10 Kayaking Rules And Regulations You Must Follow In 2021

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Kayaking isn’t really one of those sports for the rule-breakers and non-conformists out there. While there’s plenty of freedom to go where you want, see what you want, and paddle in whatever crazy style you prefer, obeying your local kayaking rules and regulations is super important to your safety.

That can actually be the hard part about making sure you’re obeying the rules if you like to travel and kayak in a lot of different locations. Almost every state’s rules and regulations will vary slightly from others, so it’s super important that you stay up-to-date on the rules for your area.

That being said, there are a clear set of 10 kayaking rules and regulations you must follow in 2021. We’ve researched regulations for many states and municipalities to bring you a list that’s almost universal to any kayaking location you could imagine.

In this guide, we’ll outline those rules and we’ll explain why following them is important for your safety and the safety of other boaters on the water. We’ll also provide some general safe kayaking tips to help you enjoy risk-free paddling experiences.

So let’s get started!

Safe Kayaking Tips

Before we get into the most important rules and regulations for kayaking in 2021, we think it’s important to highlight some of the best tips for safe kayaking. These tips are easy to follow and they will help you avoid unnecessary risk wherever you paddle this year.

Get Used To Checking The Weather A Lot

One of the most common things that turns an otherwise calm and pleasurable kayaking day into a hazardous endeavor is a dramatic change in the weather. While predicting the weather isn’t an exact science, we have better weather apps on our smartphones than ever before.

One of our favorite weather apps is called Ventusky and it’s one of the best we’ve found for predicting local weather patterns within 24-48 hours of your scheduled paddle. But it’s also great for international travel because it’s a global app.

There are, of course, dozens of other apps that you might like better for your specific area and type of kayaking. The key here is that you check the weather early and often leading up to your paddles, and if you’re out for several hours, it’s always good to check it again while you’re out.

In addition, we also recommend studying up on techniques for predicting weather without the use of technology. One book that we love is called Mountain Weather by Jeff Renner, in which he details how to identify cloud formations and decipher how they signal certain weather phenomena, among other things.

To help you stay up-to-date on weather changes while you’re kayaking, you might also consider getting one of the best GPS units for kayaking. Many of these units come with weather updates and also allow you to tune into your local Coast Guard frequencies to get severe weather alerts.

Wear The Right Clothing

One of the biggest misunderstandings about kayaking is that it’s only a warm-weather activity. But kayaking can be a year-round activity as long as you have the right clothing for any weather conditions you might encounter.

Of course, you won’t need to worry about wearing kayaking booties or having one of the best kayak spray skirts when temperatures are over 80 degrees Fahrenheit and there’s a 0% chance of precipitation.

But you might need to have those clothing items in your collection for fall or winter paddling. If you want to be sure you have all the right clothing for paddling year-round, check out our full guide to the best cold weather kayak gear.

Pack Appropriate Safety Equipment

There’s an old saying that I first heard from one of my old adventure company bosses. It says that it’s not a matter of if things go wrong, but it’s simply a matter of when.

The message, at least for me as a kayak guide, was that it’s better to be prepared for the worst and expect the best instead of heading out on the water expecting nothing to go wrong and then being left unprepared when things go sideways.

That’s why we firmly believe that there’s an essential list of kayaking safety equipment that should basically always be packed in your kayak. That’s the case whether you’re heading out for a quick morning sunrise paddle or you’re about to head out for a multi-day kayaking expedition.

Having the right equipment on hand will make you a safer paddler because you’ll be prepared for almost any scenario you can imagine. And you won’t need to rely on other paddlers as much if you get yourself into a sticky situation.

Don’t Be Too Cool For A PFD

The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of kayaking deaths can be attributed to the lack of wearing a personal flotation device. That’s just a silly reality when today’s PFDs actually look pretty cool and can serve several purposes.

Many modern PFDs have beverage holders and pockets for storing snacks and other kayaking accessories. Some even have hoods to keep your head dry if you happen to get caught out in a rainstorm.

But we still see far too many people that either don’t recognize the importance of a kayaking PFD or think they’re too cool for one (like the experienced paddler above). While we know that not all states require paddlers to wear a PFD at all times, we highly recommend that you do so.

Even if you’re a very good swimmer, you just can’t predict what will happen when you hit the water unexpectedly. We’ve heard of cold water shock disabling even the most experienced and confident of swimmers when they capsize their kayak.

We’ve also heard of submerged objects impaling kayaker’s feet or legs and impeding their ability to resurface when they hit the water. Wearing a proper kayaking PFD is simply the best way to be safe instead of sorry!

