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July 2016

Lighting Up the MRX

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Things that Go Splash in the Night

We all have some special memory of paddling at night; or imagine some special would-be memory…. The echoes of a loon as you glide across a mirrored lake under the glow of a full moon. Snuggling in the bottom of a canoe with that favorite someone as you gaze on the constellations….

Then there’s the Muskoka River X….you’ve been pounding for 12 hours and shadows are creeping in at the water’s edge. You are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Its twilight and you know that soon you’ll be wrapped in a blanket of September darkness. There is no glow of city lights. It’s just you, maybe a partner, your boat…and mother nature. As the temperature drops, wisps of fog appear on the water.  The same autumn fog of the Muskoka River that makes Jack Sparrow cringe. You’ve trained on this river before but can you remember every bend, every swift, every portage? You still have hours of racing ahead of you but there is one question that stands between you and the finish line….are you prepared to race at night?

Navigating and paddling at night is an amazing experience. It can also be disorienting and for some, down-right scary. With the darkness hiding typical landmarks, paddlers can become lost even within a closed river system where the shore may be only meters away. Just following the shoreline may become a challenge if the fog is working against you. Being able to see approaching hazards, portages, and following river current can be a challenge when your vision is compromised. Also, knowing where you actually are on the river or lakes can be difficult if you are not following your progress on the map with compass and bearings. In previous year teams have become lost travelling upriver from Mary Lake to Fairy Lake. Only after they reemerged out of the fog did they realize they were back on Mary Lake and had paddled in a complete circle. Some, having not taken compass bearings, have veered far off course adding several additional km to their trip, while others finding themselves in dead-end bays have received a ride home with our safety crew.  The goal of this article is to provide you with advice on lighting systems appropriate for the MRX.  For advice on map and compass skill, check out our navigation post.

And On The 12th Hour the Bow Paddler Said,  “Let There Be Light“.

As part of the Mandatory Equipment, every team paddling the Muskoka River X must be equipped with a lighting system sufficient for night navigation.  Lighting systems must be turned on at dusk and must remain on while travelling on the water, until teams arrive at the Finish Line, or sunrise.  The MRX rules require a signal light to be turned on at dusk and MUST remain on at all times until sunrise.  This signal light can be placed anywhere on the watercraft as long as it is visible 360 degrees, for example on the rear of a canoe.  A great light for this purpose would be a bright LED rear seat post bike light.  Turn it on and leave it on.  That way, we can see you when we need to, or if you need help.

For navigation, during portages, approaching take-outs, and navigating the complicated swifts on the Muskoka River we do recommend a good quality, bright lighting system that has the potential of running all night long.  For race weekend, this translates into about 11.5 hours from sunset to sunrise; even longer if you are racing the Coureur des Bois. Additionally, each individual team member must be equipped with an emergency light.

So, where to start? Cruise the internet or walk into any outfitting store and you will soon become overwhelmed with options. No worries…the MRX Crew is here to help with a few basics that you should know before you start shopping and some recommendations on product.

The Basics

Lighting systems have come a long way in the a few short years. Gone are the days of “light bulbs”, halogens, and lead-acid batteries. Any light worth its salt will be LED and with new battery technology such as Lithium Ion, the improvements in lighting systems with their corresponding reduction in both size and weight is matched only by their overall retina-burning performance and long life.

The message? Choose LED. They are light, compact, very bright, and require little to no maintenance.

Lumen is the measurement of how bright the light is: Bigger numbers mean brighter lights. With LED technology, small pocket headlamps the size of an egg can start in range up to 350 lumen or more and are good for general camping or lower impact sports such as trail running. Performance oriented headlamps can easily range to well over 700 lumen or more. Then there are mounted lights typically used for mountain biking or with special head-harnesses that can push way into the 1000’s of lumen, lighting up the night like a freight train on steroids. Below are test photos from GEMINI that demonstrate how different lumen power compares on a common environment.
300 lumen
300 Lumen
1500 lumen
1500 Lumen

It’s pretty clear.  Powerful lights do make a difference!

Related to this discussion includes distance. Recognizing that different designs and technologies do change things, you can expect about 45 meters of light from a 65 lumens lamp while 300 lumens will push out to 100 meters and 760 lumens to about 170 meters.

But let’s not get carried away and rush out to buy the biggest and brightest lamp without considering how you will provide power. You need to consider its application and the type of battery that is required. Modern headlamps can burn for days if you set the brightness low enough; however the same headlamp can suck a battery dry in just a few hours if you run it on max power. For example, one popular high-powered performance headlamp can run for up to 17 hours at 150 lumens. Ramp the same headlamp up to its highest level at 1500 lumen and run time drops to 1.5 hours. What is the risk you say?  You’re in the middle of the race, it’s been a long day, you’re tired and you unintentionally run your battery down without being aware of it…and now you have no light. So, it’s not just the light itself that is important but how much power you have and for how long. The type of battery that is required and the battery’s amp-hours should be matched to your light and its application to maximize its full potential.

