U.S. Coast Guard Required Signalling Devices for Kayakers

When kayaking on the Great Lakes, U.S. Coastal Waters or territorial seas, the U.S. Coast Guard requires kayakers (or other paddlers) to carry signalling devices. An other article, Signaling Devices to Carry When Kayaking or Canoeing, covers the most common signalling devices that you should carry, but if you want to get by legally, you must carry these. Don’t be caught without them.

Don’t want to read the article and just want to know what you have to buy to be legal? Scroll down to the summary below. It has bullet points.

Visual Distress Signals

The U.S. Coast Guard requires kayakers to carry three visual distress signals for night. For many boaters, it also requires three day signals. Some signaling devices qualify for nighttime and daytime use.

Day Signals

As of 2012, manually propelled boats, such as kayaks and canoes, are not required to carry visual daytime distress signals.

Night Signals

When operating from sunset to sunrise, kayaks and canoes must carry a minimum of three visual distress signals. Night signals include red flares, either handheld or aerial. Some options include Orion’s Locate Handheld Signal PackSkyblazers and Orion’s Red Signal Flare Alerter. Carrying several aerial options and one or two handheld options will help you during both the alert and locate phases of a rescue.

Although Coast-Guard-approved strobes qualify as a distress signal in inland waterways, they do not meet the Visual Distress Signal requirements. That means that they don’t count as one of your three required devices. They’re still a good idea and help rescuers located you.

The easiest way kayakers can qualify for the Visual Distress Signal requirements is to carry three red flares that are approved for day/night use. Orion’s Skyblazers are one of the least expensive that you can buy.

Sound Producing Devices

All kayakers are required to carry a whistle or approved sound making device. A whistle is the easiest way to meet this requirement. ACR’s WW-3 Res-Q Whistle is loud and works even when wet.

Navigation Lights

When operating at night, kayakers are required to have a white flashlight or lantern that can be shown in time to avoid a collision. A headlamp is a good idea, because it allows you to keep your hands on your paddle and still be able to show the light. Princeton Tec’s EOS Headlamp is bright and waterproof.

If your kayak is longer than 23 feet and you’re using a sail, you must also display red and green lights in one of three configurations. For more details, contact the U.S. Coast Guard.

Quick Summary

If you want to be covered for any situation, day or night, that you find yourself in buy everything on this list. If you do, you’re covered under the U.S. Coast Guard rules.

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  • The Skyblazer flares may meet the minimum requirement, but they have a VERY high failure rate for kayakers since they are likely to get damp at some point if you carry them on your person. I have attended a couple of USCG Auxiliary flare shoots at which you can legally shoot off your expired (and unexpired) flares. I have attempted to shoot off something like 12-15 expired Skyblazers over the years and have never had one actually fire. On the other hand, I have shot off about the same number of expired flares for my 12-gage flare pistol and have only had one that did not fire. I wouldn’t waste the money on Skyblazers, and once you buy the pistol it’s cheaper to buy the flares for the pistol.

    • I’m curious about about your dampness issues. What kind of waterproof container did you keep the Skyblazers in that allowed so much water penetration?

      • I carried the Skyblazers inside a zip lock bag which I then put inside a Seal Line electronics dry bag. I carried this on my PFD. There was never any visible water leakage so I have to assume humidity alone accounted for the failure. This failure rate is not just an issue for me personally. At a couple sea kayak symposiums where a flare demonstration was done for the event, the Skyblazers collected from assorted kayakers regularly failed to fire. Add to that the short duration of the burn and the lower altitude that these flares reach when compared with a pistol flare, and I wouldn’t want to stake my rescue on these.

        • Well that sucks, because that’s a pretty good waterproof container. I would think that the electronics bag alone would be enough.

          Orion claims that burn time is the same on both its flare gun and the Skyblazers, but they claim the gun goes to 500 feet vs. 450 feet for the Skyblazers.

          The only issue I have with the flare guns are the horror stories I’ve heard from boaters going into Canadian waters. Technically, they’re allowed, but I’ve heard that they get taken now and then at border crossings or on the water. But, you’ve definitely made me rethink my next purchase.

          • Strobes are CG legal if they flash SOS. Several ones are available.

