North Carolina Kayaking Laws (Rules and Regulations)

NC Kayak Laws - Rules and Regulations

North Carolina kayak laws are set and governed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and N.C. law enforcement and the Wildlife Officers enforce those kayaking rules and regulations.

There are more than 5,000 of North Carolina’s waterways that are open to public recreation for boaters to paddle and explore on. North Carolina has a variety of bodies of water, including some white water destinations that are popular with kayakers. 

Here’s a summary of what you need to know about North Carolina kayak 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.

North Carolina Kayak Laws Summary 

  • North Carolina Kayaking Laws – North Carolina law considers kayaks and canoes moved only by paddles or oars to be non-motorized vessels.
  • North Carolina Kayak Registration – Non-motorized kayaks and canoes are exempt from registration.
  • Motorized Kayak Registration – All motorized watercraft must be registered with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commissions at either wildlife service agents throughout the state or at the NCWRC headquarters in Raleigh. Registration decals should be displayed on starboard bow. 
  • Kayak Operator Licensing in North Carolina – “Vessel operators born after January 1, 1988 must have successfully completed a Boating Safety Education course to operate a vessel with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater on public waters in North Carolina,” according to NCWRC. Boating safety education courses are offered for free throughout the state. 
  • Motorized Kayaking Age – Anyone 16 years or older may operate a Personal Watercraft (PWC) if in compliance with registration and education requirements. Persons aged 14 – 15 may operate a PWC if accompanied by a guardian 18 years or older, and both must have proper registration. (See below for further restrictions)
  • Kayaking BUI Law – North Carolina has a Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law. In N.C., most BUI charges are class II misdemeanors. A person is operating illegally when their blood alcohol content is .08% or above. Additional laws and restrictions may prohibit alcohol use on non-motorized craft on state park property. 
  • Kayaking Life Jacket Law – All vessels must be equipped with a Type I, II, or III PFD for each person on board. Any persons under 13 years of age must be wearing their PFD. (see below for kayak and canoe specifics)
  • Kayak Lights Law –Vessels less than 50 meters in length should have all-around white light visible for two miles. Vessels under 7 meters are exempt from mounted lights but should still have an electric torch or lantern ready at hand. Vessels operating at night must have  navigation lights in use between sunset and sunrise.
  • Kayaking Sounding Devices – Vessels less than 12 meters in length are not required to have sounding devices, but are provided with the means to make a sound signal. 
  • Kayaking VDS Law – On federally controlled waters, all vessels are required to carry U.S. Coast Guard-approved night VDS devices. Personal Watercrafts (PWCs) must have nighttime visual distress signals, but are not required to have daytime VDS. 

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

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N.C. Kayak Registration 


Do you have to register a kayak in North Carolina? No. “Rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and rafts moved only by oars, paddles, or the current do not need registration in North Carolina.” –NCWRC


Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in N.C.? Yes. Any motorized vessel, including vessels with electric trolling motors, must be registered.

This would also include a trolling motor on a canoe.


North Carolina Vessel Titling: “Anyone who purchases or transfers a motorized vessel or sailboat 14 feet or longer or who owns a personal watercraft (jet ski), will be required to title the vessel effective Jan.1, 2007. In most cases, lenders require a title as a condition for granting a loan on a vessel.”

This statement is from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Kayaks or canoes without trolling motors are not required to be titled, though information is vague on such vessels with trolling motors that are less than 14 feet in length.

Registration Resources

Registration transactions are often conducted by mail or by visiting a Wildlife Service Agent (there are over 400 in the state). 

To find one closest to you, visit the Wildlife Service Agent Search page, or call (800) 628-3773.

Related Article: Paddle Board Registration

N.C. Kayaking Operator Education Laws


Do you need a license to kayak in North Carolina? You do not need a license to operate a kayak or canoe in North Carolina. Kayaks and canoes with no attached motor do not require operator licensing or education.


Do you need a license to operate a motorized kayak in North Carolina? Anyone 16 years or older may operate a motorized PWC of 10 hp or greater if the vessel is properly registered and the person has successfully completed a Boating Safety Education Course. The Boater Education Card must be carried on the person at all times during use of the vessel. 


