What Color is the Best for Sea Kayak Visibility?

When buying a sea kayak, choosing a color tends to fall into one of three categories: What color…

  1. Is available.
  2. You want.
  3. Is best for visibility.

Most of the time, paddlers are simply stuck with what’s available, especially these days. For those who can choose their color, I get the logic in the third category. Sea kayaks are already hard to spot, especially from a distance. Logic dictates that more visible colors will be easier to see. 

But do some colors for a sea kayak really increase visibility? And if so, which color is best?

The court of opinion

Ask most sea kayakers about color and the typical recommendations given for the best choice and red, orange and yellow are generally at the top of the list. I hear green tossed out as an option fairly often too. White is often touted as more visible than black.

So which color is it?

If visibility is a concern, you’ll want a fluorescent yellow-green sea kayak

(For the record, red was found to be the least visible color)

Mustang Survival On-Water Visibility Study

In August 2011, Mustang Survival conducted a study entitled “On-Water Visibility” to distinguish and scientifically validate the most conspicuous color for use on Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) and Immersion Suits (IS) when viewed on the water. “

The study found fluorescent yellow-green was the most conspicuous color overall, followed by fluorescent orange and then yellow. Red was found to be the least conspicuous color with on-water testing. There were similar results in on-land testing for central and peripheral vision.

Why these colors?

To know what colors are most visible, we need to understand what color is and how we see it.

Color is a component of light which is separated when it is reflected off of an object and our eyes only see the colors reflected within wavelengths between 400 nanometers and 700 nanometers, (the visible spectrum – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). 

And some wavelengths are easier to see in certain light conditions

In daylight, the most visible color is one with a wavelength of 550 nanometers. That color would be somewhere between green and yellow. So green is most easily picked up during the day followed by yellow, then blue. 

  • At night longer and shorter wavelengths (red is the longest at 700 nanometers) are harder yet to see as they appear darker.
  • For night vision the most visible wavelength is 505 nanometers, which most people see as halfway between green and blue-green.
  • At a distance, again, it’s about wavelength. With green the easiest for us to see at a distance. Red, the hardest.

If we consider nothing else, the optimal color for a highly visible sea kayak is fluorescent yellow-green.

It’s the best color recommendations it falls in at the optimal wavelength for our eyes for any given light and distance.

And the Mustang Survival Study results were in line with how we see color, but color only isn’t the only factor that determines how visible we are, especially on the water.

Color is only part of what determines visibility

What the human eye can see, which can vary between individuals, variations in color, the amount of ambient light available, the direction of view relative to that light, the proximity to the object being viewed (searched for), our height relative to what is being viewed (searched for), and sea state conditions affect our vision.

Considering only color, each of these kayaks is bright and we’d expect them to show up on the water. Yet, when we consider other factors, visibility is affected.

Brightness

Luminance levels indicate how much light (luminous power) could be detected by the human eye looking at a particular surface from a particular angle of view

  

Brightness is what we perceive when light reaches the rods and cones of our retina. It’s subjective.


This means that while a particular color is the brightest to you, it might not be to the individual trying to find you. As a result, red, orange, and yellow may be no more visible to some individuals than green or blue. 

There can be additional complications when we toss ‘shades’ of color into the mix – not all yellows, for example, are the same and the level of brightness will vary.

Contrast

Contrast is the difference in color that makes an object distinguishable, and the human visual system is more sensitive to contrast than absolute luminance.

It’s effectively easier to see (distinguish) contrasting objects than to see different colors in the same field of view. The further the distance, the more contrast matters. 

That bright red or yellow kayak will be less visible on a bright day than say a black kayak. A pale blue kayak (why Robin’s Egg Blue is touted as highly visible) will more likely stand out against a dark blue sea than a yellow one. The better the contrast, the better chance you will be seen.

Even contrast is variable.

What if we’re looking toward the sun? Away from it? What about fog and low-light conditions?

Let’s complicate this a bit further….

Color blindness

Individuals with color blindness see colors differently. They can have issues seeing color at all (though rare), distinguishing how bright a color is, or distinguishing between colors.

The colors most challenging to distinguish –  red and green in one form color blindness and blue and yellow in another. So that red or yellow color choice for your kayak, chosen for the best visibility – with one in 12 men and one in 200 women experiencing some level of color blindness, there’s a good chance it isn’t nearly as visible as you’d expect – even if it’s a fluorescent yellow-green one!

