How Kayak at Night Safely And Legally

kayaking at night

If you enjoy kayaking and start spending more and more time paddling on the water then you may find yourself in a situation when you want to, or even need to, continue paddling after dark. This guide will help you understand the dangers involved with kayaking at night and show you the precautions you need to take and the gear you will need to carry to take to make your nighttime kayak trip a safe and enjoyable one.

Why you may want or need to kayak at night

As you become more experienced with kayaking you may feel the desire to take to the water at night. Although there are dangers associated with night kayaking it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As long as you are aware of the dangers and prepare yourself there is no need to be frightened to take to the water at night in your kayak.

As long as you take the correct precautions night kayaking can be a fun and rewarding experience.

So why would anyone want to take to the water at night in their kayak?

There are a few reasons for wanting to kayak at night, some of these reasons may include:

  • Pure fun. You want to experience certain waters and environments from a nighttime perspective.
  • To avoid daytime heat. If you are on a boat camping trip or kayaking excursions during high summer in desert areas the heat can be cruel. Traveling at night and camping by day, or splitting your paddling between cooler parts of the day and a part of the night, is often a great way to enjoy your trip without becoming physically drained due to excessive daytime heat.

Of course I’m sure there are as many personal reasons for wanting to kayak at night as there are readers of this blog but the above 2 are the most common ones.

Although most night kayak excursions are motivated by the desire to hit the water after sunset sometimes you may find yourself in a situation were you have no choice but to stay on the water as the sun goes down.

Here are a few reasons you may find that you need to kayak at night:

  • Nowhere to camp. You have misjudged the time and find yourself still traveling after dusk with no available camping area in sight.
  • You ran out of time. You have not yet reached your predetermined destination when the sun goes down.
  • An emergency arises. There may be a time when an emergency requires that you continue paddling in order to reach help.

Again, I am sure there will be readers who will know of other reasons that would force a kayaker to stay on the water after dark but the above mentioned ones are the most common.

The dangers of kayaking at night

There is a misconception among novice kayakers that kayaking is the same at night as it is during the day. Venturing out on the water at night with this attitude is not only unwise but it could be dangerous.

Apart from the danger of sun exposure, the same type of dangers that exist for daytime kayakers exist for nighttime kayakers, except they are even more pronounced. Seriously reduced visibility at night, even on a clear moonlit night and with adequate electronic illumination, means even the lesser dangers could become possibly life-threatening if not avoided.

Due to the potential dangers associated with night kayaking it is wise to stay cautious while on the water and it is essential that you take precautions and have the correct equipment with you.

Le’s take a look at some of the potential dangers you may face when kayaking at night and how to take precautions to avoid them and/or deal with them should they occur.

Adverse/changing weather conditions

Obviously quick changing weather conditions can be dangerous for any kayaker but even more so for night kayakers.

Reduced visibility can turn adverse weather conditions from an annoyance, and need to head to the shore, to a potentially life-threatening event. For this reason you should always be prepared and have knowledge of the forecasted weather before your journey.

If you find yourself out on the water when the weather turns bad unexpectedly get off the water as soon as possible and don’t venture back until things begin to clear.

Other water users

Obviously being aware of other water users is a essential at any time but especially important at night. Collisions are much more likely to our when its dark.

For this reason is a legal requirement for most water users to display navigational lights, while on the water, in conditions that cause reduced visibility. These legal requirements are not the same for every vessel.

For a kayak the legal requirement is to have at least 1 white light that is illuminated 360 degrees and is visible for up to 1 mile (more on that later).

Underwater obstacles

Underwater obstacles, even in shallow waters and even when using a flat bottom kayak that can glide over most obstacles easily (see our article Why Choose a Flat Bottom Kayak), it can be be difficult to see and navigate obstacles.

Although you should avoid all obstacles when kayaking at night there are a few types of obstacles that are extremely hazardous to kayakers at night because they are not only difficult to see but they severely damage or even capsize your kayak and hold it underwater.


Strainers are obstacles that allow water to pass through them but will stop solid objects – like your kayak. Some strainers are man-made objects like grates while others are natural objects such as tree branches.

If you’re kayak hits a strainer it can be capsized and trapped in that position.


