Lights serve many purposes on a kayak. If you’re a kayak angler and enjoy night fishing, a light can be helpful when changing tackle or unhooking a fish. If you’re paddling on a moonless night, a light will be indispensable in helping you find the take-out that you swore was just on the shoreline over there. More importantly, when paddling at night in areas trafficked by motorboats, a light can prevent a collision, alerting surrounding boaters to your presence. A light will also aid emergency services in locating you should you need rescuing.
Types of kayak lights
In case the reasons above haven’t convinced you to carry a light, here’s another one: in many cases, it’s required by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). There are two lighting requirements “vessels under oars”—that’s you, kayakers—must abide by.
The Coast Guard requires kayaks out on the water between sunset and sunrise—and when paddling during times of restricted visibility, such as in fog or rain—to at minimum have an electric torch or lighted lantern with a white light on board which, in the Coast Guard’s own words, “shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.” A flashlight will do in a pinch to fulfill this requirement, but having a light that can be affixed to your kayak and is meant for use on the water is a safer way to go.
2 Visual Distress Signals
If you’re paddling between sunset and sunrise on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes or territorial seas, you must also carry a USCG-approved nighttime visual distress signal (VDS). This requirement can be fulfilled by carrying three USCG-approved flares or a USCG-approved electric distress light that automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal.
Even if you don’t do a lot of paddling at night, it’s a good idea to bring a light source with you any time you go out for a paddle. Let’s say, for example, you head out on a paddle down a river and misjudge the distance, ending up at the take-out just as darkness is falling. In such a circumstance you’d probably be glad you brought a light with you, even though you hadn’t planned to be out after sunset. Not that this has happened to me before…
There are many kayak lights on the market suited to a variety of purposes, that are a range of sizes, and that have many different mounting options. Find our favorite lights for fulfilling Coast Guard requirements, lighting your way and having fun below.
7 best kayak lights to see & be seen
C-1004 SOS Distress Light, Storage Mount, Flag & Whistle
$149.95 | siriussignal.com
Many people still use flares to meet the USCG nighttime VDS requirement. But flares expire, making them wasteful both environmentally and financially. They also release harmful toxins into the waters we love. And how many videos titled “Flare Accident” have you seen? Sirius Signal offers a better way, an electronic visual distress signal that is Coast Guard compliant.
The C-1004 SOS eVDSD is easy to use—simply twist to begin transmitting the blindingly bright SOS signal—and stows easily in a drybag or hatch. Although light from the C-1004 doesn’t transmit as far as the light from most flares, a flare only emits light for minutes at most, while the C-1004 will transmit the SOS signal for hours. This kit from Sirius Signal also includes a storage mount that installs with a single screw, an orange distress flag and a whistle.
paddleBird (Kayak) – Fully Loaded brightBird + NAV
$194.95 | basinboatlighting.com
Basin Boat Lighting’s top priority is the safety of paddlers on the water and it shows in their feature-packed, no-nonsense lighting systems. The paddleBird is designed for kayaks and comes with either a one-inch RAM ball mount, or a seven- or 13-inch pole mount.
First up among its features is the 120-watt flood light—turn it on even during the day and you’ll have no doubt in its ability to light your way and alert boaters to your presence at night. Press another button to make the light flash—fulfilling USCG nighttime VDS requirements—and another to turn on the red/green navigation lights. Beware when pressing the fourth button, letting loose the 105-decibel horn, which is the same noise level as some rock concerts. We made the mistake of first testing the horn in the office, and everyone’s ears were ringing for the rest of the day.
The system can be operated using buttons on the paddleBird, a key fob—or a Bluetooth app, for an additional $8.99. The appBird gives you access to weather forecasts and, more importantly, an SOS mode that automatically flashes the light, blares the horn, and sends an alert to Basin Boat Lighting, who will then contact authorities and provide your exact GPS location.
Spectrum P2 Lighting System
$299.99 | nocqua.com
Paddling at night is already a magical experience, gliding across placid waters beneath a sky studded with stars. The Spectrum P2 Lighting System from NOCQUA makes nighttime outings even more enchanting, lighting up the water beneath your kayak. The lights serve to not only make you more visible and rad-looking, they also attract marine life—probably a cooler experience on ocean waters than on inland lakes, unless you’re really into seeing smallmouth bass and minnows darting beneath your boat.
The light system is easy to set up, with two adjustable harnesses that strap around your kayak. Simply press a button—wired to a rechargeable battery pack—to choose from seven colors or have all the colors flash interchangeably in party mode. You can also select an SOS strobe, but note that the Spectrum P2 does not fulfill any USCG nighttime lighting requirements.
$56 | railblaza.com
The RAILBLAZA Illuminate i360 keeps things simple with both its mounting system and light itself so you can easily add a white navigation light to your kayak when you need it. When you order, select the mount option that works best for your boat, whether it’s a rail or track mount.
Carry the pocket-sized light with you and clip it in the mount when needed. Press the button once for the navigation light, the brightest setting that will ensure you are seen on the water; a second time to dim the light, so you can unhook that fish or search your deck for your dropped phone; and a third time to engage flashing and attract attention.
Our hot tip? A strip of glow-in the-dark tape placed just below the on/off button is a great addition to help you locate the tiny button in the dark.
$95 | yakattack.us
This collapsible pole and LED light from YakAttack is a great option for kayakers who are short on space but want a highly visible white navigation light. Deployed, the VISICarbon Pro is 48 inches tall, but packs down into a compact 14 inches and fits inside the included flag.
The foam base fits inside a flush mount or tubular rod holder, or can be mounted on track systems by unscrewing a rectangular plate on the bottom of the pole which slips into the track. Simply twist the light to turn on and off.
835 SEA-Light with Suction Cup Mount
$43 | scotty.com
If you don’t want to mess around with permanent mounts, it doesn’t get much easier than using a suction cup to affix a light to your kayak. Plus, it’s satisfying to break the seal and pop it off. Or maybe that’s just us…
The Scotty 835 SEA-Light includes a fully removable ACR C-Light that can then be used as a flashlight around camp or when loading and unloading your kayak after sunset. The light turns on and off with a simple twist.
Kayalite Kayak Light
$59.95 | kayalu.com
While the Kayalite looks similar to other lights on this list, its unique tension cable mounting system provides it a leg up in both ease of mounting and durability. A carabiner beneath the light attaches to an eyelet, deck loop or whatever you can find on the deck of your kayak. A bungee cord runs from the carabiner up the inside of the mast and out the side, which is then pulled tight and wrapped around a plastic cleat.
This system safely secures the light to your boat, while also allowing enough play that the light won’t snap off if hit with a paddle or when coming in contact with submerged structure during a roll. Twist the light to turn on both LEDs and ensure you’re seen when paddling after dark.
Be prepared for paddling after dark with these illuminating products. | Feature photo: Michael Hewis