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See and Be Seen with Reflective Technology

by Seth Levy
November 4, 2011

Fall means changing leaves, shorter days, and turning back the clock. The hike you finished with time to spare in June might leave you scampering to your car in November, racing the night. While many outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with headlamps, flashlights, and other “active illumination” technologies, reflective technologies add a new dimension of safety and convenience to shorter days. “Passive” reflective technologies don't need batteries, are unaffected by moisture or temperature and weight mere grams.

3M Retroreflective Tech
Magnified view of micro retroreflectors. (image courtesy of 3M)

The Underlying Technology

The technology that underlies most reflective products is a “retroreflector.” 3M manufactures the ubiquitous Scotchlite retroreflective product. Gina McCabe, spokesperson for 3M, explained how it works: “If light hits an ordinary t-shirt, it just scatters, but with Scotchlite, it's directed right back to the source.” The retroreflectors 3M uses are usually translucent beads, backed with a concave mirror. If you've seen a cat's eyes glow, you're observing the phenomena in action. ScotchLite uses millions of glass beads, 65 microns in diameter, backed by a vaporized aluminum coating. The net effect of these beads is that regardless of were you are in relation to the product, a number of the glass spheres are pointed at you. So, a light shined at a sheet of ScotchLite reflects brightly from any angle.


reflective tech comparison
Comparison between reflective garments and standard white t-shirts. (image courtesy of 3M)


Hikers, bikes, and runners on greenways and urban trails aren't necessarily concerned with getting lost or being seen by a rescuer — their primary concern is visibility to cyclists and cars. Often, activewear manufacturers make a logo reflective, but according to McCabe, “these coatings are most effective when they define the human form in motion, rather than just 'spicing up' an ordinary garment.” Common frontcountry uses of reflective technology include:

Supplemental Products

There are a plethora of reflective belts, vests, and straps available to add to your existing workout clothing system (or your pet's system!) Accessories are good compromises if you don't want to scrap your existing clothing system, but seek to add visibility.

Reflective Garments

Many shirts, gloves, and bottoms are built with reflective technology. Not sure which include reflective panels? Take a picture of the rack of garments and the flash will make the reflective panels glow garishly in the image.



Where frontcountry explorers seek visibility primarily to avoid collisions, backcountry explorers want visibility for different reasons. In reduced light settings around camp, reflective technology can add convenience and safety, and, in the event of a rescue, reflective technologies can ensure visibility to search and rescue crews. Useful applications of reflective technology in the backcountry include:

Zipper Pulls

Many tent manufacturers offer reflective zipper pulls. This Exped Venus combines reflective cord on the zippers with a zipper tab that is glow-in-the dark. Given that it's impossible to get back in a warm tent too quickly, these are both features worth looking for.

Exped Venus
Exped Venus 3. (photo courtesy of Exped)


Several companies make a standard nylon cord with a reflective strand braided in.  Though the intended use of this cord is preventing hikers from tripping on the guylines of their shelters, a little loop of this cord on the end of a knife, lighter, or ditty-bag makes these items a snap to find in a dark bag or tent.


MSR Reflective Cord
MSR Reflective Cord. (photo courtesy of MSR)

Tent stakes

Tent Stakes can be highlighted with a loop or reflective cord, but Vargo Designs goes one step further.  Their Titanium Shepherd's Hook Tent Stakes are dipped in a florescent paint.  Though this isn't technically a retroreflective material, it is more efficient in reflecting light than traditional solid colors.

Vargo Outdoors Tent Stake
Florescent tent stake. (image courtesy of Vargo Outdoors)


Have you already embraced reflective tech? Have you figured out a clever way to incorporate reflective paints, tapes, or cord into your existing kit? Share your illuminating insights with the Trailspace community on Facebook or in a comment below.