Pennsylvania Canoeing / Kayaking Laws

Thankfully, the governing bodies that oversee Pennsylvania’s boating regulations and laws, understand that less is more.

Pennsylvania 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.

Pennsylvania has a peculiar law that does not exist in most other states pertaining to registration of canoes if used in a specific launching area called a “Fish and Boat Commission Access Area“.

Pennsylvania Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview

Governing Body – The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) is responsible for all boating and water safety laws pertaining to all watercraft including canoeing and kayaking within the state.

Various law enforcement agencies enforce these laws including the Bureau of State Parks, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and the National Park Service.

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

Canoe Registration – Unpowered boats are not required to be registered. However, there is a potential exception. If the canoe or kayak is used at a Fish & Boat Commission access area or lake, or at Pennsylvania state parks and state forests; or required by the owner, it may need registration.

The only information we could find on what/where those access areas are, is THIS LINK.

However, if your canoe or kayak has ANY type of motor (no matter the horsepower or pounds of thrust) it must be registered and numbered appropriately on each side of the vessel with the assigned registration numbers.

Title – You will NOT need to title your canoe or kayak in Pennsylvania as long as it does not have any type of motor at all – including electric.

Information on both registration and titling can be found HERE.

Canoe/Kayak License Requirements – If the craft is powered only by means other than an assisted device like a motor, no license or registration is required.

Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements – No certification or special education is required to operate a non-powered canoe/kayak OR a powered canoe/kayak with a motor of less than 25 HP (that would include pretty much all canoes with trolling motors)

Who needs a Pennsylvania boating education certification? – Anyone born on or after January 1, 1982, and who is looking to operate a boat powered by a motor greater than 25 horsepower. ALSO, if you would like to operate a Personal Watercraft (PWC), you will need a boating education certificate.

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – If you are operating a motorized (MONSTER) canoe with a motor more powerful than 25 HP, then you’ll need to have your Boater Safety Certification.

Otherwise, if your vessel (canoe or kayak) has a motor smaller than 25 HP (or any electric trolling motor) you won’t need any certification.

Operating Under the Influence – No person is allowed to operate or be in physical control of a canoe while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Anyone over 21 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 Pennsylvania.

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 Pennsylvania UNLESS you are on coastal waters.
  • 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 Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania does require registering a motorized craft (battery-powered or liquid fuel-powered), it does not require non-powered kayaks or canoes to be registered.

However, if you launch at specific locations, you may need a PFBC or DCNR launch permit or unpowered boat registration (at PFBC and DCNR accesses). For more information on these permits, scroll to the bottom of THIS PAGE.

Do I Need a Title for my Canoe or Kayak in Pennsylvania?

Thankfully, most states, including Pennsylvania, do not require un-powered boats to be titled. However, you may voluntarily title a canoe or kayak which (in theory) adds a small layer of security against theft.

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

You’ll need to register and title your motorized canoe in Pennsylvania. All motorized vessels (including those with trolling motors) in Pennsylvania need to have a valid registration.


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in Pennsylvania

Do I have to be a certain age in Pennsylvania to operate a canoe with an electric trolling motor?

Pennsylvania does not restrict the age of anyone operating a non-motorized vessel. There is also no age restriction or qualification necessary to operate a motorized vessel under 25 HP.

The closest rule we could find to explain age restrictions is this one from the official boating handbook for Pennsylvania:

In Pennsylvania, no one may operate a motor-powered vessel over 25 hp if they are 11 years of age or younger.

Still, as a parent/guardian of your children, we would strongly suggest you use common sense and not let your 4-year old rip around alone in your fishing boat with a 20 HP motor while waving a can of Coors Light (even if it contains only ginger ale)!

NOTE: While it is not necessary to obtain a Boating Safety Education Certificate (Boater Education Card) in order to operate a vessel motorized with a power of less than 25 HP, it MAY help save on any insurance you may put on your vessel.

To obtain your valid boating certification (so you can operate a PWC or other motorboat), visit the Official Pennsylvania Boating Safety Course website.

Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of Pennsylvania

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

It is illegal to drink beyond a threshold of 0.08% blood alcohol content if you are 21 or older.

If you are under the age of 21 and are caught with a blood alcohol content of 0.02% or more, you are also considered to be “intoxicated”, thereby violating the law.

Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania?

You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on Pennsylvania’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 craft. 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 coastal waters.

If you are on coastal waters or Federally controlled waters (this would be Lake Erie), your canoe/kayak will need to have a minimum of 3 nighttime VDS’s (or day/night VDS’s like a flare or red meteor).

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.

Sound Devices – Officially, Pennsylvania 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!

Do Adults Need to Wear Life Jackets in a Canoe or Kayak in Pennsylvania?

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.

Kids under 13 years old must WEAR the PFD at all times while in the canoe or kayak.

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 (Pennsylvania Boating Law)

According to Pennsylvania boat laws, all boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise. In Pennsylvania, any powered or unpowered canoe or kayak MUST have a whistle or powered horn. 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 (Pennsylvania Boating Law)

Do I need special lights for my canoe in Pennsylvania?

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 Pennsylvania 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 regulations in all states and provinces.

Pennsylvania 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.

Paddling Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania provides nearly unlimited opportunities for the recreational boater. The state has over 85,000 miles of rivers and streams ranging from headwaters to major river systems.

It has 76 natural lakes that provide 5,266 acres of flat water. It also has 2,300 constructed impoundments that provide another 200,000 acres of boatable waters.

Lake Erie has 63 plus miles of shoreline and 735 square
miles of waters within Pennsylvania’s boundaries.

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.

Pennsylvania Boating Rules and Certification Information

Pennsylvania’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Paddlesports Ideas and Locations for Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Boater Safety Course

Boat Registration Information

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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