Any self-respecting angler organizes and restocks his or her tackle or fly boxes on a regular—if not obsessive—basis. But for those of you with boats, when was the last time you took inventory of your onboard toolbox and spare parts? Too many of you haven’t dug in that box or compartment since the last time you were in some kind of trouble on the water. Don’t make that mistake again. This is a task that needs to happen often and long before you get to the ramp.
While some of the items you should always carry are obvious, here’s a rundown of everything we make sure is stocked and ready on our boats. A bunch of these essentials may surprise you, but you’ll be a lot less surprised when you’re in a situation where a not-so-obvious item saves the day. So, next time you’re daydreaming about spring thaw, go make sure you’ll have the tools you’ll need when the time comes. We’ll keep it to hardware for now, but keep an eye out for an upcoming article about mandatory and helpful safety and first aid items to keep in your watercraft.
Is a boat really a boat without a boat plug? It certainly won’t stay floating very long with water gushing in at the stern. Usually this critical, missing piece gets noticed right at the launch, but what if you drove a few hours and your plugs didn’t make the trip? Or worse, what if an external plug gets ripped out when you run over a log? Make sure you always have a spare or two in your emergency kit. It’s a real pain to have to make one on the spot.
This may sound like a no brainer, but I have given fuses to fellow anglers in need of a bailout many times. In the off season, take a few minutes to look over manuals and familiarize yourself with the fuse styles and sizes required for your engine and electronics. Items such as bilge pumps, radios, sonar, GPS units, and anything with an electric start most likely requires one or more fuses. Don’t be surprised if you need nearly a dozen different types for your ride.
Extra Kill Switch
This may seem like overkill until it’s needed. Most boat engines will not start without a functioning kill switch. I’ve been carrying an extra ever since a friend broke my clip and caused my perfectly functioning boat to be completely dead in the water.
Spare bilge pump
A backup plan for pumping water out of your bilge or into your livewell is mandatory. At minimum, always have a manual, hand-operated bilge pump, however, a small battery-operated pump—or pump you can quickly connect to your boat battery—is better. Whether you are in a big derby trying to keep fish alive in a malfunctioning well or need to keep your boat afloat in an emergency, this will eventually save your bacon. Keep in mind that in many cases, the supplied hose is not long enough to reach from the bilge over the side of the boat. Check the reach on dry land to see if you need to make a trip to the hardware store to purchase a longer hose.
This item should actually read “good side cutters.” This distinction becomes very clear when you have to cut the hooks off a lure that’s stuck in your friend’s face. “Good” doesn’t have to mean expensive, but having a pair that isn’t rusted shut makes a world of difference.
Carrying a pair of crimper/strippers in the boat is smart. Over time, connections can become weak, corrode, or totally pull loose. In situations where wires are short and space is limited, a pair of stripper/crimpers to expose copper and make a connection can save your ass.
A pair of needle-nose pliers will obviously help you get a fish unhooked, but they’re also useful when it comes to repairs. As long as you don’t have butter fingers, investing in a-little-better-than-dollar-store pliers will ensure you don’t need two hands to open and close them after a few weeks. A pair of channel locks isn’t bad to have around either, when more heavy-duty tightening or loosening is needed.
The deeper you dig into a boat, the more you’ll realize a lot of things are held in place with Allen head bolts and screws. They are common on items such as hubs and electrical panels. An Allen key set is compact and smart to include in your toolkit.
Boats typically have parts supplied by more than a dozen manufacturers. As a result, it’s not uncommon to need an uncommon driver head, such as a square drive, Torx, or micro Philips. An inexpensive, multi screwdriver with a small sandwich bag of bits has proven invaluable over the years. An extension adapter also helps access difficult-to-reach areas.
Here’s an item most boaters don’t carry or even think they’ll need. In reality, it’s the first thing that a trained boat mechanic will reach for to fix an electrical issue. You don’t need to have any electrical knowledge to use one, but having it allows you to figure out which wires have power and how much amperage is running through them. A meter costs less than $10 and the information you get out of it can even help you get a diagnosis over the phone.
If you have the room, carry a set of 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch-deep sockets in the most commonly used sizes. This will help you snug bolts as tiny as those on electronics all the way up to the beefy ones on your motor mounts. When space is a concern, a 3/8-inch drive will get you tightened up in most circumstances. If you only carry standard, it may be wise to at least throw in a 10 mm socket, as most boats seem to always have at least one part that requires it. In the case of foreign outboards, you most likely need metric sockets. Once again, an extender attachment is good to have for working in confined places.
Extendable Magnetic Stick
If you have ever dropped anything down inside an engine cowling or the bilge, you understand how a telescopic magnet stick would come in handy. I have an extra-long one given to me by a boat mechanic about 15 years ago. He told me he used his at least once a week and couldn’t survive without it. Fifteen years later, I can’t either.
Boat motors don’t run very well—if at all—with bad or fouled spark plugs. The other reality is that the exact spark plug you need for your motor will not be on the shelf at the corner store when you’re in a pinch. Having extras is cheap insurance.
Silicone Rescue Tape
They call this stuff “rescue tape” because it can legitimately rescue your ass. There is no sticky adhesive; rescue tape only sticks to itself and it sticks well. Silicone tape works great in a pinch to repair pretty much any line or hose that springs a minor to moderate leak. It’s perfect for damp, aquatic environments where duct or electrical tape can be ruined by moisture before you even get started fixing an issue.
A short piece of electrical tape can be used to do many things, from covering an exposed wire to acting as a temporary band-aid. Carrying both black and red tape is also a great idea for marking wires positive and negative.
Need we say more? It sucks for many applications, but if a windshield comes apart or an electronic mount snaps, I’m reaching for my silver savior.
Securing or marking a cluster of wires? Tying down a loose depth sounder? Temporarily holding a fishing rod guide in place? Zip ties will do a better job in these situations than any tape. Make sure to carry a wide variety of lengths and thicknesses.
Nuts and Bolts
Do a quick once-over on your rig and take note of the most commonly used factory fasteners. A few 1/4-20 stainless bolts in various lengths and 7/16 Nyloc nuts will cover you in many circumstances, but look out for any specialty sizes along the transom. Having spare hardware can help you secure a piece of equipment that, if not addressed, will likely be beaten to pieces by the time the boat gets back on the trailer.
A small medicine bottle containing several different sizes of butt splices and ring connectors can take you from dead in the water to fully functional in 15 minutes. Check to see what size fittings both your distribution panel and cranking battery use and make sure to have those sizes. The same goes for butt splices.
Sometimes you need a more secure jerry-rig fastener than what tape can provide. Whether it’s oar locks coming loose or a missing nut on the transom, this heavy wire can keep your rig from falling apart when running across choppy water or rowing rapids. You can make these connections extra secure by grasping the tag ends with heavy pliers and twisting them tight.