4 Must-Know Paddle Boarding Laws Explained

Paddle boarding is a fun watersport, but knowing the laws surrounding paddle boarding are important if you want to stay on the right side of the Coast Guard. The U.S. Coast Guard has designated paddle boards as full vessels, which means that they are treated just like a kayak or canoe.

Here are some of the must-know paddle-boarding laws:

  • Paddle boards are considered vessels or boats, and as such are subject to the same boating laws of registration and safety regulations. Depending on which state you live in, you may need to have a boating license in order to use a paddle board.
  • While on a paddle board, you must have a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) on board with you; if you are 12 years or younger, you must be wearing it at all times.
  • You must have proper boating safety paraphernalia such as a whistle, a navigational light, and distress signals such as aerial flares.
  • You must not use a paddle board while intoxicated.

The reason you must know these paddle boarding laws isn’t just so you avoid fines or potential jail time—these regulations are in place for a reason and abiding by them is vital to maintaining your safety while paddle boarding. Read on for a more detailed explanation of these paddle boarding laws.

Do You Need A License to Paddle Board?

While the U.S. Coast Guard does designate paddle boards as vessels and regulates them as such, not all states require users to have a boating license.

To figure out whether you need an actual boating license or boater’s education card to use your paddle board legally, refer to your local DNR or license bureau for your location-specific laws.

Even if it is not technically necessary to have a boating license to use a paddle board, it is recommended to procure one anyway. The boater’s education course teaches people using watercraft important signage and signaling procedures that make everyone safer on the water.

This is especially important when using a paddle board in areas where there is a high volume of motorized boat traffic, as paddle boarders are extremely vulnerable on the water against them.

Even Without A Boating License, You May Need Registration to Paddle Board

Depending on which state you live in, your branch of state government that regulates water safety may require you to register your paddle board as a vessel. We cover a few states and the processes required in this post. The following states require registration of paddle craft (kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards):

  • Ohio
  • Alaska
  • Illinois
  • Oklahoma
  • Iowa
  • Minnesota
  • Pennsylvania

Why Paddle Boarding Laws Are Important

Every year, dozens of people are tragically killed in boating accidents or drownings, and many of them are people operating paddle craft.

This is because paddle crafts are easily the most vulnerable vessels in the water at any given time—a paddle boarder being run down by a careless motorboat driver cannot get out of the way fast enough even if they tried. In a battle between a paddle board and a speedboat, the boat will win every time.

Because a paddle boarder has no real protection in the event of a collision with another vessel, they can often be severely injured or knocked unconscious. This means having the appropriate safety gear on board is important not just to remain within the confines of the law, but also for your personal safety.

You Must Have A Life Jacket While Paddle Boarding – It’s the Law

Even though paddle boarders are typically secured to their paddle boards with a leash and paddle boards are in and of themselves flotation devices, it is still the law that paddle boarders must carry a Coast Guard-approved life jacket with them (Type I, II, or III).

These are the types of life jackets and their recommended uses:

  • Type I: Best for open, rough, or remote water where rescue may be slow to arrive
  • Type II: Best for protected, inland water where the chance of immediate rescue is good
  • Type III: Best for protected, inland water near shore where the chance of immediate rescue is good

Which type of life jacket you decide to wear is largely dependent on where you intend to take your paddle board. If you are paddle boarding on a calm lake, you will require a lower type of life jacket than if you are intending to paddle board on the ocean.

Life jackets are the single most important piece of safety gear to have on the water. In 2016, 701 people in the United States were killed in boating accidents. Of those killed, 80% drowned, and 83% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets. The statistics speak for themselves.

Life Jackets and Paddle Boarder Age

If the paddle boarder is 12 years of age or younger, the Coast Guard has dictated that they are always required to wear their life jacket while on the paddle board.

Adult and teenage paddle boarders can get away with having a life jacket strapped to their paddle boat as long as they do have one in their possession, but it is strongly recommended that anyone—no matter what age—wear their life jacket while pursuing watersports like paddle boarding.

After all, if you are struck by a passing motorized boat and knocked unconscious, your life jacket isn’t going to do you much good if it’s strapped to your paddle board and not to you. Since the majority of boating fatalities are the direct result of not wearing a life jacket, there’s no point in taking the risk.

