When most people think of a blissful day of kayaking, they picture sunny skies, calm winds, and glassy seas. But while daytime paddling adventures certainly are amazing, there’s a special kind of magic on the water that you can only experience when kayaking at night.
Nighttime kayaking gives you a chance to experience the wonders of the waters under a moonlit and starry sky. However, venturing out in your kayak at night is an art form and a skill in its own right, so it’s critical that you have the right equipment and know-how before paddling after dark.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about kayaking after the sun goes down. We’ll talk about the legality of night paddling, the risks involved, and all of the gear you need before you hit the water at night.
Is it Legal to Kayak at Night?
One of the most common questions that people have about kayaking at night is whether it’s even legal in the first place.
The simple answer? Yes, it is legal to kayak at night.
Kayaking is considered to be another type of boating by most coast guard and maritime agencies. So it’s just as legal to paddle your kayak around a lake or harbor at night as it is to sail a small dinghy or cruise around in a pontoon boat after sunset.
Keep in mind that some parks and recreation areas might not let you paddle on smaller lakes and ponds after nightfall. Always respect local regulations when paddling, and be sure to double-check the rules before you head outside.
Legal Requirements for Night Kayaking
Anyone that wants to kayak at night needs to be prepared to follow specific rules and regulations.
These rules and regulations vary from location to location, and we can’t possibly discuss them all here. But most jurisdictions have similar requirements to what you find in the US Coast Guard’s navigation rules, so we’ll focus on those in this article.
Interestingly, the US Coast Guard doesn’t have a dedicated section of its navigation rules that discusses nighttime boating. That’s because anyone heading out onto the water should be prepared for any eventuality, regardless of the time of day.
But even though there isn’t a set of rules pertaining to night boating in the US Coast Guard’s regulations, there are two key requirements that you need to be mindful of when on the water after dark. These include:
- Rule 5 – A requirement to maintain a proper lookout.
- Rule 25 – The regulation requiring navigation lights on vessels under oars (or paddles).
Rule 5 technically pertains to all vessels at all times. It states:
“Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”
In other words, any boat on the water needs to stay alert and aware of its surroundings to prevent a collision. This is particularly important at night where visibility is limited, and you may have very little time to avoid a collision with another vessel.
Rule 25 is part of a more extensive section of rules that discusses what lights vessels need to have when operating at night or in areas of limited visibility. We’ll discuss these requirements in detail later in this article.
There’s technically one other important rule—Rule 19—that you should keep in mind when paddling at night, though it’s not particularly relevant to paddlers. This rule states that all vessels “shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility,” such as at night.
Since kayakers are limited in speed when compared to powerboats, paddlers don’t have to be too worried about this rule. But it’s a good reminder to travel with caution whenever you’re on the water at night or during periods of reduced visibility.
Potential Risks of Kayaking at Night
Even though kayaking at night is legal, it’s not without its risks. Night paddling can be a fantastic experience, but anyone that wants to venture out in a kayak after the sun goes down should know what they’re signing up for.
Some of the risks of kayaking at night include:
- Collisions – It’s harder to see other vessels and objects on the water after the sun goes down. Staying aware of your surroundings can help reduce the possibility of a collision, but it requires constant vigilance.
- Getting Lost – Navigating on the water at night is an entirely different beast from navigating during the daytime. When you paddle at night, you need to be confident in your ability to read charts and interpret navigation lights so that you can get where you want to go.
- Hypothermia – Even though hypothermia is also a risk during the daytime, it’s even more of a threat at night. Nighttime usually heralds in colder temperatures than what you get during the day, so paddlers need to have the proper clothing on hand to stay warm.
- Increased Rescue Times – It can take longer for rescue teams to find you if you’re paddling at night and have an emergency on the water. Having the proper safety equipment (including navigation lights) can make you more visible on the water, but it’s often easier to spot a boater in distress during the daytime.
As you can see, there are quite a few risks involved with night paddling that aren’t as big of a deal if you only head out in your kayak during the daytime. But we don’t want to scare you into thinking that night kayaking is exceptionally dangerous and that you shouldn’t do it.
