Paddling at night under the stars, a glowing moon, or the Aurora Boreallis can be a magical time, but it isn't without a certain amount of risk from a possible encounter with another boat. How do warn other boaters by letting them know where you're at on the water?
From time to time, people ask me what type of light is ideal for use on a kayak or canoe when the sun goes down. Will a camper’s headlamp or flashlight work? U.S. Coast Guard rules stipulate that boaters must carry a white light on their boat to warn approaching boaters that there is another boat on the water and possibly smack dab in the direction of their travel.
So will a camper’s headlamp or flashlight work? Well the short answer is yes. But before you rush to REI to pick up that Petzl or Black Diamond headlamp or stop at your local Walmart to purchase a flashlight, ask yourself this simple question: Do you want to be able to continue paddling when it gets dark?
Remember that the Coast Guard requires the white light be visible to other boats. If there is one boat on the water, you have to stop paddling and direct the beam of light in the direction of the boat and continue to do so as long as the other boat is visible. If the boat is behind you and you’re an owl, you might be able to crank your head around 180°—most of us cannot—in the direction of the boat; otherwise, you will have to rotate your boat. Now imagine that there are more than just one boat on the water. Either your head is going to get awfully tired spinning around in the direction of each boat and you’re going to make yourself dizzy or you’re going to tire yourself out rotating your boat in several directions.
Ditch the idea of using a headlamp or flashlight. Your head, neck, and arms will thank you. There is only one realistic solution. Purchase an omni-directional light designed for kayaks. They’re similar in principle to the stern light found on motorboats. Paddlers Supply makes a good one, but there are others out there just as good.
You’ll soon discover the superiority of an omni-directional light over a headlamp or flashlight on your first evening paddle. Boaters will see the light no matter what angle they are to your boat. You don’t have to spin around like a top trying to let other boaters know where you’re located.
Most omni-directional lights feature a suction cup that attaches the light to the deck of your boat, freeing your hands so you can continue to paddle. Unfortunately, the suction cup tends to be the biggest complaint many expressed on Amazon. Several users stated that the suction cup wouldn’t hold the light for long, so look for an omni-directional light with a good suction cup.
Well-made omni-directional lights are also watertight to a certain depth. One person stated he lost his Paddlers Supply light overboard. It was still shining 125 feet below the surface. If you’re wearing a headlamp and you take an unexpected plunge in the water, most likely it isn’t waterproof. Few are. If water gets into the lamp, you’re without a light. If you’re using a flashlight, it now is probably sinking quickly to the bottom.
Many omni-directional lights, including Paddlers Supply and Kayalu, feature a lanyard that can clip to a deck bungee on your kayak or if long enough wrap around the deck plate handlebar or thwart on your canoe. If the suction cup fails, you won’t lose the light. You can also attach the light to your PFD if you find yourself in the water. Purchase a light with the lanyard.
The are two recommended brands of kayak lighting:
Expect to pay $35 or more for a good light.
Other paddlers have found some creative ways of lighting their kayaks and canoes, but I have tried in this article to outline the easiest way to let other boaters know where you're at once the sun goes down. Talk to your local paddle shops for alternative ways to light your kayak or canoe if the stick-on omni-directional light won't work for you.
Some manufacturers sell an omni-directional light that sits atop a pole. This is good in that it elevates the light above you, thus preventing your body from partially blocking the light depending on where your body is in relation to the light. This light works well for SOT and fishing kayaks. You can even adapt it to work on a canoe. Most paddling stores carry this type of light.