Complete Kayaking in Chicago Guide for Beginner Paddlers

Have you ever wondered if you can kayak in Chicago? You may have seen the Windy City from above, but did you consider what it would look like from the river below? Kayaking in Chicago is a lot of fun, and you can join the adventure no matter your skill level.

We’ve created this guide to show you some basics to give you a memorable kayaking experience. We’ve also included our top three choices for the best kayak lessons, boat tours, and kayak rentals around the city! 

Illinois Kayaking Laws and Guidelines

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Fish Wardens, and State Police have outdone themselves in ensuring that the boating laws and regulations are adhered to in Illinois State. These laws provide safety while kayaking and minimize any possible dangers.

Before heading out to Illinois, you need to know the following kayaking rules.

Water Vessels

  • Registration and Titling of Powered kayaks: All powered kayaks must have expiration decals, Certificate of Title, and Certificate of Number before operating.
  • Exceptions for Registration: Unpowered vessels, federal or state-owned vessels, vessels registered in other states or USCG vessels using Illinois State waters for less than 60 days, lifeboats, and vessels dedicated for racing purposes get excepted from registration.
  • Exceptions for Titling: Kayaks under 21 feet may not require titling.
  • Hull Identification Number (HIN): Avoid operating vessels with defaced, removed, or obliterated HIN.


  • Non-motorized kayaks Operator’s Age: There’s no legally defined age for driving non-motorized kayaks.
  • Motorized kayaks Operator’s Age: A person under ten years may not operate. Between 10 and 12 years, one can run a motorized kayak having more than ten horsepower but must be accompanied by an 18-year-old. Persons under 18 years may use kayaks after completing a boating safety course.


  • Personal Floating Device: All kayaks must have at least one life jacket for every person on board. Children below the age of 13 must have a life jacket or personal flotation device while on kayaks less than 26 feet. All life jackets should be in good condition, have proper sizing, be readily accessible, and be legibly marked.
  • Fire Extinguishers: Always have at least one USCG – approved fire extinguisher on your motorized kayak.
  • Navigation lights: Switch on navigation lights during periods of limited visibility and during the night.
  • Drinking while onboard: The Illinois State law prohibits kayaking in Chicago if the alcohol concentration in your blood exceeds 0.08%.
  • Kayak Accidents: Report any kayak accident that results in death or severe injury to the Department of Natural Resources within 48 hours. Other accidents should reach the department within five days.
  • Law Enforcement: Law enforcement offices are permitted to stop and inspect the state of your kayak at will. Failure to follow the directives results in a mandatory suspension of up to 2 years.
  • Unlawful operations: Consider the following practices as illegal per the Illinois kayaking laws. (1) Careless operation of your kayak, (2) overloading, (3) operating the kayak in restricted areas, or (4) failure to follow standard navigation rules.
  • Sound-Producing Devices: Have a whistle (mouth or power-operated) that’s audible for more than one mile away since sirens are a big no for kayaks. Only law-enforcement vessels have the privilege of having sirens.
  • Visual Distress Signals (VDS): All vessels operating on Lake Michigan must have VDSs. So, brace yourself with night signals if you use your kayak between sunrise and sunset.

Top 3 Chicago Kayak Tours

Once you understand the laws governing the operation of kayaks in Chicago, it’s time to unleash the internal kayaker personality! You may opt to rent the kayak, paddles, and a life jacket and ride alone. Or, you may get the services of professional Chicago kayak tours. Experienced guides will keep the whole kayaking experience informative with your security as a top priority, unlike self-guided kayaking.

Let’s explore some of the best Kayak Tours in Chicago for an exciting or relaxing paddle.

Urban Kayaks

Urban Kayaks's homepage.

Urban Kayaks prides in friendly, highly-trained, and professional guides who will make your Chicago kayak tours worthwhile.

The company specializes in kayak tours, kayak classes, and rentals based on your skill level. Urban Kayaks also caters to first-time kayakers and families. Here are your options:

  • Get the historic Chicago kayaking tour along the Chicago River and Sunset tours at $65 for 2hrs.
  • Give your family a memorable one hour by kayaking into the Riverwalk intro paddle for $40.

Urban Kayaks operates in two different locations; the Chicago Riverwalk and Lakefront at Monroe Harbor. The Chicago Riverwalk’s located at 376 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60601, while Lakefront is located at Monroe Harbor, 110 N Lakeshore Dr, Chicago, IL 60601.

Feel free to book your spot today and give your loved ones a memorable kayaking experience.


Screenshot of Wateriders' website

Wateriders guides are premium kayak tours and rentals located downtown on the Chicago River. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards at a discounted $40 per rider and give yourself a self-guided tour. Otherwise, you can choose any packages below and let the Wateriders give you a great tour.