Inflatable Personal Floatation Devices and Paddle Boards

One popular option other than a traditional life jacket for paddle boarders are inflatable personal flotation devices (PFDs) that act as a Type III life jacket. These can be worn around the waist like a fanny pack until manually deployed and are less bulky and uncomfortable to wear than life jackets.

The disadvantage to inflatable personal flotation devices is that they cannot activate themselves in the case of a boating accident and must be triggered via a pull string.

 This means if you are wearing one and you are knocked unconscious in a boating accident or by falling from your paddle board, you may as well not be wearing a flotation device at all. Inflatable PFDs are a convenient choice for paddle boarders looking to maintain their agility on the water, but they are a risk.

You Must Have Boating Safety Gear While Paddle Boarding

Because paddle boards are considered by the coast guard to be vessels like a boat, they are subject to boating safety regulations. This means that other than a life jacket, there are certain pieces of safety and navigational gear you are always required by law to have with you on your paddle board:

  • Safety whistle: Safety whistles are important because paddle boarders are some of the most vulnerable people in the water to boat strikes other than swimmers. Because a paddle board is small, it is difficult to see on the water. A whistle will help you alert boaters to your presence.
  • Navigational light: Paddle boarders are required by law to have a navigational light such as a handheld waterproof flashlight with them between the hours of sunset and sunrise so that they can signal boaters after dark to avoid being struck.
  • Distress signals: Like boaters, paddle boarders are required to have distress signals of some kind on their paddle board to signal for help in case of an emergency. Even if they were not required by law, it is still prudent to have signals, as rough waters can capsize a paddle boarder quickly.

When choosing your safety gear, it is important to consider the situations in which you might be called to use it. Pick the loudest waterproof survival whistle you can find, one that will be clearly heard over the roar of wind or waves or motorboats.

For navigational lighting, bright LED headlamps are a good choice for paddle boarders, as they leave your hands free and often come with options for flashing and other signaling.

For distress signals, be sure to choose signals that can be see both during the day and after dark if you ever intend to use your paddle board near or past sunset. Make sure you have a minimum of three devices, regardless of whether you choose pyrotechnic signals or some other kind.

This Atwood system is available on Amazon

Manual Distress Signals for Paddle Boarding

You can use manual distress signals in conjunction with flares, a whistle, and other safety gear. The universal sign for an emergency while paddle boarding is to wave one arm back and forth overhead or wave a paddle back and forth.

To signal to someone that you are okay and not in an emergency, you can hold your arm out to your side and then place your fingertips on the top of your head to make an “O” with your arm. This signal can also be used to ask another paddler if they are okay.

Don’t Drink and Paddle Board

It almost goes without saying, but because paddle boards are regarded as a water vessel, this means they are regulated in the same way with regards to alcohol and recreational substances. Do not drink alcohol or do recreational drugs and go paddle boarding.

Even if you are prescribed sedative medication or any kind of medication that impairs your balance or judgment, do not go paddle boarding. Side effects of medications often include things such as seizures and drowsiness, which can lead to dangerous situations out on the water.

While you aren’t necessarily a threat to others in an intoxicated state while paddle boarding, you are putting yourself in serious danger and may suffer a lapse in judgment (such as paddle boarding in the middle of a busy boating lane) that could quickly end in tragedy for both you and an unsuspecting party.

Safety aside, a paddle board is a vessel and operating a vessel under the influence is against the law. Paddle boarding while intoxicated can earn you a ticket or jail time or even get you killed. Just don’t
do it.

Optional Paddle Boarding Gear to Protect from The Elements

Paddle boarding is sometimes performed in very cold waters, or in tropical areas that are very warm. While not a requirement by law, you might want to consider investing in some cold weather and hot weather gear on your paddle board in order to maximize comfort and avoid temperature-related illness.

For paddle boarding in colder climates to avoid hypothermia and general discomfort, the following optional gear is suggested:

  • Neoprene top, shorts, or a wetsuit
  • Paddle gloves
  • Cap (wool or synthetic)
  • Booties

Hypothermia is medically defined as the point when the human body drops below 95F and can occur even in summer weather if paddle boarding is being undertaken in cold or northern waters. Left untreated, hypothermia can lead to disorientation, extreme fatigue, and eventual drowning. Strongly consider getting a wetsuit for colder climates or seasons.

