Are Emergency Flares Waterproof? Which Type Should I Use?


Road Flares Laying on Ground

Emergency flares can get wet, either from humidity, rain or after being submerged. The worst-case scenario is you try and fire a flare, only to discover water damage has rendered it ineffective. So, are there models of emergency flare that will withstand being exposed to water, or are there suitable alternatives?

Some emergency flares are rated waterproof and can be ignited in the rain, or in rough seas, and even underwater. These flares use o-rings for sealing and are designed specifically for divers and marine purposes. All flares, however, are considered water-resistant.

Flares are an essential survival tool and a required one for boats more than 50 miles from shore. However, they’re not something you use often due to their dangerous nature or can test to verify they still work. So, how do you ensure you have the right flares and that they will work when it really matters?

Different Types of Flares

There are three classes of emergency flares:

  1. Handheld flares
  2. Parachute flares
  3. Smoke canisters

Which type of flare you use is highly dependent on the situation and how long you need your signal to last and how high it should reach.

Handheld Flares

Handheld flares are best suited for getting attention when help is nearby. They can typically be seen up to 3 miles away, depending on the line of sight, and typically burn for a few minutes.

A type of handheld flare is the roadside flare, aka, fusees, which burn bright red for up to 60 minutes. These are used to highlight obstacles like an accident site to oncoming traffic or location information to medical air support. In the water, handheld flares are buoyant and are used to assist nearby vessels in their rescue attempt.

If you plan to only use flares for your car, truck, or motorcycle I don’t recommend that you use old fashioned road flares. For most people, LED flares, like these found on Amazon (click to see Amazon listing), are a much better option.

Parachute Flares

Parachute flares, aka rocket flares, literally deploy a small parachute when launched. They propel to a height of ~300 meters and burn a red/orange signal for up to one minute. The parachute assists in slowing the descent of the flame to aid in pinpointing the signaler’s location from a distance.

These flares can be seen up to 25 miles away in clear visibility. Parachute flares are a legal requirement on ships and their lifeboats and are rated to work even after being submerged. They can be launched from a flaregun, or by a handheld device. (the most visible)

In my opinion, every vessel should have a case of parachute flares, like this kit made by Orion, on board. They normally only need to be replaced every few years and are a good investment if you spent any amount of time on the water.

Smoke Flares

Smoke canisters or smoke flares are used in daylight to mark territory. They can be launched from a flaregun to send a long-range signal, or from a close-range handheld device. These flares produce a dense orange smoke that isn’t affected by rain or dissipated easily by high winds. The signal, like light flares, only last a few minutes.

The color of the light/smoke flares emit distinguishes the nature of the distress signal. Red, produced by strontium nitrate, signals an emergency where you need immediate assistance. During daylight, orange flares (made with calcium sulfate, for example) are used as they are easier to see against the blue sky than red. Other colors, e.g., white which can be used at sporting events, signal that there is no emergency.

The usefulness of smoke flares cannot be overstated. In fact, some jurisdictions require that vessels of a particular length or greater have these on board. Even so, I only recommend that you carry these if you have a boat larger than 16′ and do long voyages over open water.

How to Care for Your Flares

The outer casings of flares are made corrosion-resistant materials, however, without proper care, the integrity of this water-resistant shell will be compromised. Moisture and salt will corrode the seal and then leach into the chemicals that need to precisely react to launch. Once the pyrolytic reaction is compromised by contamination, your flare is likely to misfire or fizzle out. Therefore, keeping your flares dry and away from the atmosphere is essential maintenance.

Also, the compartment that contains the firing mechanism will not be waterproof. So, if not maintained properly the steel pin can corrode and disintegrate. Be sure to flush the compartment out with fresh water if the flare ever gets wet with saltwater.

Most experienced flare users will attest to keeping flares in waterproof containers to elongate their flare’s lives. The reason is, too many instances of flares failing due to water damage have been documented and a flare isn’t something you want to fail when you need it. Often too, flares are purchased irregularly and seldom used and they aren’t something you can test – once it’s ignited, it is used.

Common solutions to prevent water damage are carrying your flares in sealed sandwich bags, as these are easy to open with your teeth in an emergency. You can also purchase plastic weatherproof containers, which is a common choice for long-term storage on boats. If you are a frequent diver, a good solution is to store your flares in a dry-box to increase the number of dives your flare will withstand. Normally, dive rated flares last up to 20 dives, but sealing them can double that.

Regardless of the extra protection you provide, check your flares often for evidence of corrosion. Once you see this, replace your flares. Their lifespan is 42 months after the date of manufacture, though this can be considerably shorter in high humidity climates.

Alternatives to Traditional Emergency Flares

Due to their hazardous nature, and their inability to be tested, alternatives to traditional emergency flares are sought after. Short-range signaling is easier to modify, as the technical changes are easier to overcome.

The U.S. coast guard has approved electronic visual distress signals. These battery-operated options are suitable for use both during the day and at night, however, they must be used with a distress flag. The light emitted can be seen for up to 10 nautical miles and send out SOS sequences for up to 60 hours. Similar systems exist to replace roadside flares, and they can be linked to making automatic distress calls to alert authorities to your predicament.

Just like traditional flares, these need to be maintained and have their batteries checked regularly. On the plus side, electronic flares can be tested to verify they’re working. Despite the advantages though, electronic flares aren’t as bright as chemical ones, and this limits the working distance. The extra working distance from a chemical flare may be an invaluable trait if you are in an emergency away from populous areas.

What are Laser Flares?

Laser flares, like this one found on Amazon, are not really flares at all but instead are basically just beefed-up laser pointers. While they are rated to be waterproof up to 100 feet, they are also not recognized by coast guard and are the least effective method of signaling for help. In my opinion, they are really only useful for doing morse code from one vessel to the next.

Related Questions

How do I dispose of expired flares? Your local jurisdiction will have specific regulations for disposing of expired flares. Some will suggest taking them to your local fire department, to a specialized facility. You are advised not to ignite old flares without informing local authorities you are doing so, to prevent instigating an emergency response unnecessarily.

Is it illegal to set off a flare? While the laws vary by jurisdiction, the general consensus is that it is only legal to set off emergency flares if you are legitimately in distress. Setting off flares for recreation or any other non-emergency purposes is generally prohibited.

Main image courtesy of Dvortygirl

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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