The reality is that any kind of paddling, whether at night or during the day, has its risks. Anyone that wants to kayak at night should be okay with assuming the additional risks that come with these sorts of nighttime excursions.
The good news is that there are ways to mitigate these risks before you head out on the water. Having the right skills and equipment on hand can make it easier for you to navigate your way through both subjective and objective hazards so that you can make the most of your paddling adventures at night.
What Do You Need to Kayak at Night?
At this point, you understand the legal requirements and risks of kayaking at night. So, let’s pivot our attention and discuss the various pieces of equipment you ought to have before setting off in your kayak.
What Lights Do You Need on a Kayak at Night?
Kayak lights are an essential piece of gear for any nighttime paddler. They’re a legal requirement under Rule 25, Part C of the US Coast Guard’s navigation rules, and you’ll find that pretty much every maritime authority on the planet has similar requirements.
On the face of it, having lights for your kayak when paddling at night makes sense because they make it easier for you to see on the water… right?
Well, it turns out that legally required kayak navigation lights, while important, actually have nothing to do with your ability to see and navigate your way through the water. Instead, boating lights are standardized because they make it easier for other vessels to identify you as a boat so everyone can avoid collisions on the water.
Nevertheless, determining what lights you need for your kayak isn’t always straightforward. We’ll discuss the US Coast Guard’s requirements for lights on paddlecraft here, but double-check with the maritime authority in your area before you invest in a set of lights.
While paddling in US waters, you have two different kayak light options between sunrise and sunset. You can choose to display either a:
- Single white light with a 360º beam
- Red/green bow light and a white stern light (or a tri-color masthead light)
Most vessels don’t get two different navigation light options, but paddlecraft (including kayaks) are an exception in the US Coast Guard’s requirements.
So, which option should you choose?
There are differing opinions on the matter, and both of your lighting options have their pros and cons.
As a general rule, it’s best to opt for both a red/green bow light and a white stern light (or a tri-color masthead light) over a single white light whenever possible.
That’s because having red/green bow lights makes it easier for other vessels to see your direction of motion (red lights go on the port side of vessels and green lights go on the starboard side). Additionally, other vessels could confuse a single white light on a kayak with a standard anchor light, which isn’t ideal in high-traffic areas.
But, there are benefits to having a single all-around white light, too, including affordability and ease of installation.
Additional Safety Gear For Night Kayaking
When most paddlers think about the gear they need for kayaking at night, their minds immediately go to kayak lights. But there are plenty of other pieces of equipment that you ought to have if you enjoy paddling after sunset.
Other pieces of safety gear that you need for night kayaking include:
- PFD – You should always have a PFD (a.k.a. a life jacket) with you on the water. But a PFD is such an essential piece of gear to have that it’s worth mentioning here. Even if local regulations don’t require you to do so, it’s a good idea to wear your PFD (as opposed to having it on your kayak) while paddling at night.
- Whistle – Under Rule 32 of the US Coast Guard’s navigation regulations, all vessels should have a sound-making device on board at all times, including kayaks. A whistle attached to your PFD is the most practical sound signal for most paddlers. But if you’re paddling in high-traffic areas, a small waterproof signal horn isn’t a bad idea, either. This is especially important at night or in low-visibility conditions where other boats might not be able to see you as you paddle.
- Water-Activated PFD Light – In addition to your kayak lights, you might want to bring a small water-activated PFD light with you when paddling at night. These tiny lights clip onto your PFD, making it easier for rescuers to see you if you end up in the water. For offshore kayaking in remote waters, you might want to pack a personal EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) with a light, too, so you can send out a distress signal in an emergency.
- Compact Flares – If you spend a lot of time paddling at night, you may want to consider getting a set of flares to keep with you at all times. You can keep a compact flare in the pocket of your PFD so that you can easily attract attention from other boaters in an emergency.
- Navigation Tools – Even if you’re staying in familiar waters, it’s important that you have the right navigation tools with you for nighttime paddling. Navigating on the water at night is challenging, so it’s imperative that you have a chart (in a waterproof case), compass, and GPS device for longer nighttime paddling excursions.
