Signaling Devices to Carry While Canoeing and Kayaking

Upside down in a kayak

Maintaining communications within and outside of your group when kayaking or canoeing, whether it’s a day trip or a longer one, adds a degree of safety to your trip. There are multiple types of  signaling devices on the market, and many can be used for both communications to your paddling partners and any outside entities, such as other boaters or shore-based stations. The following can be considered the minimal recommended devices for a trip of any length.

Why Carry Devices?

If you’ve heard the safety acronym “CLAP” before, you know that the first two letters stand for communication and line-of-sight. The reason that these are important is that if you can’t communicate with or see a fellow paddler, you have no idea of what that person is doing, and you won’t know if he gets into trouble and needs help. Think about driving. If a car didn’t have turn signals or tail lights, you wouldn’t be able to tell if the car was quickly decelerating on the highway to make a turn, and you might hit it if you’re following closely behind. The driver of the other car communicates to you when he steps on the brake and the tail lights turn red. In another car example, when you see a car on the side of the road with the hood up, you know that there’s a good chance that the driver needs help. These types of communications help keep the road safe for multiple users.

Just like using lights to signal your intentions when driving a car, you can use signaling devices to communicate with people when paddling. By keeping lines of communication open between paddlers, you know their intentions and when they need help. With the right kind of signaling devices you can also communicate with other boaters. These devices keep you safe when on the water and also allow you to signal for help when you need it.

Types of Devices

Signalling devices can be divided into several groups. The two most basic are visual or audio. Visual devices can be as simple as a hand signal or as complicated as a flare held aloft with a parachute. Audio devices can be as simple as a whistle or as complicated as a VHF radio. These devices can be divided up into two separate categories: within your group and outside your group.

Signalling Devices for Paddling Within Your Group

The three basic signalling devices for communicating within your group are a whistle, paddle and your hand. You can also add a VHF radio.

Whistle: The piercing loud blast of a whistle can often be heard over waves and wind, but not always. If you’re using a whistle as a signalling device within your group, before you launch make sure everyone knows and understands when you mean when you blow the whistle. For example, one blast could mean “look at me.” Two blasts could mean “stop and look at me.” Continuous blasts could mean “I need help.” When buying a whistle, look for one without a pea, because when peas get wet, they can stick and that causes the whistle to fail. ACR’s WW-3 Res-Q Whistle is loud and works well. Tie it to your lifevest with a short length of cord. Keep the cord short enough that it couldn’t wrap around your neck in an emergency.

Paddle: A paddle can be used to signal many things, but often paddlers will agree on signals that mean go left, right, stop, paddle forward, paddle backward and come here. Although there are “standards,” it’s best to discuss what you’re going to use before launching.

Hand: You can use your hands in a similar way to a paddle. Agree to the signals before launching. Even if you don’t agree to signals, many hand signals are self-explanatory. When on the water exaggerate your hand signals to make sure that your paddling partners can see you.

VHF radio: We’ve covered How to Use a VHF Radio and How to Call Mayday before. A VHF radio allows you to communicate with your paddling partners when you can’t see them. You may want to come up with some kind of criteria for having the device on when paddling such as when you’re out of view, you turn the radio on or you check it every hour or something like that.

Signalling Devices for Communicating Outside Your Group

White flares: White flares are used in non-emergency situations to gain the attention of another boater.

Foghorn: Fog horns signal your position when you’re paddling in the fog. They give a low tone. When moving in fog, blow a long blast every two minutes. Fog horns come in two varieties that are handy for kayakers and canoeists. The first is a small, hard-to-find whistle-style horn. The second uses compressed air to blast the signal, such as Unified Marine’s Air Horn.

Whistle: You can use a whistle to gain attention of other boaters by using lots of short blasts. Don’t expect a whistle to overcome the sound of an engine or travel a long distance.

VHF Radio: Other boaters and the Coast Guard monitors channel 16, so if you’re in an area with other boats or a Coast Guard presence, then you may be able to contact them using a VHF radio. We’ve covered How to Use a VHF Radio and How to Call Mayday before. I like Icom’s radios and have a M72.

Emergency Signalling Devices for Kayaking and Canoeing

Two parts of an emergency and rescue situation are the alert phase and the locate phase. During the alert phase, you’re trying to attract as much attention as possible so that as many eyes as possible can see or hear your distress signal. During the locate phase, you’re trying to help the rescuers pinpoint your exact location.

Flashlight: At night a waterproof flashlight can help other boaters see you. When in your kayak or when trying to hold onto your kayak, it’s nice to have your hands free, so consider a bright headlamp, such as Princeton Tec’s EOS Headlamp. A bright flashlight can attract attention, plus if you do any night paddling, it’s required by the Coast Guard. A flashlight helps during the locate phase.

Mirror: A sighting rescue mirror, such as ACR’s Hot Shot Signal Mirror, is a cheap piece of gear that helps attract the attention of aircraft on sunny days. To use it, you look through a hole until you see a red dot, then you direct the reflection towards the target using the red dot as a sight. A mirror works best during the alert phase.

