Best Emergency Pyrotechnic Signal Flares

The farther we get from civilization, the less opportunity we have to make contact when things go wrong. Cell phones may not work; dead/weak batteries may render other emergency signaling devices incapable of sending out a distress message. Even in cases where initial contact is made, zeroing in on the signal may be hampered by myriad reasons as well.

One of the more reliable methods of drawing attention to yourself, and more importantly, guiding rescuers to your location, is some sort of high-visibility signaling device. While some powerful battery/solar devices are popular, simple pyrotechnics may be your most dependable forms of emergency signaling gear.

Pyrooptions vary greatly; some being much more effective and reliable than others (misfires, compromised or limited performance).  Two types of emergency flares that are considered to be the most effective are smoke signals by day and ground or aerial flares by night. Here are some reasons why:



  • High daytime visibility;
  • Long burning time;
  • Depending on intensity of wind, can create trail back to source;
  • Available as hand/ground/floating canister.



  • Bright visibility
  • Long burning time (parachute flares)
  • Height of visibility (parachute, rocket flares)


Smoke works best on clear, bright-lit days and considered the best daytime pyro-signal. Cheap/small canisters don’t burn that long, some less than 30 seconds. In a stronger wind, it can dissipate in as many seconds. Larger canisters offer more intense smoke over a longer period of time and create a high-visibility orange cloud of smoke that can be traced back to its source.

Smoke flares (TOP) are the most visible day-use signals. Ground or rocket / parachute flares (BOTTOM) are best for low light/night use.

Rocket/meteor flares or parachute flares are most effective at night. Again, duration is a key factor. Some smaller (pocket) flares neither reach adequate height nor brightness to be effective. Misfire rates are high among some types of small flare kits as well. Larger aerial flares tend to gain greater altitude and burn longer. The longest, brightest and usually highest aerial signals are parachute flares, sometimes reaching an altitude of 1000 feet and burning for several minutes. Their biggest drawback may be the amount of drift on the way down, expanding the distance between the flare and rescue point.

The key to effective signaling devices is pretty obvious – they must be seen.

Here are some important pro/con tips about using pyrotechnics:

   Aerials launched too early to be seen by searchers in aircraft or on-ground/water;

   Wait until you see (not just hear) approaching search crafts; (you might consider using a broader aerial flare to narrow down the search area, and then rely on upon a direct-view smoke or light flare once rescuers are in close, visual proximity);

   Smaller/weaker rocket flares may not gain adequate altitude to be seen from afar;

   Burning time may be too short to effectively zero in on emergency location;

   More costly flares may discourage you from using them too often;

   Less expensive, smaller flares often misfire, but odds are better when you have more and are willing to use them more frequently.

   Duration and maximum height are key in aerial signals.

   Duration and intensity/volume are key in smoke signals.

   Personal danger: recoil from launching hand-helds and/or heat from ignited canisters can be severe.

Regardless of the type of high-tech, electronic signaling gizmos you carry, having a basic pyrotechnic kit of smoke and aerial flares can be a real life-saver. Its against the law to fire emergency devices outside actual situations, but sometimes on-water recreation demos can let you observe such devices in action to help you decide which route to go. Adding these signals to your emergency kit may come in handy some day. Be safe, have fun out there!

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