Lighting up a Kayak for Dawn, Dusk, and Night Paddling

The summer months, with their beaming sun and warming waters, are the perfect time to get outdoors and kayak.  However, on some days the summer heat can be so strong that your paddling time becomes limited during the daylight hours because of the intense heat.  On days like these, you might want to consider paddling or fishing when the sun is not so strong, such as at dawn, dusk or even at night.  To do this, however, you will need to take certain precautions to ensure your safety, particularly setting up a system of lights on your kayak that will help you be seen by other boaters on the water.

In the following article, we have provided a guide as to “How to Light up Your Kayak for Dawn, Dusk and Night Paddling or Fishing.”  We will lay out the various recommendations for lighting up your kayak—including the rules you must follow based on the United States Coast Guard’s Regulatory Guide.  We will also provide some kayak lighting options for night paddlers and anglers, and explain the benefits—and drawbacks—of each of these lighting techniques.

Factors to consider when lighting up your Kayak

Shortly we will provide a list of recommendations for lighting up your kayak, but before we do this, let’s take a brief look at some of the factors you should consider when deciding on a lighting system for your kayak.

  • Following all Rules and Regulations - When deciding on a lighting option for your kayak, you must keep in mind the various rules and regulations provided by the United States Coast Guard—including the inland waterway regulations governed and enforced by each state.  If you plan to operate your kayak at night in international waters, you must also be aware of the rules and regulations regarding lighting your kayak set forth by SOLAS, the regulatory body for this type of paddling or angling.
  • Consider Your Visibility in the Water - Environments and climate conditions can vary from day to day; hour to hour; or minute to minute.  As such, you cannot assume that the minimum lighting requirements outlined by the US Coast Guard or SOLAS are enough to ensure your visibility in the water.  Thus, it is always wise to exceed those requirements as needed to be sure you are visible to larger boats and vessels that may be in your immediate vicinity.
  • Being Aware and Alert While on the Water - .Most people assume that the kayak lighting solution they ultimately select acts as a shield of protection against possible visibility problems, collisions and potential injury.  This is just not true.  Other vessels—and the activity on those vessels (fishing, etc,)—can temporarily obscure your lights—and thus your boat—making you a sitting duck for other vessels.  Moreover, you must consider that your activity on the water can potentially obscure the lights of another boat.  For these reasons, it is imperative that you remain constantly aware, alert and vigil about other boats on the water, and take every precaution to ensure your safety and the safety of other operators.
  • Take Night Vision into Consideration - Some people erroneously assume that the brighter the light they have on their kayak the safer they are.  This is not true in most cases.  Extremely bright lights—such as spot lights—can impair the night vision of other boat operators, which potentially puts them at risk of a collision or other type of accident.  Very bright lights can also impair your own night vision, making it harder for you to spot oncoming vessels that may potentially be in your path.  Therefore, high-intensity lights for paddling and night angling are not a good idea and should be discouraged.
  • Avoid Potential Confusion - When placing lights on your boat, it is important that you know the proper way to install them and where they should be located (which we will explain below).  Failing to do so may confuse other boaters and may even cause them to act in a way that endangers their safety.
  • Type of Kayak Lights - Today there are many kayak lighting products available for purchase.  There are also do-it-yourself projects littering the internet that can help paddlers and kayak-bound anglers properly light up their watercraft.
  • Installing a Rigid Pole - Before selecting a lighting system for your kayak, you may first want to consider mounting a rigid pole or other type of mount on the deck of your boat.  This will save you time when you ultimately buy your lighting system and help provide easier access to the light once mounted.  This will also ensure that your lighting system does not become an impediment to re-entry in the unfortunate event that your boat capsizes at night during operation.

Now that we’ve covered the many factors you need to consider when preparing to install and use a lighting system on your kayak for nighttime paddling and angling, let’s take a look at a few recommendations that will help ensure the perfect lighting solution for your particular needs.

Recommendations for Lighting Your Kayak

Kayak paddlers and anglers who elect to enjoy their boats after the sun has set and before it fully rises have many options for lighting up their boat.  Of course, they could just keep an electric torch or lantern onboard to meet the minimum requirements of the United States Coast Guard, but this, in our opinion, is not sufficient to ensure their safety, the safety of others and to fully enjoy their nighttime paddling or fishing excursion.

The recommendations we will offer here will be divided into two sections.  The first section includes recommendations and ideas for those who plan to use their kayak in areas restricted to “oared vessels” such as kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and other watercraft not powered by a motor of any kind.  The second section, naturally, will apply to kayak lighting solutions for those who plan to operate their boats in waters that are also open to motorized boats, such as large inland lakes, harbors and the open seas.