- Rescue Knife – A rescue knife is a must for any extended paddling excursion, especially at night. While you hope to never have to use it, a rescue knife can help cut ropes, lines, or anything else that someone else might get tangled in while paddling.
- First Aid Kit – First aid kits are indispensable tools in an emergency. Like rescue knives, first aid kits are another piece of equipment that you hope to never have to use, but that you should always keep with you on the water. Be sure to pack your first aid kit in a waterproof dry bag so that it’s always dry and ready to go in an emergency.
- Spare Clothing – Colder temperatures at night bring an increased risk of hypothermia when you’re on the water after dark. You should always pack extra warm layers when paddling at night, just in case you end up going for a swim and need to change into dry clothing. Consider bringing a kayak cag too, for extra waterproofing and warmth should you encounter foul weather on the water.
Most of the items we’ve listed above are good to have with you on the water both at night and during the day. But they’re especially important to have for nighttime paddling trips due to the extra hazards and risks associated with kayaking after dark.
Tips for Kayaking at Night
Once you have the right gear for night kayaking, it’s time to hit the water. Here are 5 top tips for kayaking at night to help you make the most of your upcoming adventure.
1. Start Small
If you’re new to kayaking at night, don’t be afraid to start small. Night paddling may seem very similar to kayaking in the daytime, but paddling in limited visibility can be pretty challenging.
Although it might seem tempting to head out on a big expedition for your first night kayaking experience, it’s generally best to start small.
For your first outing, consider a short evening paddle on a local lake or flat river. Start right before sunset so you can see how your paddling experience changes as the sun goes down.
Stay close to shore and plan to paddle for just an hour or two after dark to help you get more comfortable with kayaking at night. Once you’re confident in your abilities, you can test your new night kayaking skills in novel destinations and on longer outings in a wider range of conditions.
2. Paddle with Friends
Night kayaking comes with a whole host of additional risks that aren’t as big of a deal when you paddle during the daytime. As a result, it’s usually a good idea to paddle with friends whenever you head outside after dark.
Of course, as you gain more confidence and experience in your night paddling abilities, you may find that you’re comfortable kayaking alone. However, paddling with friends is an excellent risk management strategy for nighttime kayaking, especially if you’re in a new location or if the weather looks like it might not cooperate.
3. Know Your Route
One of the biggest challenges of kayaking at night is navigation. During the daytime, most coastal navigation in a kayak is done using landmarks and other objects that are easy to see when the sun’s shining overhead. But after the sun sets, most of these landmarks become useless from a navigational point of view.
Therefore, any would-be nighttime paddler needs to have a solid understanding of their planned route. Take some time before your trip to look over the charts for your paddling area so you can get an idea of what buoys and illuminated markers might be visible at night along your route.
If you’re new to reading charts and navigating on the water, consider taking a class to bolster your skillset. Many sailing and paddling schools offer excellent maritime navigation courses that are well worth the time and the money if you’re looking to head out on longer kayaking adventures.
4. Check the Weather
Checking the weather is an essential part of any pre-kayaking trip checklist, but it’s even more critical when you’re paddling at night.
Foul weather during the daytime can be challenging and dangerous. When you combine high winds and heavy seas with darkness, safely maneuvering your way through the water becomes even more difficult. Checking the latest weather forecasts before you leave home can help you avoid getting into one of these situations.
Everyone has a different risk tolerance that dictates what kinds of conditions they’re willing to paddle in. But, in general, try to make more conservative decisions about the weather when planning a nighttime paddle. Doing so gives you a more significant margin for error if the weather conditions end up being worse than expected.
5. Make Yourself Visible
Finally, try to make yourself as visible as possible when kayaking at night. It’s challenging for other boats to see kayakers from afar because kayaks are so low to the waterline. So do whatever you can to increase your visibility to help avoid collisions during your paddles.
Be sure to check local regulations to determine what navigation lights you need on your kayak at night. Then, outfit yourself with other visibility tools, such as a water-activated light on your PFD, to make it easier for others to find you if you end up in the water.