Guide to Marine Visual Distress Signals

Although you hope you’ll never need to use safety and survival equipment, you should always have visual distress signals (VDS) on your boat to signal for help during an emergency. 

Visual distress signals for boats guide

Carrying VDS onboard ensures you can signal to others that you urgently need emergency assistance, as well as help rescuers find you quickly. Here’s a guide to marine visual distress signals you should have onboard your boat.

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USCG Requirements for VDS

The US Coast Guard requires that all boats on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and on all bodies of water directly connected to those waters that are at least two miles wide be equipped with USCG-approved VDS.

Marine visual distress signals guide

The exceptions to this requirement are that during daytime hours (between sunrise and sunset), the following don’t have to carry visual distress signals:

  • Boats of 16 feet and under in length
  • Vessels participating in organized events, such as regattas and parades
  • Open sailboats of 26 feet in length and under not equipped with an engine
  • Manually propelled boats such as kayaks and canoes

NOTE: These exemptions are for daytime hours only, and all boats must carry VDS at night.

Boat visual distress signals guide

The US Coast Guard also requires that all pyrotechnic VDS are:

  • Clearly marked as USCG-approved
  • In serviceable condition
  • Within their expiration date (if applicable)
  • Stored where they’re readily accessible

NOTE: The first two requirements also apply to non-pyrotechnic VDS.

Marine Visual Distress Signal Types

USCG-approved visual distress signals are either pyrotechnic or non-pyrotechnic, and are classed as suitable for either daytime use, nighttime use or both.

Marine VDS orange smoke signal


Combustible devices such as red flares, orange smoke signals, parachute flares and their launchers.


Non-combustible devices such as orange distress flags and electric distress lights.

NOTE: Pyrotechnic devices have expiration dates of 3 1/2 years from their manufacture date, and are no longer USCG-approved once the expiration date has passed, even if they’re still usable.

Daytime VDS

Orange distress flags, and handheld or floating orange smoke signals.

Nighttime VDS: Electric distress lights

Both: Handheld or aerial red flares.

Onboard Requirements for VDS

Because pyrotechnic devices are quickly expended, you must have at least three in total if you choose to carry them. Non-pyrotechnic devices, on the other hand,  are non-expendable and you only need one.

Boat visual distress signals orange smoke

The combination will vary depending on the types of VDS you prefer, but they must satisfy at least one of these requirements:

  • Three aerial red flares (daytime and nighttime)
  • One orange distress flag (daytime) and one electric distress light (nighttime)
  • Two floating orange smoke signals and one handheld orange smoke signal (daytime), plus one electric distress light (nighttime)

Because VDS types are designed for varying conditions, it’s recommended you carry an assortment onboard. Aerial devices for long range visibility and handheld devices for short-range visibility are recommended.  

Choosing Boat Visual Distress Signals

The most common boat visual distress signals are:

Red aerial flare 

Visible from long distances both day and night, but has short duration and an expiration date.

Orange smoke signal

Visible from long distances, but only during the day.

Boat visual distress signal orange flag

Boat visual distress signal flare gun

Orange distress flag

Non-consumable and universally recognized, but not visible at night.


Electric distress light

Long-lasting, doesn’t expire and visible from long distances at night.

Signal mirror 

Cheap, compact and doesn’t expire, but not USCG-approved and only useful during the day.

Dye marker

Compact, doesn’t expire and good for aerial searches, but not USCG-approved and only useful during the day.

Using Boat Visual Distress Signals

It’s against the law to use a visual distress signal unless there’s a real emergency or imminent danger. Misuse of VDS can also lead to hefty fines.

Visual distress signals for boats

If you have to use visual distress signals, choose them wisely. Only use VDS that can be seen by others, and if possible, don’t use them all up at once. Read the instructions and use extra caution when using pyrotechnic VDS. Finally, store pyrotechnic VDS somewhere cool and dry where there’s no chance they’ll accidentally ignite.



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