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Do Kayaks Have to Follow the Rules of the Road?

Kayaking offers a unique and exhilarating way to explore waterways while immersing oneself in nature. However, amidst the serenity, it’s important to remember that kayaks are considered vessels and share water spaces with other boats. This raises the question: do kayaks have to follow the rules of the road? In this blog post, we will explore the legal and safety considerations for kayakers, understand the rules that apply to them, and emphasize the importance of responsible boating to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience on the water.

Understanding Kayaks as Vessels

While kayaks may seem different from traditional motorized vessels, they are legally classified as “vessels” under maritime law. According to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and many other maritime authorities, a vessel is defined as any watercraft used for transportation on the water. This includes not only motorized boats but also non-motorized watercraft such as kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and rowboats.

As vessels, kayaks are subject to certain regulations and responsibilities, similar to larger boats. These rules are in place to ensure the safety of everyone on the water and maintain order in shared water spaces. While specific regulations may vary depending on the jurisdiction, it is crucial for kayakers to be aware of and comply with these rules.

Rules of the Road for Kayakers

With more than 15, 000 lakes, 80,000 miles of rivers, and 800 + miles of coastline in Wisconsin, chances are you WILL encounter power boats sharing the waters with you. It is your responsibility as a paddler to be in control of your kayak at all times, understand how to react to other boaters, and react appropriately when a situation occurs.

  1. Navigation Aids and Lighting: In low visibility conditions, kayaks are required to display appropriate navigation lights, just like any other vessel. These lights include a white light visible from all directions (a 360 degree light which is on a mounted post works very well).
  2. Right-of-Way: Kayakers must understand and respect the right-of-way rules to prevent collisions and ensure the safety of all water users. Generally, kayaks are expected to yield to larger vessels and give way to boats operating in established channels or restricted areas.
  3. Avoiding Collisions: Kayakers should navigate in a predictable manner and take appropriate action to avoid collisions. This includes maintaining a safe distance from other vessels, being aware of potential hazards or obstructions, and using caution when crossing shipping lanes or areas with heavy boat traffic.
  4. No Wake Zones: Just like larger boats, kayakers are expected to observe and respect designated no wake zones. These zones are established to protect sensitive areas, prevent shoreline erosion, and ensure the safety of people swimming or engaging in other water activities.

Safety Measures for Kayakers

While following the rules of the road is crucial, kayakers should also prioritize their personal safety on the water. Here are some important safety measures to consider:

  1. Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD): A properly fitted PFD is a must for all kayakers, regardless of their swimming abilities. It provides buoyancy and can be a lifesaver in case of an accident or capsize. Even though Wisconsin’s law states all occupants must have a PFD “Readily accessible” (on NON-Federal waters).  Ask yourself – is it really accessible when you capsize, your kayak is floating away and it is stored ON the kayak? Lifejacket only function when it is attached to the paddler (zipped and clipped), and properly fitted for that individual.
  2. Dress for the Water: As kayakers, we are all in-between a swim. Meaning, a capsize will happen to even the professionals. Not wearing the proper ‘survival clothing’ for the water temps will place you at a higher risk of health related issues/decreased time of self and assisted rescues/ or death. Wearing kayak specific clothing for cooler/cold waters will increase your survival odds.
  3. Be Weather-Wise: Stay informed about weather conditions before heading out and be prepared for changes. Avoid kayaking in severe weather conditions, such as strong winds, thunderstorms, or rough waters.
  4. Communication and Signaling Devices: Carry a whistle or other sound-producing device to attract attention if needed. Additionally, consider bringing a waterproof cellphone case or a marine VHF radio for communication in emergencies. Understand and familiarize yourself HOW to use your VHF before you really need it.
  5. Be Visible: Wear bright-colored clothing or use reflective accessories to enhance your visibility to other boaters, especially during low-light conditions.
  6. Stay Hydrated and Sun-Safe: Bring an adequate supply of water and apply sunscreen to protect yourself from dehydration and sunburn during extended kayaking trips.
  7. Federal waters (waters which are patrolled and enforced by the USCG): These do have specific requirements of recommended and must have items for kayakers – which is above and beyond what State level requirements are. Some of the Federal waters in Wisconsin are: Fox River (by Green Bay), the Bay of Green Bay, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Winnebago, St. Croix River, Mississippi River, parts of the Wisconsin River and the Milwaukee harbor.


Does a kayak always have the right of way on the water?

No, a kayak does not always have the right of way on the water. The right of way in boating situations is determined by specific rules and regulations that prioritize safety and prevent collisions. While kayaks are generally considered smaller vessels and have certain maneuverability advantages, they are still required to follow the rules of navigation and yield to other boats in certain situations. Here are some key points to consider regarding the right of way for kayaks:

  1. General Right of Way Rules: In most cases, kayaks are expected to follow the same right of way rules as other vessels. This means that kayaks must yield to larger vessels, such as motorboats, sailboats, or commercial vessels, and give them enough space to navigate safely.
  2. Crossing Situations: When crossing paths with another boat, the vessel on the right typically has the right of way. This means that if a kayak is approaching a motorized boat or another kayak from the right, the kayak should yield and allow the other boat to pass.
  3. Restricted Areas and Channels: In areas with established navigation channels or restricted zones, kayakers must yield to boats operating within these designated areas. These zones are typically marked by buoys, signs, or other navigational aids.
  4. Non-Motorized Priority: In some areas or situations, non-motorized vessels, including kayaks, may be given priority over motorized boats. However, this can vary depending on local regulations or specific circumstances, so it is essential to be familiar with the rules and regulations of the specific water body you are kayaking on.

It’s important to note that right of way rules may differ slightly based on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances. Additionally, while certain rules may exist, common sense and situational awareness should always guide boaters to avoid collisions and ensure safety on the water. Regardless of right of way, all boaters, including kayakers, should practice caution, maintain a safe speed, and be aware of their surroundings to prevent accidents and promote a harmonious boating experience.



While kayaks may not have engines or require licensing, they are considered vessels and must adhere to certain rules and regulations when sharing the water with other boats. By understanding and following the rules of the road, kayakers can ensure their own safety and that of others on the water. Remember, responsible boating practices not only enhance your enjoyment of the experience but also contribute to a harmonious and safe environment for all water users. So, before you embark on your next kayaking adventure, take the time to familiarize yourself with the rules, prioritize safety, and enjoy your journey on the water responsibly.



For the Paddler Within…