Chemical emergency flares are a common fixture aboard all seagoing vessels and many automobiles. The bright, dazzling display of an emergency flare is one of the single best ways to increase visibility to other travelers and to potential rescuers.
These devices are inexpensive, effective and indispensable, but their reliance on a chemical reaction to produce light and increase visibility does raise questions about their weather resistance.
Are emergency flares waterproof?
Some emergency flares are waterproof, at least for a short while. The vast majority can be considered water-resistant, but legitimate waterproofing is only had on specialized maritime flares. These specialized underwater flares can ignite reliably after complete submersion.
However, common emergency flares typical to automotive emergency kits lose effectiveness or even fail entirely once they’re completely soaked.
Regardless, water will only ever have a negative effect on emergency flares.
There’s quite a bit more to consider on the topic. The last thing you want in an emergency situation is for your flares to fail, leaving you in the dark and nearly invisible. We will discuss various factors that might affect your flares in the remainder of this article.
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Water-Resistant is not Waterproof
The most common emergency flares that you are likely to encounter are ordinary roadside flares, the kind that are typically purchased from automotive supply stores and other merchants dealing in gear intended for first responders.
These ubiquitous devices are definitely effective, even if they are a little dangerous, and there is no device that is as portable, affordable and visible as these bright red, flickering flares.
Considering they are intended to be used in the immediate aftermath of a collision or just a roadside stoppage, they are typically designed with a measure of water-resistance in mind. Emergencies don’t wait for rain, after all!
But water-resistant does not mean waterproof. You’ll be making a terrible mistake if you assume your flares would burn just as reliably and just as long if they were completely immersed in water.
The outer casing that protects the ignition system and the combustive chemicals is only designed to keep out incidental contact with water – something like light rain or a cursory splash.
It definitely isn’t going to keep out water if the flare is completely submerged or if it is left wet for a prolonged length of time.
Chemical and Mechanical Vulnerability
The chemical components of the flare as well as certain mechanical components are vulnerable to the intrusion of water.
Sustained and sometimes incidental contact with moisture is enough to begin degrading these critical components, reducing the chances that your flare will function properly or at all. In a best case scenario, the burn time of your flare might be significantly reduced.
Depending upon the type of flare you have it might rely on a mechanical ignition system consisting of a striker, spring and some type of trigger. If just a little bit of water infiltrates the compartment holding these components it may begin corroding them.
Seawater is especially bad about this, as the salt content makes it extremely corrosive for virtually all metals.
Even in the case of a water-resistant casing it does not take much moisture to leach past any sealing material and start affecting the chemical content within the body of the flare.
Considering these flares are a consumable, one-use item there is no way to test them for function aside from igniting them. You will pull out your flare when you need it, attempt to ignite it and hope for the best. It is typically then that you discover your flare has been ruined by moisture.
If you are fortunate enough to be in possession of waterproof flares, or decide that you want to spring for them as an upgrade over merely water-resistant ones you will be happy to know that these are substantially more resilient than their conventional brethren, but they are still not completely impervious to water.
That being said, waterproof flares are typically constructed in such a way that anything except prolonged, deep immersion in water will not affect them. These flares are usually sealed redundantly utilizing o-rings, hydrophobic material and heavy-duty finishing that will repel water.
Some flares in this category are actually properly aquatic and capable of both igniting and burning underwater for a time.
Though you are always advised to pick the right flare for your terrain and application, it is a certainty that any flare capable of functioning underwater will definitely resist a little rain and wind on land!
Keeping your Flares Protected and Inspected
No matter what kind of flares you are using you are well advised to keep them inside a protective and waterproof container instead of relying on their own innate water resistance or supposed waterproofing. Proper storage prolongs service life, every time.
If you leave your flares in a soft container or just rolling around in the trunk or a stowage compartment, they will still be steadily absorbing moisture from the air even if they don’t get wet directly.
A sealed container provides at least a nominally controlled and closed atmosphere, reducing the rate at which moisture infiltrates your flares and providing significant protection against direct immersion.
