Canoe Safety Gear (The Essentials & “Almost” Essentials)

No matter how experienced you are, you will eventually end up needing safety gear at some point in your canoeing adventures.

Whether you are out for an hour with the kids or tripping for a month, the US Coast Guard and Transport Canada require all boaters to carry specific safety gear in their craft. Let’s tackle the Essentials first.

Safety gear that is required by law for canoeists includes US Coast Guard or Transport Canada approved life jackets for each person on board, a 50-foot (15m) long buoyant heaving line, a bailer or manual pump, a sound signaling device, visual distress signals, and night time navigation lights.

We’ve broken each of these mandatory items down in order to dive into more specific details. Let’s get into those details so that you’ll be prepared.

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A life jacket for each person on board and a bailer or manual pump like this one are mandatory for all watercraft

Life Jackets

Everyone on board a canoe must have a United States Coast Guard-approved or Transport Canada-approved lifejacket or PFD (personal flotation device).

Personal Flotation Device Labels/Ratings

Until recently, PFDs have been classified under a “Type System” which labeled all PFDs with a number from 1 – 5 (often displayed officially in Roman numerals). The Type System is primarily an American rating system.

A new system called the “Performance System” is being phased in over time and it is a more universal system that is applicable for both Canada and the United States so there is more universal understanding and compatibility with laws.

The Performance System offers a more visually-based label display and it has a numbered scale encompassing a wider variety of flotation aids and lifejackets.

The new Performance System was implemented by governing authorities in both the U.S.A. (United States Coast Guard) and Canada (Transport Canada) for the purpose of improving safety choices and offering more options to boaters and to allow PFDs to be used across borders more easily without conflicting with various local or national boating safety laws.

Here’s a quick overview of both rating systems:

1 – Type System (still valid as long as the PFD is in good working order);

Type 1 (Off-Shore Life Jacket) – Type 1 is the best life jacket for all water conditions, and is especially useful in remote areas or where the water is open and rough. It’s also the best choice in situations where rescue may be delayed. The Type 1 is quite bulky but it provides the best flotation as it is designed to turn an unconscious person face-up.

Type 2 (Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest) – Type 2 is best used in calm, inland waters where rescue would happen more quickly. A little more comfortable than the Type 1, this life jacket will generally turn an unconscious wearer face-up. It’s also known as a keyhole lifejacket because of its appearance and resemblance to a keyhole.

Type 3 (Flotation Aid) – Type 3 is the most common life jacket and is best used in calm, inland waters where a quick rescue is likely. This life jacket is the most comfortable and the best choice when continuous wear is necessary. Because it is the most common type, they usually come in a variety of styles and sizes.

Type 4 (Throwable Device) – Type 4 is a throwable flotation device. It is meant for situations where a life-saving tool must be thrown to someone in the water and held by them until they are rescued. It is not meant to be worn life a life jacket. Ring buoys are a good example of a Type 4 device.

Type 5 (Special-Use Device) – Type 5 are special life-saving jackets meant for specific activities. Some examples would be sailboarding vests, float coats, and commercial whitewater vests. They may be used instead of other life jackets but only for the specific purpose for which they are approved – this will be indicated on its tag. Certain Type 5 jackets also provide protection from hypothermia.

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The 5 types of life jackets available for common use

2 – Performance System (Currently being used and will be phased in completely over time)

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Here’s a quick description of the 5 different levels in the Performance System:

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  • Swimming Skills Expected
  • Use close to shore with assistance expected immediately
  • No turning ability

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  • Use in calm or shelterd waters
  • Use close to shore with help nearby
  • No turning ability

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  • Use in calm or sheltered waters
  • Can be used when some time is expected before rescue
  • Some turning ability

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  • Use in Offshore waters with larger waves
  • Turning ability

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  • Use Offshore in emergency situations and larger waves
  • Use with weight of extra tools, equipment and clothing
  • Can be used when extra time is expected before rescue

