Distress Signals New Priorities?

-- Last Updated: Nov-12-05 2:43 PM EST --

I am asking folks here to consider ranking their use of distress signals (the real ones not the joke ones of course). In light of new methods of communications and types of aids now on the market.

My new thinking is that incendiary devices, i.e., flares may not have as much utility as they used to especially with regards the hazards of using them from a kayak and how ineffective they are in daylight (Horodowidtz DVD). I am also thinking it is less risk to the rescuer and to my group if I can communicate our exact location and tell them the exact nature of the problem, who is along and to be able to remain in contact as the recovery proceeds. I used to rely mainly on 6 flares/smoke, etc. for everything.

My current ocen kit priiority devices are

1. VHF / GPS: VHF has automatic signaling and gives GPS coordinates
2. Cell phone- check first to see area is covered

3. Rental Sat phone for week long expedition with group

4. Laser pen, 15 hour version for helping them spot you day or night once they get closer/ stobe light combination

5. One Pains Wessex orange smoker, both day and night spotting from sea and air.

I have given up on the expensive and more hazardous ariel flares.

1. Whistle

2. VHF

3. Strobe

4. Smoke

5. Flares (skyblazers or meteors)

I use low power lasers for other things and am very skeptical of their utility as a signaling device. The likelyhood that a random person on shore would recognise a pinpoint red light as a distress signal is slim to none IMO. I think ariel flares are far more universally recognized as a distress signal and have a significantly larger line-of-sight horizon. For signaling people that are already looking for you I think a bright strobe (night) or orange smoke (day) would be more effective and not require aiming.

I forget where, but I saw these large international orange ribbons that you unfurl onto the water to increase your visibility to aircraft. Similar in effect to smoke but longer lasting and not blown away by the wind. Looked like a good idea to me.


What are the “joke” ones ?
We use the small one battery strobe and I don’t see any reason for cluttering up your yak with a bunch of other stuff.

The only time we even take those with us is if we are on extended wilderness trip to an area where where we know there won’t be other paddlers.



Like the old Smothers Brothers joke, what do you do if you fall in a vat of chocolate? Don’t yell fire, yell chocolate. If you yell fire they all run away, yell chocolate, they come!

Seriously, being out in the ocean caught in a storm, fog, someone injurred,etc. I try to ask what is going to get the help there asap and with the least risk to the rescuers too.

Yes, if someone watching a parachute flare gets their attention, and smoke or hand held flare as they get closer. But if one watches Horodowitzes DVD noone sees a flare going off even when looking for it unless really close by.

So I figure, go with communications devices. If someone injured and you are out to sea, on an island, etc., this is how you get yourself found.

Of course this is only for when the planning and management of conditions break down, sooner or later you do own general as the commercial goes.

I, myself have been there and glad I had the stuff. Evacuated a fellow from 12,000 up in the Sierras once who was trying to pass a kidney stone.

I doubt you are still legal
even if you do not want to use them you might need to carry those pencil flares. At lease a back up vhf with a competant paddler in the party.

Yes, likely true. It is not that I won’t have them, just hoping to have some thoughts here are what actually gets it done vs the hype and the expense and hazards of flares and those situations where one might feel good having them but then they don’t get you rescued.

What gets it done.

– Last Updated: Nov-13-05 10:26 AM EST –

Depends on the area (inland, far out at sea, paddling near lots of mountains, etc.), the weather, the time of day/night, the tides, the currents, the rescue assets available. There area too many variable factors. No ONE thing is guarenteed to work for every rescue. Sometimes, even EPIRBS do not activate when they are supossed to. As far as flare success rates, again, it all depends on the above factors and then some. Seems like you're more prepared, as far as safety devices, than most of the kayakers that I've come across. I would add a strobe on your PFD, though.

You need a combination of gear

– Last Updated: Nov-14-05 9:56 AM EST –

No single device can do it all, but some are more effective than others. When evaluating signalling devices, it's wise to think in terms of their usability in rough, noisy, low visibility conditions, as that's what you may be faced with, even if you don't intend to paddle on anything other than flat water during clear weather. Being in 20+ knot winds with 4'+ seas at night is not the time to find out that your safety gear is only usable in quiet, flat conditions.

First off, you need a means of summoning help. That means a VHF radio if you're paddling on Coast Guard patrolled waters. Not only is it useful for communicating your situation and position, but the CG uses direction finding equipment that can home in on a VHF signal, ultimately leading them right to you. If you are paddling inland in remote waters, a HAM radio would probably be a better choice, though it does require licencing. A satellite phone is an option, but I don't see how you could use one from a pitching boat. They're designed for use from a stable platform.

ANY RADIO MUST BE EASILY ACCESSIBLE WITH ONE HAND! It must also be close enough to your ear that you can hear it. That's why I carry mine mounted to the shoulder strap of my PFD. Sticking it in a pocket, on the deck or worse yet, in a hatch simply doesn't work when conditons get tough. You need to be able to use the radio while keeping one hand on your paddle at all times. You cannot afford to have to fiddle around to deploy the radio or to stow it. I've learned through practical experience that when you need it, you need it NOW and when you need both hands on the paddle, you need to be able to let go of it instantly without losing it or becoming entangled in a lanyard. For those that are interested, there are pictures of my mounting setup in my "Kayak Gear" album on Webshots at: http://community.webshots.com/user/brian_nystrom-reg

EDIT: I DO NOT recommend the Standard Horizon HX460S radio in the pictures. They have proven to be extremely unreliable under kayaking conditions and I would not trust my safety to one. The ICOM M88 also shown is a FAR better radio.

