I’m often asked by customers at the kayak shop about what color boat they should consider when purchasing a kayak in order to make sure that they are visible on the water. Truth be told, the color of your boat is only one aspect and probably not the most important one concerning your visibility. Here are some ways to make you stand out while kayaking:
When choosing the color of your kayak you must consider the various vantage points that others will be seeing you from. First, you must consider what you will look like from water level. The color of your kayak means little to a boater passing by at any reasonable distance simply because you are so low to the water that the kayak will not be seen. Boaters are more likely to see the motion of your paddles or your PFD well before they are close enough to see your kayak. However, when being viewed from the air (e.g. if search and rescue were looking for you) then the color of your kayak can make a big difference.
The most visible colors are pink, orange, yellow, and red. Let’s call these the “high visibility colors.” A kayak with a deck that is any of these colors will be more visible, especially from the air. You should also consider choosing a hull of a visible color. Most manufacturers default to a white hull for aesthetic and traditional reasons. However, imagine that you capsize and become separated from your boat. That white hull is susceptible to blending in with the wave crests and may slow the search and rescue process. The bottom line: it doesn’t hurt to have a high visibility colored kayak but it could help you someday.
More important is the color of your PFD and paddles as these are the first things to be spotted at water level. Always consider buying a high visibility color PDF over darker colors. A few years back my instructor friends and I retired our “guide green” rescue vests for “guide gold” and the change was a no-brainer. More often over looked are the color of your paddle blades. Their flashing motion while paddling is likely the first thing to be picked up by passing boaters. Consider choosing one of the visible colors for your paddle blades (Werner makes most of their premium grade touring paddles with high-visibility blades). An alternative to consider is painting the tips of you paddle blades orange. Carbon-fiber (black) paddles are all the rage for many good reasons but they are really hard to see from a distance. The best way to make a carbon paddle more visible is to use retro-reflective tape as discussed next.
Finally, it is important to consider your visibility on radar and at night. The best way to ensure that you are seen on radar is to use retro-reflective tape on your kayak, paddle blades, and PFD. I recommend putting 6inch long strips of Solas ® retro-reflective tape on both sides of your kayak near the bow and stern and on the back and power faces of your paddle (especially if it is carbon fiber). Many PFDs have retro-reflective tape on the shoulders or back of the vest as do some paddling jackets. When paddling at night it is USCG mandated that you carry at least a single white light. This can be a flashlight but I like the orange C-light by ACR Electronics ® which pins onto your PDF and throws an omnidirectional beam. I’ve seen many green/red running light accessories for kayaks and these will increase your visibility too but are not required.
Be safe and be visible! Happy Paddling!