Wisconsin Boating Laws – What you need to know

The Department of Natural Resources and the Conservation Warden Service invite you to safely enjoy the recreational opportunities available on our waterways. Wisconsin is rich with locations to enjoy time on the water, including more than 15,000 lakes and many miles of rivers in addition to access to Lake 
Michigan, Lake Superior, and the Mississippi River. 

Who May Operate/Age Restrictions 

It is illegal for a parent or guardian to allow a child to operate a vessel in violation of the requirements below.  A person born before January 1, 1989, is exempt from the safety course requirement. 
Motorboats (Other Than a Personal Watercraft) 

  • A person younger than 10 years may not operate a motorboat. 
  • A person 10 or 11 years old may operate a motorboat only if accompanied by a parent, a guardian, or a person at least 18 years old who is designated by the parent 
  • or guardian and the parent, guardian, or designated adult holds a valid boating safety certificate or was born before January 1, 1989.  
  • A person 12–15 years old may operate a motorboat only if he or she: 
    • Is accompanied by a parent, a guardian, or a designated adult and the parent, guardian, or designated adult holds a valid boating safety certificate or was born before January 1, 1989, or… 
    • Has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. 
  • A person who was born on or after January 1, 1989, and who is 16 years of age or older may operate a motorboat only if he or she: 
    • Has completed a boating safety course accepted by Wisconsin DNR or… 
    • Is accompanied by another person in the motorboat who is at least 18 years of age and that person holds a valid boating safety certificate or was born before January 1, 1989. 

Wisconsin Personal Watercraft (PWC) 

  • A person younger than 12 years may not operate a personal watercraft (PWC). 
  • A person 12–15 years old may operate a PWC only if he or she has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. (Parental supervision 
  • is not a substitute for a boating safety course certificate as with other motorboats.) 
  • A person at least 16 years old may operate a PWC only if he or she has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. A person born before January 1, 1989, is exempt from the safety course requirement. 
  • A person younger than 16 years may not rent or lease a PWC. 

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) 

  • All vessels (including canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards) must have at least one USCG–approved wearable personal flotation device or PFD (life jacket) for each person on board. 
  • All vessels 16 feet or more in length (except canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards) must have one USCG– approved throwable device on board that is immediately accessible. 
  • Federal law requires children under the age of 13 to wear a USCG–approved PFD while underway in an open vessel on federally controlled waters. 
  • Sailboarders and windsurfers are exempt from PFD requirements but are encouraged to wear a PFD. 
  • Every person on board a PWC must wear a USCG– approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD. 
  • Besides being USCG–approved, all PFDs must be: 
    • In good and serviceable condition, which means no tears, rips, broken straps or snaps. 
    • Readily accessible, which means you are able to put the PFD on quickly in an emergency. 
    • Of the proper size for the intended wearer. Sizing for PFDs is based on body weight and chest size. 

TYPE I: Wearable Offshore Life Jackets  

These vests are geared for rough or remote waters, provide the most buoyancy, and will turn most unconscious persons face up.  

TYPE II: Wearable Near-Shore Vests 

These vests are good for calm waters and may not turn some unconscious wearers face up. 

TYPE III: Wearable Flotation Aids 

These vests or full-sleeved jackets are good for calm waters and will not turn most unconscious persons face up. 

TYPE IV: Throwable Devices 

These cushions and ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and are not designed to be worn. 

TYPE V: Wearable Special-Use Devices 

To be acceptable, these PFDs must be worn whenever the vessel is underway. 

Wisconsin Boat Navigation Lights 

The required navigation lights must be displayed between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility. 

Power-Driven Vessels When Underway

If less than 65.6 feet long, these vessels must exhibit light. Remember, power-driven vessels include sailboats operating under engine power. The required lights are: 

  • Red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least two miles away—or if less than 39.4 feet long, at least one mile away—on a dark, clear night. 
  • An all-round white light or both a masthead light and a sternlight. These lights must be visible from a distance of at least three miles away on a dark, clear night. The all-round white light (or the masthead light) must be at least 3.3 feet higher than the sidelights. 
  • No other lights (including docking lights) may be used which could be mistaken for or interfere with those required above.  

Unpowered Vessels When Underway 

Unpowered vessels are sailboats or vessels that are paddled, poled, or rowed. 

  • If less than 65.6 feet long, these vessels must exhibit lights. The required lights are: 
    • Red and green sidelights visible from at least two miles away—or if less than 39.4 feet long, at least one mile away. 
    • A sternlight visible from at least two miles away. 
  • If less than 23.0 feet long, these vessels should: 
    • If practical, exhibit the same lights as required for unpowered vessels less than 65.6 feet in length. 
    • If not practical, have on hand at least one lantern or flashlight with a white light which can be exhibited in sufficient time to avoid a collision. 

All Vessels When Not Underway 

All vessels are required to display a white light visible from all directions whenever they are moored, anchored, or drifting outside a designated mooring area or more than 200 feet from shore between sunset and sunrise. 

