Recent technological advances in the performance of small micro-lasers and multi-channel multi-event photo-detectors have enabled the development of experimental airborne lidar (light detection and ranging) systems based on a low-SNR (LSNR) paradigm. Due to dense point spacing (tens of points per square meter) and sub-decimeter range resolution, LSNR lidar can likely enable detection of meter-scale targets that would go unnoticed by traditional lidar technology. Small vehicle obstructions and other similar targets in the beach and littoral zones are of particular interest, because of LSNR lidar's applicability to the near-shore environment and the general desire to improve detection of antivehicle and antipersonnel obstacles in the coastal zone. A target detection procedure is presented that exploits the detailed information available from LSNR lidar data while diminishing the effect of spurious noise events. Consideration is given to detection in both topographic and bathymetric scenarios. Data sets for target detection analysis are supplied by a numerical sensor simulator developed at the University of Florida. Target detection performance is evaluated as a function of environmental characteristics, such as water clarity and depth, and system parameters, specifically transmitted pulse energy and laser pulse repetition frequency. Analysis of results with regards to consideration for future system design is discussed.