Sweepers are tree branches that have fallen into the water but remain attached to the tree.

This makes them a type of strainer but even more dangerous as there is no way of freeing the obstacle in order to free your kayak.

Strainers and sweepers are very dangerous to kayakers and therefore any type of obstacle you see should be avoided … on time and everything!

Strainers and sweepers can be, and have been in the past, fatal for even experienced kayakers.

Dams or weirs

Weirs and dams are man-made structures that are not friendly to kayakers.

Turbulent water goes hand-in-hand with a weir and it is all too easy for a paddler to get caught in it.

The undercurrent that accompanies a dam has trapped many kayakers and caused deaths.

If you encounter a weir or dam take your kayak out of the water and carry it around the obstacle.

Do not take the chance of navigating either a weir or a dam especially at night. If in doubt …. get out!


Dehydration is not something people immediately think of when it comes to kayaking. After all you are surrounded by water. But, when you kayak you are exerting a lot of energy and this causes you to sweat. So, your body is constantly losing moisture.

Keep yourself well hydrated by having plenty of bottled water to hand. Do not be tempted to drink the water you are traveling on even if it is fresh water as there will probably be hidden nasties in there that can cause a number of diseases.

If you absolutely must drink water from a natural source, treat it first!

Hypothermia & shock

Hitting super cold water can cause instant shock to your system and put you into some serious trouble if you are not adequately prepared.

Shock occurs due to the instant change in temperature that your body experiences. This can lead to several adverse effects on your bodily system with the most impenitent danger coming from breathing problems and confusion.

Hypothermia occurs when you are exposed to a cold environment for a sustained period of time. In this case cold water.

You can experience hypothermia if you capsize in cold waters and don’t get out and dried off in time – something you may find difficult to do if you have experienced shock from the initial capsizing.

To avoid both shock and hypothermia you should wear a wetsuit or drysuit underneath your clothes while travelling by kayak at night in cold waters.

Don’t think just because it is summer that the waters you are navigating are warm. Check first! We live in a digital age were such information is readily available at your fingertips so there is not excuse for lacking this information.

Check the seasonal variations of the nighttime water temperature for the area you plan to travel before you head out on the water. If you can’t find that information wear a wetsuit or a drysuit as a precaution.

Equipment needed for night kayaking

Apart from being at least somewhat experienced in kayaking, the key to safe kayaking at night is having the correct gear. You should also, obviously, be using the correct type of kayak for the marine environment you plan to navigate. That includes knowing if you need a sit-in or sit-on kayak.

We covered the essential kayaking gear you need before in this article. If you are considering kayaking at night then you should have most, if not all, of the equipment mentioned there.

However, for night kayaking you need to take some extra precautions and ensure that you have the exact type of equipment required to stay safe.

There are legal requirements that you must adhere to when kayaking at night. Failure to follow this requirements will mean you are breaking the law and open to prosecution.

However, as well as legally required gear there are also non-legally required pieces of equipment that should be viewed as being essential if you want to stay safe in dark waters.

let’s look at the legal requirements first.

Legal requirements

We already covered these legal requirements in the article Essential Kayak Gear and Equipment Every Kayaker Needs but they need repeated here for obvious reasons.

Gear required by law:

  • A sound producing device. A good quality whistle is useful for alerting attention to yourself in the event of an emergency. Plastic whistles perform better than metal ones which can corrode in marine conditions. Also, peas within the whistle may become stuck and cause a metal whistle to stop working. Whistles should attach readily to a PFD with a suitable length of lanyard to reach your mouth easily. A good PDF will usually come with a whistle attached.
  • An electronic white light or lantern. A 360 degree white navigational light is required by law. It will ensure you remain visible to other water users no matter what weather and water conditions you find yourself in. Obviously a lantern is not ideal on a kayak and although you can get a full set of kayak navigational lights this is not required by law. There are 2 simple ways to keep legally compliment and safe on the water if you don’t want full nav lights. The first is to use a strobe light that can be attached to the stern of your kayak via its simple suction cup. The second is a small plastic covered LED light that attaches easily to the rope of your kayak – as these are very cheap it is a good idea to put one on the stern and one at the bow.
  • A Personal Flotation Device (PFD). You are required by law to wear a PFD when kayaking. When choosing a suitable PFD look for ones that not only offer safety but that also offer you greater freedom of movement so you can still paddle effectively. The most common type of PFD is a life jacket. A high quality Personal Flotation Device will not only have multiple storage compartments but it will also ensure you are fully legally compliment by having handy safety extras inbuilt such as lights, compass and whistle attachments.

