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Should You Wear Bright Colors When Hiking?

Updated on May 11, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Beth is a published author. She teaches creative writing to adults and loves helping her students improve their writing skills.

These Walkers Stand Out in the Landscape

Hikers walk the Syncline ridges in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
Hikers walk the Syncline ridges in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. | Source

Bright Jackets in the Back Country

When hiking or camping you need to make a choice between wearing a jacket that is easily visible from a distance or wearing one that is a neutral, less visible color. Opinion is divided as to which is better. It all depends on whether you want to be seen by your fellow humans or whether you want to merge into your surroundings.

What about the birds and animals, I hear you cry? Well, they should not influence your decision as they do not see color in the same way as we do. You are more likely to disturb them by your movements, the noise you make and the smell of body odor (even clean bodies), than you are by wearing bright colors.

Choosing the Best Color Clothes for Outdoor Activities

Activity
Bright Color or Camouflage
Comments
Walking, trekking, hiking
Bright
Can be seen easily in emergency
Photography, bird-watching
Either
Use a hide for camouflage rather than your clothes
Hunting, shooting, fishing
Camouflage
A hide is often impractical for these sports

The Dull Colors of These Hikers' Clothing Acts as Camouflage

Dense mountain cloud swallows up walkers in the Lebanon Mountains.
Dense mountain cloud swallows up walkers in the Lebanon Mountains. | Source

Like a Red Rag to a Bull

First let me debunk the myth that animals are enraged when they see the color red. The theory goes that you should never wear red when crossing a field with a bull in it as he is likely to charge. I have talked to many farmers about this and they tell me that a dangerous bull will be tethered and so unable to give chase. If a bull is loose in a field then it has a placid nature, but they advise against entering a bull's field unless there is no other route available. The color or your jacket will not affect the outcome of your encounter with the animal.

The English idiom “like a red rag (or flag) to a bull” implies that a bull becomes distressed and enraged when it sees something red. A matador in a bullring waves a red flag in front of a bull to goad him. The maddened bull tries to gore the bull-fighter who is then able to demonstrate his “bravery” to the crowd. However the bull’s reaction is a retaliation for the painful lance wounds that the bullfighter has inflicted on him rather than an attack on the red color of the matador's cloak.

Bulls are Colorblind

What Makes Bulls Angry? Motion and Color Tests on a Live Bull

Experiments have shown that animals are alerted by movement rather than color. In the video below, a team from the Sky TV show “Duck Quacks Don’t Echo” tested a bull’s reaction to color and motion. The aim of the show is to put long-held beliefs to the test. This short movie shows the team using a variety of colors as they attempt to aggravate a live bull. No humans (or bulls) were hurt in the making of the film.

TV Show Investigates What Makes Bulls Angry

Outerwear Color Choice For Hunters and Photographers

So now you know the color red doesn't make a bull angry, is that going to affect what you wear in the countryside? Your choice of color and type of outerwear will depend on the purpose of your trek. Photographers and wildlife hunters need to stay still for long periods in order to get their best shot (in both senses of the word). They therefore need to blend into their surroundings so as not to distract or disturb their quarry. Camouflage clothing or a disruptively colored woodland hide netting would be their choice.

On the other hand, walkers, trekkers and hikers tend to be constantly on the move. They may take breaks or pause to enjoy their surroundings but the nature of their activity means they are in motion. Camouflage clothing is therefore of less relevance. Colorful outerwear would be a good choice for them.

What color jacket do you wear when hiking?

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Disruptive Coloration: Nature's Camouflage

Many wild animals use disruptive coloration to camouflage themselves. They use this technique to protect against predators and to lessen their chance of being killed and eaten. If they remain motionless they can be almost impossible to spot. This technique is especially effective when being hunted by humans. Unlike other predators, man relies heavily on his sense of sight (rather than smell) to find prey. The pictures below show how effectively some game birds can “disappear” into a landscape.

Can You Spot the Five Chicks and their Mom in this Photo?

A White-tailed Ptarmigan Lagopus leucura with five chicks in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska.
A White-tailed Ptarmigan Lagopus leucura with five chicks in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. | Source

Here's the Answer! Highlighted Ptarmigan and Five Chicks

Exceptional Camouflage makes this Ptarmigan and her five chicks difficult to see.
Exceptional Camouflage makes this Ptarmigan and her five chicks difficult to see. | Source

How Do Animals See Color?

Wildlife does not see color in the same way as you or I. For example, many species see only a limited color palette. Cats and dogs can see browns, yellows and blues, while birds can see ultra-violet light. Snakes see heat outlines of other creatures rather than a purely visual image.

What appears to be a bright color to a human being, can be a muted one when seen by a wild animal. This means that the color of your outerwear has little impact on the wildlife you are filming or hunting. It is far more important you remain still and quiet, than it is for you to be camouflaged. In many situations wearing a bright jacket or sweater is safer, especially if you are on your own. If you have an accident and people are searching for you, it will be easier to find you if you are wearing a bold color than if you are wearing army-style fatigues.

How Animals See the World

Leave No Trace (LNT)

Some adherents of the "Leave No Trace" principle of enjoying nature argue that wearing bright colors affects the enjoyment of people nearby. However, I think this is sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of LNT. It is far more important to respect the backwoods by not trampling plant life, not polluting water-courses and respecting animal habitats, than laying down the law on the color of other people's gear.

Take only pictures.

Leave only footprints.

— An anonymous environmentalist
Walkers in Gorbeia Park, Basque Country.
Walkers in Gorbeia Park, Basque Country. | Source

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