Wisconsin Canoeing / Kayaking Laws

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

Wisconsin 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.

Wisconsin Canoeing/Kayaking Laws Overview

Governing Body – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is charged with determining laws and statutes related to boater licensing, and vessel registration.

A variety of law enforcement officers from different state governing bodies are charged with the task of enforcing boating and water safety laws. Typically, County Sheriffs, local Police and Conservation Officers enforce Wisconsin boating laws.

U.S. Coast Guard Officers are charged with enforcement on Federally controlled waters (ie. The Great Lakes)

Canoe Registration – Canoes and kayaks that are not motorized (powered only by muscles or wind) do NOT need to be registered or licensed in Wisconsin. All canoes and kayaks with a motor must be registered unless you already have your motorized canoe registered in another state and you’re in Wisconsin waters for less than 60 days.

Title – titling is not required for a non-motorized canoe.

Cost to Register – Not Applicable for non-powered boats.

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.

Motorized Canoeist Requirements/Age – In order to operate a motorized vessel in Wisconsin, you’ll need a boating safety certification card, UNLESS you were born before 1989 (in which case you are exempt from certification).

Anyone younger than 10 years old can’t (by law) operate any motorized craft in Wisconsin, but a 10 or 11-year old is allowed to operate a motorized canoe ONLY if accompanied by an adult who is legally allowed to operate that same vessel.

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 once the craft is underway. According to Wisconsin law, it is an offense to have a blood alcohol level above 0.08% while operating a vessel.

Emergency Equipment Requirements – As in most jurisdictions, a personal flotation device needs to be accessible to everyone in a vessel. All boaters under the age of 13 must be WEARING a PFD at all times (in a canoe or kayak) while the boat is moving on federally controlled waters. The PFDs must be US Coast Guard approved.

Appropriate lighting is required if your canoe or kayak is away from the dock (more than 200 feet from shore) during the night. All canoes or kayaks navigating after dark must have a bright white light visible from all sides for 2 miles.

Hand-powered vessels under 23 feet in length (that’s us!) need to have a bright light available for immediate deployment to avoid collisions.

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

While Wisconsin 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 if my Canoe or Kayak has a Motor?

You’ll need to register and license your canoe or kayak if it has a trolling motor or a small outboard gas or diesel motor. You can register and gather more information by reviewing the Wisconsin Boating Regulations rule book.

Note that if your motorized canoe is registered in another state, you won’t need to register in Wisconsin as long as your stay in the state is less than 60 days.

If you care enough to research even further, you can find all the specific State Laws and statutes relating to water vessel registration and related issues, by visiting the Wisconsin State Boating Information webpage using THIS LINK or THIS LINK.

Wisconsin Canoe/Kayak Operator Requirements for Motorized vessels

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

Wisconsin 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;

  • Anyone under the age of 10 is NOT permitted to operate a motorized vessel (canoe or kayak with a motor) under any conditions
  • A kid that’s 10 or 11 may operate a motorized vessel if there’s an adult next to him/her who was either born before January 1, 1989 OR hold a valid boating safety certificate.
  • A 12-15 year old kid can operate a motorboat if he/she is accompanied by an adult who is legally able to operate that boat, OR they have completed a recognized boating safety course (recognized by the Wisconsin DNR).
  • Anyone over the age of 16 can operate a motorboat if they hold a valide boating safety certification (recognized by the Wisconsin DNR) or is accompanied by an adult (at least 18 years old) who is legally able to operate the vessel (either born before January 1, 1989 or has a valid boating safety certification).

To obtain your valid boating certification, visit the Department of Natural Resources information page.

Alcohol – Boating Under the Influence (Wisconsin Law)

Is it illegal to drink alcohol while paddling my canoe?

It is illegal to have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. This would include not only motorized vessels that have a set of rules from which canoes are typically exempt but also kayaks and canoes that are not motorized in any way.

In Wisconsin, as in most governmental jurisdictions, there are rules and limits placed on the consumption of alcohol. A boater is considered to be under the influence of alcohol in if he/she;

  • Is under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance to a degree which makes him or her incapable of operating a watercraft safely
  • Has a blood, breath, or urine concentration of alcohol of 0.08% or more

Wisconsin Canoe/Kayak 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?

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

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 while the vessel is moving in federally controlled waters.

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.

Paddlers also need to have an “efficient” noise-making device and appropriate lighting (a bright flashlight is typically sufficient, though you’ll need a 360-degree bright white light if you’re on the water overnight).

Emergency Locator Beacons – Not required, but I’ve included this piece of gear because I believe it is something EVERY canoeist and kayaker should have regardless of where they will paddle. ACR makes one of the best models (pictured below).

ACR makes the best Emergency Locator Beacon … in my opinion!

Do Adults Have to Wear Life Jackets in Kayaks and Canoes in Wisconsin?

Canoes or kayaks of any size/length need to have aboard a 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 (Wisconsin Boat Law)

According to Wisconsin boat laws, all motorized boats ON FEDERALLY CONTROLLED WATERS need to have a device that makes a very loud noise.

We like that Wisconsin law does not mandate any boats (obviously including canoes/kayaks with or without a motor) to have such a device IF IT’S NOT on Federally controlled waters (that would include all inland lakes other than the Great Lakes).

The State of Wisconsin (and we) STRONGLY suggest you have one anyway! I’m hoping you might already be in the habit of attaching a whistle to your PFD.

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.

Wisconsin Canoe/Kayak Emergency Lighting

Do I need special lights for my canoe in Wisconsin?

From sunset to sunrise all motorized watercraft and sailboats must display red and green combined lantern in the front of the boat and a white light aft visible 360 degrees when underway.

All watercraft at anchor or adrift between sunset and sunrise (more than 200 feet from shore) must display a white light to show all around the horizon and be visible for two miles.

Hand-powered watercraft must have lighting ready at hand to avoid a collision.

From sunset to sunrise no other lights which may be mistaken for navigation lights shall be used.

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)!

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.

Fire Extinguishers (Wisconsin Boating Law)

Do you need a fire extinguisher in any canoe or kayak in Wisconsin? No, you don’t need a fire extinguisher in a canoe or kayak. Fire extinguishers are meant for vessels typically with a combustible fuel source, motor, etc.

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 for 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.

Wisconsin Facts!

Over 2.5 million residents of Wisconsin participate annually in boating (including canoeing/kayaking), visiting a beach and swimming.

Wisconsin’s Boating Rules and Certification Information

Wisconsin’s Boating Rules and Regulations can be found HERE

Boater Information for Wisconsin

Wisconsin 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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