Although this is typically not a feature of vehicular emergency kits on land, these hard, sealed containers are regularly found aboard sea-going vessels, and they also typically float to provide at least a chance at access should the vessel capsize.
One thing you can do to reduce the chances that you’ll be caught with your pants down and dead flares when you need them is to regularly inspect them the same as you would any other vital component aboard your vehicle.
Pull the flares out periodically and inspect them closely for any signs of swelling, discoloration, strange odors or anything else out of the ordinary. This will likely be your first tip that something is wrong with the flares.
A few brands even have specialty wrappers or casings that will change colors when they have been exposed to water and are thus in question.
Always Check the Expiration Dates on Your Flares
Another thing to keep an eye on whether you are using roadside emergency flares, Maritime flares or anything else is the expiration date on them. This date will typically be printed on the flare itself, but it might be printed on the packaging or container of flares sold in a bundle.
Trust me, if anyone knows the longevity of your flares it is the manufacturer, and even concerning the waterproofness this date is important. Expired flares might still be entirely functional after this date, and functional for some time, but their performance or protection could be degraded. Particularly when it comes to the wax coatings that keep the combustibles of a flare safe from moisture, the expiration date will usually inform you when they are drying up and flaking off.
Will Waterproof Flares Still Resist Water after Expiring?
Maybe, maybe not, but you must not count on them to stay waterproof after passing their expiration date. A big part of being prepared is staying on top of equipment maintenance and replacement, and that is no different for your emergency flares.
Are Specialty Flares Waterproof?
Aside from the flares we have already discussed, there is a huge variety in more specialized flares for various purposes.
Some of the most common are those fired from a flare gun, and another are parachute flares, either self-contained or fired from a specialty launcher.
Both are typically used as distress signals, and in the case of the former may or may not be truly waterproof, although they are typically water resistant at the minimum.
Consider, too, that the flare gun is itself vulnerable to corrosion from moisture, as even if made of plastic it will have metal components.
As expected, flare gun cartridges designed for maritime use typically feature better waterproofing as a matter of course.
Parachute flares, designed for extremely high visibility and long lasting emergency signaling, or else used for impromptu wide area lighting in a pinch, are more complex than other flare types.
Parachute players have an integrated rocket motor when self-contained, or else are of the cartridge type like an upsize version of one fire from a flare gun.
Featuring an integrated parachute that allows them to drift slowly back to the surface, they typically also emit copious quantities of orange smoke to further increase visibility in the daytime.
Because of their complexity, these flares are often inherently more vulnerable to moisture and especially immersion, and for maritime use are invariably packed in the strongest and most waterproof containers available to protect them.
What about Alternate Flare or Marker Types?
Owing to concerns about traditional flares starting accidental fires, which is a legitimate worry, alternatives have begun to take hold in the marketplace.
One popular model both on land and at sea is a battery-operated strobe or flasher.
These devices typically rely on high-output LEDs arranged in a concentric pattern, and usually have a magnetic flotation base for attaching to a vehicle, standing up on the roadway or even throwing out on the water.
Modern battery technology has made these reliable, long-lasting, and brighter than ever when married to appropriate LEDs, but they are still not as visible nor as noticeable as chemical flares.
A similar model to the above relies on lasers which can provide incredible range but overall lack the luminosity and general visibility of flares like they’re more traditional LED counterparts.
They are also significantly more power hungry and will not last as long when using the same battery supply.
Lastly, for the ultimate in safety, one might rely on snap lights, or chemlights, in place of more traditional chemical flares. These glow sticks emit no heat, contain no dangerous chemicals, and are almost completely impervious to water except in case of the most sustained immersion.
They are reliable, affordable and utterly safe, but they put out only a pitiful amount of light compared to a chemical flare.
Suffice to say that water-resistant and waterproof alternatives to chemical flares do exist, but none even come close to the visibility and signaling capability provided by their more traditional counterparts.
Some varieties of emergency flares, especially those intended for nautical use, are waterproof or nearly so. Other types are only water-resistant.
No matter the type of flare exposure to moisture will degrade them over time, and prolonged exposure or submersion is likely to render the flare useless. You should take steps to protect your emergency flares from water in all cases.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.