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Boating Safety, Rules, and Registration

Before you hit the water, make sure you're safe, following the law, and your boat is registered.

Boating Safety

Because many different types of recreators may be sharing a boating area, show respect by operating at safe speeds and keeping an adequate distance from others. Due to their limited maneuverability, give sailboats and other non-motorized craft a wide berth. Remember, you are responsible for any damage your boat, or the wake from your boat, may cause.

Boating Education

Operator Age Limits

In Montana youths 13 and 14 years of age may operate a motorboat or a personal watercraft powered by a motor rated at more than 10 horsepower only if:

  • They possess a valid Montana motorboat operator's safety certificate;

  • they show evidence of completing another state or organization's NASBLA approved boating safety course; or

  • they are accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older.


Boating Safety Courses

Boating safety courses are available in several ways to help you get the training you need:

Online Boating Courses

Complete the online course. Then take the certification exam online if you wish to receive your Montana Motorboat Operator's Certificate. Online classes are also available at the following websites:


Home-Study Boating Course

The Montana Motorboat Operator's Homestudy course is available:

  • at all regional Fish, Wildlife and Parks offices;

  • or by emailing Sara Smith at

Persons 13 years of age or older who successfully complete the course will receive a Montana Motorboat Operator's Certificate. The homestudy course is available free of charge.


Classroom Courses

These classes are sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary provides low-cost classes and offers other services such as vessel examinations and water safety patrols.

Call the contact person listed for more information about the class.





February 15, 2020

Boating Safety

Montana WILD, Helena, MT

Dave Hansen: (406) 459-2957

Cold Water Immersion

Immersion in cold water can kill in just minutes—the colder the water, the greater the risk. One's swimming ability does not improve one's chances of survival. Research shows that a sudden immersion into cold water (65° (F) or less) starts as a series of incapacitating reflexes that increase the risk of drowning. Many waterbodies in Montana are fed from high mountain springs and don't get above 65° even in the summer making cold water immersion a threat all year long.

4 stages of immersion

Understanding your body's reaction to cold water and the 4 stages of immersion will increase your ability to respond appropriately.

Stage 1: Cold water shock

This response begins immediately upon immersion and will peak within the first 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Breathing changes are immediate and may include an involuntary gasping, rapid breathing, dizziness and confusion, resulting in water inhalation and possible drowning. Circulatory changes include a sudden rise in heart rate and blood pressure, possibly resulting in stroke or heart attack. Wearing a life jacket prior to a fall will greatly reduce the chances of water aspiration.

Stage 2: Swim failure

After being in cold water for 3 to 30 minutes, it becomes increasingly difficult to swim or move. The nerves and muscles in the arms and legs cool quickly because of the constriction in blood flow. Manual dexterity, strength of handgrip and movement speed will drop 60 percent to 80 percent. This limits a person's ability to assist with rescue by catching a rope, put on a life jacket, or climbing a boat ladder.

Stage 3: Hypothermia

Someone who survives the first two stages of cold water immersion faces the onset of hypothermia. The continuous loss of body heat eventually decreased the core body temperature and can result in death. A person wearing a life jacket can survive for hours and increases their chance for detection and rescue.

Stage 4: Post-rescue collapse

A person is still at risk after they have been rescued. During the process of hypothermia, the vascular system and its ability to move blood is impaired. The body tries to rewarm itself and causes a huge load on the heart. Cold water immersion victims need to be handled very gently and treated by a knowledgeable medical team for transport to a hospital.

Surviving Cold Water Immersion

  • Wear a life jacket. It will increase your chance of survival.

  • Try to avoid entering the water. If you must enter the water, do it slowly. If experiencing cold shock, hold onto something until breathing settles down.

  • Keep your head, neck, and face out of the water.

  • Get out of the water as soon as possible. Climb aboard a boat or on top of an overturned boat if you are unable to right it.

  • Do not attempt to swim for shore as this will cause greater exposure to the water unless you are in a stream or river current.

  • Assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position(H.E.L.P. or Huddle) to protect the body core organs. While floating in a lifejacket, draw your knees together toward your chest and hold your upper arms tightly to your sides.

  • Remain as still as possible. Excessive movement in cold water cools the body 35 times faster. Thrashing flushes the warmer water away from the body.

  • Clothing provides some protection against heat loss in water, especially a waterproof outer layer. Do not attempt to remove clothing, which traps water that is warmed by the body's heat.

  • Carry survival gear including a blanket, hat and extra dry clothing on board.

Drinking and Boating

It is unlawful to operate or be in actual physical control of a motorboat, sailboat, water skis, surfboard, or similar device attached to a motorboat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A person with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more is considered under the influence of alcohol. [MCA 61-8-4]

Boater's Checklist

Use this checklist as a guide to the materials and conditions you should have for a boating trip. Your needs will vary depending on the type of boat, the water you will be in, and the activities planned. Add to the list as needed.