Section 1:  Lighting Recommendations for Kayaks in Waterways Open to Oared Vessels Only.

What is “Night” Paddling and Fishing? - According to the United States Coast Guard, the period known as “night” as it applies to boating includes all hours from “sunset to sunrise.” This includes periods such as dawn and dusk, or in other words, “not just when the sky is completely dark.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of our lighting recommendations, as well as a few things you should consider when buying or creating a lighting system for your boat.

Lighting Recommendations

When paddling in waters that are restricted to kayaks, canoes and other oar-propelled vessels under 23 feet, you should consider both of the following lighting options and weigh them against the climatic conditions on the night you plan to use your kayak to paddle or fish:

  • Hand-Held Light.  As required by the US Coast Guard, when paddling in waters restricted to oared vessels you should at least carry a hand-held light, such as a battery-powered flashlight or lantern.  This hand-held light should be able to project a “white” light in a 360 degree arc.  It should also be waterproof so that it won’t short out during operation.  Finally, you should consider tethering your flashlight or torch so that is readily available and always in reach; the last thing you want is to try and search for the light in the middle of a dark lake.  Having a working flashlight or lantern will ensure you meet the minimum requirements under the law.
  • Mounted Light.  If you prefer to be visible at all times, another option is to mount a light on your kayak that will constantly shine, alerting other boaters as to your exact whereabouts.  These lights can be easily attached to poles or other structures that can be mounted to the deck of the boat.  In the next few paragraphs we will talk about mounted lights as they relate to waters restricted to “vessels under oars,” such as kayaks and canoes.

About Mounted Lights on Kayaks

Mounted, consistently glowing lights can be a good idea regardless of the waters in which you are paddling or fishing in at night.  However, prior to setting up one of these easy-to-use lighting systems, there are a few things you may want to consider, including your vision at night.

Very bright lights—such as the high beams on an automobile’s headlights—may not only affect your own vision but can negatively impact the vision of other boat operators in the immediate vicinity. When selecting one of these lighting systems, you should, of course, avoid very bright lights that will interfere with vision.  A more muted white light, attached to a pole or rod just above your boat’s equipment, can be a perfect solution.

Because this section deals exclusively with waterways restricted to non-motorized vessels, your best bet is to choose a light whose strength or brightness will not interfere with your nighttime sight or that of the other paddlers/anglers.  A good approach to choosing a light to use in waters restricted to kayak and canoes is to follow the recommendations we will provide in the next section (waterways shared with motorized boats), and then dim or baffle that light to a lower intensity when rowing in areas reserved for oar-operated vessels only.

Another thing to consider when setting up a kayak lighting system is to avoid any light that is placed directly in your line of sight as you row, or even those lights whose reflections will interfere with your ability to see. Instead, your (muted) white light should be just bright enough to avoid night vision problems; and placed just high enough so as not to be obstructed by any of your boat’s equipment.

Check with Your State about Kayaking/Boating Requirements

Although the advice we laid out above applies to most situations in which you are paddling or fishing after dark in waterways restricted to oared vessels, there are certain states that recommend and enforce even stricter lighting regulations within their borders—stricter than the Rules of the US Coast Guard.

Kayak enthusiasts in Texas, for example, must abide by the state’s requirement to “light their boat so it remains visible at all times in regulated waters, including waters restricted to a "vessel under oars," such as a kayak or canoe.  The regulation in Texas goes on to say that one’s permanently-lit light must be “visible from 360° across the arc of the horizon, and unobstructed by any physical component of your kayak or canoe.” This includes any seat back or mounts that may extend beyond the rim of the vessel.

Setting an Anchor in Kayak and Canoe Restricted Waters

Fishermen who decide to angle at night in their kayak—a strategy that is very effective in some waters—may have the occasion to set their anchor when fishing in a particular area that is proving very fruitful.  In these situations, kayaks without an effective lighting system may be very vulnerable to collisions.  One way to avoid this danger is to display a 360 degree light above the structural components of the boat. This will alert other kayakers and canoeists that there is a stationary vessel in the water.

Section 2:  Lighting Your Kayak in Waters Open to Motorized Boats

When paddling or fishing at night in an area open to all types of boats, kayak operators should take extra precautions to ensure they are seen by other watercraft, without creating night vision problems for themselves or other operators.  This can be accomplished by following all of the rules listed in the previous section (only with a brighter mounted light), and by perhaps adding another “lighting step” known as sidelights.

