Self-reliance is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the emergency preparedness community, but it’s also a term that seems to be frequently misconstrued. A self-reliant individual takes every feasible step to avoid unnecessary dependence on outside resources. This means that if a problem arises, we should have a plan to solve it on our own, and backup plans in case Plan A falls through. However, that doesn’t mean we should endanger ourselves by stubbornly refusing to call for help if a situation gets out of control. Emergency signaling devices can help.
Let’s say you’re out hiking when the ground underfoot gives way and sends you tumbling down a ravine. You’re bruised and disoriented, and you think your leg might be broken. Would your first instinct be to crawl back to the trail, improvise a crutch, and hobble back to safety on your own? This might seem like the most self-reliant option, but it’s hardly the safest one. We should never allow our pride or determined sense of independence to prevent us from accepting assistance, especially when going without it might mean putting yourself into an even more dangerous situation later.
Electronic communication devices such as cell phones, radios, satellite phones, and personal locator beacons are some good primary tools for calling for rescue. We’ve discussed each of them in previous issues of RECOIL OFFGRID. But these devices can easily lose signal, malfunction, or run out of batteries. In that case, you’ll want something analog to fall back on. Your best course of action may be to pop smoke and call for rescue — literally.
Emergency Signaling Devices
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Today, we’ll be covering six emergency signaling devices that can easily fit into a pocket or pack. We’ve specifically focused this guide on visual signals that can be used over long distances; these tools can be complemented by audible signals, such as a whistle or air horn. Just like fire-starters or any other critical survival tool, you should always have a variety of options to choose from in the event that things go awry.
Hokena LED Road Flares Emergency Kit
4 by 4 by 1.3 inches
5.5 ounces per light / 1 pound 3.7 ounces with 3-pack carrying case
We found this seven-piece road safety kit on Amazon as a “#1 Best Seller.” It includes three hockey-puck-sized LED “flares” as well as a zippered carrying case, screwdrivers for changing batteries, two mylar emergency blankets, and an escape tool with glass breaker and seatbelt cutter. Each disc is made of clear plastic with a bright orange rubber overmold. One side has a power button that activates the 12 orange LEDs in a series of patterns including spinning, flashing, and constant-on. The final setting activates three white LEDs on the front as an emergency flashlight. The back of each disc includes a folding hang hook and rare earth magnet. The lights are powered by AAA batteries and are said to have an approximate maximum run time of 35 hours.
- Strong magnet allows these lights to be stuck directly to your vehicle, greatly increasing its visibility on dark roads
- High-vis storage case fits nicely in a glove box or trunk
- Good value considering everything the kit includes
- Visibility is excellent at night, but not very good on a sunny day
- The included escape tool and mounting bracket feel cheap and plasticky
Orion Compact Aerial Signal Kit
7.5 by 1.5 inches
When you think of aerial flares, you probably envision the classic orange flare guns found in life raft survival kits. The Compact Aerial Signal Kit serves a similar purpose in a much smaller package. It’s housed in a floating plastic container and comes with a pen-shaped launcher and three red flare cartridges. To fire a flare, screw it tightly onto the launcher, then pull back the firing button to rest in the notch. Snapping the button out of the notch strikes the flare with a firing pin, launching it up to 300 feet as it burns for 6.5 seconds. We were unable to safely test-fire these flares due to the wildfire-prone conditions in our area, and this is a factor you must keep in mind as well. The last thing you want is for your emergency signaling devices to make you responsible for starting a devastating forest fire. Made in the USA.
