South Dakota Canoeing / Kayaking Laws


South Dakota is one of the few states that mandates registration of ANY craft (even kayaks and canoes) over the length of 12 feet. That pretty much means every higher-quality canoe and kayak.

Even so, South Dakota offers a whole lot of rivers and waterways for kayaking and canoeing. You’d be amazed at what is waiting for an adventure paddler in this state!


South Dakota Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview



Governing Body – The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks 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 Dakota

Canoe Registration – Canoes and kayaks that are not motorized (powered only by muscles) AND are over 12 feet long, need to be registered and display a valid registration decal of both sides of the bow.

If your canoe or kayak is over 18 feet long, you’ll ALSO need a valid number placed on either side of the bow.

The only vessels that do not need registration or licensing of any kind are non-powered vessels 12 feet or shorter.

Title – Canoes and kayaks need NOT be titled in South Dakota.

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, and is less than 12 feet long, 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 6 HP (that would include pretty much all canoes with trolling motors)

Who needs a South Dakota boating education certification? – If you are a resident of South Dakota, you do NOT need to take any boating certification course to operate a vessel.

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 Dakota does not require a boater education card in order to operate a motorized canoe or kayak as long as the motor is 6 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 6.

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 Dakota.

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 Dakota.
  • 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 Dakota?



Any canoe or kayak whether motorized or not must be registered if it is over 12 feet.

If the vessel is motorized (electric motor) but UNDER 12 feet in length, it will still need to be registered.

According to South Dakota’s Boating Guide, even a canoe being used by an out-of-state visitor will need a temporary registration.

Standard Fees:

Non-motorized vessels longer than 12 feet and vessels propelled only by electric motors – $15

Motorboats under 19 feet – $25

Non-motorized vessels less than 12 feet long – exempt from registration


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



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

Title – Canoes and kayaks do NOT need to be titled in South Dakota.

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 Dakota for 60 days or less.


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in South Dakota



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

South Dakota 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 6 HP or less.

However, anyone under the age of 12 is not legally able to operate a motorized vessel of MORE than 6 HP without an adult (18 years or older) on board.

Restrictions only come into play if the motorized vessel is of a power greater than 6 HP or is a Personal Watercraft (PWC).

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 6 HP motor or smaller, 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 Dakota Boating Safety Course website.


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



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

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


South Dakota 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 Dakota?

You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on South Dakota’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 7 years of age must WEAR their PFD if the vessel is traveling at greater than “no wake” speed. We’re not sure how that relates to a canoe with a 50-lb trolling motor at full speed, but we’d strongly suggest that any child (especially someone 7 years old or younger) be wearing a PFD at all times, no matter speed or conditions.

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. Because South Dakota does not border coastal waters, a VDS is not required for vessels in the state.

Navigation Lights – Unpowered vessels require, at minimum, a bright white lantern with enough luminosity to prevent a collision.

Sound Devices – Officially, South Dakota 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 South Dakota suggests 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 Need to Wear Life Jackets in Kayaks and Canoes in South Dakota?



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 7 years old must WEAR the PFD at all times while in the canoe or kayak if it’s moving faster than “no-wake” speed.

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 (South Dakota Boating Law)



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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is whistle.jpg
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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 Dakota Boating Law)



Do I need special lights for my canoe in South Dakota?

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 Dakota 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 Dakota 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 Dakota

While South Dakota is not a state that comes top of mind when discussing wilderness canoeing or kayaking, the state offers many opportunities for canoeing on any of the nearly countless rivers and waterways.

Canoeing and kayaking is allowed on virtually all lakes and rivers in South Dakota.

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 Dakota Boating Rules and Certification Information

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

Paddlesports Location Information for South Dakota

South Dakota’s 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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