Boating is an ever-growing activity in Montana and across the U.S. In 2021 Montana had more than 97,000 boats registered, excluding non-motorized vessels. It is important to consider the safety of yourself and others to maintain enjoyment for all.


The best way to protect yourself and others is to follow all boating rules and guidelines and respect other water users. Over the past five years, Montana has averaged 16.4 boating accidents per year and 6.4 fatalities per year. In 2021, there was a reported $56,050 in personal property damage from boating accidents on Montana waters (U.S. Coast Guard 2021 Report).

Before each outing, complete a boater’s safety checklist (found at to ensure you have the proper working equipment.

Understand the safety requirements for your boat and trip. Different vessels have different requirements, so take the time to ensure you have the proper equipment (find more details at

No matter the vessel type or size, each person onboard is required to have access to a life jacket, and any person 11 years and younger is required by law to wear a life jacket. Check the requirements for noise makers; while it is only suggested that a manually propelled vessel has at least a whistle, motorized boats more than 26 feet in length must carry a bell, whistle, or horn capable of producing sound audible for one mile.

Drowning accounts for 81% of fatalities while boating in the US. Of drowning victims, 83% of victims were not wearing life jackets. In addition, where safety instruction of the boat operator was known, 75% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had not received any instruction (U.S. Coast Guard 2021 Report).


A man padddling down a river.

                                 Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension

Because paddle craft are extremely accessible, beginners often start here. A 2019 report by the Outdoor Foundation found that almost 20% of paddle sport users were in their first year as participants. Often these users tend to be less aware (or less experienced) about safe use and may think there is no need for life jackets. This is a common misunderstanding of the potential dangers of paddle craft, which include canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards (sit-on and stand-up).

Another danger of boating is the potential for cold water immersion. Cold water immersion is when someone enters water 65°F or less. Most Montana waters stay below 65°F year-round, so to keep yourself safe, wear a lifejacket to help ensure your head, neck, and face stay out of the water if you fall in. If help is nearby, avoid swimming as moving the water around you will push warm water away from the body, replacing it with cold water. Instead, it is best to use a heat-escape-lessening-posture (H.E.L.P.) by bringing your knees as close as possible to your chest and grasping your hands together over your chest or under your armpits. Regardless of the situation, you want to get out of the water immediately.


A woman paddling on a lake.

Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension

Wake sports are another type of growing water sport that is often highlighted. One person’s actions can negatively influence the public perception of the boating community. One boater “buzzing” fishermen can instill negative perceptions toward all motorized watercraft users. Another issue that can create negative public perception is making waves too close to shore, which can lead to shoreline erosion, a topic of concern across Montana. Landowners and organizations work diligently to reduce the effects of waves, which destroy habitat, access, and property. In Montana, several water bodies have no-wake restrictions, completely or within a certain distance of the shoreline. The Montana Boating Laws booklet ( will declare specific speed restrictions for the water body.


A child paddling on a river.

Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension

If this all sounds intimidating, it can be. But if one takes some time to prepare and learn safety protocols, becoming a statistic can be avoided.

Take a safety course. The U.S. Coast Guard offers in-person classes that contain valuable learning materials. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) offers several online class options at a wide range of prices, as well as a home study course. Boating safety information is readily accessible and can drastically increase the odds of having a safe and enjoyable time.

Plan for your trips. Ensure you have packed the correct number and sizes of life jackets for passengers. Take the time to read bathymetric maps of the area and know where potential underwater dangers exist; these depth maps may be available through FWP, local fishing guides, or multiple boating and fishing apps. Create a float plan and leave it with a trusted friend or family member.

Taking appropriate safety measures and following rules and guidelines will ensure many more safe boating adventures in the future. Refrain from using drugs or alcohol before and during any boating outing and remain attentive to surroundings for safe boating.


Kylie Kembel is the Montana FIsh, Wildlife and Parks Outdoor Skills Coordinator