- Aerial flares can be seen in all directions, and can be used to reach above trees and other terrain obstructions
- Offers three attempts to get rescuers’ attention in a pocket-sized container
- Primarily designed for boating; not ideal for use in arid environments due to the risk of wildfires
- 6.5-second burn time means these can be easily overlooked if your target is distracted
IWA International M14 Smoke Grenade
4.8 by 2.6 by 1.8 inches
Smoke grenades are widely used by military personnel for identifying extraction zones, hence the use of the term “pop smoke” to mean “let’s get out of here.” The M14 smoke grenade (or “Smoke Deployment Simulation Device” according to the label) is made in the UK by TLSFx; IWA International imported them to the U.S. and got them approved by the ATF. Operation is simple: Grip with the lever against the web of your hand, twist the ring to disengage the safety, pull the pin, and toss to release the lever. After a 3.5-second delay, the M14 will emit thick smoke for 60 seconds through a vent port in the bottom of the housing. The latest-generation M14 is currently in production and features dual vent ports for better smoke dispersal.
- If you’re attempting to get the attention of an aircraft overhead during the day, there are few better tools
- Available with white, red, green, or blue smoke, so you can select a color that will stand out in any terrain
- Single-use item — you may want to carry an additional reusable signal device
- Windy conditions will cause smoke to disperse more quickly
SOL Rescue Flash Signal Mirror
3 by 2 by 0.2 inches
Even if you also carry other items from this guide, a small signal mirror is a tool we believe no backcountry emergency kit should be without. The SOL Rescue Flash mirror fits in the coin pocket on a pair of jeans, weighs next to nothing, and offers a powerful signal over long distances (up to 30 miles according to the package). Instructions on the back side clearly explain how to aim the mirror using the central sight hole and an outstretched arm with “V” fingers to form a sight post. It’s constructed from durable polycarbonate that won’t break if dropped. We picked up our test sample from Kit Fox Outfitters, who also provided some cool stickers that show the basics of Morse code and ground-to-air emergency signaling — two other valuable skills for sending a distress message.
- Lightweight and compact enough to be forgotten until you need it
- Easy to use and aim precisely, even over very long distances
- Can only be used on a clear day, and requires the sun to be on the same side of the sky as your target
- Once the protective film is removed, the mirror must be stored carefully to avoid scratches on its glossy surface.
Princeton Tec Meridian Strobe/Constant Light
3.8 by 2.2 by 1.1 inches
Princeton Tec is a well-known supplier of lighting devices for law enforcement, military, and search-and-rescue personnel. The Meridian was designed as a locator light for use in these applications, as well as low-light industrial work and diving. It’s powered by 3 AAA batteries and offers a maximum runtime of 100 hours. A large switch allows toggling between two modes, depending on the model you choose — white strobe and white constant, or white strobe and red beacon. We picked the former so it can be used as an emergency lantern or map-reading light. Each is available with a high-vis yellow or black housing and features low-profile clips that hook onto 1-inch PALS webbing, plus an included Velcro wrist strap. Made in the USA.
- IPX8 rated as fully submersible — SCUBA diving is a recommended application
- Directly compatible with PALS webbing found on MOLLE-compatible packs
- Switch is designed to be activated with gloves.
- Testing revealed the switch to be very touchy in strobe mode. A slight bump to the switch will deactivate the light, even if it doesn’t click the lever fully to “off.”
- Changing batteries requires a screwdriver.
Orion 15-Minute Road Flares
9.2 by 1.1 inches
6.6 ounces per flare / 1 pound 5.6 ounces per pack
$20 for 2 packs of 3 flares
If you’ve witnessed a severe car crash, you’ve probably seen law enforcement personnel throwing down road flares or waving them to guide traffic around the obstruction. These simple devices send an immediate nonverbal message of “watch out!” This also makes them an effective means of signaling distress over short distances in other situations, such as flagging down a passing car. These Orion flares are available in 15- or 30-minute burn times; we chose the former due to its more packable size. Each of the three-packs we purchased comes with a protective bag, detailed deployment guide, and a free chemlight. Orion also offers detailed training resources on its website, so you can teach your family how to safely and effectively use flares. Made in the USA.
- Ideal for roadside emergencies — every motorist is used to seeing them used at accident scenes to redirect traffic
- Waving a bright red flare makes you immediately visible, even during full daylight
- Their size and weight make them better-suited to storage in a vehicle rather than a backpack
- Not the most effective of our lineup of emergency signaling devices during the day
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