Nighttime Kayaking: Light Requirements Explained


Kayak Sunset

When you’re out fishing, having a good time, and the fish are active and feeding aggressively, you seldom want to come in, right? The sun begins to go down, you’d like to stay longer, and you start wondering if you need to have lights on your kayak.

The United States Coast Guard states a vessel under oar power, meaning kayak, 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.

Source: Rule 25d (ii) Navigation Center/U.S. Dept of Homeland Security/United States Coast Guard

Fishing from your kayak just as the sun is setting, and for a few hours afterward, you’ll find it’s the best time for most anglers to be making nice catches. The wind has calmed down, the larger fishing and pleasure boats are leaving the water, and you have the place to yourself most of the time. But there are specific requirements for nighttime kayaking.

Powered Kayaks Lighting Requirements

We are seeing more fishing kayaks produced and sold that have electric motors powering them. These types of kayaks fall under a different category of the United States Coast Guard rules and have different lighting requirements from a paddle-type kayak.

You are going to need to have sidelights and a sternlight.

“Sidelights” means a green light on the starboard side (the right side facing the front of the kayak) and a red light on the port side (left side facing the front of the kayak).

Kayaks are not long enough to have lights placed on both sides, according to the United States Coast Guard rules. Therefore, you may be on the water after dark with ONE SIDELIGHT displayed. This sidelight must have a red light on the left side and a green light on the right side.

The sidelight can then be displayed as close as possible to the bow of the kayak. You will want to be sure nothing is obstructing the light, and it is visible to others.

A “sternlight”  means a white light placed as nearly as practicable at the stern showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 135 degrees and so fixed as to show the light 67.5 degrees from right aft on each side of the vessel.

Keep in mind the above is from the USCG Navigation Center and applied to sailing vessels and powered vessels. Kayaks fall under these guidelines because of the electric propelled design.

Oar Powered Lighting Requirements

Although power-driven kayaks are gaining in popularity, the majority of kayak fishermen still do it the old fashioned way. We paddle!

If you power your kayak with your back and arms, you can abide by the guidelines set forth above for powered kayaks and be in compliance, although you don’t necessarily need to. Oar powered watercraft do not need to display sidelights.

What you will need to kayak after dark and comply with the rules is a stern-mounted white light that will be noticeable from “all around.” Some people use a battery-operated lantern and set it on the rear deck to avoid a collision with an oncoming boater. Technically, this will comply with the rule, although I wouldn’t advise doing that for safety reasons.

My Personal Lighting Choice for Kayaking

I wanted something rugged and dependable, and after much reviewing and research, I chose the Railblaza lighted flag kit from Amazon.com for the following reasons.

  • Designed to help you be seen on the water
  • i360 light meets USCG 2NM requirements
  • Extenda Pole includes three pieces for height setting options
  • Powered by 3 AA Batteries and is IP67 waterproof up to 1 meter

The flag is hi-viz orange and can be seen from afar in all directions during the day. And since the 360° light is on top of the flag, it is easily powered with a switch when I need it. There is no need to carry a flag and a separate lantern, and it’s United States Coast Guard approved.

Three AA batteries power it, and I can always keep a few readily available in a storage or tackle box on the kayak or in the console of my pickup. If I tip over, the flag is waterproof.

The flag kit comes with a mounting plate and hardware and also has three easily changeable sections to change the height of the flag/light. When I’m on big waters, I can use all three sections and seen from further away. And when I’m on smaller waters and streams, I can use one section in tighter spots and make casting easier.

Don’t Forget a Headlamp!

The other item I like to have once my visibility begins to diminish is a headlamp. Don’t skimp on a good headlamp. When it’s dark, and you have your gear and other items on your kayak, being able to see is a must while you’re paddling for home!

Handheld flashlights are okay, and you can also wave them at others to attract attention. But I prefer to wear a quality headlamp and have both my hands free to paddle or grab the gear.

Petzl makes a quality headlamp, but I’ve found Princeton Tech headlamps to be dependable high quality, and dollar for dollar, a better buy. The Princeton Tech Remix is a solid choice for the money.

You Need to Be Seen

Whether you’re kayaking on a larger or small body of water, during the day or at night, it is essential to be seen by others. Your safety depends upon it.

Related Article: Can You Take a Kayak Out at Night Fishing

One of the most challenging times to visually pick out an object at a distance is during the dusk hours. People believe they can see where they’re going. They can see the shore or parking lot from a distance, but they cannot see smaller objects.

You should always make yourself as visible you can get to other boaters during these times. As the sun begins to set and the light fades to dusk, objects often seem to be further away than they actually are. Having the proper lights, lighted flag, and headlamps are crucial to being safe on the water during the evenings and night.

Always Know Where You Are

When you’re fishing, and it begins to get darker, you want to be sure you know where you are in relation to other boating traffic. Some of you may fish in high traffic areas near major coastal cities. Don’t venture out into these areas if at all possible. Stay off the crowded lanes.

Similar circumstances are found in small bodies of waters as well. Paddling out in front of the marina, boat dock, or launch ramp can be pretty exciting as well at times. Other boaters may be in a hurry to get off the water and not notice you.

Plan Your Fishing

When going out fishing for the day, plan your day, and where you are going to be fishing. It’s easy to get distracted while trolling or casting the shoreline and have time slipping away from you.

Before you know it, the sun is starting to sink, and you may be miles from where you started! Now you’re caught out on the water after dark and need to get back!

An excellent app for your cell phone for kayaking is the Navionics Boating App on their web site at Navionics.com. You can try it for free. I use it when I leave the ramp to mark a waypoint, so I know exactly where I need to paddle back to in the dark.

Related Questions

What necessary safety gear should I bring along kayak fishing? It should go without saying you should ALWAYS wear a PFD (Personal Floatation Device) when on the water. You should also have a whistle, UV sunblock, flashlight, knife, and plenty of water.

Is it legal to kayak fish at night? Yes, kayak fishing at night is a legal activity. Having a kayak out on the water after dark is permitted as long as you follow the lighting requirements to do so safely. There are fishing regulations that may have seasonal dates or times for specific species of fish. Always check with the Fish and Game Departments of the State you’ll be fishing in for current regulations and laws concerning fishing.

Mike Rodman

Mike enjoys fishing all year round, from fly fishing small streams in Wyoming's higher mountains to kayak fishing the lower altitude lakes and reservoirs. Mike also has a passion for ice fishing. When he has spare time, he'll be found at his rod bench building custom fishing rods.

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