Life Jacket Tips for Canoeists

  1. Best Options – Before you purchase a PFD think it through – will you be wearing it in cold weather and want one with thermal protection? Would you like pockets? Extra padding around the shoulders might be a wise choice if you’ll be portaging a lot.
  2. Best Colors – I’m not a huge bright color fan but when it comes to PFD’s, I make an exception. Choose a bright color that will make you easy to see in the water.
  3. Best Fit – Your life jacket needs to fit well, meaning that once it is zipped up and clipped on and all adjustments have been made secure, it is snug and comfortable and will not ride up to your ears if you fall in. If a life jacket rides up, it is too loose and needs to be readjusted or exchanged for a smaller size.
  4. Best Comfort – Don’t overlook this. Oftentimes I’m wearing a life jacket all day. I’ve had my fair share of duds when it comes to comfort. If it’s possible, try it on before you buy it (rather than purchasing it online).
  5. Inflatable PFDs – You must be 16 years of age or older to wear an inflatable PFD. Inflatables are not allowed in white water paddling situations. An inflatable must have an undamaged inflation cartridge that is in good working condition.
  6. Children – When it comes to kiddos, wearing a life jacket is non-negotiable. Children should always wear a well-fitted PFD. Period. A large collar for head support, extra straps that go between the legs, and reflective tape are all wise options. Setting a good example by wearing yours is also wise.

While legal requirements may be satisfied in some areas by simply having life jackets on board, they should be worn at all times and properly fastened. Most states do require each person to WEAR their life jacket.

BONUS TIP FOR CANOEISTS – There are specific life jackets that are made for kayakers and canoeists that allow for maximum freedom of movement. You do NOT want your life jacket to shift and slide with each paddle stroke. That is annoying and uncomfortable.

Here’s a good selection of Paddle Sports life jackets, and you will thank yourself for buying one made specifically for canoeing.

Buoyant Heaving Line

A buoyant heaving line is a 50 foot (15m) long continuous rope (not shorter ropes tied together) that floats. It should be kept for emergency purposes only and not used as a towline. A buoyant heaving line is mandatory for canoeists to carry in Canada. It is not mandatory in the US but is good practice to carry one.

Bailer or Manual Pump

A bailer must hold at least 3 cups of water and have an opening of 3.5″ (9cm) or larger. It must be made of plastic or metal. A bailer is used to scoop out water that collects in the bottom (or bilge) of a canoe. A manual bilge pump may be used instead of a bailer. It is mandatory in Canada to carry one in your canoe but not in the US.

Sound Signaling Device

A sound signaling device is mandatory on all canoes. Acceptable devices include a “pealess” whistle (ie: without a cork in it), a bell, an electric horn, or a compressed gas horn. A signaling device is used to signal position or intentions and is especially useful in foggy or poor weather conditions.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual Distress Signals are mandatory on all canoes. An acceptable signal can be a flashlight, a flag, or a flare. Flashlight – must be watertight, contain working batteries, US Coast Guard or Transport Canada approved
Flag – orange distress flag, US Coast Guard or Transport Canada approved
Flares – 6 flares total, 3 for day use and 3 for night use, US Coast Guard or Transport Canada approved

Night Time Navigational Lights

Navigation lights are mandatory on all canoes between sunset and sunrise. They help prevent collisions by making your craft and its heading more visible to others. An acceptable navigation light is an electric torch (watertight flashlight) or lighted lantern displaying a white light.

Safety Gear: Not Mandatory but Strongly Suggested

Being prepared with the minimum essentials that are required by law is smart. But, going above and beyond the bare lawful necessities can be a wise call especially when trouble strikes.

As a general rule, canoeists should also carry these nearly essential items: a first aid kit, a satellite phone, GPS or VHF radio, a spare paddle, a repair/tool kit, food and water, a compass, extra clothing, a dry bag, sun protection, and a map or chart of the waters they will be paddling.

1. First Aid Kit

First aid kits are inexpensive to buy or make from scratch, but they are invaluable when an accident happens. We always carry one with us that contains the following:

  • antiseptic wipes
  • band aids
  • butterfly closures
  • antibiotic ointment
  • nitrile gloves
  • gauze
  • adhesive tape
  • large cloth (triangular) that can be made into a sling
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • scissors
  • tweezers
  • safety pins
  • pocket knife
  • matches (starting a fire may save someone’s life if they’ve been rescued from icy water)

Be sure to store your first aid kit in a dry bag and to replace outdated contents regularly.

