.** Better yet, a lightweight silnylon tarp, like Integral Designs Siltarp – 8′ x 5′, is lightweight (7 ounces), compact (3×6 inches) and provides enough coverage to be able to serve as your trip’s primary shelter or kitchen. With just one stick pole in the center of the long edge and the all of the corners staked, this becomes a warm and secure shelter.


Water is easy on paddling trips–unless you paddle salt water. Just walk out to the pond. But you may want to purify it. If you’re using a hydration pack, an in-line water filter, like Sawyer’s Inline Water Filter, carries out the work for you and weighs only 1.8 ounces. An easy-to-carry chemical treatment, like Mcnett’s Aquamira Water Treatment Drops can be repackaged into small droppers an stored in the bottom of your ditch kit’s first aid package. If you’re not using a hydration pack, consider carrying a compact Platypus 1 Liter Water Bottle. It folds up small enough to keep inside a pocket in your life jacket, which means that you’ll have a water container when you need to transport water.

A few extra items to consider including:

  • 30′ cordage: Endless functions.
  • Knife: According to survival expert Doug Ritter, “With a suitable knife you can improvise virtually everything else you need to survive, were it necessary.”
  • Map and compass.

Reliable Signaling for a Rescue

To address signaling, we have several choices: electronic, visual, audible. An emergency ditch kit should include, at least, one item from each catagory.

Electronic Signaling

Among electronic signaling devices, the two most reliable are a VHF radio, like the Icom IC-M72 Handheld Marine VHF Radio (cheat sheet), and a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB), like the ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon. A third device that may work is a cell phone.

VHF radios grant you instant access to the captains of nearby boats and in many coastal areas will link into the Coast Guard. They don’t  rely on point-to-point communication, so if another boat is closer than the Coast Guard, they may be able to respond, because they’ll also hear your mayday call. VHF radios aren’t limited by requiring a tower to be in-range. Once you press the call button, your mayday is broadcasted to every boat listening to channel 16, which in many places is required of boat operators–most boaters monitor channel 16. Additionally, the Coast Guard can use radio-direction equipment to help pinpoint your position. VHF radios are limited by the range of your device, which depends on sea state and the output power of your radio. If there are no nearby VHF radios to receive your call, no one will hear it.

A PLB, once activated, broadcasts your position to a worldwide network of search and rescue satellites. This activates a local search and rescue team to come looking for you. ACR claims that this technology has saved over 25,000 lives since 1982. Once a PLB is registered, it broadcasts a unique identifier, so SAR will know exactly who you are before they even get to you. Plus, there are no yearly registration fees; once you buy the device and register it for free, you don’t have to pay anything extra to get the service.

Cell phones were not designed to operate in a marine nor a wilderness environment. They depend on the proximity to a tower to function. They were not designed to function as emergency equipment. So, because they were not designed to function in the situations where rescue might be needed, because they weren’t designed to function as emergency equipment, and because they require access to a system with limited coverage, I don’t consider them worth including as a primary electronic device in a ditch kit. I think Becky Squires, writing for Boat U.S. Magazine, said it best, “…depending on a cell phone to get you help when you need it on the water is right up there with depending on a blow-up plastic dolphin to be your boat’s primary life raft. It’s better than nothing, but not the ideal choice in an emergency.”

Visual Signaling Devices

The three smallest visual signaling devices that make the most sense to include in a life jacket based emergency ditch kit are a signaling mirror, a strobe light, and flares. Choose a signaling mirror that’s unbreakable, includes an aiming aid, and is light. Adventure Medical Kits Rescue Flash Signal Mirror serves as an example of this type of mirror. ACR Firefly Plus Strobe is waterproof, easily attaches to a lash point or around a shoulder strap on the back of your life jacket. It’s visible for three miles and runs off AA batteries. For an emergency kit, Orion SkyBlazer Aerial Signal Kit offers flares that will fit into a pocket on your vest, they’ll burn for about seven seconds and launch to 450 feet.

Audible Signaling Devices

While there are many audible signaling devices, a whistle makes the most sense for paddlers, because they are light, attach directly to your vest, and stay out of the way when not needed. You should have a whistle attached to your vest anyway. One of my favorite is ACR’s U.S. Coast Guard approved WW-3 Res-Q Whistle. This 1.4 ounce flat whistle is loud and small enough to stay out of the way.

Double Duty

Many of the items included in a emergency ditch kit can be used during the normal course of a trip and to save weight–they should do double duty. For example, your vest’s first aid kit can be used during the day to address small injuries without have to dig the larger kit out of your pack or hatches. A tarp can be used as a primary shelter. The more functional during a normal day on the trip, the more functional the gear will be during an emergency.


