Virginia Canoeing / Kayaking Laws


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

Virginia 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.


Virginia Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview



Governing Body – The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources administers all boat titling and registration of recreational boats in Virginia.

Conservation Police Officers working directly under the authority and jurisdiction of the DWR are the principal enforcers of any rules and regulations pertaining to boating in Virginia.

However, the U.S. Coast Guard patrols Federal waters in Virginia and most waters are considered Federal.

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

However, if your canoe or kayak has ANY type of motor (no matter the horsepower or pounds of thrust) it must be registered.

Title – titling is not required for a non-motorized canoe or kayak. However, if ANY motor (gas or electric of any size) is used, it will need titling.

Information on both registration and titling can be found HERE.

Cost to Register – Not Applicable for non-powered boats. For motor-powered canoes or kayaks under 16 feet, the cost is $32 to register and $10 to title. If your canoe or kayak is over 16 feet, it will cost $37 to register and $10 to title.

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. Otherwise, it must be registered and titled.

Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements – No certification or special education is required to operate a non-powered canoe/kayak.

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – You will need a Boating Education Card in Virginia regardless of age to operate a motorized craft with a 10 HP or greater motor.

We did not find any specific law that would prohibit anyone of any age to operate a motorized canoe using an electric motor or even a gas motor under 10 HP without a Boating Education Card.

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.

According to Virginia law, it is an offense to have a blood alcohol level above 0.08% while operating ANY (not just motorized) vessel. However, if you are under the age of 21 and have ANY level of alcohol in your system, you are also 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.

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 sounding device—horn, whistle or bell
  • A white navigation light—during low visibility such as fog, heavy rain, dawn or dusk
  • Night time visual distress signal—such as flares (required on federal waterways only)

Unlike in some states, ALL these requirements apply to canoes and kayaks rather than just larger vessels.


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Do I Need a License or permit of any kind in order to canoe or kayak in Virginia?



While Virginia 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 Virginia if my Canoe or Kayak has a Motor?



You’ll need to register your motorized canoe in Virginia. All motorized vessels in Virginia need to have a valid Virginia registration and title.

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 Virginia for 90 days or less.


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in Virginia



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

Virginia does have a minimum age requirement for operating a motorized vessel, but only if the vessel has a motor with 10 HP or greater. You need to be at least 14 years old and carry a valid Boater Education Card to operate any boat with a 10 HP or greater motor.

The laws pertaining to operator qualifications for boats with a smaller motor than 10 HP are unclear, so we’ll assume anyone with the mental and physical ability to operate such a boat, is allowed to – without a Boater Education Card. This is my assumption and not confirmed legal permission. Contact an attorney if you have further questions.

On a practical level, it looks like any adult with a trolling motor on his/her canoe, can legally operate it in Virginia WITHOUT a Boater Education Card. For reference, a 3 HP gas motor is approximately equal to a 70-lb thrust electric motor in power.

To obtain your valid boating certification, visit the Official Virginia Boating Safety Course website.


Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of Virginia



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

If you are 21 years old or older, It is illegal to have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. If you are under 21 years of age, any alcohol level at all in your system is a violation of BUI (Boating Under the Influence) law.


Virginia 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 Virginia?

You’ll need a number of items of gear for legal and safe travel on Virginia’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.

Of course, if you’re in a canoe (especially in big waters) with a kid of any age, it’s virtually a no-brainer to ALWAYS have him/her wearing a PFD.

Throwable Flotation Devices – Not mandatory

Visual Distress Signals – Canoes and kayaks need only carry NIGHT visual distress signals, and that’s only if they are on coastal waters at night.

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

Sound Devices – Officially, Virginia law says a loud sound-producing device needs to be on board any powered or unpowered vessel. The device needs to be clearly heard for at least a half (nautical) mile.

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 Kayaks and Canoes in Virginia?



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.

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 (Virginia Boating Law)



According to Virginia boat laws, all motorized boats within the state boundaries need to have a device that makes a very loud noise. In Virginia, any powered or unpowered canoe or kayak MUST have a whistle or powered horn that is audible for at least a half-mile.

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 (Virginia Boating Law)



Do I need special lights for my canoe in Virginia?

From sunset to sunrise (AND in periods of restricted visibility) all motorized AND hand-powered watercraft and sailboats must display red (port side) and green (starboard side) combined lantern in the front of the boat and a white light aft visible 360 degrees when underway OR not underway.

From sunset to sunrise (AND in periods of restricted visibility) all NON-motorized vessels (including canoes and kayaks) must have a white light aft (stern) visible 360 degrees.

Having said this, Virginia has a minimum requirement if proper bow lighting (red/green) is unavailable. The minimum requirement is a strong, white light visible enough to be seen from all sides and powerful enough to warn of potential collision danger with a nearby vessel.

The State of Virginia STRONGLY encourages users of kayaks and canoes (after dark) to display the bow red/green lights as well when underway.

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!



Here’s the most convenient night VDS that is compliant with regulations in all states and provinces.

Visual Distress Signals (VDS) – Required in canoes and kayaks operating on coastal waters after dark. VDS’s include:

  • Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial
  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, handheld or floating
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares
  • Electric Emergency distress light

Virginia 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 Virginia

Virginia is unique in that it offers challenging whitewater rivers, as well as quiet lakes, slow-moving rivers and calm tidal bays throughout the state, while offering ocean kayaking at the coast. All of this is available in one small 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.




Virginia Boating Rules and Certification Information

Virginia’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Paddlesports Location Information for Virginia

Virginia Boater Safety Course – Option 1

Virginia Boater Safety Course – Option 2

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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