Tennessee Canoeing / Kayaking Laws


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

Tennessee 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.


Tennessee Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview



Governing Body – The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 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 Tennessee

Canoe Registration – Canoes and kayaks that are not motorized (powered only by muscles) do NOT need to be registered or licensed in Tennessee.

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 – Boats are not titled in Tennessee.

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

Who needs a Tennessee boating education certification? – If you are a Tennessee resident born after January 1, 1989, and operating a boat with more than 8.5 horsepower, then you need the certification. That means that most adults and kids operating any canoe (even with a large trolling motor) do not need certification.

If you are a non-Tennessee resident born after January 1, 1989, and visiting Tennessee and operating a boat with more than 8.5 horsepower, you will need a boating education certification approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – Amazingly, Tennessee does not require a boater education card in order to operate a motorized canoe or kayak as long as the motor is 8.5 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 8.5.

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 Tennessee.

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 Tennessee.
  • 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 Tennessee?



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


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



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

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 Tennessee for 60 days or less.


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in Tennessee



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

Tennessee 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 8.6 HP.

Restrictions only come into play if the motorized vessel is of a power greater than 8.5 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 an 8.5 HP motor or smaller, 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 Tennessee Boating Safety Course website.


Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of Tennessee



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

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


Tennessee 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 Tennesee?

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

All children under the age of 13 must wear an approved PFD in any vessel while it is underway (moving).

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 Tennessee 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, Tennessee requires canoes and kayaks to have a loud sound-producing device. 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 Have to Wear Life Jackets in Canoes or Kayaks in Tennessee?



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.


Emergency Sound Device (Tennessee Boating Law)



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



Do I need special lights for my canoe in Tennessee?

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 Tennessee 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.



Visual Distress Signals (VDS) – Required only on coastal waters. A VDS is not required in Tennessee.


Tennessee 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 Tennessee

Tennessee has (get ready for it…) over SIXTY THOUSAND miles of rivers!

It’s a pretty small state to be able to boast that kind of statistic, but I’d say that’s more than a lifetime of paddling in just that one state!

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.


Tennessee Boating Rules and Certification Information

Tennessee’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Paddlesports Location Information for Tennessee

Tennessee 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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