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I’ve seen small radar reflectors for sale. Should I carry one when kayaking? What else can I do such that boats can use their radar to be aware of my location when they can’t see me due to poor visibility?

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It looks like radar reflectors will not hurt but they aren't great either. The bigger and higher they are the better, which is easier to do on a sailboat than a sea kayak. According to one study, a homemade reflector worn on the paddler's hat provided the best signal reflections.

The distance they can be seen regardless of a radar reflector is limited,

At both 1/8 and ¼ nautical mile from the radar platform, kayaks consistently showed up on radar, regardless of whether there was a reflector in use or not. Beginning at ½ nautical mile, kayaks produced an obvious radar signal less than 10% of the time

Radar, Reflectors and Sea Kayaks: A Visibility Study

Bigger kayaks such as tandems and padding a group of kayakers produces a better signal than a reflector.

The tandem sea kayak turned up much better than the solo sea kayaks, regardless of radar reflector.

...

Kayaks paddling closely together in a pod formation produce a much more significant radar return than a kayak paddling singly with a radar reflector.

Radar, Reflectors and Sea Kayaks: A Visibility Study

The reccomendations were

Based on our field tests, we found that some form of radar reflector, be it commercially manufactured or homemade, is better than none and bigger radar reflectors produce better returns.

Radar, Reflectors and Sea Kayaks: A Visibility Study

Other suggestions for increasing visibility include,

Increase your visibility by wearing bright clothing, using a bright (not dark) colored kayak, paddles with white rather than black blades, and putting reflector tape on your kayak paddles and life jackets.

...

If you are traveling in a group & you see a vessel approaching, move into a tight group to increase your visibility. Wave your paddles high above your head to alert the vessel operator of your presence.

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When crossing a passageway or open water, cross in a tight group and consider using a small radar reflector.

So while a reflector will not hurt, it's not a magic solution either.

  • Great answer — thanks for helping find, vet, summarize and distribute this information! Having just read it I thought there was one other important bit of information which is that reflector or not, the ship with the radar will need to look carefully at their display to resolve a kayak from noise and may even need to adjust their display—in other words, alerting them on radio to look for you might be an important step in some circumstances. Maybe a separate question around radio use... – mmcc Jul 20 at 13:12
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    I want to plug again for the popularity of AIS. Whereas on radar you are unidentifiable, and possibly confused for noise, on AIS you are identified by vessel type, location, speed, and direction. While you have to pay more upfront, AIS is much more common than radar and so more people will be able to identify you. Also, you can connect it with your phone so you can "see" approaching vessels! – John Hughes Jul 22 at 15:30
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    This person installed a somewhat fancy version of AIS on his kayak, it may be of interest: hobie.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=71&t=57886 – John Hughes Jul 22 at 15:31
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Allow me to turn your question on its head a bit. Making yourself more visible to large vessels is a good idea, not being where they need you to be visible is a great idea.

Stay away from channels, shipping lanes, and docking areas. You are small and in a craft that can turn and stop in mere inches- a laden freighter on the other hand, might measure those same parameters in tenths of a mile when in harbor, full miles when in open ocean. Per navigation rules section 27 and 28, such a vessel would be considered either Restricted in Ability to Maneuver or Constrained by Draft, and thus have priority over a kayak regardless of meeting, crossing, or overtaking. The fact that he sees you easily on radar is immaterial. Given that any collision between him and you will go way worse for you, avoidance is the only smart strategy.

Even when dealing with more moderate sized pleasure vessels, keeping yourself aware and leaving them room is still going to more helpful to you in the long run than ensuring they see you earlier. When in situations with reduced visibility, use your sense of sight, sound, and possibly even smell (i.e exhaust) to detect the presence of larger vessels, and turn away immediately.

  • Just an upvote to clarify that as the one who asked I value this answer as clearly addressing the spirit of the question (lest anyone flag it as not being a specific answer to the question as asked) – mmcc Jul 22 at 21:47
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    That said sometimes you need to cross a shipping lane to get home, or just a fog bank full of lobster pots—the heart of the question is how to maximize your own detectability IN ADDITION TO all best praoctices. – mmcc Jul 22 at 22:13
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    @mmcc - I suspected as much, but this was entirely as the question was worded, so to benefit anyone else who may come along looking, I felt I needed to add this answer. The question plus the two current answers ought to collectively help and do add to the community. Thanks for the feedback. – cobaltduck Jul 23 at 17:52

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