Washington Canoeing / Kayaking Laws


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

Early Season Backpacking Washington...
Early Season Backpacking Washington (A 2022 Guide)

Washington 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.


Washington Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview



Governing Body – The Washington State Parks and Recreation Department is the governing body responsible for determining and enforcing all boating laws within the state.

Washington State Parks rangers, Department of Fish and Wildlife agents, and local authorities enforce the boating laws of Washington State.

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

If your canoe or kayak is UNDER 16 feet long AND has a motor of 10 HP or less, AND it is used in NON-Federal waters (inland waters), you will not need to register/title your motorized canoe/kayak.

Also, if your vessel is longer than 16 feet and/or your motor is larger than 10 HP (I can’t imagine a canoe with a larger motor than a 4 HP) BUT it’s registered in another state and you’re in Washington’s waters for less than 60 days, you don’t need any registration or titling.

Title – titling is not required for a non-motorized canoe or if your motorized canoe is less than 16 feet and has a 10 HP or smaller motor and it’s used only in NON-Federal waters. Otherwise, it will need titling.

Cost to Register – Not Applicable for non-powered boats. Otherwise, you can calculate your fees 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. Otherwise, it must be registered.

Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements – No licensing is required for any operator of a canoe or kayak without a motor if you were born before January 1, 1955. All others will need a Washington Boater Education Card.

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – You will need a Boating Education card in Washington if you:

1 – were born after January 1, 1955

2 – operate a boat with a 15 HP (or greater) motor.

3 – are 12 years of age or older.

Anyone younger than 12 years old can’t (by law) operate any motorized craft in Washington that has a 15 HP or greater motor.

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 Washington law, it is an offense to have a blood alcohol level above 0.08% while operating ANY (not just motorized) vessel.

Canoes and kayaks are specifically included in the alcohol restriction.

Washington also has a marijuana legal limit restriction of 5.0 nanograms.

Emergency Equipment Requirements – As in most jurisdictions, a personal flotation device needs to be accessible to everyone in a vessel.

The minimum legal requirements for emergency equipment on your vessel 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 Washington State?



While West 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 or licensed.


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



In many cases you won’t need to register your motorized canoe in Washington if it’s shorter than 16 feet and has a smaller than 10 HP motor.

If you canoe is longer than 16 feet and/or has a motor greater than 10 HP you’ll need to register and license your canoe or kayak.

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 Washington for 60 days or less.


Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels in Washington



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

Washington does have a minimum age requirement for operating a motorized vessel. They’re not as straightforward as some states (we love Alaska’s laws) but we’ve simplified them here;

You are required by law to carry a Boater Education Card if you fit the following criteria:

  • You operate a vessel with a 15-horsepower (or greater) motor.
  • You were born after Jan. 1, 1955.
  • You are 12 years of age or older.

You DON’T need any Boater Education Card or certification if:

  • Your vessel has an engine that is less than 15 hp.
  • You were born befoe January, 1955

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


Alcohol – Operating Under the Influence in the State of Washington



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

It is illegal to have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. It’s also illegal to have a marijuana consumption level of higher than 5.0 nanograms.

Here are some of the particulars and the penalities:

  • It is a gross misdemeanor that is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
  • Officers with probable cause can ask the boat operator to submit to a breathalyzer test. If the boater refuses to take the test, he or she will be issued a Class 1 Civil Infraction.
  • The maximum penalty for refusal to take a breathalyzer test is $1,000; however, RCW 3.62.090(the public safety and education assessment) adds 105% to the penalty, so the total fine could be up to $2,050.
  • The legal limit for operating under the influence of alcohol on our waterways is .08 and the legal limit for boating under the influence of marijuana is 5.0 nanograms.
  • The law applies to all boats, motorized and non-motorized, which includes, kayaks, canoes and rafts.

Washington 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 Washington?

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

Life Jackets – You will be required by law to have a readily accessible and wearable PFD (personal flotation device) for everyone on board your craft.

Federal laws say that anyone under the age of 13 must wear a US Coast Guard-approved PFD in any vessel less than 19 feet long.

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 Device – Not mandatory

Visual Distress Signals – The minimum requirement is that you have a flashlight, and if you’re staying out overnight (not just a little after sunset), you’ll need a bright white light visible from all angles. However, you’ll need a few flares if you’re on Federal waterways (ocean) at all times.

Sound Devices – Washington boating laws state that you’ll need a loud sound-making device audible for at least half a mile, and deployable in enough time to prevent a collision in low visibility conditions.

Fire Extinguishers – Not required on canoes or 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 Washington?




Canoes or kayaks of any size/length need to have aboard a Type 1, 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 (Washington Boating Law)



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



Do I need special lights for my canoe in Washington?

From sunset to sunrise (AND in periods of restricted visibility) all motorized 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.

The State of Washington 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!



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.


Washington Canoe / Kayak Fire Extinguisher Law

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.


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.

Paddling Washington

The State of Washington offers some of the most rugged and diverse paddling routes and conditions of any state. Pristine alpine lakes and rivers as well as coastal waters are just some of the incredible options available along any of the numerous water trails in this state.




Washington’s Boating Rules and Certification Information

Washington’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Boater Information for Washington

Washington State 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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