Print checklist 

Print U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Safety Checklist

Items Required by Montana or Federal Law

  • Wearable Life Jackets (Types I, II or III)

  • Throwable PFD (Type IV for boats 16' or longer)

  • Fire Extinguisher(s) (motorboats)

  • Backfire Flame Arrester (motorboats)

  • Ventilation System (motorboats)

  • Whistle or Horn

  • Navigational Lights

  • Registration Document

  • Boat Number, Permanent Decal and Validation Decals

Pre-launch Checklist

  • Complete check for leaks; boat plug in

  • Motor in good operating condition

  • Propeller in good condition

  • Fuel tanks full

  • Suitable weather and water conditions

  • Passengers seated and briefed on emergency procedures; life jackets checked for fit

  • Properly stored and secured gear

  • Float plan left with responsible person on shore

Emergency Gear

  • Throw Rope/Bag

  • Signaling Mirror

  • Whistle (on life jacket)

  • Light/Strobe (on life jacket)

  • Rescue Blanket

  • Extra Warm Hats, Mittens, Socks

  • Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

  • Matches (in a waterproof container), Lighter or Flint and Steel

  • Fire Starter

  • Water Purification Tablets, Filter or Purifier

  • Distress Signal Devices

  • Emergency Food and Water

  • Dry Bag(s)

Personal Comfort Items

  • Sunglasses

  • Sun Screen

  • Hat

  • Food

  • Water

  • Cooler

  • Warm Clothes

  • Seat Cushion(s)

  • Drysuit or Wetsuit & Boots

  • Insect Repellant

  • Binoculars

Recommended Items

  • Dewatering Device (bucket, bailer, bilge pump)

  • Anchor and Line

  • Mooring Lines

  • Extra Lines

  • Toolkit or Multipurpose Tool

  • Navigation Equipment (maps, compass, GPS)

  • Extra Paddle/Oar

  • Spare Parts (as appropriate)

  • Spare Prop (motorboats)

  • Weather Radio

  • Knife

  • Flashlight/Spotlight (with working batteries)

  • Communications Ability (VHF radio, CB radio, cell phone, satellite phone, 2-way radios)

  • First Aid Kit (in watertight, floating container)

  • Prescription Medicine

  • Repair Kit/Duct Tape

  • Boat Hook

  • Extra fuel/oil (motorboats)

  • A clean boat (remove mud and vegetation so aquatic nuisance species are not transported)

Loading Passengers and Gear

  • Do not load a boat with passengers or cargo beyond its safe carrying capacity, taking into consideration weather and operating conditions.

  • Distribute the weight of passengers and gear evenly.

  • Keep gear low and centered.

  • Do not stand or make quick, unbalanced movements in small boats.


Montana Outdoors Magazine Articles

Boating articles from Montana Outdoors, the magazine of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Safely Down the Stream —A beginner's guide to rowing Montana's scenic rivers.


Boating Safety Brochures, Posters & Forms


Boating Organizations
  • American Canoe Association —A national nonprofit organization that promotes paddlesports education and stewardship.

  • Boat U.S. Foundation —A national nonprofit organization that promotes boating safety, education, and outreach.

  • U.S. Coast Guard —The official Web site of the U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety Division.

  • U.S. Coast Guard Auxilary 13-10 —Montana's volunteer boating safety experts.

  • Small Craft Advisory —A publication of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators devoted to recreational boating laws, safety and education.

Aquatic Invasive Species

Help protect Montana's waters

AIS can be easily spread from one waterbody to the other. Anglers, boaters, construction workers, pond owners, gardeners, seaplane pilots, field workers - virtually anyone who works or plays in or around water can unknowingly transport these pests on their boats and equipment. It takes only one mistake to potentially infest a new water body.

Prevent the spread of AIS 

Boating Rules


Sailboats 12 feet long and longer and all motorboats and personal watercraft must be registered at the local county treasurers office. Boats from out of state or country which will not be in Montana for more than 90 consecutive days are exempt from registration.

More information below.

Operator Age Limit - Motorboats & Personal Watercraft

Children 12 years old or younger may not operate a motorboat or a personal watercraft powered by a motor rated at more than 10 horsepower unless accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older.

Youths 13 and 14 years of age may not operate those vessels without possessing a valid Montana motorboat operator's safety certificate or evidence of completing an approved boating safety course, or unless accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older.

Rented Boats and Watercraft

A person must be 18 years or older to rent a motorboat or a personal watercraft powered by a motor rated at more than 10 horsepower. All required equipment and a copy of the rental agreement must be on board rented vessels.