Stay Sober

We know that kayaking is a super popular activity during the hottest months of the year. And the temptation is high to add a couple of cold alcoholic beverages to your cooler while you’re packing your gear for a day on the lake.

But, at this point, we shouldn’t have to cite any substantial scientific studies to state that alcohol impairs your judgment. Its effect on your body can be even greater when you’re out in the sun and exercising for a long day.

Not only can it impair your ability to make good decisions regarding the navigation and maneuvering of your kayak, but it can also cause you to neglect drinking something that actually keeps you hydrated when you’re out in the sun for several hours.

The potential negative effects of dehydration are just as serious as the bad decisions you might make if your judgment is impaired. So, while we know it’s going to be very tempting, we recommend staying sober at least until you get back to the beach at the end of your paddle.

Kayaking Rules and Regulations You Must Follow in 2021

1. The Personal Flotation Device (PFD) Rule

Most states and local enforcement agencies have some variation on the PFD rule. In short, it is legally required (in most places) for you to wear one of the best life vests for kayaking while you’re on the water.

Some places have a more lenient variation on this rule that simply states you need to have a PFD securely attached to your kayak, but you don’t necessarily have to be wearing it. In most cases, this rule will require that you have enough flotation devices for the number of people on your watercraft.

In some places, there are ages associated with PFD mandates for younger children. In Alabama, for example, all children age 13 or younger must be wearing a PFD at all times when riding on a personal watercraft.

The PFD rule is one of the most important you can follow when kayaking in 2021. Not only will it keep you and anyone else on your kayak safe, but it can also help you avoid a silly and, in some cases, a hefty fine.

2. Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Rules

Believe it or not, it is in fact possible to be ticketed for ‘driving’ under the influence when you’re operating a kayak. The legal limit for operating a kayak in most states is the same as the legal limit for operating a vehicle.

If your blood alcohol content is over the legal limit of 0.08, an officer could issue a DUI. This is especially possible if you’re causing a public nuisance or operating your kayak in a particularly dangerous or irresponsible fashion.

In some states, however, local authorities offer more leniency to kayakers than they would for automobile drivers. In Colorado, for example, the legal limit for BAC is 0.10 for anyone operating a kayak.

You should also be aware that these limits sometimes change (and are lower) for minors operating kayaks. In many states, it is illegal for a minor under the age of 21 to operate a kayak with a BAC anywhere over 0.02.

3. Time of Day Rules

While we are actually huge fans of sunrise, sunset, and even night paddles, some states frown on the idea of kayaking after dark. To be honest, there are some very good reasons why night kayaking is more dangerous than taking your paddle craft out during the day.

In states like Delaware, California, and Idaho, for example, kayaking is restricted to the daylight hours between sun up and sundown. In fact, most states have this restriction, but some will allow paddling between sunset and sunrise if your kayak is outfitted with the proper equipment.

This kind of equipment includes one of the best kayak lights for night paddling, but it should also include some type of flare or signal flasher for emergency situations. The main reason for these daylight restrictions is the lack of visibility that comes with paddling in low lighting conditions.

For that reason, some states also restrict paddling in other low visibility conditions. On mornings when a dense, heavy fog sits over the bay where you regularly paddle, for example, you might not be able to go out like you normally would.

4. Education and Instruction Rules

If you head down to your local beach to rent a kayak, you may be surprised if the kayak vendor starts to give you some basic instructions on how to kayak. Even if you know what you’re doing, many personal watercraft (PWC) operators are required, by law, to provide basic paddling instructions with each PWC rental.

If you’re a beginner and you have very minimal kayaking experience, you should be aware of this law when you go out to rent a kayak on vacation. Don’t feel like you’re inconveniencing a rental operator by requesting a quick lesson because, in many states, they are legally required to do so.

Keep in mind, however, that in states like Alaska, Arizona, and California, this instruction is not required. So rental operators in these states (and many others) have the freedom to upcharge you for a kayak lesson if they see fit.

5. Restricted Area Rules

On many waterways, you’ll be prohibited from paddling in certain locations based on local safety concerns. This could be the result of shallow water, dangerous currents, shipping channels, or other obstacles/hazards that could be dangerous for kayakers.

The good news is that, in most cases, these zones should be clearly marked with buoys. You’ll either see a long rope line with smaller buoys placed along it (as pictured above) or a series of taller buoys that indicate a restricted area.

If you’re paddling somewhere in the off-season, however, many waterways remove buoys and rope lines so that they don’t get damaged by severe weather. So it’s always a good idea to stop into your local ranger station or contact the regional Coast Guard office to get more information on location-specific hazards where you want to paddle.

