BoatU.S. Foundation has published results from their recent tests of visual distress signaling devices, primarily pyrotechnic flares, but also including a few non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals (but not signal mirrors).
As you might expect, their tests focused on the marine environment where use of flares for distress alerting originated. They are required by regulation for many boaters and, regardless, should be part of every mariner’s survival equipment.
The tests included SOLAS handheld and parachute flares, SOLAS smoke canister flares, USCG approved gun-style flare launchers, parachute, meteor, handheld and smoke flares, and pocket aerial flares.
By and large BoatU.S. Foundation did a pretty good job and their results pretty much fall in line with my own experience and recommendations. They didn’t test all available pyrotechnic flares, but they did cover the most common ones available to boaters at retail. I’ve used and recommended the Comet SOLAS flares for a number of years and now that Pains Wessex bought Comet and has converted their product line over to that superior one, they are much more readily available to consumers given Pains Wessex’ much broader retail presence.
I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t test the Comet/Pains Wessex MiniFlare, which I have found superior to the Orion Pocket Rocket for a compact pocketable aerial flare, both in terms of ergonomics and the kit container.
Their tests of the Orion Skyblazer covered their aerial and visual performance adequately, but I have to note that our experience has been that we see a significant number of failures as these Skyblazer flares age. That does not seem to have improved since Orion took over production from the original company. If you are going to rely on Skyblazer flares, make sure you carry lots and make sure you replace them every couple years.
Their tests of Greatland Laser’s Laser Flares were disappointing and, in my opinion, a bit misleading. I don’t disagree with their test results, but they only tested them at a quarter-mile range, hardly representative of their likely use in real life. They are far more effective at longer ranges.
The problems they noticed in aiming the lasers at such close range disappear to a great degree at longer ranges as the expanding laser line makes it much easier to hit the target. That’s how they are designed to work. In our experience, the laser flares work very well at longer ranges. I include them in all my survival vests and larger survival kits because we found them so effective. Click here to read our comprehensive review of the Laser Flares.
They also didn’t cover one of the best marine signaling options for use in a life raft, the RescueStreamer. It’s not clear that they really considered what works best for aerial Search and Rescue, vs. sea level SAR. I recommend the RescueStreamer for all my life raft survival equipment pack clients, marine or aviation, and include the smaller version in my overwater vests.
BoatU.S. Foundation’s test results serve to confirm my recommendation that unless space is an issue, such as in a survival vest, boaters will do best to rely upon SOLAS flares for consistently best performance, safety and ease of use and that the best currently available, in my opinion, are the Comet/Pains Wessex MK8 series.