Water Skiing and Using Other Towed Devices

  • Water skiing and other towed recreation is not allowed between sunset and sunrise.
  • There must be at least two people in the towing boat: an operator and a person to observe the skier. If the operator is 12 or younger, the observer must be at least 18.
  • Anyone towed by a boat must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD.
  • Water skiers must not approach within 50 feet of swimmers or enter a designated swimming area.

Personal Watercraft: Jet Skis, Water Bikes, Etc.

  • All operators and riders must wear U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD.
  • If the personal watercraft is equipped with a lanyard-type cord that shuts off the engine if the operator falls off the craft, the lanyard must be attached to the operator's wrist or PFD.
  • A "no wake" speed must be maintained when within 200 feet of a dock, swimmer, swimming raft, non-motorized boat, or anchored vessel.
  • Stand-up personal watercraft and personal watercraft towing a waterskier must travel at the minimum speed necessary to operate when leaving from or returning to a dock or shore.
  • All rules regarding safe operation of a boat apply to personal watercraft as well.
  • For more regulations and tips read Personal Watercraft Brochure.

Alcohol and Drug Use

It is unlawful to operate or be in actual physical control of a motorboat, sailboat, water skis, surfboard, or similar device attached to a motorboat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A person with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more is considered under the influence of alcohol. [MCA 61-8-4]

Negligent Operation

Operating a vessel in a manner which may endanger the personal health or damage the property of any person is considered negligent operation. A boat's owner is liable for any injury or damage resulting from negligent operation.

Montana Law Prohibits

  • operating a boat in a careless manner including such things as weaving through congested traffic, passing unreasonably or unnecessarily close to another vessel, and buzzing or wetting down others
  • crossing or jumping the wake of another boat within 100 yards of the vessel or within 100 yards of a water skier being towed by the vessel (except when directly entering or leaving a marina or other watercraft docking/loading area)
  • travel at a speed which does not permit bringing the boat to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead
  • a reckless approach to, departure from, or passage by a dock, ramp, diving board, or float

Observe all "no wake" and speed-limit signs located on the water. Boaters are responsible for any damage caused by their wake.

Restricted Areas

  • Do not anchor in a position that obstructs a passageway ordinarily used by other vessels.
  • Do not operate your boat within 20 feet of the exterior boundary of a designated swimming area marked by white and orange buoys.
  • Do not operate a boat within 75 feet of a person engaged in fishing or hunting waterfowl unless it is unavoidable. If unavoidable travel at no wake speed or at the minimum speed necessary to maintain upstream progress.
  • Do not operate a motorboat within 200 feet of a tow-float or buoy displaying a red flag with a white slash indicating a "diver down" except by use of sailor oar. In an emergency or if there is insufficient water on either side to avoid passing through the 200-foot safety zone, do not exceed the "no wake" speed. (Note: the burden of proof of the necessity of passing through the safety zone is on the boat operator.) 
  • Do not operate or beach your motorboat within a designated swimming area.
  • Do not operate your motorboat within 50 feet of a swimmer in the water except for boats towing water skiers.
  • Some lakes and rivers have closures and public use restrictions.

Harassment of Wildlife

Powerboats, sailboats and boats under sail may not be used to kill, capture, take, pursue, concentrate, drive, or stir up any upland game birds, game, or fur-bearing animals. Motor- driven vehicles may not be used to drive, molest, flush or harass any game animal or game bird while hunting.

Launching and Mooring

Boats must be launched from established launching areas if provided. Boat owners should prepare their vessel for launching before parking at the boat ramp, should launch the vessel quickly, and move the tow vehicle so that others may use the area.

Boats may not be left unattended while moored or attached to a public boat dock. Docks are to be used only for loading and unloading unless otherwise posted.

Discharge of Waste

It is illegal to discharge any garbage, refuse, waste, or sewage into or near the water. Boats equipped with toilets or porta-potties must dispose of waste properly. Because there are so few marine pumpout stations in Montana, boaters should check on the local availability of waste disposal stations before using their on-board facilities.

List of dump site locations 

Motor Size

It is illegal as well as unsafe to overpower a boat. The U.S. Coast Guard Capacity Plate on each boat provides the recommended horse power for that vessel.

Noise Limitations

Motorboats and personal watercraft may not emit noise in excess of 86 decibels measured at a distance of 50 feet. At idle speed, exhaust noise may not be in excess of 90 decibels measured one meter from the muffler.

More restrictive noise standards are in effect for Flathead Lake (Flathead and Lake Counties), Echo Lake (Flathead County) and Swan Lake (Lake County) because of population density and heavy recreational use. On these waterways, a person may not operate a motorboat or personal watercraft in proximity to the shore-line if the noise emitted is greater than 75 decibels measured at shoreline in accordance with the shoreline sound level measurement procedure.