Although sidelights are not required for oar-propelled vessels like kayaks, this added safety step can help keep you protected in waters that are shared by fast-moving motor boats that have a potential to cause great bodily harm.

Sidelights for Kayaks in Open Waters

Sidelights, also known as “running lights,” are not required for kayaks, but for those who plan to paddle or fish after dark in their non-motorized watercraft, these lights can be potentially life-saving, as they alert other boaters that you are near.

Sidelights are easy to install, and can be used in conjunction with either non-mounted or mounted white lights—whichever system is required in your particular state.  If you plan to install these sidelights, below is a definition of what they are and how to place them:

  • "Sidelights," as they apply to watercraft, are green and red reflector lights. The green reflector-type light should be installed on the starboard (right) side of the kayak; and the red light should be placed on the port (left) side of the boat.  They should be affixed “over an arc of the horizon at 12.5 degrees and placed so as to illuminate the light from directly ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam on its respective side.”

The red and green sidelights are not flashing reflectors, but unbroken lights.  When used with the (US Coast Guard required) torch or lantern they provide a safe and ample amount of light, which ultimately will help avoid potential collisions when using your kayak at night and in various weather conditions.

Coast Guard Regulations for Night Paddling in a Kayak 

The United States Coast Guard provides some rules that will help us answer the question “How to Light up Your Kayak for Dawn, Dusk and Night Paddling?”  Here is just a brief look at what U.S. Coast Guard tells us about the subject.

What is a Kayak and What Are the U.S. Coast Guard’s Rules for Lighting It? - A kayak, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, providing it is less than 23 feet in length—which most kayaks are—is classified as a “vessel under oars,” much like a canoe that meets the same length requirements.  As a vessel under oars, the U.S. Coast Guard tells us—via U.S.C.G. Rule 25—the following:

  • United States Coast Guard 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.”

This rule tells us a couple of things:

  1. A kayak (a vessel under oars) may exhibit or follow the same lighting rules for sailing vessels.  This, however, is not required.  We know this because Rule 25 goes on to say that if “she” (the kayak) does not exhibit the same types of lights required of sailing vessels, she must at least meet the minimum requirement we explain in #2.
  2. If a kayak does not follow the rules for sailing vessels, she must, at minimum “have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.”

Assuming you are not going to go to great lengths to light up your kayak as you would a larger sailing vessel, all you really NEED to have under the U.S. Coast Guard’s rules is an electric torch or lighted lantern onboard your kayak—not lit, just onboard.  Of course, you must have that torch at the ready, and be prepared to light it up any time you believe another boat is near enough to potentially cause a collision.

These minimum rules are provided to reduce incidences of collisions between various watercrafts in the open water.  But are they enough to ensure your safety and the safety of others?  Are they enough to provide you with the most enjoyable night paddling and fishing experience possible?  We believe the answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO.  Because of this, below we have listed some of our recommendations for lighting your kayak—recommendations that will help you get the most out of your water adventure while still ensuring your safety and the safety of other operators, paddlers and anglers.

Ultimately, the type of lighting system you choose will depend on the type of kayak you have and how you plan to use it.  With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the lighting regulations put forth by the United States Coast Guard, followed by a list of some recommendations for meeting and exceeding those regulations for night paddling or after-dark fishing.

States Have Regulations Too

If you live in the United States, the exact rules for operating your kayak at night are provided—and enforced—by each individual state.  Therefore, it is important that you contact your state boating agency to determine the type of lighting that is recommended for your vessel, as well as the lighting systems that are prohibited in your state.  You must also meet the United States Coast Guard’s minimum lighting requirements, which, as you will recall, is an “electric torch or working lantern onboard your boat”—a “white light” that is turned on and visible when in the presence of other kayaks and oar-propelled vessels (as well as motorized boats).


Night paddling and fishing in your kayak can be an absolute blast, especially on warm summer nights in which the water is seemingly calling your name.  However, before you set out on one of these nighttime adventures, it is crucial that you first equip your boat with the right type of lighting—lighting that will ensure your safety during this fun excursion.

And while the US Coast Guard merely requires that you equip your kayak with a working flashlight or lantern, in some nighttime weather conditions this may not be enough to ensure your safety or the safety of others, especially if you are paddling or fishing in waters shared by motorized vessels.  To completely protect yourself, you should consider a more permanent lighting solution, such as a pole mounted, 360 degree light that is waterproof and positioned above your boat’s structure and equipment.  Sidelights—red and green running lights on the port and starboard side of your kayak—can also be a very effective solution, helping to guide your way along the inky waters and ensuring you are always visible to other boaters.