Michigan is most known for its being surrounded by some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world. That water beckons us to come play – and there is no shortage of options when it comes to playtime on the water. You can go swimming or take up a fishing pole. You could go on a fishing charter or take a ferry to an island.

Or, as many folks do during the summer, you can captain a vessel yourself. Pontoons are great for larger groups while a single kayak is ideal for a solitary trip down a lazy river. We’ll explore some popular questions when it comes to boating in Michigan


Do I need a special license to use a boat or personal watercraft?

No, you do not need a special license. However, if you are a Michigan resident and born after 1996, you need a boater’s safety certificate in your possession to operate a boat or personal watercraft.

Can I bring my own vessel or should I rent, if I’m visiting?

Either! A lot of people have already invested in watercraft and want to use it while visiting Michigan. However, it’s important to note that there may not be reciprocity for boating registrations, so check before bringing your vessel from out of state. This is part of the reason why state parks and towns offer boat rental services for motorized boats, pontoon boats, kayaks, and canoes, which are already registered in the state of Michigan.

Do I need to register my boat or personal watercraft?

If you’re from out of state, Michigan law allows owners of watercraft registered in another state to use in Michigan waterways up to 60 days. A boat cannot be registered in two states simultaneously. However, you can register a boat in Michigan to use in Michigan even if you live out of state.

For in-state, yes, your boat needs to be registered. This can be done online, at a self-service station, or at an office in person.

Certain types do not need to be registered: Privately owned boats that are less than 16 feet in length and propelled by oars or paddles. Privately owned, non-motorized canoes and kayaks, rafts, surfboards, and swim floats, regardless of length.

How many places are there to put in my boat?

According to the Michigan DNR, there are more than 1,300 public boat launches and 82 public harbors across the state. You can find information regarding these sites on the Michigan DNR website with its Harbor Guide (downloadable PDF) and with its online interactive map, which will help you home in on your location and nearest launches. Many of these locations are within state parks. It’s also important to note when a boat launch is closed. The Michigan DNR keeps everyone up to date on closures.

What should I know before I put in?

First and foremost, you should know whether the vessel or watercraft you intend to put into the water is appropriate for this particular body of water. Some lakes are no-wake lakes, meaning you can’t use your motor; a canoe or kayak or paddleboat would be more appropriate choices. The Great Lakes can get choppy at a moment’s notice, with big swells and whitecaps. You should have a boat that can better handle that type of motion. If you want to go kayaking, standard kayaks may not work well in all places. At Lake Superior, for instance, it’s recommended that sea kayaks be used to increase safety.

What supplies should I have on board?

Like our RVs, our boats should come equipped to handle some basic situations. Of course, the size of the watercraft and your intended activity with said watercraft alters your packing checklist. At the base level, if you’ll be on the water you’ll need:

  • Appropriate life jackets for each person, especially children, who should wear theirs at all times.
  • A cell phone and any other personal belongings such as wallets, cards, or keys in a watertight and floatable container, which can be found online or at sporting goods stores.
  • Emergency flare or noisemaker in case you get into trouble and need to contact someone for help.
  • Sunscreen – and bug repellent – if you plan to be in the sun for an extended period of time.

Of course, you need bumpers and lines if you plan to be docking anywhere or stopping at a marina for gas (in the case of pontoons and speed boats). An anchor, first-aid kit, and fire extinguisher, too.

Then, there’s all the fun stuff! Bring water games, fishing poles, tackle boxes, and have a great time.

Can my child or teenager drive the boat?

Young ones like to sit on laps and “drive” the boat under closer supervision for a short amount of time. As for more complete operation, the Michigan DNR discloses several conditions and rules for individuals who are 12 and older. That information can be found on their website.

What are the best ways to keep everybody safe?

Being prepared with the right supplies aboard, the vessel being in seaworthy condition, and staying alert are the best things you can do to keep everyone safe – and have a good time!

A lot of people like to bring along food and drink, including along the lines of adult libations. Drinking alcohol is permitted on boats, but you need to be responsible, especially if you’re responsible for driving. Alcohol use is the number one contributing factor for fatal accidents, not to mention impaired judgement and susceptibility to cold-water effects following immersion.

Again, as with RV travel, it’s a good idea to let someone know of your intended plan when you go boating: where you’re going, how many are going, when you anticipate to be back, description of the vessel, etc. Even if it’s leaving a note inside the RV, if someone ends up having to look for you, they have a good place to start.

Follow the rules of the water (boater’s safety gives you the basics and is worth reviewing if you’ve never boated much before or it’s been a while), keep the speed appropriate, and be respectful of other vessels and people around you.