Wisconsin PWC Rules and Regulations 

PWC operators must obey the laws that apply to other vessels as well as obey additional requirements that apply specifically to the operation of PWC. Particular attention must be paid to the PWC’s capacity plate to determine the appropriate number of people allowed on the PWC. Requirements Specific to PWC:

  • Every person on board a PWC must wear a USCG– approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD. 
  • An operator of a PWC equipped with a lanyard-type ECOS must attach the lanyard to his or her person, clothing, or PFD. 
  • A PWC may not be operated between sunset and sunrise. 
  • A PWC operator must always face forward. 
  • A PWC may not be operated at faster than “slow, no wake speed” within: 
    • 100 feet of any other vessel on any waterbody 
    • 100 feet of a dock, pier, raft, or restricted area on any lake 
    • 200 feet of shore on any lake 
  • There are minimum age and boater education requirements for operators of PWC. 
  • A PWC must be operated in a responsible manner. Maneuvers that endanger people or property are prohibited, including: 
    • Jumping a wake with a PWC within 100 feet of another vessel 
    • Operating within 100 feet of a vessel that is towing a person on water skis, inner tube, wakeboard, or similar device, or operating within 100 feet of the tow rope or person being towed 
    • Weaving a PWC through congested waterway traffic 
    • Steering toward another object or person in the water and swerving at the last possible moment in order to avoid collision 
    • Chasing, harassing, or disturbing wildlife with a PWC 

Wisconsin Requirements for Towing Skiers 

Vessel operators towing a person(s) on water skis, a surfboard, or any other device have additional laws. 

  • A person may not be towed behind a vessel between sunset and sunrise. 
  • When a vessel is towing a person on water skis, a surfboard, or other device, the operator must have another competent person on board to act as an observer or the vessel must be equipped with a wide-angle rearview mirror. 
  • A PWC operator may not tow a person on water skis or other devices unless: 
    • The PWC is designed and recommended by the manufacturer to accommodate at least three people, and… 
    • A competent observer is on board and in a position to observe the person being towed or the PWC is equipped with a wide-angle rearview mirror. 
  • Those towing skiers on water skis, a surfboard, or similar devices and those being towed must act in a safe and prudent manner. 
    • Vessels towing persons may not come within 100 feet of any occupied anchored boat, any PWC, or any marked swimming area or public boat landing. 
    • Persons being towed behind a vessel on water skis, a surfboard, or other device, or their towing rope, may not come within 100 feet of a PWC 

Wisconsin Canoeing, Kayaking, Paddleboard, Paddlesports rules and Regulations 

Paddling down a river can be safe and enjoyable. But, according to statistics, paddlers in small crafts, such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts, are more than twice as likely to drown as those operating other types of vessels. Paddlers need to consider themselves “boaters.” They must adhere to the same laws as operators of any other type of vessel and should follow the same safety practices. 

Wisconsin Canoeing, Kayaking, Paddleboard – Preparing for Safety 

As a paddler, you can take steps to help ensure your safety. 

  • Always wear a PFD. 
  • Make sure you have the skills needed to operate a small, unstable craft safely and to reboard the craft from the water. These skills are best learned through hands-on training. 
  • Never paddle alone. Bring along at least one other boater. Three crafts with two paddlers each is recommended. If unfamiliar with the waterway, be sure to paddle with someone who is knowledgeable about it. 
  • Never overload the craft. Tie down gear, and distribute weight evenly. Maintain a low center of gravity and three points of contact. Keep your weight centered in the craft. Leaning a shoulder over the edge of the craft can destabilize it enough to cause it to capsize. 
  • Leave a float plan with a friend or relative. Map a general route with a timetable when embarking on a long trip. 
  • Know the weather conditions before you head out. While paddling, watch the weather and stay close to shore. Head for shore if the waves increase.  

Safety While Paddling

  • Always wear a PFD. Also wear a helmet when paddling on rapid waters. 
  • Don’t overload the craft with passengers or gear. 
  • Stay seated. Standing up or moving around in a small craft can cause it to capsize. 
  • Fasten down all ropes so that there is no danger of becoming entangled in case you overturn. 
  • If you capsize, stay at the upstream end of the craft. If carried by the current, float on your back with your feet pointed downstream, keeping your toes up and your feet together. Never try to stand unless the water is too shallow to swim. 
  • Be alert to changing weather conditions. Get out of the water before a storm hits. 
  • Before paddling on a river, make sure you understand the special challenges you may encounter. 
    • Consult a map of the river, and know where any low-head dams are located. Water going over a low-head dam creates a strong recirculating current at the base of the dam, which can trap you against the face of the dam under the water. Always carry your craft around a low-head dam. 
    • When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing. In dangerous conditions, carry your craft around rapids. 
    • Be alert for strainers, which are river obstructions that allow water to flow through but block vessels and could throw you overboard and damage or trap your craft.  

Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUPs) 

The use of stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) on lakes and rivers is growing in popularity. The USCG classifies SUPs as vessels. 

