Night kayaking tips
May 16, 2021
Kayaking at night can be a great marine experience, and a way to get out on the water with minimal crowds and the stars shining overhead. If you time it right, you can even see a sunset as you launch. However, it's also a potentially dangerous adventure, so you need to ensure you're well-prepared before you get going. Read on for our quick guide to taking kayaks out at night.
Make sure you can be seen
The key aspect of night kayaking is ensuring that you can be seen on the water, and lights are a key part of this.
We suggest a waterproof light source attached to your person - think a strobe, torch or light stick and a back up light. If you have light attached to you, you will still be visible if you end up in the water separated from your boat.
You may want to wear another light in the form of a head torch when out at night.
Switch off your headlamp to preserve your night vision, but turn it on when there's traffic to make you more visible.
Also think about attaching reflective tape at different points about your kayak and on your paddles. Make sure the reflective tape is at least 150mm in length.
Kayak lights for night paddling
Now, let's turn to the lights on your kayak. Standard practice is to place a green light on your right side and place a red light on your left - this indicates which direction you're moving in. Also attach a large white light at the rear of the boat - you can find lights on the market with a 360-degree light.
The large white light will be the most visible over the red and green, so this is where you should invest.
These lights will mean you can be seen by anyone on the water, even from far away, and prevent you from getting run over!
Ensure you can see - kayak light
It's not just other people who need to see you, you also need to be able to see.
You need to be highly aware of your surroundings when out in the dark, so a waterproof head light also doubles up for helping you to see. Bear in mind that artificial lights can hinder your night vision, and make things seem further away, so keep it off when possible. You can use the head light when checking navigation and when stopped.
Know your route
When paddling after dark, it's best to stick to routes you know well. Stay around an area you paddle often. Take your chart or map, and mark buoy positions and beacons that you see on the way - these won't change, but they might become less visible. The other alternative is to take a local guide for new paddling spots, or if it's your first time.
If there's a beacon you spot at night that you haven't seen before, take its bearing in reference to a known point and research it. If the weather takes a sudden turn, it might become the only navigation light you can seen.
A waterproof GPS is always an option, but don't rely on these before you've practiced your compass and navigation skills - they may become essential for safety when you're paddling.
Leave your plan
Even if it's a well-worn route for you, always leave a plan with family or friends before you launch, and do not deviate from the plan. Make sure it includes your ETAs.
You could also leave a paddle plan at your locally-based coast guard station via phone.
Check the conditions
Make sure you check the weather conditions before you set out. Check both the weather and tide times, and consider delaying if the conditions are challenging.
If the conditions feel different after you've launched your kayak, don't continue if you don't feel confident. There is no shame in cancelling your adventure and postponing it to a later date.
If you're taking your kayak out on the ocean in the dark (only for the most experienced kayakers!) don't stare directly at a wave. At night, you're likely to misjudge its size and position, and this may roll you. Instead, try looking slightly off to the side - about 20 degrees or so off centre.
Your retina will respond poorly to low lighting, but cells concentrated in the outer edges adjust better to low light levels at night - it's therefore easier to see more clearly from a slight angle.
Take your friends
It's best to keep others around you and to paddle as a group after dark, for many safety reasons. Groups are more visible by other traffic on the water, and you're there to help each other out if something goes wrong.
It's also just fun to have the company!
Don't use new kit
Just like you don't want to try a new route after dark, you also don't want to try new kit at night. Make sure you're comfortable with all the kayaking kit you're using so you're not trying for anything for the first time.
Don't forget that, for safety, you need to carry some form of communication device with you. A waterproof phone is a good idea, and some illuminating flares - note that smoke is ineffective at night.
At any time of day, it's important to remember to dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature. A swim at night can have an extreme effect on you, so be prepared to be disorientated, and practice some safety drills for when things go wrong.
Learn about what to wear when kayaking.
Wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) is required by law when kayaking. As such, a good quality life jacket is a must. But this is even more important when kayaking at night, and becoming separated from your kayak may have more serious consequences.
Kayak fishing at night
When night kayaking, you may also want to add an extra activity to your marine outing with some kayak fishing. During the day, higher water temperatures and the sun can force fish deeper under cover.
But, at night, predators come out to hunt under cover of darkness. And with your mobile and nimble kayak, you're perfectly positioned to take advantage of the newly-emerging fish.
What to take nighttime kayak fishing
Nighttime anglers only need a few basic tools.
The key ones are a GPS, a radio and a good light. Nighttime disorientation is a common thing at night, even in familiar waters. The GPS can stop you hitting marine obstacles such as rocks or running to close to waves breaking. Most importantly, it can keep you where the fish are.
A radio will be invaluable to communicate with your fishing buddies, and be vital in an emergency.
We've already discussed lights, but maybe consider carrying a floating hand-crank flashlight as a backup in case your batteries die, or a light falls in the water.
You'll have the fish in your kayak before you know it!
Other night kayaking tips to consider
Once you've covered the basics, these other gear and planning ideas can take things to the next level.
Use a paddle leash
Dropping your paddle in the water at night could make it almost impossible to recover.
Paddle leashes are affordable and a simple solution to make sure you don't lose your paddle.
The same rules apply as when you're kayaking during the day for your nighttime kayaking.
Make sure you dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. However, consider having additional reflective aspects on your clothing for after dark. If that's not an option, wear some light sticks to stay visible.
Have an action plan
Within your kayak group, have a plan for when you're on the water.
You might not always be able to easily see everyone to count your group, so maybe assign everyone a number so you can number off verbally.
You'll also need a capsizing plan and a way to regroup if you lose a member of the group - it's all too easy for this to happen at any time, but especially after dark.
Know your limits
Knowing your limits is essential when kayaking. Ensure that you have enough skill in your kayak during the day before you try too much after dark.
If you're not comfortable, you can pack in your adventure early and build up your confidence later.
Read more kayak articles
When you're ready for your night kayak experience, read more of our kayaking tips:
- Find your perfect paddling companion - how to choose a kayak paddle
- Learn more about how to dress for your kayak adventure
- Consider more kayak safety tips