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This has bugged me for a while now, but BS needs to be called on dark colours for kayaking.

People sometimes don’t like to stand out, I get it. But there’s a reason why the RNLI wears bright yellow drysuits. White water kayaking is a risk sport, and one of those risks is entrapment, sometimes under the water. Oftentimes the only way that the trapped kayaker can be seen is via the colour of their helmet or drysuit and BA. Yet year after year kayak equipment and clothing manufacturers put out dark colours, or in some cases black as one of their ‘colour’ options.

Sweet Protection helmets have been fairly dark recently. Even the normal colour options have been muted in their brightness or offset with black trim and visors. WRSI in particular, a company that prides itself on its safety considerations has put out entire ranges of helmets that feature pretty much all dark colours.

Clothing wise both Immersion Research and Peak UK feature black drysuits in their ranges. IR has stated on The Hammer Factor podcast in the past that the reason they do it is because it is one of the most requested and bought colours. Why? Because people want to ‘look cool’.

But there’s a fundamental problem here. A helmet and a drysuit, IMHO, serve two purposes each. Protection and visibility. As a risk sport in hostile environments, white water kayaking gear is built primarily around safety. Whether it’s keeping you dry or warm in full submersion, or protecting your head from being smashed open, kayak equipment is about functionality first, fashion second.

Sure, we want the gear to look good as well, but that’s a secondary consideration from how it works, and visibility forms part of that safety triangle.

Defensive attitudes

I’ve been shot down quite harshly before on this subject, with people shouting about personal choice. The manufacturers, too, will say that they do it “because market forces”. I’ve also had people compare it to surfing, where the majority of people wear black wetsuits. Although such arguments neglect to mention that a surfer is leashed to their surfboard, which is often bright white or bright in other colour. Surfers also don’t get trapped by trees or other objects underwater. Or, if they do, it’s an extremely rare occurrence, usually only on large, powerful surf breaks.

I was also told by a rep from one of the companies that they had an alternative brighter colour. However, that’s not the point if people simply gravitate towards the black option due to its fashion criteria. If you make it a choice, they’ll buy it! On the other hand, if you stop making dark kayaking gear and a paddler contacts you to ask you why they can’t have it any more, you can simply reply that it’s a dumb idea. Just say, “Sorry dude, if you want to wear all black, become a ninja!”

The fact is, that if kayak clothing manufacturers all agreed that very dark or black equipment was an extremely silly idea given the primary context of safety, then people wouldn’t have that choice. Don’t like it? Tough, find another sport that’s more fashion based. I find it quite incredible that there is such a backlash against people like me highlighting this problem.

The idea of personal choice with regard to this is, frankly, dumb. If you find yourself trapped underwater and your friends can’t spot where you are, then there’s a problem. Recently, there was this incident on the river Dee. Read through the full article and you’ll notice the author highlights wearing brightly coloured gear as one of the things they considered important.

You might think that personal choice trumps safety considerations, but where is the personal choice if you need rescuing and your rescuers can’t see you? Where’s their ‘personal choice’?

I’m also told that it’s okay, because if someone buys a black drysuit they’ll have a bright helmet or BA. Again, this isn’t necessarily the case. I know kayakers who have gone all black! Black drysuit, black helmet, and black BA! Plus, if helmet manufacturers are also making their ranges consist mostly of harder to see colours, then there again there’s a problem.

So, I’m calling BS on dark kayaking equipment and the excuses given for it. You might not think it’s a problem. You might think you’ve been kayaking for 30 years without a problem. But the problem with this is that it isn’t a problem, until it is.

2 comments on “Calling BS on dark colours

  1. Greg Harrington says:

    Very good point made which equally applies to cyclists and motor cyclists. I fly as well as paddle, several years ago some friends were doing a coastal paddle and I decided to find them. Flying at 500ft on a clear day with not much swell it was surprisingly difficult to spot them even knowing their route. It makes sense to take every opportunity to be visible whether white water, river or ocean

  2. Tim says:

    Agreed. And it’s not just clothing. I was talking just literally yesterday to a kayak buddy about who on earth would buy a kayak that is predominantly black?! There’s at least one major manufacturer offering such a scheme. How difficult is that going to be to spot when it’s upside down on the Dart late on a winter afternoon when it’s getting dark?!

    Of course, the same argument applies to cars, I do not understand why “primer grey” has been such a trendy colour for several years: boring to look at and hard to see in low light….

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