Kayaking At Night Guide: The Law, Safety & Gear You Will Need

Although paddling is mostly considered a daytime activity, kayaking at night certainly has its charms: 

The stars are shining above, you can see the moon’s reflection on the water, and there are no crowds to spoil the moment. It’s just you and nature’s beauty. 

If you haven’t tried night kayaking yet, prepare for a whole new adventure and to fall in love with the outdoors all over again. 

But – there’s always a “but” – before you do, take a moment to learn the rules and tips for nighttime kayak safety! 

Prepare to come to the dark side (of kayaking).

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Know The Laws & Regulations: Is It Legal To Kayak At Night?

Lady Justice, scales and gabble

Is it legal to kayak at night” remains one of the most commonly asked questions among paddlers considering taking their kayak out for a nighttime ride.

Generally speaking, there are no specific rules set in place by the USCG that would indicate that kayaking at night is in any way illegal. 

However, each state has different sets of regulations regarding nighttime paddling. So, familiarize yourself with the local rules of vessel operation before you head out on the water. 

In case you’re interested, here’s the actual Rule 25 – Sailing Vessels Underway and Vessels Under Oars, as listed by the US Coast Guard

A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she 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.

All non-motorized vessels under 23 feet, or 7 meters, in length – including kayaks and canoes – classify as “vessels under oars” and are regulated by the rule mentioned above. 

Potential Risks Of Kayaking At Night: Is Paddling At Night Safe? 

Hand coming up from underwater at night

Dehydration, hypothermia, capsizing, severe weather, drowning – these are but a few potential risks and dangers commonly associated with paddling sports such as kayaking. 

Now, add low light conditions and poor visibility into the mix, and you have your answer: 

Yes, paddling a kayak at night can be a very risky endeavor, indeed. 

I’m not trying to scare you into canceling your night kayaking trip. On the contrary, I think kayaking at night can be an otherworldly experience. 

That doesn’t make the risks any less real: 

Your primary sense – eyesight – will be greatly reduced in low-light conditions, making it difficult to assess the size, distance, and position accurately. 

Then, there’s the issue of your kayak’s visibility – or lack thereof – on the water. Even a well-trained boat captain traveling at a safe speed will have trouble spotting a paddler in a kayak on a moonlit night. 

It all comes down to one issue – extreme low light conditions. How you prepare for this determines how dangerous a kayak night trip will be. 

There also the risk from wildlife to consider- animals that are sedentary during day might be active and far more dangerous at night – alligators for example.

Here’s the thing: 

The biggest danger of night kayaking is underestimating the potential threat and failing to match the perceived risk with the actual risk involved. 

The mere fact that you’re here trying to learn about the safety of night paddling shows that you understand the potential dangers of kayaking in the dark. That’s already a step in the right direction. 

Night Kayaking Essentials: What Do You Need To Kayak At Night?

Whether you’re launching your kayak at night because you have no other choice or want to experience the moonlit waterways, the rules of the game are the same: 

Take extra safety precautions, be mindful of your surroundings and other vessels, and prepare for the unexpected. Being ready for an emergency in the dark could be the difference between life or death.

Here are the three key rules for staying safe when night paddling! 

Rule #1: Make Sure Others Can See You (Kayak Lights)

Man rowing kayak in the rain falling, evening light

Inexperienced paddlers should stay away from waters shared with sailboats and powerboats whenever possible. If you’re not sure how to read night navigation lights and signals properly, conditions of limited visibility will only increase the risk of boating accidents

What if you can’t avoid waterways with other boat traffic, though? 

For starters, keep track of other vessels navigating the waters. Look for moving lights; if you can’t see any, learn to trust your ears. 

Next – and I cannot stress enough how crucial this is – make yourself visible to others

Night kayaking visibility comes in two forms; kayak lights and/or a loud noise maker.  

A marine air horn or long range whistle both make for a cheap, simple and effective noise maker – just ensure your it has a decibel rating of 120dB or above.

Displaying a waterproof, 360-degree white light – an electric torch, lighted lantern, or, at the very least, a hand-held flashlight – is required by the US Coast Guard. It will serve as your primary navigational light and ensure that you’re visible to others. 

Place your kayak lights behind you rather than in the line of sight so that it doesn’t affect your night vision.

Red and green running lights, or sidelights, aren’t required by law but might come in handy if you’re sharing the waters with other paddlers. Green always goes on the right and red on the left side of your kayak; never arrange them otherwise.  

Here’s how to read the positioning of red and green lights on other vessels: 

  • If you see green and red lights, with the red one being on the left, the other boat is traveling away from you. 
  • If you see green and red lights, with the red one being on the right, the other boat is traveling toward you. 

Lastly, have a separate flasher or strobe light onboard the kayak, preferably attached to your PFD. A flashing white light is a universal distress signal for boaters; it should only be used in emergencies. 

Bonus Tip 

Turn the navigational lights on before it gets dark. 

Light requirements state that white light should be displayed in due time. That means anywhere between sunset and sunrise – not when the night is already pitch-black. 

Rule #2: Make Sure You Can See (Lights)

Oil Lamp at Night on a Wooden Surface

Your safety during a night kayaking trip, where the lack of light is a primary concern, hugely depends on two things – ensuring that you’re visible to others and being aware of your surroundings. 

So, in essence, if “be seen” is the first rule of night kayaking, “see” is the second. 