  • I’d hate to have my pistol confiscated, but just a quick look at prices on West Marine shows that the 12-gage pistol and 4 flares is $63. The replacement flares for the pistol are $30 so the gun is worth just $33. The 4-pack of Skyblazers is $55. As long as your pistol doesn’t get confiscated every time, you’re probably not that bad off money-wise.

  • Some state have additions to the CG regs such as Texas. At night you need a 360 degree white light. Some kayakers will say all you need is a flashlight but some CG will fine you, or tell you to get off the water! It happened to me so ……. what really is needed is a white light that sticks above your head, or i gather on your head is ok? Anyway I had a stern light that didn’t pass this 360 ruling and was told to get off the water. The guy was a jerk and it took some real pressure to get him to say what would pass and what would not. With the near threat of being cited I proceeded with getting my answers anyway. Now my white light is on a pole above my head just behind me, I also have red and green nav lites on the front deck to where I can reach them from the cockpit but they are not mounted to the letter of the law so it’s only a matter of time til I get stopped for that as well. I’d rather be seen and hassled by cg than not seen and run over by the drunks on fireworks night. btw, I was wearing my head lamp, a really bright one and they told me to shut it off because it was blinding them. Yeah, they saw me, but only as somebody to hassle. Did they go after all the other powerboaters that have obstructed nav lites? Nope, just the kayakers. Now I got spare lights for my friends that meet the letter of the law. I use milk crates bungied to the rear deck with pole extensions for the lights. the crate can also hold the pfds for the adults, kids must wear theirs.

    • I would just get a copy of the regs that apply to kayaks and get it laminated to carry with you in the future. There may be additional rules in your state, but the CG often is not up on the rules for human-powered craft as they differ somewhat from other boats. The CG here on Lake Michigan has never hassled any of the kayakers that I am aware of. I was approached once on a chilly November day as the CG was concerned that I might not be dressed for the water temperature. When I explained I was wearing a drysuit and carrying a VHF radio, they were very polite and went on their way. I would also recommend that all the adults wear their PFD’s along with the kids. It doesn’t do you any good in a milk crate when you capsize.

    • What Sherri said, plus the Coast Guard isn’t responsible for enforcing state law, that’s usually up to the state’s conservation officers or DNR (or whatever it’s called in your state). You can order the booklet that I linked to under resources, and if U.S. Coast Guard stops you show it to them. The rules are in the booklet, but they’re spread out, so you should highlight them.

      I agree with Sherri on life vest. Wear it. I forget the exact percentage for this next statistic, but it’s something like 80% of all kayakers and canoeists who die while paddling weren’t wearing a life vest. I wear mine 100% of the time, and I’m a good swimmer. The life vest also serves a second purpose, it stores your emergency gear if you get separated from your kayak.

  • As I discovered, there’s no “reasoning” with SOME cg personnel. This guy wasn’t interested in debate or what regs said what, it was “his way or the highway”! And they have and will use that power to in force what they think is right. He was trying to “save us from ourselves” or all the drunks at the fireworks. Trust me, showing him the regs would have just pissed him off even more, he of course is a god. I wanted to get his name but as it was with my questions of what was good and what wasn’t I felt it was time to listen (obey) and get to shore before I crossed the line and get busted. If I wanted to fight this I figured I’d do it on land in the day light, when I had a better chance the next day but I dropped it, instead got better lights, etc. I feel sorry for his next “victim” that night! This guy took his job a little too seriously. I’ll dig up those regs again and post it on my website for those in texas to interpret but remember just who has the biggest guns! Horsepower rules ……

    • It’s one of those, what do you do situations. You just look grim, shake your head a lot and paddle away.

  • “When operating from sunset to sunrise, kayaks and canoes must carry a minimum of three visual distress signals.” This is true only if the signaling devices are pyrotechnic; if you carry a CG-approved electric distress light, you only need one.

    “All kayakers are required to carry a whistle.” A very good idea, and may well be true under some state laws, but what the CG requires is an efficient means of making a sound signal; you could use a horn instead of a whistle (you need a whistle on a vessel of over 12m, but that’s a pretty big kayak).

    • Do you have a link to a U.S. Coast Guard publication that states you only need one electric distress light?

      Yes, true about the sound making device. The whistle is the easiest way to meet the requirement.

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