Kayaking at Night: Is It Legal & What Lights Do You Need?

Discover the magic of kayaking under the stars. This comprehensive guide covers the legality, required gear, and potential risks of kayaking at night.

Kayaking at Night

When most people think of a blissful day of kayaking, they picture sunny skies, calm winds, and glassy seas. But while daytime paddling adventures are amazing, there’s a special kind of magic on the water that you can only encounter when kayaking at night.

Nighttime kayaking allows you to experience the wonders of the waters under a moonlit and starry sky. However, venturing out in your kayak at night is 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 at night. We’ll talk about the legality, the risks involved, and the lights you need before hitting the water.

Is It Legal to Kayak at Night?

starry night sky on river

One of the most common questions that people have about kayaking at night is whether it’s even legal in the first place.

The short answer is yes, it is legal to kayak at night.

However, anyone who wants to must 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 on the water should be prepared for any eventuality, regardless of the time of day.

Even though there isn’t a set of rules in the US Coast Guard regulations, there are two essential requirements you need to be mindful of when on the water after dark. These include:

  • Rule 5 – Requirement to maintain a proper look-out.
  • Rule 25 – Requirement of 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 when visibility is limited, and you may have little time to avoid a collision with another vessel.

Rule 25 is part of a more extensive section that discusses what lights vessels need to have when operating at night or in areas of limited visibility. We’ll discuss these requirements below.

What Lights Do You Need on a Kayak at Night?

Best Kayak Lights

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. 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.

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 white stern light (or a tri-color masthead light)

Most vessels don’t get two different navigation light options, but paddle craft (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 pros and cons.

Generally, it’s best to opt for 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 red/green bow lights make it easier for people to see your direction of motion (red lights go on the port side and green lights 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.

Potential Risks of Kayaking at Night

Kayaking at Sunrise

Even though kayaking at night is legal, it’s not without 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 reading charts and interpreting navigation lights to 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 colder temperatures than you get during the day, so paddlers must have the proper clothing 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. Proper safety equipment (including navigation lights) can make you more visible on the water. Still, 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 who wants to kayak at night should be okay with assuming the additional risks that come with these 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 can make navigating your way through both subjective and objective hazards easier.

Additional Night Paddling Tips

2 kayaks paddling under a tunnel at night

Once you have the right gear for night paddling, it’s time to hit the water. Here are 5 tips for kayaking at night to help you make the most of your upcoming adventure.

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.

Consider a short evening paddle on a local lake or flat river for your first outing. 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 skills in novel destinations and on longer outings in a wider range of conditions.

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, especially if you’re in a new location or if the weather looks like it might not cooperate.

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 must have a solid understanding of their planned route. Take some time before your trip to look over the charts for your paddling area to get an idea of what buoys and illuminated markers might be visible along your route.

If you’re new to reading charts and navigating on the water, consider taking a class to bolster your skill set. Many sailing and paddling schools offer excellent maritime navigation courses that are well worth the time and money.

Check the Weather Forecast

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 forecast 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.

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.

Add a navigation light to your kayak, and then outfit yourself with other visibility tools, such as a water-activated light on your PFD.