Iowa Kayak Laws (Rules and Regulations)

Iowa Kayak Laws - Rules and Regulations

Kayakers in Iowa will find several rivers, creeks, lakes, and water trails to paddle. The Upper Iowa River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, is arguably the most beautiful place to kayak or canoe in Iowa. But before you go, we’ve put together a summary of the Iowa kayak laws, rules, and regulations to help you paddle legally and safely.

The top kayak law violations in Iowa are related to kayak registration and specific life jacket laws for kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards.

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.

Iowa Kayak Laws Summary

  • Iowa Kayak Law – Iowa considers kayaks and canoes to be vessels that have no mechanical propulsion.
  • Iowa Kayak Registration – Kayaks and canoes that are 13 feet long or less, and have no motor or sail, are exempted from registration.
  • Motorized Kayak Registration – All mechanically-propelled vessels operating in Iowa must be registered.
  • Kayak Operator Licensing – Boater education is mandatory for any person 12 – 17 years old, who will operate a motorboat over ten horsepower.
  • Motorized Kayaking Age – The minimum age to operate a power driven vessel unsupervised in Iowa is 18. Persons between 12 and 18 years old may operate a motorboat over 10 horsepower only with a certificate of completion of a specific boater education course, or accompanied onboard by a person at least 18 years old. A person under 12 can operate a motorized vessel more than 10 horsepower only when accompanied by a responsible person at least 18 years old.
  • Kayaking BWI Law – Iowa has laws prohibiting Boating While Intoxicated (BWI)—0.08% BAL is considered intoxicated, as is having any amount of a controlled substance in blood or urine.
  • Kayaking Life Jacket Law – One Type I, II, III, or V PFD life jacket on board per person. And children under 13 must wear a USCG-approved PFD.
  • Kayak Lights Law – Every vessel less than 16 feet in length, in all weather, from sunrise to sunset, while underway and at anchor, shall carry and exhibit a bright white light aft to show 360 degrees.
  • Kayaking Sounding Devices – If on state controlled waters in Iowa: vessels less than 16 feet long are not required to carry a sound producing device, though at least a whistle is recommended; longer vessels are required to have certain devices.
  • Kayaking VDS Law – Visual Distress Signals are not required on Iowa state waters, though they are recommended. On federally controlled waters (coastline), all vessels are required to carry U.S. Coast Guard-approved night VDS devices. Manually propelled vessels are not required to carry day signalling devices.

That only summarizes Iowa boating laws applied to kayaking and canoeing. The details are more in-depth and specific. Read on to find out more on how to paddle legally in Iowa.

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Iowa Kayak Registration Laws

Do you have to register a kayak in Iowa? You don’t have to register a kayak or canoe in Iowa, so long as your kayak or canoe is 13 feet long or less and has no motor or sail on it. These vessels are exempted from registration.

NOTE: It seems that Iowa is an interesting state with tighter rules and regulations around registering kayaks and canoes. Because as we all know, there are many kayaks and canoes that are considered recreational as well as unpowered but are well over 13 feet long. So regardless of whether they have a motor or not, in Iowa, they need to be registered.

Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in Iowa? In Iowa all motorized vessels that are operated, used, or stored on the “waters of the state” of Iowa must be titled. So your kayak or canoe with an electric or gas trolling motor mounted to it need to be titled and registered.

Related Article: Paddle Board Registration

Iowa Motorized Kayak Registration Resources

Iowa Kayaking Education Laws

Do you need a license to kayak in Iowa? The short answer is no. Iowa doesn’t have a kayaking license, age, or education requirement for kayaks, canoes, or paddle boards.

Who can operate a motorized kayak in Iowa? Children under 12 can operate a vessel with a motor of more than 10 horsepower if he or she is accompanied by a person at least 18 years old. And 12 to 17 year olds can operate if they’ve taken and passed boater education and are accompanied by someone at least 18 and that person is responsible.

Motor boat operators in Iowa must carry proof of successfully completing a boater education course while operating a vessel. offers an Iowa Boater Education Course that satisfies Iowa’s boating education requirement. (affiliate link)

Iowa Kayaking Alcohol and Drug Laws

Can you get a DUI on a kayak in Iowa? You can get a DUI on a kayak in Iowa for boating while intoxicated—BWI. Kayaks, canoes, and SUPs cannot be operated while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or any other narcotic. You’re under the influence if your blood alcohol level is 0.08% or more, or if drugs are detected.