Certain exceptions are made for state-sanctioned regattas or boat races and by special permit.

Races, Regattas, and Other Marine Events

Written permission from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is necessary to conduct a boating race, regatta or other marine event on Montana's waters. Letters of application must be sent at least 30 days prior to the scheduled event. Mail to: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Boating Law Enforcement, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.

Diver Down Flag Warning

Boaters must stay at least 200 feet away from a "diver down" flag. If a boat must approach this warning flag, it must do so at a "no wake" speed.

The commonly used diver down warning flags are:

  1. the blue and white International Code Flag "A" (alpha)
  2. a red flag with a diagonal white stripe Diver's Flag

Accidents, Collisions, and Casualties

Boating accident reports are required by law and provide valuable information for use in the prevention of future boating accidents. An accident must be reported immediately to the local sheriffs office or game warden if it caused:

  • the death or disappearance of any person
  • an injury requiring medical treatment beyond first-aid
  • property damage in excess of $100

The operator of a boat involved in a collision, accident, or other casualty must:

  • render practical assistance, without putting self or others in danger, to persons affected by the accident
  • give his or her name, address and identification of the boat in writing to any person injured and to the owner of any damaged property.

Boating accident report forms are available from the county sheriff's office, game wardens, or any Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office.


Authorized officers of Montana Fish, Wildlife &s Parks have peace officer status for enforcement of the boating regulations. Sheriffs, peace officers, and U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement officers also have authority to enforce these provisions. Fish, Wildlife & Parks wardens are authorized to stop, halt, or inspect vessels in order to enforce the laws of this state.


A person convicted of violating Montana's boating laws or regulations may be fined up to $500 and sentenced for up to six months in jail.

Boat Registration

Which boats must be registered

Sailboats 12 feet long and longer and all motorboats and personal watercraft must be registered and numbered. Non-motorized sailboats less than 12 feet long and manually propelled boats, regardless of length, are exempt from registration and taxation. Also exempt are a vessel’s lifeboat and government-owned boats.

How to register a boat


Boat owners must obtain a certificate of ownership (title) and certificate of number (registration) and pay all fees to the County Treasurer in the county where the owner resides. The certificate of number must be carried on board the boat and be available for inspection whenever the boat is in operation. Registration fees are based on the length and age of the vessel.


Boats that are properly registered in another state or country may operate in Montana for up to 90 consecutive days.

Homemade Vessels

Homemade boats or boats manufactured before 1972 that require registration must first have a hull identification number. Generally the 12-digit hull identification (HIN) number is on the exterior of the vessel’s transom in the upper-right corner.

A boat owner may obtain a HIN number from any Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional or area office. The application fee is $5. The boat owner is responsible for permanently affixing the HIN number on the boat and having the boat inspected by a peace officer.


Display of boat numbers and decals

View the quick reference on Understanding Montana's Required Boat Decals

Boat numbers

  • The boat number must:

  • be painted on or attached to each side of the bow of the vessel;
  • read from left to right;
  • be vertical block letters at least 3 inches in height;
  • be a color contrasting with the background color of the boat;
  • be as high above the water line as practical and still be visible;
  • be maintained in a legible condition;
  • contain a space or hyphen separating the "MT" from the number/letter suffix. (Example: MT 1234 AB or MT – 1234 - AB)



Permanent decal

Permanent decal

The boat owner will receive one permanent registration decal as proof of payment of fees in lieu of tax. The permanent decal must be displayed on the left (port) bow behind the boat’s number. The permanent decal is valid until the current owner sells the watercraft.


Validation decal

Validation decal

All motorboats, sailboats, and personal watercraft that are numbered must display two validation decals, one on each side of the boat’s bow behind the boat’s number.

Validation decals may be obtained, free of charge, at any Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional/area offices or online:

Green validation decals will expire February 29, 2020. New validation decals are red and will be in effect for another 3-year period expiring February 28, 2023. Boat owners should remove each green decal or cover it with the new red decal.

Boat Registration Fees


Permanent Registration

Under MCA 61-3-321, all motorboats, personal watercraft, motorized pontoons and sailboats 12 in length and longer must be permanently registered.


Certificate of Ownership (title)


All Motorboats, Personal Watercraft, and Motorized Pontoons less than 16 feet in length, and Sailboats at least 12 feet in length but less than 16 feet in length


All Motorboats, Motorized Pontoons and Sailboats at least 16 feet in length but less than 19 feet in length, and Personal Watercraft 16 feet in length or longer


All Motorboats, Motorized Pontoons and Sailboats 19 feet in length and longer