California Kayak Laws (Rules and Regulations)

When I first started paddling in California, I had no idea what the California kayak laws were. After a ton of research and more than one discussion with a boating enforcement officer I’ve summarized the California kayaking laws.

Not a Lawyer Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. More importantly, I am not your attorney. This article is not legal advice. If you desire legal advice, consult a competent, licensed attorney in your area.

California Kayak Laws Summary

  • California Kayak Law – California considers kayaks and canoes to be vessels propelled solely by oars or paddles.
  • California Kayak Registration – Vessels propelled solely by oars or paddles do not have to be registered in California.
  • Motorized Kayak Registration – Every motor-driven vessel (regardless of length) is subject to registration by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
  • Kayaking Operator Licensing – Anyone born after January 1, 1986, must have successfully completed an approved Boating Education Course to operate a power boat.(so a non-motorized kayak would be exempt.)
  • Motorized Kayaking Age – While operating a boat with an engine of 15 horsepower or more, a person 12 -15 years of age or older must be under the direct supervision of a person at least 18 years old. (Both must have a California Boater Card)
  • Kayaking Alcohol Law – California has Boating Under the Influence (BUI) laws. If your blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.08% or more or you are impaired to an “appreciable degree” you can get a BUI.
  • Kayaking Life Jacket Law – All canoes and kayaks, regardless of length, must carry one wearable Coast Guard-approved PFD per person. And children under 13 must wear it at all times.
  • Kayaking Lights Law – Between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility, you must have legal lighting.
  • Kayaking Sounding Devices – Vessels less than 39.4 feet (12 meters) in length are required to carry a whistle or horn.
  • Kayaking VDS Law – In general, no visual distress signaling device is required in California.

That’s the summary of California boating laws as they apply to kayaking, canoeing and SUPs. The details are a bit more tricky. So read on to find out how to safely and legally enjoy paddling in California.

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California Kayak Registration Laws

Non-motorized Kayak Registration

Do you have to register a kayak in California? The quick answer is no. Vessels propelled solely by oars or paddles do not have to be registered in California.

Motorized Kayak Registration

Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in California? Yes, you have to register a kayak or canoe with a trolling motor in California. “… every motor-driven vessel (regardless of length) that is not documented by the U.S. Coast Guard which is used or on the waters of (California) are subject to registration by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).”

Registration Resources

Related Article: Paddle Board Registration

California Kayaking Education Laws

Non-motorized Kayak Operator Licensing

Do you have to have a license to operate a kayak in California?

The short answer is no.

California Motorized Kayak or Canoe Age Requirement

California is phasing in mandatory boater education for all recreational power boaters. Starting January 1, 2018 and completing in January 1, 2025 eventually all recreational power boat operators will be required to carry a boater education card.

  • January 1, 2018 – Persons 20 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2019 – Persons 25 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2020 – Persons 35 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2021 – Persons 40 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2022 – Persons 45 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2023 – Persons 50 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2024 – Persons 60 years of age or younger
  • January 1, 2025 – All persons regardless of age

To comply with the new laws, you’ll have to take an approved California Boating Education Course. (affiliate link)

California Kayaking Alcohol and Drug Laws

Can I get a DUI on a kayak in California? The quick answer is yes. California law prohibits operating a vessel under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You can get a BUI (boating under the influence) for operating a vessel while: Impaired to an “appreciable degree” by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. Or having a blood alcohol level (BAL) of .08% or more.

That “…appreciable degree…” part is where if you seem impaired to a law enforcement officer, you are impaired.

Related Article:Can You Get a DUI on a Kayak?

More Details

  • No person 21 years of age or older shall operate any vessel, water skis or similar device who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood.
  • A level of at least 0.05 percent, but less than 0.08 percent, may be used with other evidence in determining whether the person was under the influence of alcohol.
  • A person under 21 years of age or older who has been arrested for operating a mechanically propelled vessel “under the influence” may be requested to submit to a chemical test to determine blood-alcohol content. A person convicted of operating a vessel while intoxicated could receive up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
  • No person under 21 years of age may operate a vessel, water skis or similar device who has 0.01 percent or more of alcohol in his or her blood by weight. Penalties may include a fine of up to $250 and participation in an alcohol education or community service program.

Is a BUI the Same as a DUI in California?

The quick answer is yes. California considers Boating Under the Influence (BUI) to be the same as Driving Under the Influence (DUI) penalize you accordingly.

