Waterproof LED, Xenon, and Halogen Lights and Strobes for Sea Kayaking
The following table lists all the waterproof flashlights, headlamps, and strobe lights that I use for sea kayaking. To the left of each item I've listed where I stow it ... lights won't do you any good unless they are stowed such that you have access to them and can find them in the dark. With the new generation of waterproof halogen/Xenon and LED lights it is possible to fit all but one of the lights you need while on the water on your PFD. All the lights listed here are what I consider kayak waterproof (meaning it holds up under use on the deck of a kayak in breaking seas or in a wet pocket of a pfd). All but two (the PrincetonTec Surge and the Essential Gear 7 LED headlamp) use an O-ring sealed twist-on/off switch which is less prone to being turned on accidentally than any other type of switch and relatively easy for the designers to make highly waterproof. LED lights use less power for the same amount of light, so batteries last about ten times longer than with conventional bulbs. LED lights are also more rugged when dropped and last many times longer before burning out (eliminating the need to carry spare bulbs). Halogen and Xenon bulbs have relatively short lives and drain batteries fast, but they put out many times more light than a conventional lightbulb or LED of the same size running on the same batteries. So halogen/Xenon bulbs still have a place, but LED lights are better for your more frequent needs and for lights that are likely to be left on for long periods.
To be meet your legal requirements for lighting, after sunset kayakers "shall have ready at hand a white light which shall be exhibited in time to prevent collision" (from the Navigation Rules, see COMDTINST M16672.2C wherever government charts are sold). Another words you do not need red and green side lights, just a plain flash light bright enough to be seen from at least a mile is all that is required. Although the law doesn't say this, from a practical viewpoint as a sea kayaker your light(s) better be highly waterproof, and at least one should be attached to your PFD (life jacket) so you would have it even if you loose your kayak. Lights stowed away in a hatch or behind your seat will be of limited use.
Fortunately new technologies in lighting have recently made it easier than ever for kayakers to meet the legal requirements as well as provide lighting for all our other needs at a minimal cost and with very little weight. Many of the new lights are so light, small, and inexpensive, that I now carry several lights on my PFD at all times. That way I can't leave home without them. To meet the legal requirement, I carry a waterproof Xenon light in the bottom of one of the front pockets on my PFD. This light (Pelican Mini Mitylite) is amazingly bright for it's tiny size -- only slightly larger than the one AAA battery that powers it, and it is waterproof to 2000 ft. I recommend the model with a clear housing though; that way if it ever leaks or the battery corrodes you will be able to see moisture inside. As great as this light is, it is not my main light for night paddling. Bright lights such as the Mitylight will kill their batteries in about an hour. Headlamps, even the LED ones, are too bright to leave on when paddling in a group (because they blind your companions), and they only shine in one direction (making you invisible from other directions). So a bright light should only be used when it's intense light is really needed (i.e. when a motorboat heading toward you). My primary light for night paddling, the one I leave on so other kayakers in my group can see me. This light is a relatively dim, waterproof LED light that is designed to shine a full 360 degrees (Essential Gear Guardian). By attaching this light to the top of your hat or the top strap of your headlamp (with Velcro strap or by sewing a piece of webbing on the hat to clip the light to), you make yourself visible to other kayakers in your group without blinding them. This watch sized LED light is visible for 1/4 mile in all directions (e.g. in side view, it's brightest direction is strait-on which I normally have facing up at the sky, but if you point this part of the beam at your compass or chart you will be able to read them at arms length without blinding you as much as most flashlights would), and it is light weight, rugged, and waterproof to 300 ft. It comes complete with two coin sized watch batteries that will run it continuously for 10 - 20 hours. For long trips you might want to bring extra batteries, but the problem would then be where to store them so they are handy enough to change in the dark and yet never get wet? So rather than carrying spare batteries, I simply carry a complete second one of these lights (it only costs $12.50 with batteries included and is so light and tiny, why not have two?) ... that way the spare batteries are already loaded and ready to use. This light also makes a nice all around light to hang inside your tent. One could get by with just the above two lights (one light with an intense, focused beam but short on battery life, the other light with a dim all-around (360 degree) light and 10-20 hour burn time), and they will both fit in a single pocket on the front of a PFD with room left over -- making them ideal as emergency lights to have at all times. However, if I were planning on paddling after dark or knew in advance that there was a good chance we would still be paddling after sunset, I would like to have two additional lights at hand. These other two lights would be a waterproof LED headlamp (for messing with gear etc.) and the brightest light I can reasonably pack (for beach scanning from the water before landing and as a brighter light for collision prevention).