The amp-hours of the battery will determine how long you can run your light at a specific brightness: The higher the amp hour, the longer the run time. Review the specifications of the light you plan to use. Get the calculations of run time vs. battery specifications and make the adjustments accordingly. For example, a bike light reports that it will run at 1200 lumens for 2 hours on a 3.3 amp hour battery, or 80 hours at 40 lumens. The same manufacture has a 13.2 amp hour battery that is compatible with the light system you want to use: 13.2 / 3.3 x 2 hours = 8 hours of run time at 1200 lumen or 320 hours at 40 lumens, all things being equal, get the 13.2 amp hour battery. If you run the lights at low levels during dusk and dawn when you still have visability and save the power for when it’s really dark you will have more than enough battery life to last you throughout the night. 

Lighting-Up the Bow: Navigation Lights

When considering your lighting system, we recommend you outfit your boat with your brightest and most powerful light on the bow or in the front. As with a vehicle, the “headlights” of your boat will illuminate not only your route but also the water that’s immediately in front of you; critical for spotting hazards, swifts, portages, landmarks, and provide some perspective of your surroundings; important for navigation and keeping track of your location. This bow-light should have a long burn time and ideally should not require a change of batteries during the race. Although there are custom systems that you can build from scratch, the best “out of the box” system for MRX application is a mountain bike lighting system. There are many different manufacturers of bike lights and many models with massive lumen, so do your homework.  The MRX Crew however is always doing homework and we love great gear, especially when it’s at a great price.  With the help of Algonquin Outfitters we were introduced to GEMINI. Not only does GEMINI make REALLY BRIGHT lights they also have the battery power to last; uncommon for most mountain bike systems.  AND if you’re racing the MRX, you can pick up a kit for a great price when ordered through Algonquin Outfitters.  

Mounting is important to consider and mountain bike lights are built for bike handlebars. Handlebars are very similar to the carrying handles on a canoe therefore these light sets are perfect applications for paddlers. As shown in the photo below, we see the GEMINI DUO LED with handlebar mounts:  Make sure you push the light as far to the R or L side of the thwart as possible to minimize any shadow that the bow may cause.  Kayaks/SUPs need not feel left out: GEMINI also makes a very worthy, durable and comfortable head strap so you can hang this little monster off your forehead.  A great single-light option.

Duo HandlebarDuo Headstrap


The DUO LED consists of 2 CREE LED XM-L2 U3 lamps – the most efficient, high power LEDs on the market measuring a total of 1500 lumens! Power up the DUO with GEMINI’S 5200mAh battery and the DUO will give you 450 lumens for over 19 hours and will still have enough juice to punch up to 1500 lumen for those times when you need it. This is one great lighting system at an amazing price. No changing batteries. Just plug and play. And what about the weight? The whole system comes in at an amazingly light 229 grams with the 5200mAh battery! The GEMINI DUO LED powered with the 4-cell battery is our choice for the MRX.  And even if you want an extra battery in the event of an emergency, you’ll still have lots of $$$ left in your pocket because we just can’t find a lighting system on the market that can compete with the price, performance, and weight of the GEMINI DUO.

Secondary/Backup Lights

Everyone will need a secondary light. The bow navigation light is important but it won’t help you when you’re you are the rear paddling trying to read a map, taking a compass bearing or reaching into the bottom of the boat to grab something to eat. Everyone needs their own light.

Headlamps will be critical for portaging, navigation, land marking, dealing with food/gear, and generally lighting up the night. That said, they are not recommended to be used for long durations when paddling. Anyone who has paddled with only a headlamp can attest to the very annoying and disorienting strobe-light effect that happens when your paddling hands flutter in front of your face and headlamp. It’s awful. Your eyes can’t adjust properly to the darkness and you are essentially blind. That said, you will need a headlamp and luckily there are great options out there: All the same principles apply regarding lumens, batteries, and run time.

As a secondary light we don’t feel you need need massive amounts of light shining off their head and Petzel makes an economical ACTIK. You won’t get the blazing brightness of GEMINI’S DUO but you do get about 8m of light for about 100 hours or you can punch it up to 350 lumen for 2 straight hours after which you still have another 30 hours of reserve as the brightness drops off.  Most important, they run on 3 AAA batteries which means you can replenish your power supply while you’re on the go.

As for a back-up or emergency light, our personal favourite is the Petzel e+LITE. Being about the same size and weight as a tablespoon of peanut butter this little guy supplies enough power to light you up from dusk ’till dawn. Bright enough for safety purposes and small enough to fit in your life jacket pocket. 

Good Luck!

So folks, there you have it. The MRX’s top 3 picks. We hope you find this helpful in making a decision on which system to go with. Whatever system you choose, make sure to consider all the variables. Lumen vs. burn time vs weight. Bow light for navigation, headlamps for personal use, portaging, supplemental navigation, and an emergency light.  You can never be over prepared with light.  And last but not least, pay attention to your wallet!  Lights can get pricey.  So, before you buy give Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville a call.  Tell them you need the GEMINI lighting package for the MRX and they will fix you up with a DUO system, emergency lights, and the mandatory signal light at a price you can’t find anywhere else.


The River X Crew