The Ditch Bag

 . . . and the hope that you never have to use it

© 2024 Jeffrey E. Isaac, PA-C

Assembling a ditch bag is a formidable task. It presents the difficulty of packing for a trip when you don’t know when you’re leaving, where you’re going, or how long you will be gone. Every contingency needs to be considered; yet your package needs to be small enough to be easily lifted by anyone, waterproof enough to survive at sea, and light enough to float.

The bag is often meant to supplement the standard survival supplies packed in your life raft (generally considered to be enough food and water to maintain a hamster for 24 hours). However, you may end up using the bag in your dinghy when the life raft fails, or ashore after running aground, or still aboard your wrecked boat after being rolled by the perfect wave. The ditch bag needs to be a comprehensive package designed to enhance survival and enable rescue in an emergency situation no matter where you end up. The life raft survival pack or anything you can salvage from your boat is considered an extra blessing.

So what goes in it? Think food, water, shelter, and communication. In the short term, food can be supplied by high calorie, low volume delicacies like Cliff Bars, Power Bars, Pemmican Bars, or similar choices. Your selection should be high in fat and protein. You should also stock some high calorie simple sugars, like GU or even a pint can of cake frosting. This is used for rapidly warming someone with hypothermia. Just in case your situation turns long term, you might also want to include some fiber gel caps to counteract the constipating effects of the Cliff Bars.

Fresh water is heavy and inconvenient, but critical. You should pack at least a liter per person in your ditch bag. Another technique is to store a 5-gallon water jug on deck where it can be easily cut free and tossed over the side. Leave a little air in the jug so it floats. Attach a lanyard with a snap hook to the handle so it can be clipped to the raft or dinghy. Storing jugs on deck also has the advantage of serving notice to other cruisers that you really are a live-aboard.

If you can afford it, an emergency water maker is a fine long-term survival addition. It is better to have it easily available in your ditch bag rather than have it packed away permanently in your raft. Since diesel fuel, silt, or algae, can debilitate water makers, you still need to pack a supply of fresh water.

Shelter can take the form of clothing, survival suits, bivy sacks, or something as inexpensive and compact as a space blanket. Pack a layer of warm polypropylene bottoms and tops. Even in the tropics, you will be cold at some point. For the penurious cruiser, an inexpensive and lightweight rain suit can serve as an outer layer. Survival suits are too bulky for inclusion in the kit, but should be stowed in the same locker, or section of the boat. You don’t want to be running fore and aft getting ready for your sudden departure.

Communication supplies include attention attracting devices as well as a radio. You should have a laser flare, strobe light, whistle, visibility panels, smoke, and aerial flares. By flares I mean the real SOLAS grade aerial rockets that rise 1000’ and burn for 90 seconds. By smoke I refer to the orange smoke canisters about the size of a pound coffee can that float and burn for many minutes. The laser flare ( is a neat device the size of a small flashlight that emits a powerful flat beam of red laser light that can be swept across the horizon and seen by an aircraft or boat up to 20 miles away. At $110 you might consider it expensive, but with a battery life of 70+ hours it offers several thousand times the signal duration of those expensive SOLAS flares. The US Federal law that prohibits pointing a laser at an aircraft has an exception for emergency signaling. 

You could also buy a specialized survival radio that transmits on channels 16 and 6 for about $400, or a perfectly suitable waterproof marine radio for about $90 that transmits on all the marine frequencies. It should be stowed in a stuff sack or small pelican box with an inexpensive GPS (an old cell phone, perhaps). Don’t forget to pack the extra batteries. You might also consider a SPOT, Garmin, or other brand of satellite GPS messenger as a back up to your EPIRB. Some models allow you to send and receive text messages from anywhere. I can tell you from experience as a SAR mission coordinator that the two way texting feature is extremely valuable. 

If the cost of the ditch bag contents is beginning to bother you, remember that its contents are easily available without inflating the life raft. It can be your primary back-up system for lights, GPS, radios, etc. Your up-to-date flares are available for Coast Guard inspection. And, when you sell the boat you can take it with you to equip your RV.

The bag itself should be completely waterproof and equipped with a lanyard and snap hook. I like a heavy-duty dry bag like the ones used for whitewater rafting (eg: Seattle Sports River Pack). Another option is a commercial abandon ship bag with a waterproof dry-suit type zipper. It should be stored where easily retrieved and passed over the side. Attach the strobe to the outside of the bag so it can be activated when you toss it.

I’ll suggest an inventory here. As always, this represents my opinion and experience. You will undoubtedly get other good ideas and advice.

For more articles and information see
Ditch Bag:
  • Dry bag of appropriate size
  • Laser Flare or handheld pyrotechnic flares
  • Satellite Messenger with two way texting
  • Strobe Light (might be a feature of your headlamp)
  • Head Lamp
  • Space Blanket or Bivy Sack
  • Cyalume Glow Sticks
  • Signal Mirror
  • Whistle
  • Rocket Flares
  • Orange Smoke
  • Survival Food
  • Water –  5 gal jug on deck.
  • Water maker
  • VHF Radio
  • GPS
  • Compass
  • Extra batteries
  • Polypropylene clothing – top, bottom, hat
  • Marine gloves
  • Waterproof outer layer clothing
  • Medical Kit – including critical Rx medications
  • Waterproof sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Fishing lures and line (entertainment, survival)
  • Multi-tool (eg Bucktool, Leatherman)
  • Duct Tape
  • Cable Ties
  • Parachute cord
  • Lighter
  • Zip Lock Bags
  • Diaper wipes in Ziploc bag (some creature comforts are required)
  • EPIRB or PLB (redundant to Garmin or Spot but redundancy is good)