Is It Illegal to Kayak Without a Life Jacket?

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Did you know that in most boat fatalities, deaths occur as a result of drowning? And nearly 90% of these fatalities are because the boaters were not wearing their life jackets. Yet, whenever you visit kayaking centers, you will find many boaters without life jackets.

So, is it illegal to kayak without a life jacket? In most places, it is not illegal for adults to kayak without a life jacket, but it is often unwise to kayak without a life jacket.

Some of the commonly given excuses for skipping the life jacket include: 

  • I don’t need to wear my life jacket as I’m not far from the shore
  • I’ll easily swim if anything happens
  • I’ll wear my jacket if the kayak capsizes

However, these people fail to consider that they’ll likely be too tired to swim or stay afloat. Moreover, it isn’t easy to put a jacket on when you are already in the water. 

In most states, laws dictate how and when life jackets must be worn on a water vessel. The main difference across these laws is the minimum PFD (Personal Floatation Device) age required by different states. 

Some states also have specific rules that require adults to wear life jackets. However, two commonalities across most state laws are that each boat should have at least one USCG-approved (US Coast Guard) life jacket per person, and all children must wear a jacket while on board a marine vessel. 

We’ll break it all down below.


A Summary of Common Life Jacket Requirements on Kayaks

Kayak life jacket

Here are highlights on the type of jackets that should be onboard any water vessel:

  • They must be USCG-approved
  • The jackets should be the proper size for the wearer
  • Must be in good condition
  • Should fit properly 
  • All children under the minimum PFD age must wear them

Is It Illegal to Kayak Without a Life Jacket?

In most places, it’s not illegal to kayak without a lifejacket if you’re an adult. But it is often irresponsible and foolish.

Why? Let’s discuss it.

There are many reasons for wearing life jackets other than to stay on the right side of the law. Before you go kayaking, even if your state has relaxed laws, here are a few reasons to change your mind about life jackets: 

1. They Save Lives

Accidents occur unexpectedly, and those who survive are the ones who react without delay. However, in most cases, people are caught unaware. Life jackets can often mean the difference between life and death.

It’s not easy to put on a jacket when you are drowning or trying to stay afloat. That’s why it’s important to always wear one when you go kayaking, even if it’s not illegal. 

Accidents occur unexpectedly.

Additionally, always ensure the straps and zippers are tightly secured. A loose jacket can quickly slip off in the water. Moreover, it will be much harder to climb back into your kayak when you struggle to hold onto the jacket. 

2. Jackets Make You Visible

Have you ever wondered why life jackets are brightly colored? It’s to make them easier to spot!

You may have heard of or seen videos of kayaks getting hit by other bigger marine vessels.

If you are kayaking in areas where motorized water vessels pass, life jackets will make you easier to see and easier to avoid. 

Life jackets will make you easier to see and easier to avoid.

The same is true for when you are kayaking early in the morning or late in the evening when visibility is low. Additionally, life jackets help rescuers find you quickly due to the extra visibility. 

3. They Ease the Rescuing Process

In addition to making you visible, life jackets are easier to grab and pull someone ashore or onto the rescue boat. And since they eliminate the worry of staying afloat, they allow you to focus on other pressing matters such as swimming ashore or towards your rescuer. Moreover, getting back onto your kayak takes a dangerous amount of energy. 

As such, jackets help you focus the energy you’d have spent floating into getting back into the cockpit of your kayak. 

Many Jackets Today Are Practical

Life jackets have evolved into more than simple life-saving devices. Nowadays, many have pockets that let you store small items such as whistles, baits, and hooks that could be useful when fishing. 

Some of them even have dedicated pockets for smartphones. Others come with pockets for utility knives that can be useful in cutting lines and freeing yourself from ropes during emergencies. 

How to Wear Your Life Jacket Properly

Life jackets typically come with instruction manuals. You can also ask the lifeguards to show you how to wear them properly. The rule of thumb is always to ensure your jacket fits you properly and is the correct size for your age and gender. Once you’ve established that, follow these steps to make sure you’ve worn it correctly:

  • First, place the jacket over your head and tighten any shoulder straps present
  • If there’s a zipper, fasten it securely
  • Next, check the sides to fasten any belts present 
  • Lastly, tighten all belts till they snugly fit 

The Dos and Don’t of Kayaking

Here are some tips to keep you on the right side of the law and keep you safe when you go kayaking:

  • Always a USCG-approved life jacket. Moreover, ensure it fits properly, and secure any straps or zippers 
  • Carry a whistle. This can help alert others if you are in an emergency
  • If you are kayaking at night, take a light with you. You can use it as a visual distress signal if you need help 
  • Take the boater’s education course available in your state
  • Lastly, do not drink alcohol prior to kayaking or any other water sport, for that matter


Kayaking without a life jacket isn’t the only thing that can get you in trouble with the authorities. BUI (Boating Under the Influence) can also have you arrested and fined in some states. In addition, more states are passing more laws and instituting policies to regulate kayaking, paddle boarding, and other water-related sports and activities. However, it would be best if you took it as a personal initiative to ensure your safety comes first whenever you go kayaking. 

Wearing a jacket will protect you from drowning and will give lifeguards the opportunity to get to you and save you. And wearing one inspires others around you to do the same. So wear a PFD next time you go kayaking, and you could save lives.