Recommendations: Kayak Lights and Kayak Lighting techniques for Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling
About our kayak light testing and recommendations...
As manufacturers of kayak lights including the Kayalite®, Radpole® and bundled navigation light kits, we spent a significant amount of time working with boaters and paddlers, testing and refining products in an array of environments and applications. Our testing took us from the rough seas of Boston Harbor to the lampblack bends in the Charles River — two years of product development and testing with our own powerboat and kayaks before a single unit was sold.
A select set of navigation lighting products and do-it-yourself projects are available to paddlers and kayak fishermen. Ultimately our strongest recommendation is to read the regulations and arrive at your own conclusions about what suits your application. Environments vary, as do the safety, visibility and night vision concerns of recreational paddlers, kayak fishermen and other vessel operators. The placement of a pole or rigid mount is worth your consideration prior to installation, particularly on the deck of a sit-in kayak, to ensure easy access and also to avoid the light becoming an impediment to re-entry in the event of a capsize after dark.
To be sure, there isn't one lighting configuration for paddlers, anglers, canoers, surf skis, stand-up paddle board surfers, and other recreational paddlesports enthusiasts that is optimal for every situation.
Our Recommendation for Paddlers
A kayak or canoe under 7 meters (23 feet) is classified as a "vessel under oars" and subject to the U. S. Coast Guard Rules regarding navigation lights. From U.S.C.G. Rule 25:
- A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
As stated, the minimum kayak navigation light required under Rule 25 by U.S.C.G. is "an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision." We recommend meeting and exceeding regulatory requirements, considering the following factors:
- REGULATIONS. A paddler is ultimately responsible for compliance with U.S. Coast Guard regulations and navigation rules; inland waterways regulations governed by each state; and, if on international waters, compliance with SOLAS and international regulations. These rules are all subject to change.
- VISIBILITY. A paddler is wise to consider providing means of visibility above and beyond regulatory compliance, according to the demands of the environment. Minimal compliance with regulations should not be assumed as optimal for any environment.
- AWARENESS. A fisherman casting off the bow of a power boat may intermittently obscure visibility of an anchor light. The operator of a stand-up paddle board may intermittently obscure visibility of an all-around light. Awareness of vessels sharing the watersheet, as well as the paddler's own visibility on the watersheet, is critical.
- NIGHT VISION. A paddler should be careful not to display lights, in addition to those required, that may impair his/her night vision or the night vision of others sharing the water. Spotlights and high-intensity lights are discouraged in all normal operating conditions.
- CONFUSION. A paddler should not display lights or colors without an understanding of how other boaters and paddlers will interpret those signals.
Two Basic Recommendations
A) If you are paddling inland, in waterways restricted to other kayaks and canoes:
Lighting needs when paddling in conditions of limited visibility (night, fog, rain, etc.) will vary depending on the environment. In the USA, consult the U.S. Coast Guard and your state's waterways regulatory agency to keep abreast of rules and standards while taking extreme care to respect the night vision of other padders. Note that U.S.C.G. defines night as "sunset to sunrise," not simply when it is dark.
In the USA, inland night navigation boating regulations vary from state to state. The minimum requirement for kayaks and canoes (whether paddling or adrift) conforms with U.S. Coast Guard Rules for a "vessel under oars" requiring "an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision."
On waters restricted to kayaks and canoes, at a minimum we'd recommend a hand-held, waterproof, 360° flashlight, tethered so it is readily available to turn on and display in any direction. Having this light available to display as needed is the minimum required and should be sufficient on most waters restricted for use by other paddlers.
If you want to mount a light so fellow paddlers can see you while you are paddling, you also must consider your night vision and the night vision of fellow paddlers. You should assess available moonlight and starlight, and display only the amount of light necessary for the situation. In most cases, this amount of light is far less than the amount of light required in waterways shared with boaters. One viable approach is to follow the recommendation in section (B) below for paddling in waterways shared with boaters, and then baffle your light to dim its intensity when you are operating in waterways restricted to kayaks and canoes.