  • Paddleboarders must comply with recreational boating laws and rules. 
  • Paddleboards must have: 
    • A PFD for each person on board 
    • A sound-producing device such as a whistle when used on federally controlled waters 
    • Navigation lights when used between sunset and sunrise—this may be a flashlight or a headlamp with a white light 
    • Visual distress signals (VDSs) when used on federally controlled waters 

Wisconsin Required Equipment Checklist 

PWCBoat Less
Than 16Ft.
Boat 16 Ft. to
Less than 26Ft,
Boater Safety Course
Certificate on Board
Certificate of Number
on Board
Expiration Decals
Wearable PFDs:
Type I, II, III, or V
Throwable Device:
Type IV
Type 5-B Fire
Engine Cutt-Off
Switch (ECOS)
Backfire Flame
Ventilation SystemYESYESYES
Horn, Whistle, or BellYESYESYES
Daytime Visual
Distress Signals
Nighttime Visual
Distress Signals
Navigation LightsYESn/aYESYES


You may operate your boat when you receive your certificate of registration and have current decals. Any temporary operating receipt you received at time of application is valid for only 60 days. 


Wisconsin state law states that no person may operate, and no owner may give permission for the operation of, any boat on the waters of this state unless the boat is covered by a certificate of number, a registration certificate, registration expiration decals, and if the vessel is a motorized boat or sail boat 16 feet or greater, a Wisconsin issued certificate of title or a Federal Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation. 

In order to operate you must have the assigned registration number and expiration decals displayed on the side of the boat. In addition, the certificate of number must be carried onboard and available for inspection at all times. In Wisconsin, the certificate of number and the certificate of registration are combined into the same waterproof card. Boat owners may also operate on the authority of a 60-day temporary operating receipt if boat was recently registered and owner has not received registration materials in the mail. 

Exceptions to the requirement to register a boat include: 

  • Sailboats 12 feet in length or less and not equipped with a motor, and sailboards. 
  • Manually propelled boats that are not equipped with a motor or sail. 
  • Boats registered in another state and using Wisconsin waters for less than 60 consecutive days. 


The registration number (found on the certificate of number card) must be displayed on the boat as follows: 

  • Numbers must be placed on each side of the forward half of the boat. 
  • Number must be read from left to right. 
  • Number must be at least 3” high BLOCK letters. 
  • Number must contrast with the color of the boat and be clearly visible and legible. 
  • Letters must be separated from the numbers by a space at least two inches wide. 
  • Two-toned and camouflage numbers are not legal and should not be used. 

Wisconsin Boat Sound-Producing Devices 

In periods of reduced visibility or whenever a vessel operator needs to signal his or her intentions or position, a sound-producing device is essential. 

  • lthough sound-producing devices are not required but are highly recommended on most state waters, they are required on federally controlled waters. 
    • Vessels less than 39.4 feet in length must have some means of making an efficient sound signal (i.e., handheld air horn, athletic whistle, installed horn, etc.). A human voice or sound is not acceptable. 
    • Vessels 39.4 feet or more in length must carry on board a sound-producing device capable of making an efficient sound signal, audible for at least one-half mile with a 4- to 6-second duration. These vessels also must carry a bell with a clapper. 
  • No vessel may be equipped with a siren, except vessels used by law enforcement officers. 

Fire Extinguishers 

New in 2022: Any non-rechargeable (disposable) fire extinguisher that is older than 12 years should be removed from service. Refer to the date of manufacturing stamped on the bottle; for example, “05” means “2005. 

  • Federal law requires all vessels to have a Type B, USCG– approved fire extinguisher on board if one or more of the following conditions exist: 
    • Any inboard engine 
    • Closed compartments where portable fuel tanks may be stored 
    • Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not filled completely with flotation material 
    • Closed living spaces 
    • Closed storage compartments in which flammable or combustible materials may be stored 
    • Permanently installed fuel tanks (any tank where the removal of the tank is hampered by the installation of tie-down straps or clamps) 
  • Approved types of fire extinguishers are identified by the following marking on the label—“Marine Type USCG Approved”—followed by the type and size symbols and the approval number. 
  • When required by the USCG, fire extinguishers must be on board the vessel and readily accessible—where they can be easily reached. When deciding on a place to store a fire extinguisher, make sure to consider how easy it is to reach in the event of a fire. It is recommended that the fire extinguisher be conspicuously and securely mounted on its intended hanger or bracket.  

New in 2022: 

  • Vessels that have a model year of 2018 and newer may carry only 5-B or 20-B rated fire extinguishers with date stamp. 
  • Vessels with a model year between 1953 and 2017 may carry either: 
    • Unexpired 5-B or 20-B rated fire extinguishers or… 
    • B-I or B-II rated fire extinguishers that are in good and serviceable condition. 

Use this chart to determine the size and quantity required for your boat. 

Length of VesselWithout Fixed SystemWith Fixed System
Less than 26 ft.one 5-Bnone
26 ft. to less than 40 ft.two 5-B (or one 20-B)one 5-B
40 ft. to less than 65 ft.three 5-B (or one 20-B and one 5-B)two 5-B (or one 20-B)

Recent Posts