The yak’s loaded in the truck. Rods are packed, gas tank has enough, and your coffee is still hot. Just before you roll out to your favorite fishing grounds a passing though furrows your brow “What about the safety flag?”. Without a second thought you say “eff it” and 50 miles later Smokey nabs you with a ticket. That’s a crappy situation, but it’s one that’s easily avoidable with a little knowledge about kayak flag laws.
We put this together to help you navigate the differences in projecting load marking laws across state lines. Getting a ticket for a failure to flag is pretty annoying, especially because it’s so easily avoidable. But fines can be sizable – in some cases costing north of $ 500. That’s a lot of clams that could go have gone to more important purchases – like another fishing rod (or two). Before we go on it is important to note that nothing below constitutes legal advice, nor should be construed as such.
Federal Overhang Definition
In the United States the US Department of Transportation establishes the standards that all 50 states follow. Overhang is defined as any load that projects 3 ′ beyond the front of a vehicle, or 4 ′ beyond the rear (source). The intent of these laws is pretty straightforward – the government wants to make sure the dolt behind you does not rear-end your boat. And arguably one of the better ways to do that is to put a large red flag or light on your yak to catch their attention (probably from their phone). If your kayak or canoe extends beyond these limits, then you’re required to mark it. How you mark it varies by state; most notably in the size of the flag and the number of lights.
Kayak Safety Flags and Lights
Any projecting load greater than 4 ′ from the rear of your vehicle requires a marking. During the daytime a simple red flag or marking usually does the trick. Most of us have tied a piece of red plastic ribbon on the end of a 2 × 4 at Home Depot. But surprisingly that sliver of red is not even compliant. States have specific dimensions for the size of marking flags, listed in the table below.
All 50 states require some sort of lighted marking at night for projecting loads. Requirements vary in terms of brightness. In general a marking light should be visible from at least 500. From the side & 1,000. From the rear, red, and hung at at least one half hour before dusk and after dawn.
Kayak Flag and Light Requirements
The following table lists the minimum flag dimensions and number of lights needed at night.
* Reflectors / Reflective tape required in addition to lights.
Compliance and Common Sense
During one of our kayak trips out to West Virginia a good Samaritan donated a red cloth to tie onto our boat and warned us that Smokey as patrolling. Odds are that rag did not measure exactly 12 ″ x 12., But it still served as an effective visual cue to anybody behind us that “Hey, there’s something sticking out of this truck!”. We seriously doubt that most law enforcement is waiting to pull over somebody just to measure their marking flag.
If it’s readily apparent that you made an effort to mark your overhang than in all likelihood you’ll be ok. Officers have bigger fish to fry than the humble fisherman. If you’re looking for something quick and easy to tie on most big box stores carry smaller (technically non-compliant) kayak flags that will get the job done. Otherwise there are plenty of tailor made kayak flags that are a smidge easier to tie on to the bow handle. Pro Tip: consider using a carabiner stroller to attach the flag to your boat. It’s the perfect size to clip on and off most kayak handles.
Adding a light at night time is easily done by tying a red glowstick to your boat. It’s cheap, effective, and visible. Red LED sticks are a more permanent option – but you might find yourself short on batteries at the wrong time. Glowsticks are pretty foolproof and usually have a 2-3 year shelf-time.
Overview on Kayak Flag Laws
Regardless of whether your traveling 5 miles down the road or 500 miles away it is always important to practice proper road safety. Kayak Flag Laws exist in an effort to protect both you and the people around you on the road. Hanging a flag might be a minor nuisance. But it’s a heck of a lot better than getting a ticket. And miles better than having somebody rear end your prized fishing kayak. So stay abreast of the kayak flag laws in your state and keep those flags waving.