Definitive Guide: Light Requirements for Kayaking at Night

Nighttime paddling is a beautiful way to enjoy your time on the water, and for kayak fishermen, it’s a must, but to ensure you stay safe at night, you must remain visible to other boats. A handheld flashlight is enough to do the job, but a deck light or electric lantern may be more visible to other paddlers or ships. 

What is the Minimum Light a Kayak Requires?

According to the United States Coast Guard, a kayak or canoe must have an electric torch or lighted candle that emits white light when other boaters are present. 

This law is the absolute minimum required in the United States, but different states may have stricter regulations. For instance, in Texas, the light must be on at all times. 

When night kayaking, you must have a light on if another boat is approaching, if you are moving through a narrow channel, or if you’re in an area where other powered or sailing vessels often travel. You must also have a light on while anchored, such as when you’re kayak fishing. 

The light law is in effect every day from sunset to sunrise and is the same for all kayaks and canoes under 23 feet. If your boat is over 23 feet, then other rules apply, and you will require more lights. 

The exact national rule states: Sailing vessels underway and vessels under oars “shall exhibit an all around white light or have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.”

Why Do Kayaks Need Lights?

The main reason that your boat needs light is to let other boats know where you are when night paddling. A collision with another boat, particularly a motorized boat, can cause severe injury and damage your boat. 

A lighted lantern showing an uninterrupted light is the best way to ensure others see you on your night kayaking trip. 

Also, night navigation lights and other safety gear help you see what is around you and assist you in finding your way back to where you are heading. Since most of the time, when people end up on the water after dark it’s because they’ve stayed out longer than expected, you should always be prepared for nighttime travel when you go kayaking. 

Generally speaking, it’s best to turn on your ambient light as soon as the sun goes down. The law only requires that you turn it on so that there is sufficient time for other boats to see you, but when you’re on a kayak at night, you want to be as visible as possible. 

Take others’ night vision into account when deciding what type and strength of lights to use. 

What Is the Best Way to Display Lights on a Kayak?

The best way to display lights on your small boat comes down to preference, your location, and weather conditions. Overall, of course, you need to meet the laws of the United States and any other rules of the state where you are kayaking. 

Many people think it’s best to have a handheld, waterproof 360-degree light. These sorts of lights can be handheld or mounted and shine in all directions. 

Having a waterproof light is also a big plus in case you capsize. If you’re mounting a light, refrain from using a suction cup since these can easily come off. 

Deck lights will also work, and they’re often mounted to the aft section of the kayak or on a pole so that other people can see them more easily. Just be sure that if you don’t want your kayak lights on the whole time you’re on the water, you can turn them off and on without making the boat unstable. 

Furthermore, although not everyone likes to have their light on a pole, a high light will make you visible across the arc of the horizon, so it’s easier for others to see you. 

A hand held flashlight is also acceptable since flashlights fall into the category of an electric torch. 

The reason that most people don’t like using flashlights on a night kayaking trip is that they are easy to lose. If you capsize while night paddling, your flashlight can easily get washed away.

Also, a flashlight may not be strong enough to ensure other people can see you with their normal night vision. 

There are no specific rules that dictate where you place the electric torch or lighted lantern on the kayak, but different people have particular preferences. For instance, some prefer to have a stern light, while others like to have it near the kayak’s front. 

Whatever option you choose, make sure that you always have it with you. Having a torch or lighted lantern with you at all times ensures that you are always following coast guard rules in terms of the specific light requirement for kayak at night. 

Finally, make sure that any light you have, whether a deck light or your navigation light, is not impairing your vision. Lights are supposed to make it easier to see, not harder. 

Staying Safe While Night Kayaking

To stay safe while kayaking at night, you should have an all-around light that nothing in your boat, including yourself, is obstructing. 

You must turn on the light in sufficient time so that other vessels and powerboats can see you according to coast guard regulations. Having an unbroken light on your aft deck can help prevent accidents with other vessels. 

A light also helps you see where you’re going during nighttime kayaking and when there’s limited visibility, like in fog or rain. Bringing a GPS with you will also help prevent you from getting lost. 

When traveling at night or under limited visibility, you should try your best to stay away from other vessels. Amateur paddlers, especially, should steer clear of any other boat at night if they don’t know the proper signals on the water. 

If you want to go kayaking at night, find a place where there are not a lot of other people. 

Noisemakers are another form of gear that you should think about taking with you when night kayaking. People’s night vision is not always great, even if you are using the lights prescribed by the law. 

Noisemakers can signal for help, but they can also warn other vessels if they are coming too close to you. 

Furthermore, if you’re traveling with other paddlers at night, it’s best to stay close together. Remaining close isn’t an actual rule, but it will make it easier for others to see you at night, especially if you all have the proper light requirements. 

Finally, don’t forget other kayak safety rules because many of them become more critical or change at night. For example, it often gets colder at night, so be sure to wear appropriate clothing. 

Think about how cold you will be if you fall into the water, and consider wearing a wetsuit if the temperature is low. 

Even with the correct navigation lights, in general, most people don’t recommend paddling at night unless you understand all of the rules and meet all the regulations. 

Why Does it Have To Be a White Light?

Kayakers must have a solid white light because different lights mean certain things on the water. So, national and local regulations ask for a particular type of illumination on kayaks and other small paddle boats. 

The federal rule states that a kayak must be “showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.”

If you have ever owned a power boat, you may be wondering if the red and green lights that power-driven vessels have are required, and the answer is no. The green lights or red lights you sometimes see are running lights, or sidelights, and go on the port and starboard sides of a craft. 

They are not used for kayak lights because kayaks are too close to the water. Sidelights have to be a certain distance above the water’s surface to meet regulations otherwise they flicker and can confuse other boaters. 

If you want to put running red and green lights on your kayak, be sure you put them on the correct sides. 

You have to put the red light on the port side to indicate the kayak’s left side. The green light should be on the starboard side to show the right side. 

Although kayaks don’t usually use running lights, some people feel safer having them because running lights allow others to see their entire boat. 

There is one other type of illumination that kayakers sometimes use – a strobe light. This is only for emergencies and is a way to signal for help when night kayaking. 

The flashing white light lets other boats know you are in trouble; it is not the same as navigational lights. If you have a strobe light for your kayak, it must be a rapid strobe. 


Given all the lighting options already available, it makes sense that kayak lighting is set to improve in the near future. Experts say that kayaks will soon be treated like all other vehicles, which means they will be manufactured with the lights already installed.

So watch out for these improvements. In the meantime, to ensure that you meet regulations when you’re on your kayak at night, you must, at the minimum, be showing a light when other boats come near you. 

For extra safety, invest in the right gear, such as a lantern showing a white light or an air horn, to ensure that others can see you when kayaking at night.