Evening and Night Paddle Equipment
night paddling can be a risky proposition or a pleasant journey. It
all depends on your frame of mind, the risk you are willing to take,
the weather, the tide, the location, the phase of the moon, the
paddling partners with you, and the equipment you have on board. If
this sound confusing, it should be. Like daytime paddling, it
involves risk assessment. But every time we go paddling we assess the
risk vs the reward. The main difference is in the evening or at night
we can not see as well ,and others may not see us as well. But there
are elements that come into play at night that help mitigate the
On summer days the wind usually dies down in the evening. There
will be less boat traffic to keep track of and the moving boat lights
make it easier to pick out traffic. Where the majority of the boat
traffic is non-commercial, as in Narragansett Bay, traffic quiets
down except for the occasional fishing boat chugging back in. With cool air settling out over the calm water, a sound channel is formed which allows sound to travel much farther than in the daytime. You will be able to pick up power boats
some distance away that you would not hear in the daytime. The only
boats that make no sound are sail boats, but the visibility of their
high mast lights and slower speed reduce the risk of danger to you.
Before I go further, it should be mentioned that there are many discussions and varying degrees of opinion on paddling at night. The rest of this page is my solution to the situation. Some people disagree with me, some say overkill, others say underkill. No pun intended. So before you read my opinions here are a few respectable articles that you may read. This gives you a broader view of the subject before you read mine. (Note: Some mfgs say that their gear conforms to CG requirements for vessels under oars, suggesting that the rules are more stringent than they actually are.)
Any area that you are paddling at night should be well known to you and or your
paddling partners. You should have planned where you are going so you
will know what to expect as landmarks or marine markers. If
available, try using a mapping GPS to help you identify your location
at night. Be sure to purchase one of the proper nautical maps that
show the coastal contours, which means one of the commercial Blue
Chart maps for your GPS.
Night paddling is not the time to explore new frontiers. But most people enjoy
moonlight paddling, which probably accounts for 90% of the night
paddles. These are the type of paddles being referred to in this
article, but anytime when venturing on the open water at night, or
when by some chance you may not get back to the launch site before it
gets dark, you should be prepared to paddle in the dark. You should
also be aware of any changes in the weather that might make any
return paddle more risky in wind, waves and tide.
Everyone should assess how risky any paddle will be, that includes daytime
paddling as well as evening and night paddling. The ability to assess
a paddle is only gained by practice and experience. You will only
gain this experience by daytime paddling in many different conditions
and by evening and night paddling. So read the following and consider
whether you are equipped to paddle in late evening or at night.
The conditions that are discussed in this page mostly refer to calm or light conditions and do not mention anything about waves at night. If it is dark enough to not easily see breaking or foaming waves, or ugly choppy water (around cliffs) then you will need something stronger than a little headlamp to paddle. If you can not see the wave action, paddling will be very difficult. You must see the waves to maintain balance. If you require low bracing skills to stay upright you will be in danger of capsizing. This means a really strong headlamp with a broad beam. Even a very tall deck light would be useful. Unless you know what you are getting into on a night with serious waves, don't do it.
The only requirement for kayaks in open waters at night to meet Coast Guard
requirements are the wearing a Type III Life Vest, carrying a noise making
device and carrying a flashlight that can be directed at any boat
that might be on a dangerous course toward the kayak. The Rhode Island requirements are here. Fairly minimal
requirements that can be improved on if conditions require. The following is a list of
the equipment that you should consider using on late
evening or night paddles.
- Always carry your normal compliment of daytime equipment, which should
include your Life Vest, a towing line, extra paddle, VHF radio, a deck
compass, first aid kit, water and snacks, deck or
river knife, and a dry bag of extra clothing. What you carry
in your dry bag should be capable of fully clothing you, or someone
else, in an emergency once out of the water, consistent with the
water and air temperature. It is also wise to carry a 'safety 'dry
bag which would include items needed rarely, but essential when
needed. Examples are duct and electrical tape, a multipurpose tool
(e.g. Leatherman type tool), various pieces of cord, extra batteries for all electronic
equipment including your VHF radio, and anything else you feel you need.
- For late evening and night time paddling more gear needs to be carried. The
first item is a xenon strobe light for emergency such as the
Princeton Tec seen below. This light is waterproof and specifically
designed for water sports. It uses one AA battery, and
since you want the longest shelf life and the longest flashing
duration, a lithium battery is recommended. In the photos below the
strobe is attached high and to the left of the Life Vest, where you
can reach it to turn it on. This model uses a twist motion to turn on, some use switches.
- My light on the back of the Life Vest is a green glow stick. Better than a chemical glow
stick is a battery model. It is worn
on the opposite shoulder in the back to keep the light out of your
eyes and allows the paddler behind to follow follow you. The soft
glow does not affect the night vision of the following paddler and
I prefer the green color which differentiates it nicely from the house lights along
the shoreline in the Bay. Any vessel approaching from the rear also
would not confuse it with a shoreline light, and on a dark night is
easily noticeable at least to 500 feet away. There are many ways of
attaching the glow stick to the Life Vest but one method is to attach the
glow stick to the shoulder strap with a Velcro (tm). Some people attach the glow strip to the top of
their hat. Some attach it to a short lanyard so as to float to the surface if you are floating in the water.