2. Satellite Phone/GPS Locator/VHF Radio

These three items are used to accomplish the same task which is to inform authorities and rescue crews as to your exact location in the wilderness should you find yourself in an emergency that makes you incapable of returning home without intervention or rescue.

A Satellite phone is probably the newest and best option since you can actually phone people to explain your situation exactly and precisely. A Satellite phone also allows for your loved ones to maintain peace of mind during your absence by allowing them to contact you for at least a short time each day to confirm your safety status.

Many outfitters offer satellite phone rentals for under $30/week.  In my personal opinion, this is a no-brainer and a very smart safety option.

GPS locators are devices that are officially meant to “track assets” like a stolen automobile.  They are easily purchased on Amazon, along with GPS navigation units.  While these items can either tell authorities where you are or allow you to know exactly what your coordinates are, they are not as useful as a satellite phone since they do not offer you a way to contact authorities the moment you encounter an emergency situation.

This ACR locator is the best GPS emergency device for your money. It’s not as versatile and convenient as a satellite communicator, but it’s FAR less expensive in the long run. It’s the one I have chosen for my trips

Given the choice, a satellite phone or 2-way communicator would be my first choice. However, I don’t use them because of the high monthly service plan fees. Instead, I use the ACR locator beacon pictured above, which is only a one-way emergency signal for use in a serious, life-threatening emergency.

The only cost involved is the initial purchase price and it does NOT require any further fees (other than a replacement battery every 5 years or so).

I’m thankful I’ve never had to use it yet!

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My first aid kit(s), Garmin eTrex GPS unit, and my telescoping emergency spare paddle

3. Spare Paddle

It only takes a second for your paddle to slip out of your hands and float away. We always carry an extra telescoping paddle with us on each trip. They are small and stow away easily; however, you may want to consider strapping yours in – there’s no point in having an extra paddle if you capsize and it floats away or sinks.

4. Repair/Tool Kit

No one should leave their vehicle to begin a multi-day canoe trip without at least a minimum of tools and repair materials.  After nearly 40 years of experience, here’s a basic outline of what I would bring to repair common (and not-so-common) problems you may encounter.

  • Multi-tool (pliers, screwdrivers, files, knife blades)
  • Fiberglass or kevlar patch repair kit
  • Plastic wire ties (can loop together to bind anything)
  • Epoxy glue or Marine Goop – can be used to permanently repair small tent rips, clothing, shoes and all but the largest holes in most composite canoes.
  • Nails/screws (for wood canoe repairs or posting signs or just hanging ropes around camp)
  • Gaffer/duct tape – dubbed as “the answer to all the world’s problems” this tape serves as a utility repair tape for everything from a damaged shoe to a hole in your canoe
  • Aluminum tape (holds better than duct tape and won’t unravel as easy as duct tape)
  • Small hatchet – not only can it cut kindling or sharpen a wood tent peg or hot dog stick, but the other end is used as a hammer.

5. Food & Water

Years ago, my wife and I headed out on what we thought was a two-hour canoe trip. Four hours later, we were lost. A good Samaritan came along at just the right time and thankfully we were back at our campsite two hours later…safe, but famished.

Lesson learned: always bring food and water – even it’s for a short trip.

Canoeing burns a lot of calories and the sun can quickly dehydrate you. A bag packed with nuts, fruit, and water can be a lifesaver. We often carry these LifeStraws with us so we don’t have to lug water around.

6. Compass

Having a magnetic compass along with you is just good practice. A compass would be mandatory if you plan on paddling far from shore where there are no visual navigation marks. It’s also quite feasible to use your phone’s compass app, but it’s a no-brainer to bring a regular compass for backup.

7. Extra Clothing

Whether it’s for a quick afternoon trip or a longer excursion, it’s just good practice to bring along extra clothing. Water can easily splash up and into the canoe making for an uncomfortable experience. Specific fabrics that are meant to dry out quickly would be ideal. Pack your extra clothing in a dry bag.

