Tennessee Kayaking Laws (Rules and Regulations)

Tennessee Kayaking Laws - Rules and Regulations

Tennessee kayaking laws are set and governed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.  Officers of the TN Wildlife Agency enforce those kayaking rules and regulations.

Tennessee is one of the most popular states for water activities thanks to its multitudes of waterways. So it’s not surprising that Tennessee is a popular kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding destination.

Here’s a summary of what you need to know about TN 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.

TN Kayaking Laws Summary

  • Tennessee Kayaking Laws – Tennessee law considers kayaks and canoes to be non-powered vessels.
  • Tennessee Kayak Registration – Kayaks, canoes, and all other vessels powered only by paddles or oars are exempt from registration.
  • Motorized Kayak Registration – All motorized watercraft must be registered and display valid decals. This includes a trolling motor on a canoe or kayak.
  • Kayak Operator Licensing in Tennessee – Those born after January 1st, 1989 must successfully complete the TWRA Boating Safety Exam. If the kayak is powered with more than an 8.5 horsepower (HP) engine, the operator is required to also carry on board the Boating Safety Education Certificate.
  • Motorized Kayaking Age – Anyone under the age of 12 cannot operate a motor vessel with more than 8.5 HP unless a person 18 years or older is also on board. (See below for further restrictions)
  • Kayaking BUI Law – Tennessee has a Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law that applies to all vessels propelled by a motor or sail, exempting kayaks and canoes.
  • Kayaking Life Jacket Law – All canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards must have one USCG approved wearable PFD for each person on board.
  • Kayak Lights Law – Vessels under 39.4 feet long must at least carry a white lantern or light after sunset or during times of reduced visibility.
  • Kayaking Sounding Devices – Some means to make an efficient sound signal is required.
  • Kayaking VDS Law – Only federally controlled waters in Tennessee require USCG approved Visual Distress Signals (VDS).

That only summarizes Tennessee 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 Tennessee.

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Tennessee Kayak Registration


Do you have to register a kayak in Tennessee? No. “The only exceptions are: Vessels propelled only by paddles or oars, Vessels registered in other states and using Tennessee waters for 60 days or less”The Handbook of Tennessee Boating laws and Responsibilites


Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in Tennessee? Yes. A Tennessee Certificate of Number (registration card) and validation decals are required to legally operate any vessel unless specifically exempted. The Certificate of Number must be carried on board and ready for inspection by enforcement officers. Registrations are good for one, two, or three years at the choice of the owner.


Tennessee Vessel Titling: Canoes and kayaks do not have to be titled in Tennessee.

Registration Resources

Related Article: Paddle Board Registration

Tennessee Kayaking Operator Education Laws


Do you need a license to kayak in Tennessee? Those born after January 1st, 1989 are required to complete the TWRA Boating Safety Exam to operate any vessel in Tennessee. 


Do you need a license to operate a motorized kayak in Tennessee? No, not if the engine is smaller than 8.5 horsepower. Those born after January 1st, 1989 must carry on board a Boating Safety Education Certificate when operating any vessel with an engine of 8.5 horsepower or more.


Operators under the age of 12 may not operate any motorized vessel propelled by a motor of more than 8.5 horsepower unless a person 18 years or older is on board and able to take immediate control of the vessel. The supervisor, if born after January 1st, 1989, must also have a Boating Safety Education Certificate.

Tennessee Kayaking OUI Laws

Can you get a DUI on a kayak in Tennessee? No. Tennessee’s BUI law prohibits anyone from operating any vessel propelled by a motor or sail from operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. However, it is unlawful to use or be in possession of drugs or controlled substances while on a kayak. You can get the equivalent of a DUI, a BUI (Boating Under the Influence) in Tennessee with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.08%, or if under the influence of controlled drugs or other substances when operating a motorized kayak.

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

Tennessee Kayak Life Jacket Laws

Do you need a life jacket to kayak in Tennessee? Yes. All canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards must have one USCG approved wearable PFD for each person on board, and all persons under 13 years of age must wear a lifejacket while underway.

Tennessee PFD Details:

  • All PFDs must be in serviceable and good condition, meaning free from tears and of proper size for a person on board.
  • All vessels have at least one Type I, II, III, or V PFD that is USCG–approved, wearable, and of the proper size for each person on board. Type V PFDs may be carried only if used according to the condition for which it is approved (shown on its label).
  • Inflatable life jackets are not approved for anyone less than 16 years old.

PFD Age Laws

What age do you have to wear a life jacket in Tennessee? Life jackets must be worn by all youth under 13 when on a kayak that is underway. 

Type IV Throwable PFD

Do I need a Type IV “throwable” on my kayak in Tennessee? No. Kayaks and Canoes are exempt from Tennessee’s law that all 16 foot and longer vessels must have a USCG-approved Type IV onboard.

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

Tennessee Kayaking Lights Laws

What lights do I need on my kayak at night? All paddlecraft must be able to exhibit a white light or lantern after sunset or during times of reduced visibility.

While anchored or stationary, the white light must be on.

Unpowered vessels follow the same guidelines.

Tennessee Kayaking Sounding Devices Laws

Do I need a whistle on a kayak in Tennessee? Yes. All vessels less than 39.4 feet long must require some means to make an efficient sound signal such as a whistle or air horn.

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

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

VDS – Visual Distress Signaling Devices

Vessels operating in Tennessee waters do not require USCG approved Visual Distress Signals (VDS). Operating in federally controlled waters requires USCG approved Visual Distress Signals.

Night Signals

When operating in federal waters, night signals are required between sunset and sunrise. No Visual Distress Signals are required for operating in Tennessee waters.

Day Signals

No Visual Distress Signals are required for kayaks during the day on both Tennessee waters and federally controlled waters.

Tennessee Kayaking Fire Extinguisher Laws

Do I need a fire extinguisher on my motorized kayak in Tennessee? No. Even if you have a trolling motor on your kayak, if the fuel tank isn’t permanently installed or in an enclosure, you aren’t required to have a fire extinguisher.

Regardless of the law, 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 Tennessee Kayaking Laws Resources

Boating Law Enforcement

Officers and Agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency enforce Tennessee’s boat and water safety laws.

As always, USCG officers enforce federally controlled waters in Tennessee.

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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