Bright Colors and Signals for Safer Paddling

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor


Looking at the photo above, which kayakers do you see the easiest at first glance? If you eliminate the contrast factor in the picture, the human eye will always pick up the bright colors first. We all know the importance of hunters wearing international orange for safety reasons, but there are no regulations that govern our safety on the water during daylight hours. So we should heed what the Coast Guard recommends for safe paddling. Those kayakers wearing dark clothing are the least likely to been seen by speeding power boaters, as they may be looking in several directions while under way. The red is first to capture your eye in the photo. In most daylight conditions on calm water, orange and white colors show up the best, followed by yellow and red. Mountaineers on major climbs wear bright colors in order to be visible in rescue situations, when the difference of life or death is “being seen”.

While black may be the best contrast color in poor lighting conditions (why fishermen use that color for their crab pot float flags), it has been found that international orange is the best color for most daytime conditions and varied backdrops. Bright florescent colors like lime green are also very good. Before I purchased my Legend, I asked the Coast Guard what color was the most visible to get. They said yellow is good in several lighting conditions, and that they call dark colored kayaks “speed bumps”. While a white colored kayak is very visible, especially at night, they said “a white hull and deck are very hard to pick out from whitecaps in a rescue search”.


In addition to my yellow-decked kayak and my orange life vest, I have four readily-available signal devices in order to “be seen”:

Paddle Blade Mirrors – I have a mirror on the back of each blade, which I can use to reflect sunlight for a signal. They also flash sunlight as I paddle, making my position more evident to other boaters. I also use them to see what is behind me, without having to turn my boat around. At any auto parts store you can find the plastic, flexible, self-adhesive-backed mirrors, which you can cut to the desired shape. Mine are elongated rectangles to allow a wide view, and have held up very well over the years.

Signal Light – Keep a high-intensity light tethered to your vest, which is critical in the fog during daylight, along with the obvious night conditions. See the article “The Need for a Signal Light”.

Signal Flag – The official maritime distress signal flag of international orange should be within easy reach on your kayak. I have rigged mine with two Velcro straps, and can attach it to my paddle so I can wave it high over my head. The flags are available at boat stores, or the web.

Whistle – Tether it to your life jacket for quick use. Check it occasionally to make sure it works.


As you paddle, look well ahead, as well as to the sides and aft (where the paddle blade mirrors come in handy). Seeing what is approaching from a distance will give you the time to take defensive action. If you are underway, and see a boat approaching you off your bow, quickly determine its course (what direction it is moving in, represented as an angle to your heading). As that boat gets closer, if the angle stays the same while you are underway, you will collide. We are so low to the water, that the skipper simply may not see you, so it is up to you to take avoidance action. On four different paddles I have seen close calls involving sail boats and power boats with someone in our group. In all four cases, the paddler tried to “beat the speeding train to the crossing”, instead of falling off. The train will always win. Situational awareness is our key to staying safe on the water.

Contributed by Jay Murdock