There's a lot of confusion about strobe lights, both in the minds of kayakers as well as the rest of the boating community. In some areas a strobe light is an approved night-time emergency distress signal, in other areas it is not. The definitions and boundaries of these areas (spelled out in the appendices of the above referenced Navigation Rules which most boaters have probably never seen) are often counterintuitive, but even where a strobe is not approved as a distress signal, it will likely attract unwanted attention from others who may be obligated to come help you. And if it turns out you were just using your strobe to show your position in a non-emergency, it will cause ill-will between kayakers and other boaters, waterfront home owners, etc. who spent their time and energy making sure you are okay. Kayakers can not afford to earn a reputation for false alarms. This is true whether the strobe was designed for boating emergencies or one of the colored ones made for bikes and runners. Whether or not you are in an area where a strobe light is an approved distress signal, a waterproof marine strobe light can be a valuable emergency signal, but only use it in an emergency regardless of the type of water you are on.
Although not an absolute necessity, on camping trips it is really handy to have a headlamp (to cook with, to set up your tent, etc.) in addition to your other lights for on the water. If you already own a headlamp that isn't waterproof, you could make due with it if you carry the other lights I recommend for your on the water needs, and keep your headlamp in a drybag and only use it when on shore, but sooner or later everything in a kayak gets wet - even in dry bags. And a headlamp is handy to wear while paddling too, for finding gear in dry bags, fixing things, tying knots, etc. So a waterproof headlamp is a worthwhile investment even if you already have another headlamp. If investing in a new headlamp, there are now waterproof headlamps with LED lights that are bright enough for all your headlamp needs. Some of the early LED headlamps were rather dim, but the latest ones are getting remarkably bright. There are several waterproof LED flashlights and headlamps that are about as bright as conventional lights (lights with non-halogen/Xenon bulbs). Another option is to add a flashlight holding headband to your waterproof LED hand-held flashlight to convert it into a headlamp. There are special headbands made for this purpose.
One other light that would be nice to have (at least one such light in a group) is a really bright waterproof light to use to scope out beaches before landing in the dark, and to warn away persistent motorboats. For these uses, even the brightest lights you could keep handy in a kayak are barely adequate, but there is one such light that comes close to meeting this goal (PrincetonTec Surge, runs on eight AA batteries). Although it is still usable much longer, it looses it's exceptional brightness after about ten minutes of battery use. So save this light for the brief times when you really need its intense power, and carry other lights for the routine chores (partially drained batteries can be used to run your LED lights though). I can accept this light's short battery life, but the thing that I don't like is that, unlike all the other lights I recommend, the Surge has a toggle switch. It is quite easy and common for it to get turned on accidentally while rolling around in your hatch or on deck in the daytime when you may not notice it. Yet it's brightness and compact size can't be beat by any other light I've found, so put a piece of tape over the switch so it won't turn itself on and accidentally drain the batteries.
You are welcome to use this just for your own information, but if you care to help support the Kayak Academy please purchase your lights from us. To do so, simply print this page (click once on the table before printing), fill it out with your desired quantities of each item and mail or fax it to us (our fax and address information is at the end of this page). If you are interested in ordering other gear from us, see our Kayak Equipment Catalog page.