South Carolina Canoeing / Kayaking Laws

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

South 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.

South Carolina Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview

Governing Body – The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is responsible for all boating and water safety laws pertaining to all watercraft including canoeing and kayaking within the state.

Here is a link to more information on all the boating laws and regulations in South Carolina.

Canoe Registration – Canoes and kayaks that are not motorized (powered only by muscles) do NOT need to be registered in the State of South Carolina.

TitleCanoes and kayaks do not need to be titled in South Carolina.

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 15 HP (that would include pretty much all canoes with trolling motors).

Who needs a South Carolina boating education certification? – If you are a resident of South Carolina, you do NOT need to take any boating certification course to operate a vessel UNLESS… you are under the age of 16 and would like to legally operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 HP or greater.

However, you may consider taking such a course to both save on insurance AND allow you to operate your craft in states that DO require a certification card.

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – Amazingly, South Carolina does not require a boater education card in order to operate a motorized canoe or kayak as long as the motor is 15 HP or less. There is also no age given for operating such a vessel, though there are more specific requirements once the motor’s HP exceeds 15.

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 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 South 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 South Carolina unless the vessel is operated on coastal waters.
  • Sound Producing Device – Typically an emergency whistle capable of making a “loud” noise audible for at least half a mile.

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Do I Need a License / registration of any kind in order to canoe or kayak in South Carolina?

Any canoe or kayak that is not motor-powered does not need to be registered.

If the vessel is motorized (electric motor) it will need to be registered.

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

You’ll need to register your motorized canoe in South Carolina. All motorized vessels (including those with trolling motors) in South Carolina need to be registered.

Title – Canoes and kayaks (propelled without any kind of mechanical motor) do NOT need to be titled in South Carolina. The only titling involved in South Carolina is for outboard boat motors of 5 HP or greater and for all motorized craft.

Note that if your motorized canoe or kayak is registered in another state, you won’t need to register or title your boat if it’s only used temporarily in South Carolina.

Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in South Carolina

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

South Carolina does not restrict the age of anyone operating a non-motorized vessel. There is also no age restriction for unsupervised operation of a motorized vessel of 15 HP or less.

However, anyone under the age of 16 is not legally able to operate a motorized vessel of MORE than 15 HP without an adult (18 years or older) on board. However, if the operator is under 16 years of age, he/she can operate a vessel with a motor greater than 15 HP if they have an approved Boater Safety Education Certification.

NOTE: While it is not necessary for most residents to obtain a Boating Safety Education Certificate (Boater Education Card) in order to operate a vessel, it MAY help save on any insurance you may put on your vessel.

It is also helpful to get a card if you ever plan to canoe or kayak in any other state that DOES require a Boater Education Card.

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

Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of South Carolina

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

It is illegal to drink beyond a threshold of 0.08% blood alcohol content. Boating under the influence in South Carolina can result in the loss of a driver’s license under certain circumstances.

In some cases, having a BAC (blood alcohol content) of between 0.05% – 0.08% can be considered intoxicated.

South 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 South Carolina?

You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on South 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 craft. They need to be Type I, II, or III (or a wearable V)

Children under 12 years of age must WEAR their PFD at all times while in a boat less than 16 feet long, and always in a canoe or kayak.

Throwable Flotation Devices – Not mandatory

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 paddling in coastal waters after dark, you DO need a VDS on board. An electric emergency light is the most practical option, but flares are another option.

Navigation Lights – Unpowered vessels require, at minimum, a bright white lantern with enough luminosity to prevent a collision. If practically possible, canoes/kayaks should display bow lights (red/green) for added safety.

Sound Devices – Officially, South Carolina requires canoes and kayaks to have a loud sound-producing device. Loud human voices are not acceptable.

Fire Extinguishers – Not required in canoes/kayaks

Dry Bag – This is not a mandatory piece of gear, but I (and some states) suggest this an essential piece of gear since it keeps everything dry and can also act as a flotation device. Here’s one of the better ones you can buy for day trips. As far as size goes, I’d suggest a bag from 5 – 20 Liters in size. That’s the range that is best for day trips and larger ones are made for longer trips.

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 Have to Wear Life Jackets in a Canoe or Kayak in South 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.

Kids under 12 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 (South Carolina Boating Law)

According to South Carolina boat laws, all boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise. In South Carolina, 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 (South Carolina Boating Law)

Do I need special lights for my canoe in South 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 South 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 regulations in all states and provinces.

South 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.

Paddling South Carolina

South Carolina has a near-idyllic climate overall. It’s home to 30 major lakes and over 2,875 miles of coastal shoreline. It boasts numerous whitewater and slow-moving rivers along with record-breaking fish of several species. It’s a perfect place to paddle and fish!

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.

South Carolina Boating Rules and Certification Information

South Carolina’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Paddlesports Location Information for South Carolina

South Carolina 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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