As long as it’s a moonlit night, rather than a pitch-black one, your eyes will get dark-adapted within 30 minutes. However, you’ll still struggle with determining the size, distance, and position of things like other vessels, landmarks, and waves accurately. 

A waterproof headlamp may come in handy in some instances, but only if used sparingly, since artificial lighting, especially white light, hinders your night vision. Limit its use to essential tasks and paddle with lights off whenever you can. 

Rule #3: Bring Safety Gear 

Water Sports Drying Wetsuit and Aqua Shoes on the Large Boulder. Water Sports Equipment

First and foremost, put your life jacket on the second that you set foot on the shore. 

PFDs are mandatory on all vessels, including kayaks, anyway. In terms of USCG’s rules and regulations, this shouldn’t even be up for debate. 

Here are other examples of safety gear that you should have on board before you set out on a night paddling trip: 

  • A smartphone or a VHF radio for communication or to call help in an emergency
  • Food and drinking water 
  • Spare clothes in case you end up getting wet 
  • An illuminating flair or an emergency beacon to alert others in case of an accident 
  • A first aid kit
  • A noisemaker, either an air horn or a two-tone signaling whistle 

It would be smart to get a dry storage bag for personal items and valuables that might not survive to get wet. That includes your ID, smartphone, first aid kit, extra batteries, portable electronic devices, and the like. 

Ensure that everything’s easy to access; the gear won’t be of much use if you struggle to find what you need in the dark. 

Bonus Tip 

If you’re paddling alone, you should practice self-rescue techniques. Visibility will be limited, and there might not be as much traffic as during the day. 

Knowing what to do if you capsize or something goes wrong will buy you some time in an emergency until help arrives. 

Additional Things To Consider When Kayaking At Night 

Check The Weather

Moody bad weather over a lake

Checking the weather before setting out on a paddling trip is one of the basic safety rules of kayaking: 

Knowing what conditions to expect while on the water is essential safety-wise, regardless of the time of day. 

Night kayaking is challenging enough as is, even without the strong wind and stormy weather. Save the tough conditions for daylight; the middle of the night is not the time to test your paddling skills.

Sure, weather reports can be way off at times. You should still check the forecast before hitting the waters and look for updates regularly, though. 

If the report seems “iffy” in any way, and you have the luxury of postponing your trip, do it. There’s always tomorrow. 

Bonus Tip 

Consult with the local paddling clubs or government agencies that patrol the waters about typical weather conditions and local hazards. Their knowledge of the area can be invaluable when you kayak at night.

Check The Tides 

Sunset at a river with the tide out.  People walk along the shore line

If you’ll be in waters that are heavily affected by tides – this primarily applies to kayakers in sea and ocean waterways and brackish rivers – checking the tide predictions is crucial. 

Inexperienced paddlers could fall into the trap of launching kayaks in high tide, only to drag them across sand or mud when returning to the starting point in low tides. The unlucky few might even get stranded on mudflats. 

Moreover, strong tides tend to create currents that could either work with or against you. 

Checking the predicted times of high and low tides is as important as checking the weather forecast. Knowing when the tides will change, how greatly they fluctuate – referred to as tidal range – and how they might affect the currents could help you plan a safe night kayaking trip. 

Plan Your Route & Stick With It 

Marine Map and compass

It doesn’t matter whether you’re kayaking during the day or at night; the rules of on-the-water navigation still hold: 

Plan your route, memorize it, keep track of your position, and stick to the course as if your life depends on it. 

You might’ve paddled the same waters a dozen times before, and it’ll still look completely different – and strangely unfamiliar – at night. 

Losing sight of things and going off-course in a pitch-black night can happen much easier than you think – and can be quite difficult to correct once it happens. 

Pay attention to details, and stay aware of your surroundings at all times. Distance, time, speed, bearings; everything should be watched and measured more closely when kayaking at night.  It wise to check that you indented route doesn’t have any low-head dams, they can been difficult to spot in the day time let alone at night. If it does, make sure you are fully where they are and take appropriate steps to avoid ‘the killer on the river’.

On that note, investing in a kayak GPS device might be a smart move in terms of nighttime navigation. Global Positioning System, or GPS for short, will provide you with detailed info regarding your exact location, direction, and speed, help you track your route, and stay on course.  

Personally, I think an GPS is a must-have navigation tool and should be on every nighttime paddlers gear list. But always pack a kayak compass and map at as manual backup – from time-to-time technology can and will fail, so better to be prepared!

Bonus Tip 

Research your kayaking location and plan for an emergency. Create a float plan to share your planned route with friends or family, preferably with an estimated time of arrival. Also, establish how long they should wait before they sound the alarm.

Alternatively, you can get in touch with a local US Coast Guard station and leave your paddling plan and contact information in case you need assistance.  

Conclusion 

Kayaking at night. Portland, Oregon Panorama.  Sunset scene with dramatic sky and light reflections on the Willamette River.

Assuming that you can approach kayaking at night the same way you would go about daytime paddling is unrealistic, to say the least. 

So, if anything, I hope this guide prevents you from making that rookie mistake. If you’re going to kayak at night, you’ll have to stay cautious and aware of your surroundings. 

And remember the golden rule: 

See and be seen.

Even well-known waters can suddenly feel unfamiliar under the moonlight. But, as long as you check the local requirements, follow the laws and regulations, and take safety precautions, it can be one of the best kayak trips you ever had.  

I hope you enjoy your nighttime kayak adventure.