Losing a boat can happen and being prepared for it might be the difference between life and death. In the case of one of my opening examples, Andrew McAuley probably died because his emergency gear wasn’t attached to his person. In a New South Wales Sea Kayak Club report about Andrew McAuley’s death, the author, Michael Steinfeld concludes his report by giving evidence from Paul Caffyn, a respected, long-distance, wilderness kayaker. Steinfeld writes, “when paddling in a remote area, emergency communication equipment (EPIRB, VHF radio, satellite phone) should be carried, either be attached to a life jacket which would be donned in deteriorating weather conditions or contained within a bale-out bag which could be attached to the life jacket or tethered to the paddler in deteriorating conditions.” It just makes sense to carry enough gear on person to survive until the calvary arrives, and it just makes sense to carry a reliable device that can initiate a rescue.

Thoughts? Things to add? What do you use?

*On open water crossings, additional survival gear, like a flotation seat, or boat tethers should be considered.
**An emergency bag could be used at sea to help prevent heat loss.

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  • Great article. I find essential for my first aid kit is a good few metres of duct tape. Multitude of uses – immobilising broken limbs, closing wounds, securing splints, applying pressure, dealing with dislocations, making slings. If you take it off the roll and stick it to itself it folds down to take up next to no space, either. Perfect.

  • Thanks, Guy. Although I prefer vet wrap over duct tape for injuries, a bit of duct tape doesn’t take up much room and is definately useful. Something to consider for a ditch kit. Plus it’s cheap!

  • […] Also bring: Extra clothing, equipment, a bothy, a thermos of hot water, first aid, emergency kit, a way to start a fire and anything else needed for an emergency, like a ditch kit. […]

  • Thank you for this post. It is thought provoking.

    I have been aware that without an emergency ditch kit losing ones boat is very serious, but have never done more about the situation than fasten my VHF radio, a whistle and lights to my PFD. I suppose if paddling in a group the chance of losing all the boats is small, but I often paddle alone or with one other person.
    I think I will have to be a bit more proactive.
    Any experience or thoughts on SPOT?

  • For an emergency, I’d prefer a PLB, like the ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon, because it operates specifically on a system designed for search and rescue. Once you activate a PLB, you know that a rescue will be launched.

    If your life depends on being rescued from a signal sent by a device, I’d personally rather have to device operating directly on the SAR system. With SPOT, I’d also be concerned about the satellite system it operates on–its uptime and the ability of the Spot to connect reliably. If you want the GPS/map tracking feature of SPOT, ACR now combines that technology with a PLB.

  • […] Users combine any number of containers and gear to arrive at a customized kit, something like my emergency ditch kit. I’m currently testing out GearPods Wilderness system, which includes first-aid, survival […]

  • […] bringing the normal emergency items, such as a two-person or four-person bothy bag, first aid kit, ditch kit, extra clothing, fire starter, stove, hot water, food and so […]

  • One other suggestion I’d make for firestarter tinder are Esbit solid fuel fuel tablets. I was introduced to these as a firestarter on a kayak camping trip last year and now carry them in all my emergency and first aid kits. A couple of tablets, which are pretty cheap, burn like the fires of you-know-what and are plenty to start a good fire and/or heat a couple of cups of water for a hot beverage.

  • Nice tip, Larry. I’ve cooked over those before, and they’re a big plus in fire starting.


    I came across your blog looking for bail out bag options and I think having kit on you makes a lot more sense, given the peril of the situation you would be in after capsizing – swimming with a bag?! is not something you are going to want to be doing.

    Inreach ….. …. is a step up from SPOT and can allow iridium satellite based two way sms when paired with an android phone. Something between EPIRB and a SAT Phone .. something to consider for general back country communication as well as not so good EPIRB

    I recently spent a night sleeping with an emergency blanket to boost my (summer) sleeping bag warmth – and the condensation it created from my own body soaked the bag – any breathable alternatives to space blankets?

    • Thanks, Andy. That Delorme came out after I wrote this. I’ve had friends that used something similar, including one friend that used a Delorme to send the first Tweet from the summit of Everest. Really cool equipment.

      With an emergency blanket, use it on the inside of the bag to avoid the bad condensation. Other than that, the only thing I know of is Gore-tex. Tyvek might work. The new Adventure Medical Escape Bivy is suppose to be breathable and it weighs 8.5 ounces, so it might be a good product to try. I have no personal experience with it though.

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