Flares are not very good at summoning help (especially during the day), but they are very helpful in pinpointing your location to rescuers who are searching for you. Smoke signals are much better for daytime use and no one who sees it is likely to be confused as to what it is. They're probably more useful than a signal mirror, albeit bulkier, heavier and more expensive.

In the event of a helicopter rescue at night, we were told by the CG that glow sticks in various colors are readily spotted from the air. While not anywhere near as bright as a handheld flare, they're lightweight, easy to carry, pretty much idiot-proof, they last a long time and you can't burn, yourself, your clothing or your boat with one.

Perhaps the ultimate device for summoning help is a personal EPIRB, also known as a Personal Locator Beacon. These have only one use, to summon help in an emergency and they WILL get a response. Unfortunately, they're still pretty pricey, though some outfitters will rent them.

Whistles are basically usesless in any kind of rough conditions, as they can't be heard over the sound of wind and waves. A Safety Blaster Horn is better, but you really cannot count on any audible signal at any significant distance. If you need to communicate with someone that's more than 50 yards away in noisy conditions, you need a radio.

signaling tools
I agree that one needs an arsenal of tools for different locations and conditions. The universal tool for most locations is a VHF radio. I use the ICOM M88. It is waterproof and binered to a D-ring in my pfd pocket. The cord is long enough to use normally, this way it cannot be dropped or lost.

Cell phone in Pelican box is a backup and I have a deck compass and Meridian Color GPS.

I also keep a couple of red pocket rocket flares in my PDF and a compact disc as a signal mirror. There is a strobe mounted on the PFD lash pad, good for night stuff but ineffective during the day.

That being said, I am looking for orange smoke and considering the manual powered “fog horn” device.

However, the best tool you have (besides a buddy) is between your ears. Knowing where you are going and what to expect and preparation for the worst case is the best way to avoid rescue in the first place.

Most of my paddling is near shore and near civilization. The VHF/Cell phone and pocket rocket flares should summon help if I end up in the water or on shore and need assistance.

Useful posts

These are the posts I hoped folks would take the time to share. I too have carried things I was told would work, but until I tested them in actual conditions or saw on tape how they failed I did not come close to having a good kit.

There is some hype out there by ourselves and the companies. For example, the very small flare rockets may be somewhat better, but they mostly have a record of failing and or causing some risk of injury and not being all that visible.

VHF’s even 5 watts from a moving kayak in rough seas may not get a signal out past 1 NM. Cell phones are not generally submersible. Sat phones do appear to need a stable platform. Epirbs are pretty tough but take awhile espcecially if not the super fancy ones attached to GPS.

All this shows that the management of the water is crucial as many if not all these devices and plans may not be successful. As a Wilderness First Responder I have several experiences that show the “Wilderness” can be just a .5 miles away from help if one is stuck there and no way to get it to you.

Thanks poster and anyone else who adds more here.

Signal mirror
They are available in glass, plastic and some will float.

glow stick on a loop
swung around. The pilots liked them. Also good at “heavy” parties. to bad I don’t go to them any more.

Lots Of Good Information Here
You need both “locate” and “alert” types of signaling devices. Some devices cross-over between the two to a better degree than others. I think and practice differing equipment loads depending on where I am going. The vast majority of my paddling has been within a mile of some shore or the other. And, the vast majority of my paddling has been during daylight hours to date.

I always carry a whistle, a three pack of sky blazers. If I am going somewhere that is less populated Ill add a pack consisting of two smoke flares, a battery stobe, and two standard signal flares.

A VHF radio may be one of the best pieces of general saftey equipment one could add, but I don’t have one. The range of the handhelds might make one of less value as compared to a full sized set. The power out is not as high, the antenna is not a full quarter wave, the antenna is typically much lower all contributing to a shorter useful range.


All true yet
Mark, all true! Yet VHF if the CG antennae is high they can still get your signal. Yes, cell sometimes is better for that reason.

Beware the skyblazers, they fail often and can injure you many have experienced this including a friend of mine.

VHF range

– Last Updated: Nov-14-05 10:02 AM EST –

While the one mile range you suggest can be true with kayak to kayak communication (it varies with the wave conditions), you can typically get much greater range to larger vessels and especially to Coast Guard stations, which have elevated antennas. I have often heard one-sided conversations from CG stations several miles away. I couldn't hear the boat they were talking to, but I could here the CG, which is somewhat comforting.

See my post about VHF range above
They work a lot better than most people realize, at least for contacting the Coast Guard.

Yes, strobes are a good idea. I forgot that to mention that I have one mounted on my PFD.

INFRARED cyalume

When a pilot is searching in the dark, night vision and FLIR are used. From experience, I can tell you that an infrared light source will light you and the area around you like nothing else for a pilot wearing night vision.

There are electronic infrared strobes as well, but they are pricey for the few times you might need them…

distance VHF

– Last Updated: Nov-14-05 2:01 PM EST –

I have succesfully had a conversation with the coast guard in Bayfield, wi in the Apostle Islands from the northwest side of Bear Island . approximatly 20 mile distance. the day was clear and sunny. the radio is a ICOM M1V. I have also talked with the coast guard boats at aprox a 5 to 7 mile distance with no problem.

I never figured that It would reach. But signal was very clear. A Good Radio is a must carry item if you plan to paddle waters where coast guard communications are availiable.

Best Wishes

Great way to increase the alternatives
Thanks again everyone. night sticks, having the VHF available and undrer duress, having ways of keeping the group together, makes for a near disaster rather than a tragedy. Best use of it all under real conditions so we don’t both under and over value any one thing and modify so it is available and useful.