Some of the symptoms of hypothermia are as follows:

  • Mild hypothermia: Numbness and uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination
  • Moderate hypothermia: Loss of mental coherence, slurred speech
  • Severe hypothermia: Blue or grayish tinged skin, slow or faltering breath, loss of consciousness

For paddle boarding in hot climates to avoid hyperthermia, heat stroke, and dangerous sunburns, the following optional gear is suggested:

  • Hat with a bill to shade the face
  • Quick dry, loose clothing
  • Canteen of water
  • High SPF sunscreen

Hyperthermia (also known as heatstroke) is medically defined as the point when the human body rises above 101.7F and is the result of failed thermoregulation. Paddle boarders paddling in hot still weather are especially susceptible to heatstroke.

Some of the symptoms of hyperthermia are as follows:

  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Coma

As you can imagine, many of these symptoms can be deadly for a paddle boarder, especially one who is out paddling alone and not within easy reach of help. Therefore, preventing hypothermia or heatstroke before they occur by wearing appropriate gear while paddle boarding is the safest route to take.

Other Safety Considerations While Paddle Boarding

These may not necessarily be hard and fast paddle boarding laws, but nevertheless keeping the following things in mind will help keep you safe while you paddle board:

  • Always wear a leg leash to avoid losing your paddle board if you fall off. You don’t want to be stranded on the open water without it, as it makes you less visible and leaves you vulnerable to exhaustion and exposure to the elements.
  • Be aware of weather conditions and any other elemental issues that could potentially affect your paddle boarding such as riptides, rough water, lightning storms, and other hazards. If there is a chance the weather may become inclement while you’re out, it’s safer not to go.
  • It best to know the area where you are planning to paddle board, and to let someone else know where you’ll be and when you should be expected back. It is also the safest practice to not go paddle boarding alone, but extra precautions should be taken if you do go solo.
  • Be defensive on the water. Always keep an eye out for other vessels, and don’t hesitate to use a flashlight or whistle to alert boaters—around high-speed vessels, every second counts to avoid a collision. Be sure to also wear brightly coloured clothing for maximum visibility.
  • Use your core muscles for paddling to avoid exhaustion and dangerous conditions. This is accomplished by rotating your hips and shoulders rather than paddling with your arms alone. Not only is this the most effective and efficient way to paddle, but it also helps maintain your balance.
  • Avoid areas with high boat traffic. Rather than depending on boaters to see you (which they may or may not—why take the risk?) it’s better to choose paddle boarding areas with minimum motorized boat traffic, protection from rough winds, and easy areas to launch/land from.

Stay Smart While Paddle Boarding to Stay Alive

Although paddle boarding fatalities have remained a minority in the number of boating fatalities reported each year in the US, the percentage of people killed while paddle boarding has remained largely stable throughout the years, while the number of deaths related to powerboats has declined.

It remains a sad fact that many of the deaths involved in paddle boarding involve collisions with motorised boats, so vigilance is crucial for safety in this sport.

Most paddle boarding fatalities (and indeed, most boating fatalities in general) can be prevented through the consistent use of life jackets, and by avoiding alcohol and drugs while on the water. For this reason, the laws surrounding the use of life jackets and intoxicants in watersports are very strict.

Other deaths could have been avoided if inexperienced paddlers without proper gear or training stayed away from cold water, whitewater, and extreme weather conditions. By following the laws and guidelines laid out in this article, you can rest assured that you will always be prepared in the water.

Before You Go in The Water, Check These Laws One More Time

If you’re new to paddle boarding, you’re probably raring to go. But before you hit the waves, be sure to keep these must-know laws in mind to stay safe and out of trouble:

  • Check your local area for regulations regarding registration of paddle boards and whether you need a boating license to operate one.
  • Have the proper (and required) gear for safety—whistle, distress signals, navigational light.
  • Always wear a life jacket.
  • Never paddle board drunk or on drugs. A paddle board is considered a vessel and you can get a DUI charge.

Final thoughts

Always check for variations in local laws before you visit an area new to you. Many places have different regulations for different seasons, days of the week and specific bodies of water. It’s best to know before you go.

Once you know, get out there and go by staying safe and having fun!


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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