Any light source placed directly in line of sight, or reflected into your eyes from a forward surface, for example a headlamp reflecting off of a paddle, will impair your night vision. Placement and/or installation of lights must be a careful consideration.
A few states (Texas, et al.) require your light to remain visible at all times in all regulated waters, including waters restricted to a "vessel under oars" such as a kayak or canoe. If you mount a light on your deck, its height must be such that it is visible from 360° across the arc of the horizon, unobstructed by any physical component of your kayak or canoe (i.e. taller than your seat back, crate, mounts, etc.).
If you set anchor in an area restricted to kayaks and canoes, we'd recommend that you display a 360° "all-around" light, similarly unobstructed in visibility by any physical component of your kayak or canoe. Anchoring is mainly an issue for anglers; it is uncommon for a paddler to set anchor instead of drifting or paddling ashore. Any kayaker must be extremely careful to heed U.S.C.G. rules and inland regulations with respect to setting anchor in any navigable waterway.
In waterways restricted to kayaks and canoes, moonlight and starlight should be considered adequate unless artificial light is necessary.
Red/green running lights (or "sidelights") are not required on a kayak, canoe or other "vessel under oars" under 7 meters in the United States or on international waters. That said, U.S. Coast Guard Rules allow for the installation of red/green lights on a kayak (see Rule 25). We generally do not recommend the installation of red/green lights on a kayak, particularly on waters shared with boaters, for reasons detailed in the next section. On inland waterways shared exclusively with other paddlers, red/green running lights may be useful in providing visibility at the bow of the kayak while protecting the night vision of the paddler. For regulatory compliance, display and intensity of red/green lights must comply with U. S. Coast Guard Rules and the U.S.C.G. definition governing their installation above the waterline at a precisely prescribed range of visibility:
- "Sidelights" means a green light on the starboard side and a red light on the port side each showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 112.5 degrees and so fixed as to show the light from right ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam on its respective side. In a vessel of less than 20 meters in length the sidelights may be combined in one lantern carried on the fore and aft centerline of the vessel, except that on a vessel of less than 12 meters in length the sidelights when combined in one lantern shall be placed as nearly as practicable to the fore and aft centerline of the vessel.
If red/green lights are installed, precise placement of other lights in relation to running lights is further prescribed by U.S. Coast Guard Rules. It should be assumed that any red, green or colored light that is not installed precisely according to U.S. Coast Guard Rules would place the vessel out of compliance, capable of causing confusion on the water by others attempting to interpret their signals. Other vessels on the water will maneuver based precisely on the sighting of only a red light, only a green light, or both lights at once. Running lights (or "sidelights") do much more than providing visibility so others see you — they signal your exact intention under way. Again, we generally do not recommend their use on a kayak.
B) If you are paddling in waterways shared with powerboats and sailboats:
Above all, you must meet your local regulations for navigation and paddling in conditions of limited visibility (night, fog, rain, etc.). As stated earlier, if you are paddling on USA coastal or inland navigable waterways, it's up to you to consult the U.S. Coast Guard and inland regulatory agencies to ensure your compliance with rules and standards. Note that U.S.C.G. defines night as "sunset to sunrise," not simply when it is dark.
We don't recommend paddling at night or in conditions of limited visibility in any waters navigated by powerboats or sailboats, unless you are experienced in the display and reading of night navigation lights and signals. Amateur paddlers should avoid waters shared with powerboats and sailors, moving close to and along the shoreline if transit is necessary. Always consider how you will maintain visibility in the event of capsize, failure of lights, or other inadvertant problem. Prepare your craft and your night navigation gear accordingly.
