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Illinois Kayak Laws And Regulations

Mark Armstrong
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The Prairie State is filled with prime boating locations, including access to Lake Michigan and the famous Mississippi River.

There are plenty of beautiful lakes and rivers to explore by kayak around Illinois. However, it’s good idea to be prepared so that you can kayak and boat safely and legally to keep out of trouble.

Familiarize yourself with our guide to Illinois kayaking laws and paddle with peace of mind.

Illinois Kayak & Boat Registration Laws

Do You Have To Register A Kayak In Illinois?

No. Kayaks without a motor do not need to be registered. This includes kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards and other unpowered vessels.

It is no longer necessary to display Water Usage Stamps on non-motorized kayaks and canoes. These were abolished as of June 2018 for all kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards and rafts, meaning you no longer have to pay the $6 fee or display the sticker.

What About Motorized Kayaks?

All motorized vessels, including kayaks with trolling motors, in Illinois must be registered in order to be legally operated on Illinois waters. An exemption to this rule is if you will be using your boat solely on your own privately wholly owned waters.

Motorized canoes, kayaks and all vessels under 21 feet in length do not require a title but must be registered within 15 days of purchase. All vessels over 21 feet in length must have a title.

How To Register A Kayak In Illinois

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To register your motorized kayak, canoe or boat, you will need to first fill out a Watercraft Registration Application. You will need to have your Hull Identification Number ready in order to complete the form.

For vessels under 16 feet you will also need to have your original Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin and pay the relevant fees to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Additionally, if your boat is between 16 and 21 feet you will need to submit a tax form to show that you have paid the relevant state taxes on your vessel. A tax form is also required to be submitted for boats longer than 21 feet.

You will then receive a Certificate of Registration which must be kept on your boat at all times. You will also receive your boat numbers and a expiration decal which must be attached to the front of your boat on both the port and starboard sides.

How Much Does Illinois Kayak Registration Cost?

For motorized kayaks, canoes and other vessels less than 16 feet in length, the registration fee is $18. This is the same whether it’s a new registration or a renewal. Registrations are valid for 3 years. To register one of these vessels with an optional title, the cost is $28.

For vessels over 16 feet and less than 21 feet, the cost of registration is $50 and the same again for a renewal. For a titled registration the cost is $60 but a title is optional on vessels between 16 and 21 feet.

If your boat is longer than 21 feet but less than 26 feet the cost of a new registration is $60 and your boat must be titled. The cost of renewal of a registration for a vessel in this size category is $50.

Illinois PFD Boating Regulations (Life Jackets and Vests)

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The law requires everyone on board a vessel to have a wearable US Coast Guard approved PFD (Personal Flotation Device) that is readily accessible. The approved PFDs include Type I, II, III and V.

However, for a Type V PFD to meet the requirements, it must be worn. Other types of life jackets do not need to be worn in order to meet requirements, but it is recommended.

This law applies to all kayaks, canoes and recreational vessels. If your boat is longer than 16 feet you are also required to have a throwable Type IV PFD on board your vessel and readily accessible. However, kayaks and canoes, regardless of length do not need to carry a throwable device.

> More on life vests


Children under the age of 13 must wear a US Coast Guard approved PFD at all times while they are on vessels under 26 feet in length. This includes kayaks, as well as recreational vessels and applies both on deck and in the cockpit while the boat is underway.

> Best vests for younger kids

> Best vests for older children

What About Drinking Alcohol (BUI – Boating Under The Influence)?

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It is illegal in Illinois to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You can be considered to be under the influence if you have a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08%.

You can also be considered under the influence if you appear to be unable to safely operate your vessel due to drugs or alcohol, or if you are found to have any amount of an intoxicating drug or substance in your blood or urine.

Illinois law also states that by operating a boat in any Illinois waters you are giving consent to drug and alcohol testing if you are arrested for boating under the influence.

For a first offense BUI you could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2500. A second offense could see you spend three years in prison, be handed a fine of $25,000 and you could be charged with a class 4 felony. If you cause an accident that results in death you could face a charge of a class 2 felony.