Youth between the ages of 14 – 15 may operate a motorized PWC under the supervision of a person at least 18 years or older that is in compliance with vessel operating requirements, OR the youth must have personal identification and proof of boating safety education on them. 

Persons under the age of 14 are not legally permitted to operate a motorized PWC. 

N.C. Kayaking OUI Laws 

Can you get a DUI on a kayak in North Carolina? Yes, you can get a DUI on a kayak in North Carolina. In N.C., it’s against the law to operate a vessel of any kind, motorized or not, while impaired by alcohol and/or drugs. You can get the equivalent of a DUI, a BUI (Boating Under the Influence) in North Carolina with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.08%. 

North Carolina enacted Sheyenne’s Law in 2016, which enhances the consequences of BUI offenses under aggravated circumstances. Additionally, the use of alcohol and drugs is prohibited on state park property, which includes popular boating rivers and lakes.

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

N.C. Kayak Life Jacket Laws

Do you need a life jacket to kayak in North Carolina? Yes. All vessels must have one Coast Guard approved personal flotation device of Type I, II or III for each person on board. All persons under 13 years of age must be wearing a Type I or II PFD, unless under the deck or in an enclosed cabin.

North Carolina PFD Details:

  • All vessels must be equipped with a Type I, II, or III PFD for each person on board or being towed.
  • All vessels have at least one Type I, II, or III PFD that is USCG–approved, wearable, and of the proper size for each person on board.
  • Sailboards, racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks are exempted from the requirements for carriage of any type PFD.

PFD Age Laws

What age do you have to wear a life jacket in North Carolina? Life jackets must be worn by all youth under 13 when they are on any type of vessel, unless they are in an enclosed area under the deck or in a cabin.

Type IV Throwable PFD

Do I need a Type IV “throwable” on my kayak in North Carolina? On vessels 16 feet and longer must have a USCG–approved Type IV throwable flotation device onboard. However, canoes and kayaks 16 feet or longer are exempt. 

Related ArticleKayak Life Jacket Laws by State (50 State List)

N.C. Kayaking Lights Laws

What lights do I need on my kayak at night? Motorized vessels less than 12 meters long must have red and green sidelights and a white masthead at least 1 meter higher. Vessels between 12 – 20 meters should have the same, but with the white masthead light at least 2.5 meters higher. 

Vessels of less than 10 hp must have at least one lantern or flashlight in good working condition that can be temporarily displayed in sufficient time to avoid collision. Row or paddle boats should also have a handheld light readily available. 

All vessels operating between sunset and sunrise should have navigation lights that meet requirements according to vessel size.

N.C. Kayaking Sounding Devices Laws

Do I need a whistle on a kayak in North Carolina? Vessels less than 12 meters in length do not need to carry a sounding device in N.C. However, they may be provided with a sounding device, such as a whistle attached to a PFD. 

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

VDS – Visual Distress Signaling Devices

On federally controlled waters, all vessels are required to carry U.S. Coast Guard-approved night VDS devices. Personal Watercrafts (PWCs) must have nighttime visual distress signals but are not required to have daytime VDS. 

Night Signals

According to the NCWRC, “it is unlawful to operate a personal watercraft (PWC) on the waters of this State between sunset and sunrise.”

Day Signals

Motorized vessels, your kayak or canoe with a trolling motor, that are over 16 feet and all vessels over 26 feet, must carry daytime VDS devices. Vessels under 16 feet that are manually propelled are not required to carry daytime VDS devices.

North Carolina Kayaking Fire Extinguisher Laws 

Do I need a fire extinguisher on my motorized kayak in North Carolina? Yes. Even motorized PWCs should carry a Type B-I fire extinguisher. However, this law is often overlooked and not strictly enforced in many cases.

Nonetheless, we recommend carrying a small class B-I fire extinguisher if you have a trolling motor on your kayak or canoe. The worst thing in the world is a fire on a boat with no way to put it out, especially if you’re far from the shore.

Additional N.C. Kayaking Laws Resources

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission offers the complete North Carolina Vessel Operator’s Guide as a free online reference.

Boating Law Enforcement

Wildlife Officers are the main enforcers of the NCWRC’s boating laws. On state park properties, park rangers will also be present to enforce laws and regulations. USCG officers enforce the laws of federally controlled waters.

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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