Kayak Lighting, Part 2 – Types of Kayak Lighting

Answering the question, "What if Tron were on kayaks?"

You can categorize kayak lighting into four basic types, related to purpose. Most lights do a bit of all four, but are usually best at one type or another.
  1. Illumination – Light that you install in order to see what you're doing is what I call "illumination". You need illumination to navigate your kayak, tie your fishing rig, unhook your fish, or dig the right drink out of your cooler.
  2. Visibility – Light that you install in order to help others see you, I'll call "visibility" lighting. Both illumination and visibility are safety lighting. Not having adequate lighting of these two types is risky at best and potentially life-threatening at worst. And of course, most states require some kind of lighting on your kayak between dusk and dawn. I'm particularly paranoid about visibility lighting because after years of riding motorcycles I've come to expect the very worst in other people's ability to see me. And it's exacerbated on a kayak because there are no street lamps, traffic signs, or lanes to keep things orderly and predictable.
  3. Fish Attractant – Like all animals, fish seek out conditions where their chances of getting food are increased. Light attracts zooplankton, insects, and other fish food. The food attracts small fish. The small fish attract bigger fish. The fish attract fishermen. And if bears were more enthusiastic predators for humans, the fishermen would attract bears. All this from a kayak light!
  4. Aesthetic – Let's face it. A yak decked out in strip lights, besides having the benefits of the other types of lighting, looks cool. That's just the way it is.
The reason I've categorized the lights this way is because what you're trying to achieve with a light has a big effect on what kind of light you should get. I mean, strip lights are a pretty limited source of illumination, but they're aesthetically a lot hipper looking than a headlamp. 

Useful, but not so cool
For illumination, I like a headlamp despite the aesthetic dorkiness. The reason is that headlamps are operated hands-free, which is a huge advantage on a boat that you paddle using both hands. I also like that they naturally point where your head points. They operate on batteries, which is a huge benefit in my opinion. Headlamps are also available in a large variety of light power and can be waterproof as well. To me, they're the ultimate illumination light for most sports, including kayaking.

A pole-mounted torch can work well for near-distance illumination. If it casts enough light to see in and around your boat fairly well, that's enough for 80% of my lighting needs right there. The problem is that it's usually not bright enough to see the fine detail you'd require if you needed to, say, tie a small hook. Or to illuminate anything more than 15 feet away while navigating. In that case, augmenting the torch with some other kind of light is a good idea.

Of course a regular flashlight also works for illumination. The biggest issue I see with it is that you have to give up one of your hands to use it. Before I got a proper headlamp, I had a headband that you could attach a Mini Maglite to. If you go with a flashlight, I'd recommend getting one that had some level of water protection. Even if you don't drop it in the water, rain and inadvertent splash is virtually unavoidable.

For visibility, the trick is being seen by everybody on the water within a reasonable radius. People can see the light from a flashlight, but only if it's pointed at them. You need something visible from 360° around the boat, even if you're not deliberately pointing a light at them. After all, you really want them to see you if you've been knocked unconscious. It is also recommended (and in some states, mandated) that the light be visible from 2 miles away. The Coast Guard and your local state have specific rules on the visibility of lights for kayaks and you'd do well to review the prevailing regulations in your state.

As neat as it would be, I can't
recommend this 
type of pole
light for 
your kayak
I like a pole-mounted torch for visibility lighting. Mounting the light on a sufficiently long pole gets it up above you and the other stuff on your boat, so that people can see it from any direction. The pole shouldn't be too long though – you don't want it interfering with casting! The pole also gives you a place to mount a flag for daytime visibility, so you can get more use out of the pole than just nighttime fishing. Depending on the strength of the pole, you may even be able to mount a camera or action cam on it.

Strip lights are also good for visibility lighting and in some ways better since they can illuminate your entire boat and serve as fish attractant and aesthetic lighting too. The downside is that the lights usually sit down low to the water which isn't good for 360° visibility, and usually require an external 12V power source, which is more logistical effort.

To be honest, I don't have many opinions or knowledge to impart about fish attractant lighting. This is because I don't use it and haven't looked into it very much. People use purpose-built submersible lights, flood lights, spot lights, strip lights and probably a bunch of other lights I'm not thinking of. And they use them in a variety of colors that affects its irresistible sexiness to the fish. If I ever become knowledgeable about the subject, I will make sure to update this article, but until then I'll just have to refer you to this article

As for aesthetic lighting, pretty much anything is fair game as long as it's safe and you're willing to deal with it. For my money, I suppose I'd go with strip lighting because it can be used to enhance the look of the boat, rather than overpower it. But I've seen some kayaks lit up like the Vegas Strip, and while that isn't my style, if your want to make a statement entrance like Lady Gaga playing the Super Bowl, more power to ya!

Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression