Ultimate Bass

How to install LED lighting on a Boat or Trailer

There are many reasons to install LEDs (light emitting diode) in and on your bass fishing boat. You can install LED lighting just because it’s cool, or you may want to see better inside your boat when night fishing, or because they make it safer to move around in the dark. Getting ready before morning blast off can be costly when you step on a rod; LED’s can help prevent that. You can also put them in your boat compartments to see better. You can add them to your trailer for the same reasons. I personally did it for all of the above reasons. The following is a step by step process of how I installed them on my Skeeter.

First, let’s cover some basic discussion about Light Emitting Diodes. There are basically two kinds of 12 volt LED strips that can be used for boating purposes. First, is the two wire single color LED, and second is the four wire RGB LED’s (Red, Green, Blue – Light Emitting Diode). The RGB LED can make any color, provide shades of colors, and turn on and off in a variety of ways. Light Emitting Diodes are used in circuits to pass voltage in only one direction, so correct polarity for diodes is critical as they will not light up if the polarity is reversed.

Some companies, such as Blue Water, offer packages with all the components you need for an installation. Blue Water also has dealers that will install them for you, and provide a lifetime guarantee. Being retired, I chose to do a custom installation myself. Mostly because of the cost involved and the RGB LED’s kits available did not seem to fit my needs. My boat is a Skeeter ZX190 with a Yamaha 175 and I will use this as my how to example as we discuss the installation process. Tools needed for this installation are pretty simple, as you can see in the photo.

LED Tools

Before I get too far along, I need to cover what materials you will need and how to get them. The LEDs I used are mounted on a strip of thin copper with surface mounted diodes and resisters. They come with thin double sided tape on the mounting side, and a black or white mask (background color of the copper strip) on the lighting side. LED strips are manufactured in 5 meter (16.5 feet) lengths which are made by soldering 19.5 inch strips end to end. RGB LED strips are available in two basic sizes, 5050 and 3528; the difference is in size of the LED and the strip it is mounted on. The bigger size is brighter, but either size will be bright enough. They are available in 150 lights or 300 lights per strip. Since the total length will still be the same, the difference is only how far apart you want each LED.

Size 28 with 300 LEDs per strip is about the same brightness as size 50 with 150 LEDs. The 28 size will be 8 mm wide, while the 50 size will be 10 mm wide, so measure carefully when deciding which size to get. Length and width will be important in areas around compartment lids. They come in both waterproof and non-waterproof; I chose the waterproof 50 size with 150 LEDs for my boat deck applications and 28 size waterproof 300 per strip for the trailer. My locker LEDs are size 28 non waterproof 300 per 5 meter strip.

You will also need wire to connect the strips and connectors to a power source. To make installation simpler for connecting RGB LEDs, purchase four conductor wire, it is a four wire ribbon that comes in 18 or 20 gauge. You can use other wire, but it is much easier to keep the colors straight when using the RGB wire. It comes with individual wires color coded, black, blue, red, and green. Some companies have white instead of black and reverse the red and green. Since there does not seem to be a universal standard, check the colors carefully when ordering. Some strips also have the red and blue order reversed on the strip itself. The order doesn’t matter as long as you keep the wiring colors constant with the strip. Skeeter uses hand crimped connectors on their boat wiring, and that is what I used for all my wiring connections. However, snap on connectors are available for both RGB LEDs and two wire LEDs, and I suggest using them, as soldering the wires to the strips is a tedious job requiring a steady hand, but can be done. I used one or more heat shrink tubing pieces whenever possible to avoid using tape, because it seems like tape eventually comes loose.

Wire Harness

You will also need a controller for the RGB LEDs. It is often offered in combination along with the 5 meter strip. The controller will come with a remote key pad that is about a quarter inch thick and two by three inches in length and width. The control box is only two inches by three inches and one inch thick. It will have a wire with a connector for attaching to a strip and a wire with a sensor to pick up the IR control from the key pad. It will also have a female 12v socket for getting power.

LED Control Box

The sensor will need to be placed through the deck or otherwise mounted so the sensor can pick up the key pad IR signals which are pulse modulated controled. The strips are available on Amazon or a host of distributors on the web. Prices range from about $30-$300 depending on where you buy them.

There are many Chinese manufactures making strips and offering them on Ebay; I bid and got 5 meter strips from China for $7.55 and $19.66 with free shipping. I also bought my connectors and wire on Ebay. Wire at LED Distributions is $.50 per foot plus shipping. I got it on E Bay for 6.6 cents per foot. I also bought some four conductor 20 gauge round wire similar to the wire on the controller (see photos). It is slightly easier to push through holes and a smaller hole can be used. Keep in mind that free shipping from china will take 17-24 days to arrive.