Iowa BWI Penalties

Iowa BWIs carry the following penalties:

  • First offense – Up to $1,000 fine, at least 48 hours in jail, and banned from operating a vessel for one year.
  • Second Offense – Up to $5,000 fine, at least 7 days in jail, and banned from operating a vessel for two years.
  • Third Offense – Up to $7,500 fine, up to one year in jail, and banned from operating a vessel for six years.

Iowa Kayak Life Jacket Law

Do you have to wear a life jacket on a kayak in Iowa? Iowa code states that a life jacket is required on board all canoes, kayaks and paddle boards. All vessels are required to have a wearable Type I, II, III, or V USCG approved PFD on board for each person. PFDs must be the appropriate size, easily accessible, and in serviceable condition.

Iowa PFD Age Rules

Children under 13 must wear a USCG-approved Type I, II, III, or IV personal flotation device while onboard any vessel docked or underway.

Type IV Throwable PFD Rules

Boats from 16 feet long to less than 40 feet long must have a Type IV throwable PFD on board.

Iowa Kayaking Lights Laws

What lights do I need on my kayak at night?

Manually powered vessels less 16 feet when underway

Every vessel, including manually propelled kayaks and canoes, less than 16 feet in length, in all weather, from sunrise to sunset, while underway and at anchor, shall carry and exhibit a bright white light aft to show 360 degrees.

This light must be visible at a distance of at least 2 miles.

Motorized Vessels less than 26 feet when underway

In addition to a bright white light visible 360 degrees, motorized vessels less than 26 feet must display a green light to starboard and a red light to port on the bow of the vessel.

Lights While Moored or Anchored

Whenever moored or anchored away from a mooring area, between sunset and sunrise, you must display a white light that can be seen in all directions.

Iowa Kayak Sounding and Visual Distress Devices Laws

Sounding Devices

Do I need a whistle on a kayak in Iowa? On federal waters, vessels less than 65.6 feet must have a sounding device. This could be a whistle or horn, or any other device that makes a sound audible for half a mile. This includes kayaks and canoes.

But this is where things get confusing. Because on Iowa state waters vessels less than 16 feet aren’t technically required to carry even a whistle. But if you’re on a vessel from 16 feet to 26 feet long you at least need a whistle to be compliant. So if you’re on a vessel less than 26 feet and you carry a whistle, you’ll be in compliance no matter what waters you’re on.

Less than 26 feet covers most kayak and canoe vessels.

NOTE: The best “sounding” device for kayakers and canoeists is a whistle attached to your PFD in a place that’s easy and quick to reach.

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

VDS – Visual Distress Signaling Devices

At Night

All vessels, regardless of length or type, are required to carry night VDS signals when operating between sunset and sunrise.

During the Day

Most vessels must carry day signals, except:

  • Recreational vessels less than 16 feet (most motorized kayaks and canoes)
  • Non-motorized open sailboats less than 26 feet
  • Manually-propelled vessels (canoes and kayaks)

Iowa Kayaking Fire Extinguisher Laws

Do I need a fire extinguisher on my motorized kayak in Iowa? In Iowa, one USCG-approved B-type fire extinguisher is required on board for any motorized vessel with an outboard motor of greater than 10 horsepower. Manually-propelled kayaks and canoes are not required to carry a fire extinguisher.


Here’s my opinion on fire extinguishers. A long time ago, an old friend put “fire on a boat” in perspective for me. He said, “On land, you have many options if fire breaks out. You can fight it, run from it, call in for help… But at sea you only have two—you have to fight it or swim.”

So whatever length canoe or kayak I’m in, if it has an engine, especially a gas-powered engine, I carry a fire extinguisher.

Additional Iowa Kayak Laws Resources

For an exhaustive outline and detail of the boating laws in Iowa that pertain to kayaking, canoeing and, stand up paddle boarding see the Iowa Water Navigation Regulations Publication 462A.

Iowa Kayaking Law Enforcement

Iowa kayaking laws and all other boating laws are enforced by:

  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officers
  • The U.S. Coast Guard on federally controlled waters

Iowa 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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