8. Dry Bag

A dry bag is a pliable container that rolls down at the top providing water-tight protection to its contents. Unlike a Ziploc type of closure, dry bags are secured by a roll-top sealing system and buckles that ensure water never enters inside. For us, everything goes in a dry bag – clothing, food, first aid kits – and anything else that needs to stay dry.

9. Helmet

While helmets are not really necessary for flatwater paddling, they are essential for whitewater. There is a thrill when canoeing through rapids but obviously, there is inherent danger as well. Wearing a water helmet is good practice and may save your life if your canoe overturns.

Water helmets are different than bike or skateboard helmets in that they are durable enough to withstand impact multiple times. They are breathable and won’t become too hot on a summer day. Their design also covers more of your head as well.

We’ve found the best selection of great water helmets right HERE on Amazon.

10. Sun Protection

On flatwater trips, everyone wears a hat and sunglasses. Both of these items offer protection from UV rays. My kids will often dunk their hats in the water to help keep them cool.

I would also suggest a waterproof sunblock since you’ll likely be spending hours in the sun. Personally, I use a waxy stick-style sunblock for the tips of my nose and ears, and a spray for the rest of my body that’s not covered with clothing.

I hate messing with palmfuls of greasy cream that never covers evenly and leaves my hands with an oily mess for hours.

11. Map/Chart

We have found out the hard way many times that a map is nearly essential on any trip we make. If you are paddling unfamiliar waters (especially if they contain many islands, bays, points, etc.) you will not even be able to travel a short distance without questioning where you are and risking not arriving at your destination.

It is possible to have a digital version of your map on a Garmin eTrex GPS unit, but, while it has some great advantages over paper, it has disadvantages as well.

The advantage of a GPS map is that it will allow you to see yourself on the water which is a HUGE benefit that you obviously do not have with a paper map.

Also, a GPS will allow you to record waypoints with actual coordinates to allow for easy return to alert authorities of your position if you are in trouble.

However, the disadvantage of a GPS map is that the screen is so small, you cannot see the bigger area surrounding your entire geographical trip location. It’s nice to see where you parked, your campsites, portages, multiple lakes, etc. on one page at one time. Also, paper maps never run out of batteries!

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A map case is essential not only for keeping your map dry and functional but to allow it to be strapped onto the thwart in front of the stern paddler for easy navigation

Maps can be obtained in many places. For example, this site offers a thorough selection of maps for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. There are hundreds of websites that offer a variety of maps from touristy and fun-looking colorful maps, to technical topographical maps from your state or federal government.

Once you have your map, PLEASE don’t forget the MAP CASE which is essential to keeping your map dry and easily readable by allowing it to be attached to the thwart in front of the navigator (usually the stern paddler)

Some maps are free while others are way more expensive than they should be. Often, digital versions for your Garmin will be free. There are also great maps that are already waterproofed and designed specifically for canoeists, showing campsites and portages.

Unless you are canoeing 10 or more trips per season and all in different locations around the continent, I’d suggest investing in a good map of your favorite few routes. Trust me, the more easily you can follow your map and see your entire route, the more enjoyment and peace of mind you’ll have.

You can even make your own map!

Essential Knowledge


Knowing how to swim could save your life on a canoe trip. Most of the time you’ll likely be wearing a life jacket; however, basic swimming knowledge is good practice.

Navigation Rules

Before you head out on your canoe, basic knowledge of boating navigation rules is good to have. These navigation rules can be found here.

Float Plan

A float plan contains information about the route you plan on traveling, the dates that you will be departing and arriving, names of people on board, as well as a basic description of your craft. A float plan should be given to a responsible friend or family member before your departure. A sample float plan can be found here.

Final Thoughts

It’s mandatory to have certain equipment, so I would say there should be no compromise on those items. However, regarding the optional items that may not be mandatory by law, experience tells me that those items we’ve listed here should not be compromised either.

Many “optional” items we’ve listed can be the single factors that could save your life. I strongly feel that a dry bag, compass, maps, first aid kit, boat repair kit, and a satellite phone are absolutely mandatory for any level of meaningful safety and peace of mind for all but the shortest of day trips with your canoe.

Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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