Other Kayak And Boating Laws In Illinois

Do I Need Lights On My Kayak?

Yes, you need to have a light on your kayak if you’re paddling between the hours of sunset and sunrise. This should be a 360 degree white lantern or a flashlight. This light should be visible from at least one mile away and you should carry this light on board your vessel at all times but you only need to display it during the night or in periods of low visibility.

This rule also applies to unpowered vessels under 23 feet in length.

Non-motorized vessels longer than 23 feet and less than 65.6 feet require red and green side lights that are visible from 2 miles away and a white stern light, also visible from 2 miles away.

However, if your boat is between 23 feet and 39.4 feet, the red and green side lights only need to be visible from 1 mile away.

You should also display a white light if you are anchored or moored in an undesignated mooring area. This applies to all vessels, regardless of length. 

What About Maritime Distress Signals?

Visual Distress Signals are only required if you’re boating on Lake Michigan, as this is under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard. If you want to kayak or canoe on Lake Michigan during the hours between sunset and sunrise, then you will need to carry Visual Distress Signals on board your board that are suitable for night use.

This rule applies to all vessels of all sizes, including motorized and non-motorized.

If your boat is longer than 16 feet, you will also need to carry day signals, which can be in the form of an orange distress flag or hand held orange smoke signal. Night visual distress signals can include red flares or an electronic distress light.

You are also required to have a sound signalling device, such as a whistle, to comply with Illinois boating rules.

Minimum Age To Kayak And Boat

There is no minimum age to operate a non-motorized kayak, canoe or boat in Illinois. However, to operate a motorized vessel the minimum age is 10 years old.

Boaters aged 10 and 11 years old must only operate a motorized vessel under the direct supervision of a parent or guardian, or an adult over 18 who has been appointed by the parent of guardian.

Children who are between 12 and 18 years of age are allowed to operate a motorized vessel if they have a Boating Safety Certificate for a safe boating course approved by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Otherwise they will need to have direct adult supervision.

Video: How To Register For The Illinois Boating Safety Course

Parents or guardians or designated adults who were born in or after 1998 must have a Boating Safety Certificate in order to legally supervise children under 18 on a motorized vessel.

Non-Native Species

In Illinois, it’s recommended that you remove any aquatic species, both animal and plant, from your vessel before you leave a particular body of water. This helps to make sure the plant or animal species are not able to cross-contaminate other bodies of water, which can help to prevent the spread of non-native invasive species.

You should make sure your boat is clean before you enter a new body of water.

It can also be a good idea to clean any fishing gear after you leave a lake or river and dispose of any plant materials in the garbage while you’re on land.

Wrapping Up

One of the most important rules that you should follow when you’re on the water in Illinois is to make sure you have a PFD. While you may not be required by law to wear it, it’s recommended that you do. And if you’re boating with any child under 13, it’s the law that they wear their PFD.

Remember to avoid alcohol and keep a white light and whistle on board your kayak or boat, just in case. And if you add a motor to your vessel, make sure you register it with the Department of Natural Resources.

If you think others might find this useful, share it. And if you have anything you want to add, leave us a comment.

> Kayaking in Chicago guide

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3 thoughts on “Illinois Kayak Laws And Regulations”

  1. The only thing this didn’t answer is the only question I have, where? Where I may and may not take my kayak. Obviously private property is just that, private. (although with that new law that says cops can’t forcibly remove you from trespassing on private property…jk) But what about forest preserves? If I portage in from my legally parked car, am I going to have a cop, DNR, or other such member from one of the other alphabet soup agencies waiting to ticket me for dragging my kayak through the woods? So many of the lakes in Illinois are run by the local municipalities and charge ridiculous fees for non-residents to paddle around, or worse don’t allow personal kayaks forcing you to rent theirs…$$$. (Yes I know the residents pay the fees too, in their annual/monthly HOA dues, doesn’t make it right) Any insight you can provide is appreciated. Thanks.


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