- There are many options for battery/LED type glow sticks that are available to use, some available are shown in the photo below. Most last at least 12 hours and have an on-off switch to conserve battery power. Most are about twice as bright as
the common chemical glow sticks and last much longer. See a comparison.The Life Gear green model is the most commonly available model available at many of the outdoor recreation (eg, REI, EMS) stores and box store camping sections. Batteries are replaceable, but unless you have a supply of button batteries, it is just as cheap to buy another glow stick. If you want a really good light stick consider the AA Krill Light
- I do not use traditional bow and stern lights on a kayak. Unless properly shielded, red/green bow lights can confusingly indicate either direction from either side depending on the bow angle. Bow and stern lights should not be used unless they conform to CG regulations. They are primarily for determining direction of the vessel. (A kayakers primary danger is from power boats and considering their speed, a kayak is a stationary object. So it does not matter which way you are going, you just want to be seen. Therefore the usefulness of a bright flashlight.) A problem with a bright white deck light is that it affects your night vision and can be easily confused by an observer with distant shore lights in Narragansett Bay. The above green glow stick only serves the purpose of identifying me to paddlers to my rear. If I think that I will be in a traffic area I use a temporary Traffic Wand attached to the rear of my kayak. The wands are 3 mode; red, red blinking, and green. I use the steady red most of the time because it is easier on the eyes of anyone behind me. Flashing red should never be used. The green is much more noticeable and bright because green registers in the sensitive middle range of our eyes. It is useful in heavy traffic areas. Because the wand is 10" tall and has a large surface area, it is easily seen from a distance. The unit is waterproof. The base is 2" PVC pipe with reflective tape around the base.
- For general vision around the kayak, use a waterproof headlamp that has
a fairly dim LED bulb and a battery that will last over 12 hours. The photo below left (also seen to the left in the above photo with the red light on) shows two typical models, both purchased at Walmart, but sporting goods stores all carry suitable headlamps. The model on the left is a 1 watt AA light, the right is Multi-Color LED Headlamp. Most have a red LED/s for preserving night vision, and most have several levels of intensity. The photo below right is a single AA LED waterproof light (discontinued but similar type)always attached to the life vest, and stored in the same pocket at the VHF radio as backup. (Kayaking lights should be waterproof if there is any chance of submersion.) Use alkaline batteries because they have a good shelf life. NiMH rechargeable batteries are acceptable but you must remember to recharge them before use.
In dark conditions when the stars or moon are out, there is no need to use a light. Keeping them off will preserve your night vision. When paddling in Narragansett Bay there is usually light from sky glow, from the Newport Bridge and from shoreline security lights. On cloudy nights, but not foggy or rainy nights, the sky glow off the bottom of the clouds makes it even easier to see on the Bay. Usually there is minimal traffic in the Narragansett Bay at night. A fisherman or two in specific places along the shore is about all you will see.
- For a backup light and one you can shine at on-coming boats, you should carry a much stronger LED light, attached to you
or the kayak. In the photos below a mini-carabiner is used to clip
the light to the front of a Life Vest. (Aluminum flashlights exposed to saltwater should be soaked in fresh water after a paddle.)
When flashing an oncoming boat, do not wave it back and forth. It may look to the
other boat that you are signaling a distress. Just point the light
several times straight at the boat and hold it for a couple of
seconds. Watch for a reaction from the boat, it will either flash a
light in your direction, change course, or slow down. If nothing
happens, repeat the procedure until you get a reaction or know
definitely they will pass you at a safe distance.
Both the models below are cheap flashlights from a Hong Kong distributor (DX). Note: these lights use international standard 19650 LiOn rechargeable batteries, not retail batteries. Similar LED flashlights are available for $50-80 in USA. Note: the left model (similar one)is a single on/off switch, important if you need to use the light quickly. The light on the right has 3 modes, (Low/Med/Hi) with a memory for the last mode used. Useful in dim mode for general purpose. The photo on the right shows the relative brightness three lights. Upper left is the single mode DX light, top right is the AA vest light, and bottom is the small Ray-O-Vac headlamp.
- A much cheaper alternative is a Ray-O-Vac floating waterproof
6 volt light seen in the photos below. Priced at about $7. Some discount stores carry them, and other sources can be found with a Google search.) This particular model has a very
narrow strong beam that only spreads about 15 feet in 300 feet. With either of these lights you will appear much bigger than a kayak to a larger vessel approaching you. The photo below shows the difference in the beam patterns and intensity from a distance of 50 feet. From left to right; an older small LED light, the Ray-O-Vac 6 volt lantern, and one similar to the DX models.
- For a
noise maker, carry an air horn. This smaller model below is about $6
and is easy enough to carry for that emergency when you want to be
heard. It is also carried if there is any chance of daytime fog.
- For more
desperate moments which hopefully never come, carry a packet of hand
launched aerial red flares. These cost about $15-$20 and would be
handy if stranded or floating some where in the dark. I have heard
that the failure of these devices is as much as 50% because of
moisture getting past the o-ring seals, so I keep mine sealed in
extra heavy, 6 mil, 5x7 inch resealable vinyl bags.
- Last but not least, use SOLAS approved high
reflectance tape on the sides of your kayak as seen in the
photographs. One source of the tape is
The 2 “ wide tape comes in 10 ft rolls which is enough tape
for two kayaks. I prefer the longer bow/stern strip pattern as seen in the below right photo. This can be done with 5 ft of tape per kayak if 13”strips are put on each side of the
bow and stern, and 4” pieces on the top of the bow and stern.
This pattern has more tape higher, and the larger strips would
be visible at greater distances. This tape which is about $2 per
foot, is a rubbery tape that is specifically designed by 3M to be
used in the marine environment. It is flexible and fits contours
easily. It will stick to almost anything, including paddle jackets
and Life Vest's. It is very difficult to remove. For extra visibility,
apply tape to paddle blades, front and back, and to anything else
that might float off in the night, such as your bilge pump.