So you just bought a Canoe or Kayak and want to know what is required to be legal. Laws governing boats such as canoes and kayaks vary, depending on the body of water and the agency that has jurisdiction. For example, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) has a set of comprehensive requirements for most inland waters and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) considers kayaks and canoes to be a Vessel Under Oars for purposes of regulation. Consequently, we’re going to focus on Canoes and Kayaks that are used in our local area -namely the states of NC & VA.

Putting aside issues of safety and common sense for the moment, here is what you need simply to be legal when using a canoe or kayak in NC, as of 2010:

  • USGC approved, Type I, II or III PFD (if under 13 years old, the PFD must be worn at all times). Racing Canoes/Kayaks and Rowing Shells are exempt from this requirement.
  • Sound Producing Device, such as a Whistle
  • Navigational Light, such as a handheld waterproof flashlight (for waters under USGC jurisdiction, such as coastal waters, or on inland waters from Sunset to Sunrise).
  • Daytime/Nighttime Visual Distress Signals, such as 3 aerial flares (for waters under USCG jurisdiction, such as coastal waters).
  • If the Canoe or Kayak is powered by a trolling motor of any kind (gas or electric), the boat needs to be registered and titled (unless solely operated on a private pond). A Registration Card will need to be carried with you and presented, if requested by a NCWRC officer. This does not apply to non-powered canoes or kayaks.
  • If the canoe or kayak is primarily powered by sail and is over 14 feet in length (for example, a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island), the boat needs to be registered and titled. A Registration Card will need to be carried with you and presented, if requested by a NCWRC officer. This does not generally apply to canoes or kayaks where an optional sail kit is used only on occasion.

Full list of requirements direct from the USCG website: Here

More information on the above topics can be found here:

The above is NOT an exhaustive list applicable to all bodies of water in NC & VA -it is simply a list of the most common items that if missing, can often lead to a citation when paddling a canoe or kayak. Also, regulations do change and the information presented above is not a substitute for reading, understanding and following the specific boating regulations of the NCWRC, USCG, or other appropriate law enforcement agency.

However, reading and understanding these regulations in their entirety can be a complex task since many of these regulations do not apply to non-powered vessels such as canoes and kayaks. For example, take a look at these USCG regulations and you will see that there is a lot of reading and much of it is for large vessels. Consequently, the information above is being provided as a convenience to our customers, most of whom are acutely interested in obeying the laws governing boating but would like a quick review of what they need to help avoid a ticket while paddling their canoe or kayak.

That being said, we can’t guarantee you’ll avoid a ticket even if you do follow the information we’ve provided here. For example, at the Cape Lookout National Seashore, the management agency (the US Department of Interior’s National Park Service) requires all paddlers to file a float plan with the park office. As another example, paddlers on SC’s Chattooga River are required to wear a helmet (and for good reason). As yet another example, paddlers on the Roanoke River who are planning to camp overnight are required to carry (and use) a porta potty. The rule of thumb is to always check with the local management agency if you have any questions regarding boating regulations.

Here are some related resources you may find helpful: