This summer I will be taking a rather inherently dangerous multi-day hike by myself. I was considering buying a flare gun since I will be out of cellular range unless there is something more modern and equally reliable. Any suggestions?

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    SPOT GPS. It's what everyone carries on the 4700km tour-divide trail.
    – ShemSeger
    Apr 25, 2017 at 6:12
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    Flare guns still exist, so a flare gun would seem to be the most precise equivalent... Apr 25, 2017 at 7:45
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    Always safer to hike in pairs.
    – SnakeDoc
    Apr 25, 2017 at 18:08
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    @mreff555 Problem with a flare gun is someone has to be around to see it, and... more importantly... know it's meaning and urgency. Regular folks might think it's just some hooligan shooting off home made fireworks... or, if they did understand it's a distress flare, they might not be cable of locating it's origin. Hiking in pairs would allow at least one member to go get help if necessary. Hiking alone, especially on a self-proclaimed dangerous multi-day hike is simply not a great idea. Respect nature, and it will respect you.
    – SnakeDoc
    Apr 26, 2017 at 15:10

5 Answers 5


In increasing order of complexity and price you have,

  • Personal Locator Beacons

    Personal locator beacons are high-powered (typically, 5 watts) devices designed primarily to send out a personalized emergency distress signal. They generally require an open view of the sky to transmit successfully.


  • Satellite Messengers (Like a Garmin inReach)

    Much like PLBs, satellite messengers are handheld transmitting devices that are useful in backcountry areas far from reliable cell phone coverage. These user-friendly devices allow you to communicate short text messages and/or your location coordinates with friends or family back home so you can report on your trip’s status or, in an emergency, send calls for help.


  • Satellite Phones

    A satellite telephone, satellite phone, or satphone is a type of mobile phone that connects to orbiting satellites instead of terrestrial cell sites. They provide similar functionality to terrestrial mobile telephones; voice, short messaging service and low-bandwidth internet access are supported through most systems.


None of these are a substitute for good judgement and the electronics can fail or run out of batteries, but they would be the modern equivalent of a flare gun.

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    If you get a PLB, you want one that has a built-in GPS. This means that the location the emergency services get is much more precise. Apr 25, 2017 at 1:33
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    To add to Charlie Brumbaugh's answer* a PLB has the advantage over Satellite Messengers or phones because it uses a lower frequency (406 MHz) to transmit which penetrates cloud cover or wet foliage much better. Iridium phones use 1.6GHz. Of course the PLB has the disadvantage of being a simple "Mayday" compared to the two way communication of an inReach or the several possible messages of a Spot device. None of the electronic solutions are as good at lighting fires as a flare t
    – Ken
    Apr 25, 2017 at 8:47
  • In coastal areas, you might also consider a handheld marine VHF, assuming you are appropriately licensed to use it (though in an emergency situation, unlicensed use will probably be tolerated). It can also be useful as a receiver, if your local coastguard emits weather forecasts, as they do in the UK - but don't run out of battery before your emergency! Apr 26, 2017 at 12:14
  • In the US it's illegal to use vhf marine from land unless you part of a radio direction finding team for the Coastguard. If on land you can get a GMRS license for $80 or a more involved and much more powerful and useful Amateur radio license. The weather services of the US & CANADA both use the same 10 frequencies to broadcast weather updates. May 2, 2017 at 23:42

Maybe you should explain what you need a flare gun equivalent for... A flare gun has a very specific purpose which generally is to alert somebody who is already looking for you to your immediate location. On top of that you must know that the people looking for you are actually within a certain range, otherwise the flare will be wasted.

A flare gun might have a certain appeal to the romantic adventurer, but is not a useful tool to call for help when alone in a remote wilderness area!

--> The flare will only be visible within a certain range for a rather short amount of time. Anybody not currently paying attention to the surroundings will likely miss it, also everybody without direct line of sight won't have any chance to spot it in the first place.

If your intended purpose is to have a tool that allows you to direct the attention of search-and-rescue personnel to you there are several tools, all with their specific advantages and disadvantages:

  • Mirror to reflect sunlight (optimally with a hole in the center, through which you can 'aim' the mirror at whomever you're trying to signal)
  • Smoke petard
  • Flashlight/LED flare
  • Signal rockets/bangers
  • Rescue whistle
  • Last but not least: flare guns still exist and are used in emergency scenarios.

If your intended purpose is to call for help and alert rescue personnel in the first place then go with the options mentioned by @Charlie Brumbaugh:

  • Personal Locator Beacon
  • Satellite Messenger
  • Satellite Phone
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    "optimally with a hole in the center"? What is the hole for? is it perhaps to help you aim the reflected light better?
    – terdon
    Apr 26, 2017 at 9:21
  • @terdon, exactly. The mirrors you find in emergency kits often have a hole in the center through which you can 'aim' the mirror at whomever you're trying to signal (most probably a plane). Updated my answer.
    – fgysin
    Apr 26, 2017 at 9:28
  • @fgysin How does that work? The light reflected from the mirror isn't (in general) perpendicular to its surface, so just aiming through a whole doesn't seem to be enough to actually hit your target.
    – imsodin
    Apr 27, 2017 at 12:19
  • @imsodin the normal technique is to hold your other hand up between the mirror and the target when your hand is illuminated you remove your hand and know where the light is shining
    – JeffUK
    Apr 27, 2017 at 12:30
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    ..that's why the hole is in the middle of the mirror.. so it IS exactly where your eye is. the idea is to sweep the mirror over your target, so they get a flash of light.
    – JeffUK
    Apr 27, 2017 at 19:30

While Charlie Brumbaugh's answer is good, there is a cheaper and simpler alternative: a LED marine distress flare. These are handheld LED lights, as bright as a distress flare. Many jurisdictions certify them as legal substitutes for distress flares.

However these are substitutes for handheld flares, not flare guns, and are designed for marine environments where hills, trees etc. can't block them, and where a bright coloured light is recognized as a distress/location signal.

Here is a link to an example, without recommending this brand in particular.

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    the main difference being that flare are shot up in the sky, allowing for much better visibility, and their purpose is usually clear. When you see a flare, you can safely guess that someone calls for help. A light could be confused for, well, a light.
    – njzk2
    Apr 25, 2017 at 14:34
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    I would assume that such a specific rescue device would use a special/coloured strobe?
    – fgysin
    Apr 25, 2017 at 14:40
  • I'd recommend a distress strobe as a good adjunct to a PLB, to guide rescuers quickly to your precise position once they know they should be looking for you. Apr 26, 2017 at 12:11
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    If you're using an LED light, make sure to 1. know how it works, 2. know where to point it for optimal coverage, 3. get somewhere high so you don't have trees in the way and 4. know how to strobe .../---/..., which is morse code for SOS, the world wide recognized "I'm in danger, send someone to help" signal.
    – Nzall
    Apr 26, 2017 at 13:59
  • I would say that strobeing SOS is fairly useless. That would assume the person you are pointing it at can see it unobscured for a long period of time. Its also really hard to gauge the distance to Strobing lights. a bright single light you can sweep past the person you are trying to attract works better. You should carry a safety whistle. Its several times louder than you can shout and it requires much less of your own energy to activate it. May 2, 2017 at 23:50

A safety whistle is cheap and reliable. Also, it won't run out of flares or batteries. You can hang it from your backpack shoulder strap for easy access. (Imagine trying to take off and dig through your backpack with a broken arm.) Three chirps is the distress signal.

Similarly, a signal mirror is an inexpensive visual indicator, like a flare.

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    A whistle might be a good backup, but it's only going to be audible at most 1 or 2 miles in perfect conditions.
    – stannius
    Apr 25, 2017 at 19:06
  • @stannous True, but that's a mile or longer range than yelling. I carry a small whistle on my key ring even in urban settings. May 2, 2017 at 4:59
  • I was always taught the standard mountain distress signal is six blasts, repeated at one-minute intervals; three blasts (again, with one minute between each group) being the standard rescuer's acknowledgement signal. Sep 1, 2017 at 13:22

A laser can be used. There are some lasers with SOS function but it is not necessary. The beam is visible from large area and they can locate you easily.

It should be so powerful to be seen but not so much powerful to endanger airplanes above you.

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    I'm not convinced that this is very useful... A laser with a beam that is actually visible in the clear air will need to be very strong - generally making it expensive, dangerous and (in certain places) illegal.
    – fgysin
    Apr 25, 2017 at 14:34
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    and you need a really good aim and a steady arm to actually point at somewhere useful
    – njzk2
    Apr 25, 2017 at 14:35
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    It doesn't take much of a laser to endanger airplanes. It takes far more laser to be seen in anything but foggy conditions -- a beam powerful enough to be seen in daylight is powerful enough that the reflections off nearby landscape can cause eye injuries.
    – Mark
    Apr 25, 2017 at 22:45
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    I think the way to use it is to project a strong light on an object in a distance, like a hill or edge of a wood. The beam of a low quality laser would be widened a lot, but the reflection could be still very visible. Note The laser is carefully pointed horizontally. A strong laser should have a lens to widen the beam slowly - the widened beam is save. This way, you can make your signal appear in some more widely visible place, if you happen to be stuck in a wood deep in a valley. Apr 26, 2017 at 8:54
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    Do not downvote. Keep in mind that in February 2012, the United States Congress passed into law HR658 authorizing appropriations for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for fiscal years 2011 through 2014. Included in the law is Section 311 "Prohibition Against Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft". Section 311 39A(c)(3) on page 56 specifically exempts "an individual using a laser emergency signaling devices to send an emergency distress signal." So using laser for emergency signaling is really a thing. May 3, 2017 at 7:18

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