🛶Kayaking at night: Gear

lighthouseRetailers lure us in and then try to brainwash us into purchasing their flashy inventory.  The reality is that we do not need a lot of fancy stuff to stay safe on the water.  To think people created the kayak to hunt on some of the deadliest waters known to man.  And they survived.  Their greatest tool was common sense.

Following the assumption that kayaks are nearly invisible on the water, there are still a few things we can do to increase our chances of being seen.  I do not recommend exclusively using chemical light sticks.  Their soft glow does little to light a 17 foot kayak.  And they easily blend into the nighttime clutter of land lights reflecting off the water.

Some LED lights allegedly produce a 360-degree light visible a mile away on a clear night.  I use the “Paddlers Supply Company LED Kayak Deck Light with Suction Cup Base” placed on the stern of my kayak.  And I place a “Princenton Tec Aqua Strobe” on highest point of the back of my PFD.  I have a Princeton Tec Apex Pro LED Headlamp.  My boat has reflective deck lines, and 3M reflective tape.  The backside of my paddles also has reflective tape on it.

Interesting, some blogs maintained by retailers have stated that a person can purchase a headlamp that is visible over a mile away (1609.344 meters). This is a curious claim.  I have compiled a list of four manufactures and their top headlamps.

  • The specification of a headlamp to reach one mile must have a maximum beam distance of 1609.344 meters.
  • Conversion of meters to mile to feet
    • 120 meters equals 0.074564543 of a mile equals 393.70078704 feet
    • 100 meters equals 0.062137119 of a mile equals 328.08398832 feet

It is the law that we paddle with lights on our kayaks.  And the lights do help other boaters see us when they are near us.  Unfortunately, from a fast moving powerboater’s perspective LED lights are a useless means of marking a kayak at night, as it moves in swells, twilight, in fog, and heavy rains.  So, if you still think that powerboats are going to see you and move out of your way then I recommend doing two things.  Kiss your loved ones and take out a good life insurance policy.

Beyond using lights there is the use of reflective tape, clothing, and deck lines.  The drawback to using them is that a light must hit the reflective surface.  Consequently, a powerboat traveling quickly with only their running lights on probably will not cast enough light to make the product visible until they are on top of you.

I always file a Float Plan with my wife and I do not deviate from it.  If I am running late I call her.  And because I carry a SPOT she can keep track of my location.  Nevertheless, my most important piece of common sense gear for paddling at night is paddling with caution.  I am always looking around and keeping track of boat traffic.  When I see a boat, I stop; focus on what it is doing, and how the red and green lights are oriented on it.  If the red light is on the left, the boat is pointed away from me.  If the red light is on the right, the boat is pointed towards me.  And even though I am lit up like a Christmas Tree and my paddles are covered with reflective tape I assume that the driver of the boat does not see me.  It is also difficult to gage distance and the speed of a boat at night.  Consequently, the best way to avoid a nighttime collision is to keep your distance from powerboats.


  1. Night-gear.com offers all sorts of lights and reflective products that would provide greater night time visibility for kayaking and canoeing.

  2. While I agree with much of what you’re saying, you should make sure you understand the difference between visible distance and beam distance.

    Visible distance is the range at which the light source can be seen by an OBSERVER. This is what you care about with navigation lights. Even tiny little single LEDs are indeed visible at something like a mile in the dark. Heck, even a *candle* is probably visible for something like half a mile.

    Beam distance is the distance a light can project a useful amount of light for the USER. Those LEDs (and candles) may be visible a mile away, but their beam distance is more like 5-10 feet. Not much short of a lighthouse can project a beam for a mile, but it’s not really necessary unless you’re wanting to get out the binoculars and see what’s out there at the end of the beam.

    So yes, you’re right. A little LED light doesn’t magically throw a beam further than a $430 Petzl light. It also doesn’t need to, because it has an entirely different purpose. The goal is for the source itself, not the reflected light, to be visible. Much easier, and the reason the manufacturer’s claims are all accurate, despite seeming a bit odd.

  3. Hey Ben – your elaboration on visible verse beam distance is appreciated. I have met too many students that are over confident in their gear. And visible / beam distance perception and sales tactics lull paddlers into an illusion that they are easily observed on the water by boaters.

    The purpose of this post was to illuminate an observation that my local tourist powerboater community are not going to easily observe a light on a kayak when they are driving on plane.

    I have seen tourists who rent and drive powerboats at night hit channel markers, run aground, and even hit other powerboats. These things have all occurred on clam, clear, moon lit nights. Those people observed nothing.

    In the spirit of safety it is best to ignore the manufacture’s visible distance recommended range while traveling on the water. Paint your boat with as many lights as possible. And kayak on the water with the belief that no one is going to easily observe them paddling.

    I still think visible distance is best used in an emergency situation. Being, when a search and rescue team is actively looking for a light source.

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