The Ultimate Guide to Canoeing at Night

Canoeing at night

Night canoeing is a popular activity because it’s fun. Navigating dark waters can also be very rewarding. However, not everyone who finds themselves paddling their canoe in the dark are doing so from choice. So, even if you never intend to paddle at night it is a good idea to know what to do in case you may find yourself in a situation when you have no choice but to push through the darkness. This guide will show you how to canoe safely at night.

Canoeing at night is sometimes done for pleasure but other times it is born from a necessity to travel at night. There are certain dangers associated with canoeing at night you should know about but as long as you take the appropriate precautions and have the correct equipment, night canoeing can be a fun and rewarding activity.

Why you may want or need to canoe at night

Many people who enjoy canoeing find that as they gain in experience they feel the call to hit the water at night. Night canoeing is a different experience from day-time canoeing and offers many different rewards. But, before the avid canoe lover hits dark water after sunset there are a few dangers they must be aware of.

Although it is true that there are very real dangers involved with pursing any boating activity at night but with the right preparations night canoeing can be a fantastically fun activity that also leaves the paddler with a sense of real accomplishment.

As long as you are well prepared and take the correct precautions canoeing in the dark hours can be a truly awesome experience.

So why would anyone want to be paddling in a canoe after the sun goes down?

There are 2 reasons you may find a canoer out on the water at night by choice:

  • For fun. Being on the water at night is a different experience from daytime paddling. Everything looks different. Everything is quieter. The waterway can be more challenging.
  • When the heat is too much during the daylight hours. Sometimes travelling during the day in excessive heat is just not an option. Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, sunstroke and exhaustion (which can cause additional problems as we’ll cover below). This daytime heat can be made worse when you are wearing layers of protective gear and a PFD (personal flotation device).

There are 3 reasons why you might see a canoer out on the water after dark due to necessity:

  • There is nowhere close to camp. There are many long stretches of water with built-up areas on both sides where camping is impossible. Likewise, the land area around the paddler may be marshy or otherwise unfit for pitching a tent.
  • Lack of time. Sometimes circumstances, water current and unforeseen events mean it’s impossible to reach a predetermined destination on time unless the paddler pushes-on past sunset.
  • There is an emergency situation. If an emergency occurs, such as a person needing urgent medical assistance, it may be necessary to continue paddling after dark.

The above list is not definitive by any means but the above reasons are the most common ones given by canoers who take to the water at night.

The dangers of canoeing at night

It should not come as a surprise that there are dangers associated with canoeing at night.

Although kayaking has inherent dangers that do not apply to canoers the dangers associated with canoeing at night are similar to those encountered by night kayakers. Although we covered them before in our guide to kayaking at night we will cover these dangers again in detail below as they also apply to the canoe users.

We strongly advise you not to skip this section.

Adverse/changing weather conditions

A sudden change in the weather for the worse can be a danger to a canoe in daylight so it should be obvious that this danger is increased at night due to poor visibility. The truth is that the reduced visibility experienced at night can turn bad weather from a temporary annoyance to a potentially life-threatening event.

It is essential you have an accurate overview of the weather forecast for the area you will be canoeing in before hitting the water – even if you don’t intend to paddle at night!

If you find yourself out on the water at night and the weather takes a turn for the worse you should seek an appropriately safe spot on land and get off the water as soon as possible. Sit things out until the weather clears or the sun comes up.

Other boats

Other water users can be a potential hazard at night simple because they are difficult to see.

Most boaters are aware that Federal law makes it a necessity for power-driven boats used at night, and in reduced visibility of any kind, to display navigational lights. This ensures the boat remains clearly identifiable on the water. What many boaters don’t know though is that small manually propelled vessels are also required to take steps to be seen when they take to the water at night and in reduced visibility.

Be aware that although there are legal requirements which boat owners must follow when they boat at night, like having navigational lights on their vessel, not everyone on the water will be following that law! So be vigilant and on the look out for other vessels at all times.

Appropriately sized nav lights are reasonably priced and very easy to fit onto a canoe so there is no excuse not have them!

Obstacles in the water

Obstacles in the water, and just under the water’s surface, poise a real danger to night canoers.

There are two main types of water obstacle that canoers must be aware of and know how to deal with.

They are:

  1. Strainers
  2. Sweepers

Understanding how to avoid these obstacles and how to deal with them if you encounter them is essential if you want to stay safe while canoeing at night.