As a result of our years of testing night navigation kayak lights in waters shared by boaters, we recommend the following: Plan on mounting a light on the aft deck (behind you) with a secure base, not a suction cup, magnetic base or other mount that wouldn't sustain the occasional impact of another kayak's bow or a paddle smack. The light should be mounted within your reach on the kayak or canoe's aft deck so it can easily be turned on and off without imbalancing your kayak or canoe. This light should remain on at all times when in waters navigated by sailboats or vessels with motors (i.e powerboat, jetski, inflatable). To protect your own night vision as well as that of others vessel operators, especially if you are paddling in dark areas, we recommend a 360° "all-around" light unobstructed by any physical component of your kayak or canoe (i.e. taller than your seat back, crate, mounts, etc.) but mounted behind you and thereby shielded by your head and shoulders from casting light onto your foredeck or bow surfaces. If you choose a light mounted atop a tall pole, ensure that it is sufficiently baffled or has a lens that casts light across the plane of the watersheet, away from your kayak or canoe's bow, forward surfaces and your paddle to avoid reflected light exceeding ambient light. For any solution you choose, we'd recommend that you consider how the light may most likely aid your recovery and continue operating in the event that your kayak or canoe is flipped, rolled or dumped in the dark.
If your state navigation regulations do not require the continuous display of a white light, you may choose to turn the light off when you enter waters restricted to kayaks and canoes so you can navigate in starlight or moonlight with your night vision unimpaired. In dark areas restricted to kayaks and canoes, especially in the company of other paddlers, night vision is optimal with lights off and turned on only when necessary.
In addition to a light mounted on the aft deck of your kayak, we suggest that each paddler (and passenger in a tandem) have a secondary light. Our preferred personal light is a hand-held, waterproof, 360° flashlight, tethered so it is readily available to turn on and display as needed for forward visibility when paddling in the company of other vessel operators.
A head-mounted light or PFD-mounted light as a secondary light to a mounted light is effective for improving your visibility, but these types of lights can impair your own night vision if they cast any light in your eyes, on your paddle, or onto your kayak's foredeck.
If you anchor your kayak or canoe, the light as described above should remain on. A paddler must be extremely careful to heed U.S.C.G. rules and inland regulations with respect to setting anchor in any navigable waterway. You may improve your visibility when anchored by raising your all-around light so it is unobstructed by your shoulders or head. At anchor, maneuverability is limited and the impact of an unexpected wake or wave must be considered.
Red/green running lights (or "sidelights") are not required on a kayak, canoe or other "vessel under oars" under 7 meters in the United States or on international waters. That said, U.S. Coast Guard Rules allow for the installation of red/green lights on a kayak (see Rule 25). We generally do not recommend the use of red/green running lights on a kayak, particularly in waters shared with boaters. In rolling or choppy conditions, running lights mounted at a single point on a kayak bow can not easily maintain a sufficiently stable color separation between red and green to signal meaningful intent. If installed low on the bow or hull of a kayak, red/green lights may be too close to the waterline necessary to comply with U.S.C.G. required visibility across the arc of the horizon expected of running lights (or "sidelights") — flickering in appearance and thereby confusing to other paddlers and vessel operators. Hull or bow-mounted lights are often inaccessible to the paddler to enable or disable depending on the environment. In addition to physical installation requirements, the angle and intensity of red/green lights and their relationship to the location of other lights are further prescribed by U.S. Coast Guard Rules in order to provide oncoming vessels with precise means for calibrating their heading and speed according to your heading and speed. Lights of any color, including running lights, should never be displayed by a paddler incapable of understanding how the operator of another vessel will interpret their precise meaning in the dark. Furthermore, your display of running lights signal to other vessels that you are maneuvering your craft in response to your view of their red light, their green light or both of their running lights.
It should also be noted that the use of a strobe or colored light that is not being displayed in conformance with a specific regulation (a blue light or rapid strobe on a kayak, for example) places the vessel in violation of regulations.
Note that emergency life safety gear (S.O.S. strobe, etc.) is itself an issue that must be addressed and is not tackled here with respect to night navigation. We don't recommend that you try to solve your night navigation and emergency needs with a single light.