Fortunately, the governing bodies that oversee California’s boating regulations and laws, have understood that less is more when it comes to managing every citizen’s ownership of a watercraft.
California canoe and kayak laws allow for non-motorized vessels to be exempt from registration. However, it is mandatory for all canoes and kayaks to have onboard a life jacket for each person and a loud sound-making device like a whistle.
California Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview
The California Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) (officially the California Natural Resources Agency –
California State Parks – DIVISION OF BOATING AND WATERWAYS) is the organization responsible for enforcing and overseeing boating laws in the state of California.
State Police officers as well as game and fish Wardens are also tasked with enforcing boating/canoe/kayak boating regulations.
Canoe Registration – Unpowered (human-powered) boats are not required to be registered if they are less than 13 feet long.
Title – You will NOT need to title your canoe or kayak in California if your vessel is not powered by a motor. Otherwise, all motorized vessels need to be BOTH registered and titled.
Canoe/Kayak License Requirements – If the craft is powered by human means it does not need to be registered.
Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements – No certification or special education is required to operate a non-powered canoe/kayak.
Who needs a California boating education certification? – Refer to the chart below in the next section for specifics, but by the year 2025, all residents of California who operate any motorized vessel will need a safety certification card.
Operating Under the Influence – No person is allowed to operate or be in physical control of a motorboat or vessel (we assume this includes canoes and kayaks) while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Anyone caught with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher will be in violation of BUI (boating under the influence) laws.
Emergency Equipment Requirements – As in most jurisdictions, a wearable personal flotation device needs to be accessible to everyone in a vessel in the state of California.
The minimum legal requirements for emergency equipment on your vessel (canoe/kayak) includes the following:
- Life jackets— U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, of the right size and type, for everyone on board
- A white navigation light—during low visibility such as fog, heavy rain, night time, dawn or dusk. It must be visible from all angles (or at minimum, a “navigation” light deployable in sufficient time to prevent a collision)
- Visual Distress Signal – Not necessary in UNLESS you are on Federal waters after sunset and before sunrise.
- Sound Producing Device – Typically an emergency whistle capable of making a “loud” noise.
Do I Need a License or registration of any kind in order to canoe or kayak in California?
You do not need to license or register your canoe or kayak in California. Any vessel that is not powered by a motor will not need to be registered.
However, if your canoe is motorized, you still won’t need registration if you bring your canoe or kayak from another state (where it is operated legally with valid registration if required) and use it in California for less than 120 days.
You may register and title your motorized canoe (if applicable) using THIS LINK.
Do I Need a Title for my Canoe or Kayak in California?
I could find no statutes in the California boating laws that address the issue of titling a non-motorized vessel. However, if your canoe has a motor and needs to be registered, it will also require titling.
Do I Need a License or Registration in California if my Canoe or Kayak has a Motor?
You’ll need to register your motorized canoe in California. All motorized vessels with any kind of motor (gas or electric) and any level of power, will need to be registered (Certificate of Number) in Iowa and also display the appropriate decals/numbers.
You’ll need to have your Certificate of Number available for inspection if asked by an enforcement officer.
Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized and Non-Motorized Vessels in California
Do I have to be a certain age in California to operate a canoe with an electric trolling motor?
Practically speaking, anyone of any age (as long as they are competent) can legally operate a canoe or kayak with an electric motor of any size.
There are no age restrictions for anyone operating a motorized canoe or kayak with less than a 15 hp motor (which would include every motorized kayak on planet earth). If you decide to rig your “kayak” or “canoe” to fit a 15 hp (or larger) motor, you will need to comply with a number of requirements found HERE ON PAGE 16.
California law is slowly phasing in more regulations for boat certification requirements, and by 2025 every boater in the state of California will be required to have a Boater Safety Card. Here is the chart for phasing in stages:
|January 1, 2018||Persons 20 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2019||Persons 25 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2020||Persons 35 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2021||Persons 40 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2022||Persons 45 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2023||Persons 50 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2024||Persons 60 years of age or younger|
|January 1, 2025||All Human Beings in California regardless of age!|
That said, it’s never a bad idea to obtain your boater safety course for a safer boating experience.
Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of California
Is it illegal to drink alcohol while paddling my canoe in California?
It is illegal in California to operate a boat while intoxicated. A boater is considered “intoxicated” if his/her blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08% or higher.
Anyone under age 21 can be found guilty of BWI (boating while intoxicated) with a BAC of just 0.01%.
However, if a boater is impaired by any substance, including prescription drugs, marijuana, or other narcotics, they can still be charged with impaired boating if they fail to pass a field sobriety test or their actions give evidence of their intoxication.