The penalties for a first and a repeat BUI are:

  • First offense – For a first BUI, or if all previous BUI and DUIs were at least seven years ago, you can get up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
  • Repeat offense – If you have at least one previous BUI or DUI in the last seven years, you get get up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.

A BUI is most likely going to be a misdemeanor in California.

Can the police board and search your kayak?

The quick answer is yes. In 1790 the United States Revenue Cutter Service was created to collect taxes on imports. They were authorized to board and search any vessel, any time and for any reason to check for smuggled, and thus untaxed, goods.

The laws governing the United States Revenue Cutter Service haven’t changed much since 1790. It’s now called the United States Coast Guard and they have the same powers to board your boat.

California Kayaking PFD Laws

Are life jackets required on kayaks in California?

The simple answer is yes. Boating statistics are showing that as more people participate in paddling sports, deaths and injuries in kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding are increasing. Lack of life jacket knowledge and use are a big factor in this. Her are the rules:

  • One PFD Per Person
  • Everyone in a kayak, canoe or SUP is required to have a USCG-approved wearable type PFD. They must be:
    • Correctly sized based on body weight and chest size
    • In good serviceable condition
    • Readily accessible

California PFD Age Laws

Children under 13 are required to wear a USCG–approved Type I, II, III, or IV PFD/life jacket while underway in a recreational vessel of any length.

Do I need a Type IV “throwable” on my kayak in California?

The quick answer is no. One throwable Type IV device must be on board vessels 16 feet or longer (except canoes and kayaks).

Related Article: Kayak Life Jacket Laws by State (50 State List)

California Kayaking Lights Laws

What lights do I need on my kayak at night?

A recreational motor-powered vessel underway less than 39 feet 4 inches (12 meters) is required to display red and green sidelights, and a 360 degree all-around sternlight. They must be displayed:

  • between sunrise and sunset
  • during periods of restricted visibility

Vessel Under Oar Light Law

A sailing vessel operating under power of sail only must exhibit red and green sidelights and a white stern light. A vessel under oars may display those lights prescribed for sailing vessels or have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light, which must be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.

NOTE: Blue lights are reserved for law enforcement use.

Lights While Moored or Anchored

All vessels less than 23 feet (7 meters) are not required to display anchor lights unless anchored in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage, or where other vessels normally navigate.

California Kayaking Sounding Devices Laws

Do I need a sounding device to kayak in California?

The quick answer is yes. Vessels less than 39.4 feet (12 meters) in length and operating in California state waters are required to carry a whistle or horn or some other means to make an efficient sound signal audible for at least one-half mile.

However, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Minimum Equipment Requirements for Recreational Vessels document states that kayaks and canoes must at least have a whistle.

Sound-producing devices must be capable of producing a blast that lasts at least four seconds.

Reasons you should carry a sounding device when you Kayak.

  • Reduced visibility in fog or darkness
  • The small size of most kayaks, canoes and paddle boards
  • The ability to sound your intentions or to hail for help

The best and most convenient “sounding” device for paddlers is a whistle attached to your PFD in a place that makes it easy and quick to get into your mouth and use it to signal.

Here’s what we consider to be the best whistle for kayaking.

VDS – Visual Distress Signaling

The Visual Distress Signaling (VDS) requirements for vessels operating in coastal waters:

  • All boats 16 feet or more must carry VDS devices capable of day and night signalling.
  • Boats less than 16 feet or manually propelled craft are only required to carry VDS devices that are suitable for night use between sunset and sunrise.
  • Handheld flares – day/night
  • A flare gun – day/night
  • Handheld smoke device (orange) – day
  • An electric lantern – night only

Are all examples of VSDs you could carry in your kayak or canoe.

California Kayaking Fire Extinguisher Laws

Do I need a fire extinguisher on my trolling kayak?

The quick answer is no. Fire extinguishers aren’t required for outboard pleasure boats less than 26 feet as long as:

  • Have no permanently installed fuel tanks
  • Don’t have spaces where explosive or flammable vapors can collect

Your kayak or canoe, even with an engine, most likely has none of those and thus doesn’t require you have a fire extinguisher.

Additional California Boating Resources

California Boating Enforcement Entities

In California, every law enforcement officer of the state, city, county, harbor district or other political subdivision of the state is empowered to enforce the state boating laws.

California Boating Safety Education Resources


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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