Iowa Canoeing / Kayaking Laws

Unfortunately, the governing bodies that oversee Iowa’s boating regulations and laws, have broken most states’ procedures regarding canoes and have chosen to require registration for all canoes/kayaks over 13 feet.

Iowa canoe and kayak laws DO NOT allow for non-motorized vessels to be exempt from registration. Also, 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.

Iowa does, however, have some good laws that every canoeist, kayaker, sailor, and recreational motorboat operator should be aware of, and thankful for.


Iowa Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview



The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is the organization responsible for enforcing and overseeing boating laws in the state of Iowa.

State Police officers as well as game and fish Wardens are also tasked with enforcing boating/canoe/kayak boating regulations.

Here is a link to more information on all the boating laws and regulations in Iowa

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 Iowa if your vessel is under the 17-foot length threshold. Any vessel 17 feet or longer must be titled.

Canoe/Kayak License Requirements – If the craft is powered by human means or by said AND is under 13 feet in length, 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 an Iowa boating education certification? – Anyone between the ages of 12 and 17 is required to obtain and carry a boating safety card in order to operate any motorized vessel with a motor larger than 10 hp.

Anyone over the age of 18 may operate a vessel of any power without a certification card, but it’s never a bad idea to pass the course for your own peace of mind and safety.

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 Kansas.

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.

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Do I Need a License or permit of any kind in order to canoe or kayak in Iowa?



Any vessel that is either 13-feet or longer, or is any length but powered by a motor of any kind will need to be registered.

However, you 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 Iowa for less than 60 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 Iowa?



No! I could find no statutes in the Iowa boating laws that address the issue of titling a non-motorized vessel or a motorized vessel as long as it is under 17 feet long. If your canoe has a motor and needs to be registered, it will also require titling.


Do I Need a License or Registration in Iowa if my Canoe or Kayak has a Motor?



You’ll need to register your motorized canoe in Iowa. 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.

BOAT REGISTRATION INFO


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized and Non-Motorized Vessels in Iowa



Do I have to be a certain age in Iowa 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.

The law states that anyone under the age of 12 may operate a motorized boat of greater than 10 hp if he/she is accompanied by a competent adult at least 18 years old.

Anyone from age 12 to 17 may operate a motorboat of greater than 10 hp as long as he/she is accompanied by someone competent of at least 18 years of age, OR the operator has legally obtained a boater safety certification card.

As a good reference, a 1 hp motor is loosely equal to around 70 -75 lbs of thrust from an electric motor, and no electric motor that fits on an average canoe or kayak will exceed or even approach 70 lbs of thrust.

That said, it’s never a bad idea to obtain your boater safety course for a safer boating experience.

Here’s where you can begin your State-approved Boater Safety Course.


Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of Iowa



Is it illegal to drink alcohol while paddling my canoe in Iowa?

Yes, it is illegal in Iowa to operate a boat while intoxicated. A boater is considered “intoxicated” if his/her blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08% or higher.

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.


Iowa 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 Iowa?

You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on Iowa’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, Iowa 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).

ACR makes the best Emergency Locator Beacon … in my opinion!


Are Adults Required to Wear Life Jackets in Canoes or Kayaks in Iowa?



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.

Canoe Safety Gear (The Essentials & “Almost” Essentials)


Emergency Sound Device (Iowa Boating Law)



According to Iowa boat laws, all boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise.

In Iowa, 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.

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The HyperWhistle is the loudest whistle currently on the market

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 (Iowa Boating Law)



Do I need special lights for my canoe in Iowa?

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 Iowa 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.


Iowa 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.


Iowa Paddling!

There are more than 65 lakes in the State of Iowa but only 34 are naturally-occuring. However, that is no barrier to the thousands who take to Iowa’s waterways annually for adventure!

Interesting Paddle Facts!

If you’ve ever wondered where MOST paddlers paddle, here’s the answer, and it may surprise you!

Of all paddlers in North America, 59% paddle on lakes, 45% on rivers, 19% on oceans, 16% on ponds, and 15% on streams.

Ever wonder how long most paddlers get out on the water?

77% of all paddlers are out only for day trips, while 9% go for an overnight trip. A total of 11% of all canoeists and kayakers head out on multi-day trips like 3 days up to several months. Most of those trips are 3-6 days.


Iowa Boating Rules and Certification Information



Iowa Boating Guide can be found HERE

Paddlesports Ideas and Locations for Iowa

Iowa Boater Safety Course


Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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