Let’s talk locker lights first as it is the easiest type to install. LEDs draw very little current (1-2 amps for a 5 meter string) so you can supply power from the existing lights circuits. The connecting wire you will get on the LED strips will be 20 to-22 gauge. The wire on my locker lights was 16 gauge. So when connecting them, you will need a special size connector or otherwise allow for the difference in wire size. My Skeeter came with LED light modules. I just unscrewed them from their mounts and used 16 gauge “T” connectors to connect my led strips for each locker. With a pig tail of 16 gauge wire in the “T“ connector, I then used 22 gauge end to end connectors to connect the pig tails to the led strips. Strip the 16 gauge pig tail and unwind enough of the strands to allow the wire to fit in the 22 gauge connector and snip off the excess strands.

Wire Cutting

I used blue, non waterproof strips in my lockers because I had a 5 meter strip already on hand. My lockers never seem to get water in them, so I was okay with this use. You can use any type or color for this application, and if you are concerned about water by all means get waterproof strips. They should be rated IP 65 or 69. For the long rod lockers in front, I made a half inch by quarter inch strips of popular lumber, coated twice with marine varnish, in lengths to fit my compartments. I cut strips of the LEDs to the length of the wood strips, then pealed the tape back and applied them to the wood. Using construction adhesive, I glued the wood strips to the underside of the fiberglass above the carpet line on both the outside and the underneath side, of each rod locker. The other lockers got strips around the inside top of each locker stuck to the plastic boxes. I also added some LED strips to the underside of each console. The result is a more even and brighter light in each locker.

Now let’s move on to deck mounted strips. I did not have to drill any holes in the top of the deck for this installation. If you want smaller strips on your deck you might have to drill holes for wiring. I have two separate types of strips on my deck. One brightly lights the front and rear deck using RGB LEDs. It’s not only cool, but allows any color and will flash multiple colors if you wish. I use it when clearing the deck after fishing. The second set of strips is for night fishing only and uses smaller strips placed on the side rails of the bow, step to the front deck, and under each seat. These lights can run in tandem with the bright lights to make the deck even brighter. You can also flash each set at the same time with different colors. I will here after refer to the bright deck lights as B1 and the fishing lights as F1.

To power the deck LEDs, you have a couple of choices in wiring when dealing with a Skeeter boat because it has two sets of hot bow accessory wires under the front fish finder mount. Just take out the four screws and the mount will lift up and out, to allow easy access to the interior wiring. I used this power source for the F1 LEDs. Mine had a jumble of wires and searching around I found the two wire ends with a tag “bow access”. Using a volt meter, I found they were controlled by the boat power switch and when it was on they were hot. I was not sure if these wires were fuse protected, so I added an in-line fuse. While LEDs draw a small amount of current, it is always important to insure you have a fuse in every circuit. Using the boat power switch was a plus; no additional switches were necessary.

Attached are pictures of the connectors, strips and wire.

Connector Strips

I used a black mask for my trailer LEDs and white mask for the boat. Next, determine how many feet of LEDs you want; they can be cut at about 3-4 inch intervals. You’ll also have to decide if you want them all to be controlled by one controller, and how far it is from the beginning of each strip to where ever you are mounting the controller. One controller can handle about 10 meters of LEDs. I chose to have two separate controllers, one for B1, and one for F1. F1 has two small strips of LED’s on the bow deck with one more small strip beside the recessed trolling motor foot control. The trolling motor LED wiring runs through the existing wire access provided by Skeeter. Also (no comma) installed on this controller will be a strip around the step to the front deck, and small strips under each seat. This will help me keep from falling as I move around the deck hopefully landing a fish, but not so bright to affect my night vision. The controller will allow dimming of the LED strips, but I found the dimming ability to be minimal. I made a small notch in the bottom of the front panel to allow the IR receiver module to be exposed for the remote control (see attached picture).


