Prepare Yourself and Your Vessel

Family of four, all wearing life jackets and sitting in motor boat

NPS Photo

So you want to explore your national park on the water? It is important that you prepare both yourself and your water vessel for the trip before you head out. Learn how to get ready for your aquatic adventure:

  • Register your vessel. Go to your state boating authority for details on vessel registration and operation requirements, regulations, fees, inspections.
  • Educate yourself on boating safety! Check with your state boating office to see if there is required coursework or certifications for your boating activity. Take a boating safety course to learn more about water vessel operation and water safety!

  • Make sure there is always someone on board who can operate the vessel. It is important that others in your group also know how to safely operate the vessel, in case the operator is unable to drive.

  • Have the required equipment onboard. Federal and state laws requires that your vessel have certain equipment onboard. This includes important safety equipment such as a fire extinguisher, life jackets, etc. If any of these required items are missing from your vessel or are not functional, you could receive a citation and be escorted back to the dock.

  • Pack the 10 Essentials. The 10 essentials can help you be prepared for minor injuries, sudden weather changes, or unexpected delays. They include items such as extra food and water, emergency shelter, and first aid kit. Have dry clothing ready on board just in case someone goes overboard. Hypothermia can set in quickly, even when it's not very cold outside.

Woman holding paddle in kayak

NPS Photo

  • Make sure your boat is in good working order. Check that your vessel is working properly before you head out on the water. For motorboats, make sure that you have more than enough fuel for your trip. Don’t take the chance of becoming stranded.

  • Double check that your vessel meets regulations. Schedule a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) to make sure that your watercraft follows federal and state safety regulations and meets requirements. The items and equipment checked through the VSC are the same as those required by law.

  • Have a way to communicate with others. You need to have a way to communicate with rescuers if an emergency occurs. Do not rely on your cell phone. Unless you can shout for assistance to shore, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or a marine band VHF radio are your go-to devices. EPIRBs are registered to your vessel and, like personal locator beacons, transmit distress signals to the nearest rescue coordination center. Learn how to use your marine radio to signal distress, communicate with those on shore, assist with navigation, and stay alert of weather conditions. Know how to operate the radio before you head out. Finally, attach a whistle to your life jacket, which can help you communicate if you fall into the water.

  • Have an emergency plan ready. Have a discussion with your group about everyone wearing life jackets at all times, what to do if someone falls overboard, and how to respond in an emergency.

Woman wearing a life jacket riding on personal watercraft

Christie Vanover, NPS


Plan and prepare for your trip with help from the NPS Trip Planning Guide and learn more about your Health & Safety in national parks.

Last updated: June 15, 2018