Strobe: A flashing strobe light, such as ACR’s Firefly Plus Strobe, can attract attention from miles away. Attach it high on your lifevest, so it stays out of the water when you’re floating. At night, it can be seen over a mile away and the flashing continues for 10 hours. A strobe works to help rescuers help locate you.

Smoke: Orange smoke signals work during the day to help alert and locate rescuers to your position. A handheld smoke flare usually lasts 1 minute and puts out a dense orange smoke.

Aerial and handheld red flares: Red flares, which signal distress, come in several varieties: handheld and aerial.  Handheld flares, such as Orion’s Locate Handheld Signal Pack, help rescuers pinpoint your location. Aerial flares shoot up in the air and help alert potential rescuers of your situation. Skyblazers are small hand-launched flares that last seven seconds and can soar up to 450 feet into the air. Some paddlers prefer pistol shot flares, such as Orion’s Red Signal Flare Alerter. They can launch up to 500 feet and burn for seven seconds.

VHF Radio: See above.

Additional Emergency Signalling Devices

Dye: Dye can help rescuers pinpoint your location by turning the water around you an unnatural color.

Streamers: A rescue stream is a lightweight banner, usually a foot wide by 40 feet long, that you release in the water. As it rolls out it creates a bright orange or red visual cue. From the air it looks like an exclamation point with you as the dot at its end.

PLBs: Personal locator beacons are perhaps the ultimate in alerting and locating distress signals. Once you activate the PLB, it triggers a rescue. ACR’s ResQLink PLB-406 weighs less than a couple of Kate’s Bars, its battery lasts about 24 hours in an emergency, it includes a 66-channel GPS for quick positioning and has a strobe light. Ideally, you wear a PLB on your lifevest, so that you always have it on you in case you lose your boat and gear.

Keeping Your Gear Dry and Handy

The harder to get to your signaling devices, the harder it is to communicate. If you can, carry it on your lifevest. For example, attach a whistle and strobe light to your vest. A VHF can be kept in a lifevest pocket as can a flashlight and mirror. Because flares, dyes and smoke signals are more susceptible to water damage than the other devices, you should store them in a waterproof drybag that looks different than your other bags. The different looks lets you quickly find it in a sea of gear during a stressful situation. Keep it handy so you can access it on the water. I like to keep mine in my North Water Under Deck Bag or in my kayak’s day hatch.


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  • While it isn’t a first choice for emergency signals, don’t forget that the flash on your camera can be used to attract attention.

  • I carry a waterproof laser flare attached to my PFD. It easily fits in a small pocket along with a signal mirror and orienteering compass. All 3 are tethered to a D-ring on my PFD. The laser flares are a bit pricey, but they don’t expire (like the pyrotechnic flares), they work both day and night, the signal will stay on as long as the battery lasts rather than mere seconds as with pyrotechnic flares, and they can throw a signal as much as several miles. I still carry a 12-gauge flare gun and the flare cartridges, but in an emergency, I’d likely pull out my laser flare before I resorted to the gun.

    FYI, I know that Bryan knows this – the USCG requires you carry a sound signalling device in Coast Guard-patrolled waters, so a whistle or air horn is mandatory gear on the ocean, Great Lakes, Mississippi River, etc.

    • Are laser flares counted as a signaling device by the USCG? What brand/model do you use? What does the signal look like?

      I’m going to do a separate post on what the USCG requires at some point.

      • I have the Greatland Rescue Laser Light model # RLL012-01 that I bought several years ago. As far as I am aware it is not yet recognized by the USCG as an approved flare to meet the requirements for carrying signalling devices (unfortunately) which is another reason why I still carry my flare gun. This laser flare signal carries up to 20 miles, is waterproof to 80 feet, and a fresh lithium battery will keep it lit for up to 40 hours.

        • Thanks, Sherri.

          • I noticed I forgot to answer your question about what the signal looks like. The laser flare shines a red beam like a laser pointer, but the beam is a line instead of a single dot. The farther away the beam is from the flare, the longer the line becomes, so it isn’t like you have to hit an airplane with a small dot. At a distance, you would have a very long red line that you can wave back and forth to catch the eye of someone on shore, in another boat, or in an aircraft.

  • Any idea how the ACR strobe compares to the Princeton Tec strobe? That is what I currently have on my PFD, but I always like to compare what else is out there.

    • Depends on which strobe from Princeton Tec. If it’s the small one, then do an upgrade. If it’s the larger one, then you have no need to upgrade.

  • I think out of all of those, I’d get myself a VHF radio. Aside from an easier mode of communication, it’s multi purpose as well.

    • I don’t really look at it as a “pick one” and ignore the others. You need a range of communication devices to handle different situations. For example, you might need a flare or whistle to get the attention of a boater who doesn’t have a VHF radio. And whistles (or other audio device) are usually required by the Coast Guard.

  • […] Coast Guard requires kayakers (or other paddlers) to carry signalling devices. An other article, Signaling Devices to Carry When Kayaking or Canoeing, covers the most common signalling devices that you should carry, but if you want to get by […]

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