Thankfully, the governing bodies that oversee North Carolina’s boating regulations and laws, understand that less is more.
North Carolina 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.
North Carolina Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview
Governing Body – The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is responsible for regulating boating laws in the state of North Carolina.
Canoe Registration – Unpowered (human-powered) boats are not required to be registered.
Title – You will NOT need to title your canoe or kayak in North Carolina.
Information on registering can be found here.
Canoe/Kayak License Requirements – If the craft is powered only by means other than an assisted device like a motor (ie. if it’s human-powered), no or registration or licensing is required.
Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements – No certification or special education is required to operate a non-powered canoe/kayak.
Who needs a North Carolina boating education certification? – If you were born on or after January 1, 1988, you will need to obtain and carry a boating education course certification card. The course needs to be approved by the NASBLA (National Association of Boating Law Administrators).
You need this course ONLY if you will be operating a boat powered by a 10 HP (or greater) motor. There appears to be no restriction on age for operating a boat with a less than 10 HP motor (which would include all electric trolling motors).
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 North Carolina.
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 permit of any kind in order to canoe or kayak in North Carolina?
While North Carolina does require registering a motorized craft (battery-powered or liquid fuel-powered), it does not require non-powered kayaks or canoes to be registered.
Also, you won’t need registration or titling if you bring your canoe or kayak from another state (where it is operated legally with valid registration if required) and use it in North Carolina for less than 90 days.
You may register your canoe (if applicable) using THIS LINK.
Do I Need a Title for my Canoe or Kayak in North Carolina?
There are no statutes in the North Carolina boating laws that address the issue of titling. However, you have the choice of titling if you wish, but if you choose to title, your vessel must also be registered first.
Do I Need a License or Registration in North Carolina if my Canoe or Kayak has a Motor?
You’ll need to register your motorized canoe in North Carolina. All motorized vessels with any kind of motor (gas or electric) and any level of power, will need to be registered in North Carolina.
All vessels (including sailboats) over 14 feet in length with a motor, must be registered. However, the law also states that canoes are exempt, but it appears to only refer to non-motorized canoes, so it’s probably best to confirm this ambiguity with the Wildlife Resources Commission.
Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized and Non-Motorized Vessels in North Carolina
Do I have to be a certain age in North Carolina to operate a canoe with an electric trolling motor?
North Carolina does not restrict the age of anyone operating a non-motorized vessel. It also seems to not restrict the age of anyone operating a motorized vessel with a motor of less than 10 HP.
However, if your canoe or kayak has an electric or gas motor of greater than 10 HP, here are the rules:
No one under the age of 14 can operate a PERSONAL WATERCRAFT (so that doesn’t include an electric trolling motor-powered canoe or kayak).
Anyone between 14 and 15 years old may operate a PWC (personal watercraft) if they are accompanied directly by someone who is at least 18 years old and is in compliance with all state boating requirements.
They can also operate a PWC if they are in possession of a valid NASBLA approved boating course certificate.
To obtain your valid boating certification (so you can operate a PWC or other motorboat), visit the Official North Carolina Boating Safety Course website.
Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of North Carolina
Is it illegal to drink alcohol while paddling my canoe in North Carolina?
It is illegal in North Carolina 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.
North Carolina 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 North Carolina?
You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on North Carolina’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 3 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, North Carolina 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).
Do Adults Have to Wear Life Jackets in Canoes or Kayaks in North Carolina?
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 (North Carolina Boating Law)
According to North Carolina boat laws, all boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise. In North Carolina, any powered or unpowered canoe or kayak MUST have a loud noise-making device. 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 (North Carolina Boating Law)
Do I need special lights for my canoe in North Carolina?
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 North Carolina 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.
North Carolina 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.
North Carolina Boating Rules and Certification Information
North Carolina’s Boating Guide can be found HERE