Sea state and visibility

What color will be most visible on the water can – will – further vary with sea-state conditions.

Most modern sea kayaks have a deck height of 10” to 13”. At any real distance, they blend into the horizon. They’re impossible to see regardless of color. Even on flat water, and almost regardless of the ambient light levels, a sea kayak will become invisible. (That distance varies based on the height of who may be looking for you…that ‘angle of view’ referenced earlier.)

Two of these are the same kayaks from the first image. Hard to tell based solely on color. And the kayak in the foreground – it has a green deck.

Now add in a few waves. Increase their size.

Sitting in 3-5 foot swells with 3 other kayakers, I have found myself being unable to see any of them until we were both on a crest simultaneously or on/in an adjacent crest and trough. Even knowing where they were, it was hard to quickly spot them.

Imagine now looking for a sea kayak while in one or from the deck of a small pleasure boat. It’s not the color you’d see first. Like spotting a whale in the distance, it’ll be the contrast you notice. You’ll see the change on the horizon – something that stands out from the sea. (Though, honestly, visibility here is more about movement than color – but let’s stick to color for now)

It’s why a dark colored whale just breaking the surface is visible from a distance even when it’s barely breaking the surface. We pick up the ‘change’ on the horizon – something there that was not the last time we looked.

Would a bright green whale be more noticeable? Maybe. But a black one IS visible. 

And whitecaps?

A lighter or brighter colored one will blend in more than a darker colored one. On the white froth, darker colors mean more contrast, and especially on brighter days. I’d expect a white kayak to be close to invisible in whitecaps yet a black one to stand out.

What about being seen at night?

At a certain light level nothing is going to be all that visible. As long as there is enough ambient light however, lighter colors will likely be more visible – they reflect more light and have increased contrast against the dark sky and sea. That same white kayak that was invisible in the whitecaps is now potentially the most visible. 

4 sea kayaks in 4 color combinations to show issues with color and visibility

These four kayaks are the same as four of the ones in the first image. While not a picture at night, this image shows how a change in ambient light affects color visibility. The lead kayak in the foreground has a yellow hull with a light gray deck. The one behind it has a white hull with a bright yellow deck. The nearer trailing kayak – white hull and bright red deck. In this light, even this close, their colors are almost indistinguishable.

What about a sea kayak in white caps at night?

It’s still possible that a helicopter with its bright lights reflecting off the white caps may mean that black kayak is seen first.

Who is looking for us?

I often see posts stating that certain colors will be spotted more easily from the air – something that matters in a real rescue scenario.

So, are some colors more easily seen from a given vantage point? That, again, would depend on conditions. A bright white sea kayak floating in white caps could blend in enough that, even from a rescue helicopter or the bridge of a container ship,  it wouldn’t be seen where a red one may be spotted. But at dusk, on a calm sea, that changes. 

Here’s a more concerning thought – given how small a sea kayak, from a certain distance, no color is going to all that visible.

What about more than one color?

It’s a fair question. Think about the composite kayaks you see. In my experience, they are rarely all one color. Deck, seam, hull….that’s 3 right there.

The camouflage effect

That different colored deck, hull, and seam…..

Too many colors or the pattern of the color may be visually disruptive. (This is why camouflage paints/patterns are so effective at decreasing visibility) 

Even hatch covers, deck lines, keel strips in colors different than your deck and hull can disrupt visibility, at least to a point! And if you have multiple colors on the deck? Or a big colored graphic?

Which end us up?

I have spoken with kayakers who feel there is an advantage to having a deck in one color and a hull in another. That two-toned pattern works to camouflage a great white shark from its prey, but it does little to improve the visibility of a sea kayak.

This leads then to the question of what position will you kayak be in when some needs to find you? Will you be in the water with the hull up? In the kayak?

The camouflage effect

That different colored deck, hull, and seam…..

Too many colors or the pattern of the color may be visually disruptive (this is why camouflage paints/patterns are so effective at decreasing visibility) 

Even hatch covers, deck lines, keel strips in colors different than your deck and hull can disrupt visibility, at least to a point!

So does color really matter for sea kayak visibility?

How visible a sea kayak is, anything is, depends on multiple factors. Color is just one of them. Even a fluorescent yellow-green kayak could be hard to see in less than ideal conditions.

Anything we can do to make ourselves more visible to others around us, the better, but color should not be something we rely upon. 

So what color sea kayak should you purchase? 

Whatever color that makes you happy! 

Me? I went all white

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