6. Speed Limit Rules

We don’t blame you if you scoffed at this item when you first saw it. Most kayakers can’t go anywhere near fast enough to run afoul of local speed limit rules on the water, but there’s another reason why kayakers should be aware of these rules.

Most waterways establish what are called ‘No Wake’ zones near shorelines and in shallower areas. These zones are designed to signal to drivers of larger, motorized watercraft that it isn’t safe to go any faster than they can go without producing a wake behind their boat.

For kayakers, being aware of these ‘No Wake’ zones can help you stick to safer waters when you’re paddling in a new place. In fact, one of the biggest dangers to kayakers on most waterways is the other boaters with which they’re sharing the water.

As you can see from the image above, the worst-case scenario is getting hit by a boater that’s not paying close attention to his or her surroundings. But if you’re aware of local speed limit rules and you stick to ‘No Wake’ zones you can greatly reduce that risk.

7. Negligent Operation Rules

The vast majority of states also have a law that allows safety officers to issue citations for what they call the negligent operation of a vessel. The definition of ‘negligent operation’ basically boils down to any activity that causes danger to the paddler or fellow boaters.

The only two states that don’t have a negligent operation rule are Ohio and Virginia, but that doesn’t mean you should operate your kayak like a crazy person, ever. This rule is in place to protect other boaters from kayakers who, in spite of not being in violation of other rules and regulations, are clearly operating their watercraft recklessly and endangering others around them.

8. Minimum Age Rules

Surprisingly, most states don’t have a rule in place that prohibits minors under a certain age from operating a kayak on their own. States like Utah, Oklahoma, and New Mexico do have age restrictions for minors operating sail-powered watercraft, but those rules don’t apply to kayaking.

That being said, safe kayaking practices (and general common sense) suggest that it’s not a great idea to allow small children to paddle into deep waters without being accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Don’t get us wrong here, we wholeheartedly believe in sharing your passion for kayaking with your kids starting at a very young age. We just think there are ways (like getting one of the best tandem kayaks) to do it safely!

9. Good Samaritan Rules

If you spend a lot of time kayaking, the odds are going to be pretty good that you end up stumbling across someone who could use your help. While our natural instinct should be to lend a hand to those in need, not every state has a Good Samaritan rule that protects you from liability when you’re acting to help a kayaker in distress.

States like California, Arkansas, and Arizona, for example, protect Good Samaritans when they act to help distressed kayakers in need. While these aren’t the only states with a Good Samaritan rule, it might surprise you that more than half of the states in the U.S. don’t have a Good Samaritan law in place.

In addition, some states have regulations against transporting accident victims on your kayak if you come across them while paddling. Louisiana, Maryland, and Michigan, for example, have formal policies in place for how they’d like kayakers to act if they encounter an accident victim while paddling.

Again, although not all of these policies prohibit you from acting, you should still be familiar with the suggested protocol in your area. It’s better to know your state’s policy than to be caught off-guard when you’re simply trying to lend a hand.

10. Transportation Rules

In most cases, you’ll be safe if you use one of the best kayak roof racks for transporting your watercraft. But some states have more strict rules and regulations on the safest way to transport a kayak than others.

One example of these rules and regulations for transporting kayaks is the mandatory inclusion of a bright-colored flag at the stern of your kayak if it extends back past the bumper of your vehicle. And many states restrict how far a kayak can extend beyond the front and rear bumpers of your vehicle.

A rule like this last one could have serious implications in how you choose the right kayak for your lifestyle. Because someone with a longer Ford F-250, for example, is going to be able to safely (and legally) transport a larger kayak than someone with a Toyota Prius.

In some cases, the exact rules and regulations for the safe transport of kayaks can be tough to find. But your local Department of Motor Vehicles office is a great place to start, and just don’t forget to plan ahead and look into other regulations if you drive your kayak into a new state to find more of the best kayaking destinations in the US!

Final Thoughts

While these aren’t the only rules and regulations that you should follow when kayaking, we think they are undoubtedly the most important. If you use the National Association of State Boating Law Administrator’s (NASBLA) template of state boating laws, you can further increase your understanding of the rules and regulations for your specific state.

Following these rules and regulations will help you enjoy safe paddling experiences wherever you go. It will also help you avoid silly, unnecessary fines for neglecting a certain rule that you should’ve known about.

We hope you’ve found this guide to be useful and educational. And, as always, we wish you the best (and safest) of kayaking adventures in the year to come!

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Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of KayakHelp.com. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.

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