Strainers is the name given to obstacles in the water which will stop a solid object, like your canoe, but that will allow water to pass through them. Because the water is passing through the strainers they can be difficult to see in reduced visibility.

Some strainers are man-made objects like grates while others are natural objects like submerged tree branches and roots.

If you’re canoe hits a strainer it can suffer serious damage and may even sink but that’s not the only problem you face. Passengers onboard can also be injured as the jolt of hitting a strainer may thrust them forward on the boat or even into the water.

The best way to deal with strainers is to identify them early and then avoid them completely!


Sweepers are slightly different from strainers because they are easier to see but they can be just as deadly.

Sweepers are usually tree branches that are still attached to the tree but which have fallen into the water thus creating an impassable obstacle.

Some canoers make the mistake of thinking they can simply brush sweepers away but soon find that their canoe gets quickly entangled and difficult to free. It can even capsize.

Both strainers and sweepers poise real dangers at night not just because they are difficult to see but because they are also difficult to deal with in the dark if you hit one.

Due to the serious nature of strainers and sweepers a canoer should seek to avoid any and every type of obstacle they see at night!

To avoid hitting strainers and sweepers at night attach a strong deck light to your canoe so you can see clearly in front of the boat.

Dams or weirs

Although weirs and dams are more unfriendly to kayakers they still poise a risk to night canoers.

Turbulent water often accompanies weirs and it is all too easy for a canoer to misjudge it’s strength and speed at night.

The upstream undercurrent that accompanies a dam can trap all kinds of boats, including your canoe, and cause passengers to go overboard.

If you know you will encounter a weir or dam at night, or come across one, be very careful and vigilant. Take things slowly and try to look ahead as much as possible. If possible take your canoe out of the water and carry it to safer waters.

Health dangers and how to avoid them

There are obvious health dangers associated with canoeing at night.

The top four include:

  • Drowning.
  • Fatal and nonfatal injuries.
  • Dehydration.
  • Shock and Hypothermia.


Obviously the biggest risk to your health comes from drowning.

This is such an obvious danger that every canoer should be aware of, regardless of what time of day they are on the water, that it only warrants reiterating the advice given throughout the pages of this website.

Always wear a PFD (personal flotation device) while canoeing.

This is even more important at night when you have a higher risk of ending up in the water.

Most people who drown when using a canoe have not been wearing a PFD.


Fatal injuries are rare but can occur when canoeing.

Fatal injuries are usually due to using a canoe in waters which it is unsuitable for. For instance using a flat bottomed canoe in whitewater leaves you open to the possibility of not only drowning but also acquiring a fatal injury from hitting rocks. Be sure that you are using the correct canoe type for the environment that you are using it in and the activity you are using it for.

Serious injuries can also occur when canoeing and are usually caused by collisions. Obviously serious injuries will need immediate medical attention as leaving them untreated could lead to long-term damage and other health problems. However, even slight injuries can cause serious problems when paddling at night.

If, for instance, you strain your shoulder or arm it can be difficult to maintain a steady paddle stroke which can cause problems if you need to fight against a strong current, avoid an obstacle or reach a destination.

Overusing a sprained shoulder can also cause more serious issues. You should seek to rest if you encounter any type of sprain or strain.

If paddling with a sprained muscle is unavoidable then you should only do so in paced bursts – for example an hour on the water and an hour at rest. And, make sure you apply the appropriate treatment to protect the muscle from long-term damage.


Dehydration does not just happen during the day. It is a misconception that dehydration is brought about by excessive heat only.

While canoeing you will likely be expending a lot of energy paddling and this will cause you to sweat and thus lose bodily fluids. This can be even more pronounced at night due to the reduced visibility; you may be paddling more than you would during the day as you take evasive action against possible dangers that you would be less weary of during daylight hours.

Therefore you must stay hydrated at all times and ensure you have a readily supply of fresh water at hand.


Most water is cold, especially at night. Unless you are canoeing in very hot environments the likelihood is the water you will be navigating will be cold. If you are canoeing in the winter the water can be dangerously cold.

Falling out of your boat, or capsizing, causing you to hit extremely cold water will likely create an instant shock to your body. This can cause serious trouble if you are not adequately prepared.

