A ‘strobe’ light is a class of lighting equipment which flashes. This can range from the ‘single’ flash used to take a photograph to the very rapid flashing used to ‘stop motion’. The only one we are concerned with here is one which flashes intermittently in order to pinpoint your location to aid searchers in finding you.
Should you have one in your kit? It depends. On the minus side, they tend to be somewhat large and expensive, and go through batteries quickly. On the plus side, they can signal while you sleep or are unconscious or perform other activities, and can be quite effective at pinpointing your location in a large, dark, relatively flat area. This is particularly of importance if you will be near a large body of water; some units can automatically start flashing if immersed and inclusion of a strobe in a marine or aviation kit is strongly recommended if not actually ‘required’. Otherwise, include one if you have the space and funds.
There are a number of options. The actual bulb which flashes can be LED, standard incandescent or Xenon. LEDs are not the brightest, but they can be small, rugged and run a long time on a set of batteries. Xenon are the brightest, but can be a bit fragile and go through batteries quickly. Incandescent bulbs tend to be not the brightest and are fragile and use a lot of power, so should be avoided for survival usage. The batteries used tend to be AA, C or D, with some old military units using odd and/or discontinued batteries. Finally, the unit can be a dedicated strobe or a combination strobe/flashlight. Best is one which is ‘omni-directional’ so it can be seen from any direction.
The ‘state of the art’ is probably the U.S. Military strobe, the MS-2000(M). These are Xenon strobes, which run for about 8 hours off of 2 AA batteries, are claimed to have a range of 6 miles, and have some ‘combat’ features which are of limited use in non-combat situations. Those features are an IR filter, a blue ‘non-muzzle-flash’ filter, and a shield to make the strobe directional. Mounting these strobes can be a challenge, as the only attachment point is permanently attached lanyard. There is a pouch available which is used to carry the strobe, or some people glue Velcro to the unit. Since it is ‘in the way’, I suggest you remove the IR shield; it easily pops off its mounting studs when in the deployed position. Save it in case you ever want to sell the strobe or need IR capability.
It appears that the manufacturer of the MS-2000 is ACR, who also have (or used to have) civilian versions, the Firefly 2 and Firefly 3, and a similar combo strobe and flashlight, the Doublefly. These have a strap loop on each side to aid in mounting, but only claim 1 to 2 miles or so of range which is kind of surprisingly short for Xenon strobes. This class of strobes ranges in price from $20 (used) to well over $100; eBay is currently a good place to find these at reasonable prices. ACR has several other strobe options in their current line-up.
There are cheaper Xenon options. Very common is the ‘blob’ strobe from several makers, which can be found as low as $10. These are basically a D battery with a strobe unit stuck on the end. I did not try any of these, since short fat things are hard for me to hold onto and I find spare D batteries to be an annoyance to carry. I did try the ‘E-Z Sales & Manufacturing’ strobe, which uses 4 AA batteries. It does have a nice variety of mounting options, belt clip, magnet and wrist lanyard, but seems like it might be more fragile than most Xenon units. The bulb is a straight one mounted vertically, which has only one end of the bulb mounted, at the bottom, with a wire leading up to the free-standing end. It does provide excellent omnidirectional light though. Being a bit fat, it might be somewhat harder to pack than the 2 AA strobes, but it stands on end well. It claims a 3 mile range which is not bad for an Xenon strobe, but does not have a claimed run time (that I could find). For that matter, I could not find out much of any information about it or the company. We’ll see how it performs but unless it far exceeds the others, I would be wary about depending on it.
As mentioned, the other technology to consider is LED. Often an LED ‘strobe’ is not really a strobe. A strobe charges a capacitor which then discharges through the bulb; this has the potential to be a more efficient use of power, and supports a brighter bulb. Many LED versions are simply flashing lights, but this is not necessarily a problem. With LEDs, you tend to use much less power anyway, and brighter LED bulbs do not necessarily require the magnified power spike of a capacitor.
Perhaps the ultimate value in LED strobes is the See-Me 2.0 by UST (or now Revere). It runs on 2 AA batteries, but goes for 120 hours on a set, with a claimed range of 3 miles which is in the same class as some good Xenon strobes. It has the ‘ears’ for a strap, and has a clip for fastening it to a life vest as well as a version which can also be activated by immersion in water. Cost should be under $30. UST also claims to have a new one (See-Me 1.0) coming out in 2014 which is smaller, using 2 AAA batteries, at the cost of a slight reduction in range (2.7 miles) and a significant reduction in run time (44 hours). Still, it sounds like it might worth considering. They also have the See-Me Select which is similar in shape to the MS-2000 military strobe but uses LEDs. It runs for 24 hours, but does not claim a range. It has immersion activation AND manual activation, as well as a ‘constant on’ mode which is actually a fairly decent flashlight with only a 4 hour loss of run time. Based on its ‘brightness’ rating, range might be pretty good; we’ll see how it compares.
Don’t have the funds or space for one of the strobes described so far? There are still options. For instance, many advanced flashlights have a ‘strobe’ mode; some of them even flash ‘S-O-S’. Since having a flashlight is highly recommended, this is an option, although not the best one. The problem is that most such flashlights are unidirectional as opposed t0 the far superior omnidirectionality of better strobes. Still, a ‘strobe’ capable flashlight is better than nothing. Alternatively you can have a ‘dedicated’ flashing light. The smallest (and cheapest) is the tiny LED ‘strobe’ available from http://www.m4040.com; these are not particularly bright, but they are a flashing light, don’t take up much space, run a long time and cost very little. Another small option is the ‘Tag-it’ signal light, which clips to your equipment via its built-in carbiner. It flashes or provides constant light based on what direction the batteries are installed, and has pretty good omnidirectional visibility.
Be aware that some of the units designed to automatically start flashing when immersed in water will NOT flash until they are so immersed. On the plus side, if you fall overboard and are knocked unconscious, your rescue light will start automatically. On the minus side, if you are not near water, getting it to start flashing is a bit more involved. Look for two metal sensors side by side. When the switch is on and these are shorted out by water, the strobe starts. Once it starts, it continues flashing even if no longer immersed. If there is no manual ‘on’ option, you can ‘trick’ it into starting by bridging the sensors with anything conductive, such as a piece of metal or aluminum foil. Or if easily accessible, your tongue, or a wet finger.
When the remaining models come in, I’ll do a comparison test. If there is another model you’d like to see included, let me know and I’ll see if I can find one at a reasonable price.