Paddle PackageDurationCharges
Moonlight Paddle  1.5 Hours$50 Adults, $35 Child
Sunset Paddle1.5 Hours$45 Adults, $35 Child
Navy Pier Fireworks Paddle2 Hours$70 Adults, $45 Child
History and Architecture Tour2 Hours$65 Adults, $45 Child
Ghost Gangster Tour2 Hours$65 Adults, $45 Child
South Branch Stretch3 Hours$60 Adults (Children below are not allowed)

Wateriders also offer the best night kayaking Chicago tours!

Kayak Chicago

screenshot of kayak tour guide Kayak Chicago's homepage

Kayak Chicago has been one of the top Kayak Chicago River Tours since 1999. First, its three locations offer you different kayaking options depending on what you’re searching for. The Chicago River gives you a closer look at the wildlife scurries near the Wild Mile and the scenic skyline of Chicago.

The North Avenue Beach gives you the perfect beach experience; beach volleyball, glacier waves, and golden sand. Just what you need to break from a monotonous routine! Montrose Beach brings the wild near to you. The chirping from the bird sanctuary and the breathtaking breeze make kayaking even more thrilling.

Kayak Chicago offers rentals and introductory orientation to kayaking. For an average budget of $70, you can book a touring option and let the Kayak Chicago guides show you the beauty around the Chicago River. So, never worry about your experience level because the classes are worth it.

Aside from kayaking, you can also sign-up for a stand-up paddleboard lesson! 

Where to Go Kayaking in Chicago?

One way to enjoy the summer season after a snowy Chicago is to explore the beautiful coastline. But before choosing where to go kayaking in Chicago, always research the location and exploration features available.

We’ve provided a list of some exciting places to head out for a fantastic Kayaking experience.

Chicago River

A photo of Chicago River

The Chicago River tour has strict restrictions on novice paddlers due to the high number of water taxis, tour boats, and other water vessels around the paddling area. You can begin paddling the Southway of The Loop at Ping Tom Park and kayak north two miles into the town. You can also kayak 2.5 miles downside from the Branch Turning Basin. The different launch points make the Chicago River a key spot for many kayakers in Chicago.

Des Plaines River

A photo of Des Plaines River, a popular kayaking spot in Chicago

The Des Plaines River is located in Northeastern Illinois and is the longest river in the state. It runs into the Kankakee River, and from there, the two rivers flow into the Mississippi. The slow water flow of the Des Plaines River makes it perfect for kayaking among beginners and kids. The river is also very accessible, with boat launches all along it, so you can put your kayak in at one spot and get out at a different one.

Skokie Lagoons

A photo of Skokie Lagoons in Chicago

The park’s located at Tower Road, Winnetka, IL 60093. It’s about 20 miles north of downtown Chicago, so it’s an easy drive from the city or other suburbs. The Skokie Lagoons have eight lagoons and 7 miles of trails, making it an excellent place for beginners and advanced kayakers. The Skokie Lagoons are an ideal spot for relaxing kayaking because it’s quiet and scenic with beautiful hiking trails. We suggest going on a tandem kayak if you have a paddling buddy!  

Busse Woods

Busse Woods is the home to Busse Lake, owned by Cook County’s Forest Reserves. Kayakers planning to have a paddling experience can rent kayaks at the Busse Lake Boating center or carry their own. The lake is well-suited for beginners, short trips, or salt creek water trails. Just enter the south of Route 72 (Higgins Road) 0.25 miles East of Illinois 290. The nearby islands provide a serene and different experience and bird watching opportunities.

North Avenue Beach

North Avenue Beach

Just east of Lincoln Park Zoo, North Avenue Beach is a prime location for kayaking in Chicago. This long stretch of beach, framed by Lake Shore Drive and North Avenue, is one of the best places to take your kayak out on the water in the city because it’s easily accessible. The beach’s location means you can also combine your adventure with a trip to the zoo or dinner at one of Lincoln Park’s many fine restaurants.

Tampier Lake

Photo of Tampier Lake in Chicago

Tampier Lake’s located in Palos Hills, Illinois, just 35 minutes outside Chicago. The lake has two boat launches available: one in the southwest corner of the lake and one in the southeast corner of the lake. You can launch your kayak or rent one from nearby places like Millennium Paddling or Willow Paddle & Sail Co. If you plan on visiting during the summer months, make sure to get there early to claim your spot!

Monroe River

Monroe river’s located on the northeast/northwest side of Chicago, so it’s easily accessible no matter where you live. The river is a 1-mile stretch of water that flows right through the heart of downtown Chicago. It starts at the east end of Grant Park and ends at Lake Shore Drive, giving you plenty of opportunities to take in the city’s skyline as you paddle along.


As a kayaker, nothing beats being on the water. The feeling is unmatched! And with the summer coming up in June, you have to plan before time for an exciting kayaking experience. With this guide, you can prepare before hard on the best places for kayaking in Chicago, book a tour with your preferred guide, and be on the better side of the law. Happy paddling in Chicago!