North Carolina Kayaking Laws (Rules and Regulations) | Paddle Camp (2024)

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, 1988must 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 circ*mstances. 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 jacketsmust 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 Article:Kayak 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 atrolling 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

North Carolina Kayaking Laws (Rules and Regulations) | Paddle Camp (2024)


Do you need a permit to kayak in North Carolina? ›

Setting Sail Without Bounds: Canoe and Kayak Registration

Venturing forth on the gentle currents of North Carolina's waterways in your unpowered vessel, a realm of freedom awaits you. Unlike their motorized counterparts, human-powered canoes and kayaks do not require registration.

Do you have to wear a life jacket on a kayak in NC? ›

Both state and federal regulations require that a Type I, II or III personal flotation device in good condition and of appropriate size be accessible for each person onboard a recreational vessel, including canoes, kayaks, rowboats and other non-motorized craft.

Can you drink while kayaking in NC? ›

According to North Carolina's boating and alcohol laws, it is illegal to operate any boat (this includes motorized boats, personal watercraft, waterskis, sailboats, sailboards or other similar devices) while under the influence of an impairing substance, such as alcohol or drugs.

Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in NC? ›

If the Canoe or Kayak is powered by a trolling motor of any kind (gas or electric), the boat needs to be registered and titled (unless solely operated on a private pond). A Registration Card will need to be carried with you and presented, if requested by a NCWRC officer.

Can I kayak on my own? ›

You can paddle alone, but you should make sure people know where you are going. Paddling alone is riskier, and even the most experienced paddlers can run into trouble sometimes. After taking your paddler's safety course, you might be tempted to think you can handle everything—and maybe you are right.

Can you carry a gun in North Carolina state parks? ›

Firearms and other weapons are prohibited, except that those with a proper permit may possess a concealed handgun in permitted areas and under the requirements of North Carolina G.S. 14-415.11.

Is it legal to put a motor on a kayak? ›

Paddling, Motorized or Not

Age is no obstacle when it comes to operating a canoe or kayak with an electric trolling motor in California. As long as competence is maintained, anyone can legally operate such a watercraft.

Is a life vest required in a kayak? ›

The short answer is "yes". The long answer is in most states the laws read that there must be at least one U.S. Coast Guard Approved Type I,II, or III lifejacket (PFD) per person onboard the vessel (your kayak).

Can you drown in a kayak with a life jacket on? ›

Those are the primary reasons boaters wearing life jackets sometimes drown. Either the boater is unable to free him- or herself from some type of entrapment, is unconscious or otherwise unable to keep his/her face out of the water, or eventually drowns from numerous mouth immersions over a prolonged period of time.

Can you drink in a parked car in NC? ›

An open container of any alcoholic beverage is prohibited in the passenger area of any motor vehicle (commercial or non-commercial) located on the highway or highway right of way - even if the vehicle is parked except as listed below. If the seal on a container of alcoholic beverage has been broken, it is open.

Is it better to kayak at high or low tide? ›

In areas where the tide is constricted by land masses, there will be a tidal current, which will be strongest during the middle of the tide (about three hours after high or low tide, albeit with some variation).

Can you take a sit in kayak down a river? ›

If it does flip, you can right it while you're in the water and climb back on, with some practice. There are situations where a higher-end sit-inside kayak is safer, when it's paddled by a kayaker with the right skill set. That includes ocean and large lake paddling with waves and tides, and rivers with heavy current.

What is the minimum fine for an unregistered boat in NC? ›

Minimum fine for anything is now $25, plus court cost that start at $154; but that's ONLY if you get caught operating an unregistered powered boat upon the waters of the state ( a trolling motor is considered powered).

Do you have to register a 12 ft Jon boat in NC? ›

In North Carolina, you must have a North Carolina Certificate of Number (registration) and a validation decal to operate your vessel legally on public waters. The only exceptions are: A non-motorized vessel. Sailboats 14 feet or less in length.

What is the certificate of origin for a kayak? ›

The Manufacturer Statement of Origin (MSO) is a document that verifies ownership of a water vessel. You should receive a blank MSO form when you purchase any water vessel. This document is usually found in the owner manual packet. You may need your MSO as documentation for vessel titles or future sale registers.

Do you need a permit to kayak on Lake Lure NC? ›

All motorized watercrafts must obtain and display a permit issued by the town in order to be on the lake. Non-motorized boats no longer require a boat permit as of 2024. Check out the Boaters Guide. Permits are non-refundable and must be renewed on an annual basis.

Does North Carolina require a boating license? ›

Do you need a Boating License in North Carolina? North Carolina law requires any person born on or after January 1, 1988, who will be operating a vessel over 10 hp to pass a boater safety course and to carry a boater education card.

What do you need for a kayak Coast Guard? ›

Life jackets: Vessels less than 16 feet in length and all canoes and kayaks, regardless of length, must carry one wearable Coast Guard-approved life jacket of a type and size appropriate for the conditions and the boating activity being engaged in for each person on board.

How old do you have to be to drive a boat in NC without a license? ›

Personal Watercraft (PWCs)

No person under 14 years of age may operate a PWC. Persons 14 years of age or older may also operate without a boating education certificate if physically accompanied on the PWC by an adult at least 18 years of age and meets the requirements of G.S. 16.2.

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