Shock occurs because the body suddenly experiences a dramatic and instant change in temperature and it can’t cope with the sensation. This shock can then lead to several additional adverse affects that range from breathing problems to confusion both of which can lead to drowning.


Hypothermia can come quickly on the heels of shock but can also occur even if your body does not go into shock from the initial water-entry. It is serious and can be fatal if left untreated.

Hypothermia can occur when you are exposed to a cold environment over a sustained period of time. If you fall into cold water and don’t get out in time you could develop hypothermia. But even if you do get out in a timely manner but don’t get out of your cold wet clothes and don’t start to reheat your body you can get hypothermia.

Be aware that there are very specific steps you need to take to reheat a person who has fallen in very cold water. Failing to follow the correct procedures could lead to further complications and even death.

Equipment needed for canoeing at night

Below is a list of the essential items that you need in order to canoe safely at night.

Let’s start with the Federal laws regarding boating at night in a small vessel.

Legal requirements

Below are the legal requirements for using a canoe as per Federal Law.

You need to have:

  • USGC approved, Type I, II or III high quality PFD (racing canoes are exempt).
  • A sound producing device. A simple whistle will be enough to meet this requirement as that’s all you need to attract attention to yourself in the event of an emergency. However, there are specially designed boat whistles that will perform better and last longer in marine conditions.
  • Navigational Light. A 360 degree white navigational light attached to the stern or bow of your canoe is required by law. This nav light will ensure you remain visible to other water users no matter what weather and water conditions you find yourself in. The most common navigational light used on a canoe is a strobe light which can be easily attached and unattached to the boat at the stern via a simple suction cup. Alternatively a small plastic covered LED light can be attached easily to the stern and another one can be attached at the bow.
  • Night Visual Distress Signals. This only applies to canoes used in bodies of waters that are under the jurisdiction of the USCG (such as coastal waters). Basically this just means carrying flares.

Legal requirements for modified canoes

The above regulations apply to all canoes used at night but there are some additional requirements that modified canoes must adhere to.

Additional Federal Laws for modified canoes:

  • Title & registration – powered canoe. If your Canoe is powered by a trolling motor then it needs to be registered and titled. The only exception to this rule is if the canoe is being used on a privately owned waters. A Registration Card will need to be carried with you and presented to a NCWRC officer if requested. This regulation does not apply to non-powered canoes.
  • Title & registration – sailing canoe. If the canoe is powered primarily by sail and is over 14 feet in length then it needs to be registered and titled. A Registration Card will need to be carried with you and presented to a NCWRC officer if requested. This does not apply to canoes where an optional sail kit is used only on occasion.

Not required by law but sensible to have

Below are some safety items that, although not legally required, should be carried by all night canoers.

  • Deck light. Deck lights are stronger than navigational lights – think of them as search lights. They will illuminate even the darkest waters in front of the boat. Although a strong lightweight deck light, like these ones, is best, a smaller handheld waterproof flashlight will do.
  • A spare paddle. It is always a good idea to have a spare spare paddle onboard.
  • Protection for electronics and documents. You should also consider having sufficient waterproof bags that are designed to protect your electronic equipment, such as your phone, and any documents you may be carrying, such hard copy maps. A simple waterproof phone pouch is all you need to keep your phone safe.
  • A canoe bilge pump. A bilge pump is not absolutely essential but it is a fast and efficient way of getting water out of a capsized or swamped canoe. Be sure you get a pump that will remove water on both the pushing and pulling motion of the handle. Compact lightweight canoe bilge pumps are cheap and readily available.
  • Strobes or flares. As mentioned above it is a legal requirement to carry flares if you are navigating waters under the jurisdiction of the USCG but even if you aren’t, flares are a good thing to have onboard. You can get cheap flares easily but you may be better 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 flare.
  • A knife. A good quality camping knife is an essential boating, camping, safety and rescue item. A knife can be used in a myriad of ways while canoeing.

What to wear when canoeing at night

When out on the water at night a canoer should ensure he or she is wearing the correct clothing for comfort, warmth and safety.

Here are the key items of clothing a night canoer should always wear.

  • 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 canoe capsize or should you go overboard and into cold, winter 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 when canoeing at night

  • Avoid cotton. Cotton is like a sponge that you wear. Water readily soaks into cotton.
  • Avoid clothes with metal zippers. Metal zippers corrode quickly in marine environments. Go for clothes with plastic zippers or ones that have Velcro.

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