How to Prepare for Medical Emergencies When Boating

ArticleJune 14, 2011

As an enthusiastic boater, I understand that it is much more pleasant to educate yourself on things like boating techniques and paddling routes than learning about what to do when someone gets hurt. I’m personally more excited about an eskimo roll class than a first aid class. However, this does not mean that preparation for medical emergencies is not extremely important.

In this day and age, we are all susceptible to many different types of medical emergencies. Car crashes, heart attacks, injuries, illnesses and accidents all happen on a daily basis. Just being alive creates the need to be familiar with first aid skills as well as how and when to obtain additional medical help. When we participate in paddle sports, we take this need a few steps further.

As boaters, we embark on hazardous journeys that take us to dangerous places often far from hospitals and the “911 System.” Boating is a risky sport, no matter what type of boater you are. Whether you fish from a sit-on-top or hard-shell class V water, guide paddle rafts or paddle IKs, row catarafts or sea-kayak, you are more at risk for medical emergencies than many non-boaters.

Besides being a risky endeavor, boating can add the element of isolation, which can turn small mishaps into big emergencies. This creates a need for us, as boaters, to be self-supportive and prepared to deal with any medical emergency that could occur when we are on the water.

To be fully prepared for medical emergencies we will need to obtain three tools:

  1. Access (a way to contact advanced emergency assistance)
  2. Equipment (a medical kit)
  3. Knowledge (lifesaving skills and techniques)

The type and amount of these three tools will be adjusted by the risk/type of boating and the proximity to the emergency medical system (EMS). Let’s now explore the importance of these three tools and how/where to obtain them.

Access to the EMS

The first safety rule that most paddlers learn is: never go boating alone! The philosophy here is that if your friend is in trouble, you can help them, and vice versa. This is an excellent system that should always be utilized. However, there are certain situations when we may need additional help from an outside source, for example: if an injury is severe, or if your group is far from definitive care. Situations like these may require you to contact rescue/medical professionals.

The medium you choose to activate the EMS will vary by situation. For example; if you are going on a day trip near roads and civilization, a cell phone may be sufficient. However, if you are in remote areas for extended periods of time, you may need to consider bringing a satellite phone or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Paddlers traveling in marine environments may find a VHF radio an acceptable way to call for assistance. No matter what medium you choose, make sure it is reliable; help will not come if you can’t reach it.


To be able to give safe and effective emergency care, you need to have the appropriate equipment. It’s always important to have “the right tool for the right job,” especially if the job is maintaining someone’s health and well being. Medical kits can be purchased complete, or compiled at home. NRS carries Adventure Medical Kits, which are created specifically for outdoor needs, come in waterproof cases and are available in a variety of styles and sizes. Other medical kits and supplies can be purchased at outdoor, department and grocery stores.

Customizing your kit can be helpful, depending on: boating location, type of boating, special needs of group members and the certification level of the kit owner. For example, my kit for a day paddle at a local lake is different than my kit for a multi-day trip on a remote and difficult river. I always make myself aware of any specific medical requirements of the group members and adjust my kit to accommodate their needs. Also, as an EMT, I carry certain items in my kit that are specific to my scope of training.

No matter if you buy a complete kit or assemble your own, it is important to be familiar with its contents and know how to use them.


Medical kits and satellite phones will not help if you don’t know how and when to use them. First aid skills and techniques are mandatory for giving appropriate emergency care. In my opinion, every boater should be proficient with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and Basic First Aid.

First aid training can be attained from several sources. There are many Internet courses available these days. However, I would recommend taking a class from a reputable source where you get to learn from a professional and practice the techniques.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has been training and certifying people in CPR for many years. For people who spend long periods of time in the backcountry A WFR (Wilderness First Responder) course would be very helpful. The NOLS - WMI (National Outdoor Leadership School – Wilderness Medical Institute) offers the WFR certification. My personal favorite source for training is the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross

The Red Cross has convenient locations all over the country. You can find the Red Cross location nearest to you by looking in the white pages or visiting their website: If you are familiar with a Red Cross location, you can obtain information by simply stopping in during business hours.

The Red Cross offers a variety of Health and Safety Classes that would be applicable to boating. These classes are a great choice because students are given the chance to learn by listening, watching and practicing. Class sizes are never larger than twelve students, class materials are included in the enrollment fee and Red Cross Certifications are widely accepted nationwide.

The most common class is CPR and First Aid. The CPR section has the option to take one or all three age groups (Adult, Child, Infant) modules and an option to add AED (automatic electronic defibrillator) training. There are many topics in this class that are applicable to boating, which include (but are not limited to): Emergency Response, CPR (including care for drowning victims), Care for Soft Tissue/Musculoskeletal Injuries, Care for Sudden Illnesses (heart attacks, strokes, diabetic emergencies, allergic reactions), Care for Environmental Emergencies (heat exhaustion/stroke, hypothermia, frost bite) and Lifting/Moving an Injured or Ill Person. This class is perfect for beginning caregivers, or those more experienced that need a refresher.

There are two other, more advanced, classes taught by the Red Cross: CPR/AED for the Professional Rescuer and Wilderness First Aid. The Professional Rescuer class is designed to teach CPR and lifesaving skills to healthcare professionals like: nurses, physicians, lifeguards and first responders. This class builds on the CPR and First Aid class by adding topics such as (but not limited to): advanced airway techniques, oxygen administration, patient assessment, medication assistance and advanced transport techniques.

The Wilderness First Aid class provides basic knowledge and skills to enable participants to make decisions about emergency care in wilderness settings. This class also builds on the CPR and First Aid class, and teaches techniques to transport victims and help them survive longer while help is on the way. This class is similar, but not a substitute for, the WFR course.


When it comes to emergency medical preparation for boaters, there is some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that being a boater is risky and can put you in locations that are far from advanced help. The good news is that the preparation tools we need are readily available; we just need to take action.

“Better safe than sorry” is the motto here. If you adequately prepare yourself, you will increase your chances of having fun on the water and returning to boat another day!

Boat safe and boat often!