Skeeter boats have removable side and end panels in both rod lockers which I used to help me run the wire from the controller in the bow to the front step. I used a fish tape to run wires from the bow along the outsides of the rod locker to the seats on the passenger side. There is an arm rest that is 8 by 20 inches, made of carpeted aluminum on the left side of the seat which is easily removed; it is held in place with only two screws. You will have to feel around in the carpet to find the screw heads as they tend to disappear in the carpet. I found that a dog comb helps in finding these screws. Under this panel, you will find a large, long cut out that is big enough to get your hand in. This is where the bow wires need to be fished to. I used a sticky square mount (like those for hanging pictures in the house) with a zip tie to hold the bow wires to the underside of the rod locker’s top outside rail. On the left side of the passenger seat, mounted on the deck is a built in cup holder; remove it with four screws. I drilled a hole large enough to pass the RGB wires from behind the cup holder into the space beside the seat. This allows a small 15 inch strip of LEDs to be mounted under the passenger seat. I then went to the driver’s seat and removed the glove box by the seat. Four screws hold it in place, and this gave me a space, like the passenger seat side, to access under the decking. I removed the cup holder by the driver seat just like the one by the passenger seat, to string a second 15 inch strip of LEDs under the driver’s seat. I used the fish tape to string wires under the back deck behind the seats from one side of the boat to the other. I then connected each strip to the bow controller testing each as I went along. After testing all the strips, I peeled off the tape backing and applied each strip.

The B1 controller is for a long string of LED s across the entire back deck and around the corners (see attached picture).

Rear Deck LED Lights

It also controls strips that run on the front deck the length of the rod lockers (see attached picture).

LED Rod Locker

LED Switch installationI mounted this controller in the back side wall of the passenger rod locker. To power this controller I ran wires from the glove box to the cranking battery and put an in line fuse next to the battery. Remember, always fuse a circuit, as unexpected things can cause a short. I drilled a hole in the inside wall by the shift lever and installed a SPST switch with a blue LED that comes on when the switch is on.

I fished wires from there to the back side of the driver side rod locker to power the controller for the B1 LEDs. Using my fish tape, I pulled two RGB wires from the back of the passenger rod box to the back of the driver side rod box. From the passenger rod box, I fished one of the RGB cables to the open hole by the passenger seat. Next I went to the back of the boat on the passenger side and removed the corner back panel. It is held in place with four screws hidden in the carpet; use the dog comb to help find theses screw heads. Then I fished the RGB cable from the passenger side seat opening to the back panel. I then started to connect each B1 strip to the controller. Some 20 gauge “T” connectors make this easier (see attached picture of the reusable ones I used).

Wiring Harness

Test each strip before connecting the next one; this helps you find any miss wiring along the way. Use your ohm meter to make sure the “T” connectors are actually making contact. I avoided having to drill any holes in the deck by running the RGB wires under the edge of hatches (see photos). I did have to drill a hole in the aluminum deck plate on the front rod lockers to pass the RGB cable under the decking at the hinge (see pictures).

Corner of compartment

I filled these holes with silicone bath tub and tile calking around the cables. I cleaned the edge of the deck where the strips go with acetone and let it dry. Next I simply peeled a few inches of double sided tape cover off at a time, and applied the strips by pushing and rubbing down firmly as I went along. The strips can be repositioned if need be. I also ordered two rolls of double sided tape for $1.10 and used this extra tape to help fasten any spots that did not seem to have proper adhesion. I ran the strips through all the colors several times as a test. Next I decided to drill a hole in the side of the step to run the end of the IR sensor out to the outside of the rod locker where the controller is mounted. I have a small plastic cover to go over the sensor which was not yet in place when I took the attached picture. Also attached are several pictures showing some of the color combinations that can be used with B1 and F1.

Boat console lighting Colored LED Lights LED Lighting in a boat

Next is the installation of trailer lights. My boat is equipped with a set of trailer mounted steps and a hand rail at the bow to assist me in getting in and out of the boat; I mounted a foot long strip of blue LEDs vertically on this hand rail. This gives me a lighted center target when getting the boat on the trailer in the dark and I have been quite pleased with the assistance this gives when loading a boat at night. You could also place the lights on the vertical support of the bow roller. I popped off the front trailer amber light and tapped into the brown positive wire with a “T” connector and placed the ground wire lead under the screw, inside the amber fixture. Then I ran the wires up the hand rail using zip ties to hold the wire in place.

Trailer Step Bar

Next I went to the back of the trailer and found a set of wires leading to an unused two wire connector zip tied to the trailer. I cut off the zip tie, and using my meter found these wires to be hot when the trailer lights were on, so I used 16 gauge “T” connectors to tie into these wires. Use 22 gauge end to end connectors to tie this wire to the LED strip wires. Use your meter to get the correct polarity.

LED Trailer Lighting

I placed strips of the blue waterproof LEDs on top of the frame rails and ran them up to the axle. This helps me better see the back corners of the trailer when loading at night. These, in combination with the front vertical LEDs, make it much easier to load the boat in the dark at ramps when there is no working ramp lighting.

If you decide to add LEDs to your boat or trailer and need some help, just send me a get with me in the Ultimate Bass Forums and I will be happy to help in any way I can. Good Luck and have fun with your creativity.


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