California Boating Emergency Equipment Requirements
Every state has a slightly different take on what is required or suggested regarding life jackets. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but it’s just become a habit now for me to wear a PFD at all times.
In my case, I’ll cheat a bit and take it off or open it for a while if it’s insanely hot and the water is calm, but as a rule, I’d say wear one all the time!
What are the required items I’ll need legally while canoeing/kayaking in California?
You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on California’s waterways.
Life Jacket – You will be required by law to have a readily accessible and wearable PFD (personal flotation device) for everyone on board your canoe/kayak. They need to be Type I, II or III (or a wearable V)
Throwable Flotation Devices – Not mandatory in canoes or kayaks.
Manual Bailing Device – Not officially mandatory, but it’s a VERY good idea to have one.
Visual Distress Signals (VDS) – Not required unless your vessel is in Federally-controlled waters.
If you are on Federally controlled waters after dark, your canoe/kayak will need to have a minimum of three night VDS’s (or day/night VDS’s like a flare or red meteor). You do not need to carry a daytime VDS if you are operating a human-powered canoe or kayak.
Note: The VDS requirement assumes you are on the water after dark.
Navigation Lights – Unpowered vessels require, at minimum, a bright white lantern with enough luminosity to prevent a collision. These lights are required only when the boat is anchored or moving anytime between sunset and sunrise.
Sound Devices – Officially, California requires canoes and kayaks to have a loud sound-producing device audible for great distances. Loud human voices are not acceptable.
Fire Extinguishers – Not required in canoes/kayaks
Emergency Locator Beacons – Not required, but I’ve included this piece of equipment because I believe it is something EVERY canoeist and kayaker should have regardless of where they will paddle. ACR makes a very good model (pictured below).
Life Jackets for Various Vessels in California
Canoes or kayaks of any size/length need to have aboard a Type I, II or III US Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device for each person on board.
Anyone under the age of 13 needs to be WEARING an approved PFD while in the vessel WHILE it is underway.
As usual, certain vessels are exempt from the PFD laws, including racing canoes and racing kayaks in addition to rowing skulls and other racing vessels powered by wind or paddles.
IMPORTANT: It’s worth a mention to note that the PFD must be in good condition (not full of rips/tears with broken straps, etc.) AND must be readily accessible, AND must be of the proper size for the intended user.
Emergency Sound Device (California Boating Law)
According to California boat laws, all boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise.
In California, any powered or unpowered canoe or kayak MUST have a loud noise-making device that can produce a sustained blast for 4-6 seconds and can be heard for at least a mile. A loud human voice is not acceptable.
We regularly use the FOX 40 whistle that you can get HERE for around $10!
That said, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a louder whistle that exceeds the typical 115 to 120 decibel level of the Fox 40 line of whistles. The Hyper-Whistle is a great alternative to the Fox 40 though it’s a few dollars more and a tiny bit bigger.
It offers a 2-mile range and can hit up to 142 decibels (dB). You can check it out on Amazon for only about $5 more than the Fox 40.
You may also choose to have an air horn or other device that does not require your lung power, but I find a whistle is more than adequate given its smaller size, lower price, and because it’s maintenance-free and never has to be replaced or recharged or “checked” unless it’s lost.
Canoe/Kayak Emergency Lighting (California Boating Law)
Do I need special lights for my canoe in California?
- If you are operating an unpowered canoe or kayak, you’ll need to have AT LEAST a bright white lantern that produces a light that is visible from every angle and displayed in sufficient time to prevent a collision.
- All craft (including canoes/kayaks) must display a white light visible from all angles if anchored anywhere OTHER THAN a designed mooring area.
The State of California encourages users of kayaks and canoes (after dark) to display the bow red/green lights as well when underway. I’ve included a photo and link below to the best option (which is also the cheapest) for a canoe or kayak.
This is the best (and least expensive) option for a portable bow light that satisfies all state/provincial boating regulations.
This is definitely the light I would get if I didn’t already have an excellent light that I use for longer wilderness trips (smaller but not as impressive as this one)!
A stern mounted white light such as this one is exactly what is mandated for use if your canoe or kayak is (for some reason) moored away from shore overnight.
Here’s our choice for an excellent small, effective, and compliant stern light for dusk to dawn voyages.
Here’s a light very similar to the one I actually use in real life on my trips!
Visual Distress Signals (VDS) – Required only on Federally-controlled waters in the state.
Here’s the most convenient night VDS that is compliant with all states and provinces.
California Canoe / Kayak Fire Extinguisher Law
Fire extinguishers are not required for canoes or kayaks for obvious reasons. If you should find yourself in a situation where a fire breaks out in your canoe, a simple splash of water (or barring that, a controlled capsize) should do the trick nicely.
California Boating Rules and Certification Information
California Boating Guide can be found HERE