Additional safety gear that is advised

As well as the above mentioned legally required gear you need, below are a few additional items that you would be advised to take with you on your night excursions.

  • Search light. On most boats it is easy to attach a deck mounted light and/or have a handheld light or lamp onboard. Obviously neither option is ideal for the kayaker. A high quality waterproof headlight is a great alternative. A headlight is a actually must-have item for kayaking at night because you will need all the visibility you can get and the light will move naturally to match what you are looking at. Look for a high quality waterproof light, like this one, which not only help you be seen but that also affords great visibility of your surroundings without glare.
  • A spare paddle. Carrying a spare lightweight kayak paddle is a good idea in case you lose yours in challenging conditions. A foldable paddle can be easily stored in a kayak compartment or even in your backpack.
  • Protection for electronics and documents. Having sufficient water proof packaging for protecting electronic equipment, such as your phone, and hard copy maps is a really good idea as well. A simple waterproof phone pouch is all you need to keep your phone safe though you may want larger bags for other water-sensitive equipment.
  • A kayak bilge pump. A bilge pump is not absolutely essential for getting water out of your kayak but it is a fast and efficient way of doing so should your boat capsize or get swamped. Look for a well designed pump that will remove water on both the pushing and pulling action of the pump handle for faster evacuation of the water. Your pump should also have a point where it can be secured to your kayak so it is always within immediate and easy reach. Compact lightweight kayak bilge pumps are readily available. I’m sure some experienced kayakers would argue that this piece of equipment should be placed under the “essentials” category but I feel it would really only be essential if you plan to paddle under sever conditions. So, if you intend to kayak in challenging waters or for long periods it is probably advisable to pack one of these cheap, but potentially life-saving devices on your kayak.
  • Strobes or flares. Pack some strobes or flares for sending a sustained distress signal if needed. If you have the available storage space on your kayak consider investing in a boating safety kit which is very lightweight and comes with all the safety equipment you need from a first aid kit to a whistle and even a flare.
  • A knife. A good quality camping knife is an essential boating, camping and safety and rescue item. A knife can be used in a myriad of ways and can even be used to cut yourself free from your kayak in dangerous situations. It can also be used to help you when undertaking equipment repairs. In addition, a good knife can be used to kill and gut fish on your trip. Look for an ergonomic handle and corrosion resistant blade.

What to wear kayaking at night

Here are a few key items you should wear when you are kayaking at night.

  • Personal Flotation Device. You are required by law to wear a PFD. (See legal requirements above).
  • Wetsuit or drysuit. As already mentioned wearing a wetsuit or drysuit can protect your from shock and hypothermia should your kayak capsize in cold, dark waters.
  • Warm clothing. Wear clothes that are more appropriate to the water temperature than the surrounding air temperature.
  • Clothing that allows free movement. Apart from your wetsuit don’t wear clothing that feels too tight.
  • Wear layers. Dress in layers for added warmth and protection from the elements.

What not to wear kayaking at night

  • Avoid cotton. Cotton soaks up water like a sponge.
  • Avoid anything with metal zippers. Metal zippers corrode quickly, especially in saltwater. Go for clothes with plastic zippers or that use Velcro.

Advice for kayaking by moonlight

Even though the moon can give out some powerful illumination on a clear night don’t fool yourself into thinking that’s the only light you need.

Apart from the fact that clouds can be blown across the moon at any time to reduce, or totally eliminate, your natural light, moonlight alone is not enough to light your way. Nor will it give enough light for other water users to see you.

As we mentioned above you need at least 1 white light that is illuminated 360 degrees and that can be seen at least 1 mile away though you should also have some form of search light such as a headlight.

Always take appropriate safety precautions when kayaking at night by having the right gear.

And, always assume that you will be kayaking in complete darkness so you will be well prepared for any eventuality.

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