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May 17, 2017

A boater has a lot of choices when it comes to visual distress signals, But how does the boater who needs to make a decision proceed?

If performance is secondary to staying in the good graces of your local boating safety patrol, the Sirius Signal SOS light and a distress flag will cover the basics. If you're headed offshore, certainly add more and better flares to your list, and maybe a laser or automatic SOS light for good measure. And if you're somewhere in the middle, sticking with the tried-and-true might work for you.

None of the options is perfect and it's important to have additional  other means of signaling aboard, be it a VHF, cellphone, or satellite-based device, depending on your needs. No matter which you choose, make sure you keep them up-to-date, easily accessible aboard, and know how to use them.

There are pros and cons to each type. The effectiveness of a distress signal comes down to whether or not an observer — who may be tired, careless, or untrained — can see and understand that the light is a signal. A distress signal must be big enough and bright enough for someone who may be miles away to positively identify and locate the source. So it's no surprise that the brightest and most intense flares, the SOLAS-approved or their equivalents, did so well. They're around 30 times brighter than a standard Coast Guard-approved flare. If this was simply a question of the best flares money could buy, it'd be simple. But what if you don't need that level of performance? 

Pyrotechnic Devices

Flares have been around for more than 100 years, largely because they just plain work as a distress signal. Observers commented that they subconsciously recognized fire as a danger, especially when it appears where we know it isn't supposed to be. We know there's a problem when we see fire on the water.


  • Easy to recognize as a distress signal.
  • Easy to use.
  • Very bright, SOLAS flares and their equivalents ranked in the top three spots at each distance tested.


  • All the flares emitted sparks, which can damage your boat or burn you. Our testers used welding gloves to hold the flares, and even with that, the heat from the flares made them almost too hot to hold.
  • Flares expire 42 months after manufacture, for good reason; flares become unstable over time and aren't as reliable.
  • The legal requirement calls for three flares, totaling no more than a few minutes of signaling (60 seconds minimum per flare, though some burn for two minutes or so)
  • The chemicals in flares are hazardous waste.

LED Devices

Light Emitting Diode devices are relatively new to the scene, and as the technology continues to evolve, prices are dropping rapidly. LEDs are durable and long-lasting, so more devices are expected to come on the market in the next few years.


  • Highest effective intensity of any electronic light available.
  • Easy to set a particular color, length of flash, or flash pattern.
  • With appropriate power, can work for days, rather than minutes.
  • Far safer to handle than pyrotechnic flares.


  • Can be hard to distinguish from background lights.
  • Not as bright as pyrotechnic flares. The best-performing light consistently ranked as less visible than the control, a USCG-approved, red Orion handheld flare.
  • With no expiration date, batteries need to be checked regularly.
  • People might not know a signal from an LED device is a call for help.
  • Doesn't have the range of visibility that pyrotechnic devices have. At five miles, the performance dropped off considerably.


Lasers have been on the scene longer than LED lights but haven't caught on as an alternative to flares. These devices are not like "light sabers" you'd see in the movies. Although under the right conditions, you can see the beam of light, especially with a green laser. The green Greatland flare was very popular with observers, especially at longer distances. Unlike laser pointers, which should never be aimed at aircraft (or other boats, for that matter) as they temporarily blind the operator, the flares tested emit light in a fan pattern, so the greater the distance from the viewer, the wider the fan. This pattern also protects the eyes of your potential rescuer, as the light isn't a focused beam that could burn your retina. The observer simply sees a green flashing light.


  • Green laser is very visible at night, and the farther away it is, the wider its beam becomes. Always ranked in the top three by our observers, it led the field at three miles and practically tied for the top spot at five miles.
  • Far safer than pyrotechnic flares.
  • Compact, and designed to last for five hours of continuous use.


  • Lasers are directional, so you must aim them at a potential rescuer, which means you need some idea where help might be coming from before they can be of much use.
  • The green color is more expensive than the red, but it was also easier to see. The red version ranked just under the USCG-approved red Orion handheld in all tests.
  • While legal for use in rescue situations and deemed "eye safe," pilots are taught to fly away from lasers.