Like so many survival techniques, signaling for help is a skill best practiced before it is needed. Knowing multiple ways to signal for help can make a world of difference when the situation and surroundings are rapidly changing.
Signals can range from high-tech satellite technology to no-tech natural materials and techniques used by our ancestors. The only limit is your imagination.
The SOS Signal
The best known international distress signal is SOS (“Save Our Souls” or “Save Our Ship,” depending upon who is using it), chosen for the ease with which the letters can be tapped out in Morse Code. The code for SOS is three short, three long and three short signals, followed by a pause, then repeated.
The SOS signal can be transmitted by any method, visual or audio. In daylight, it can be a ground-to-air signal constructed of rocks and logs. At night, a flashlight or strobe light can signal across the darkness. If it is difficult to produce long and short signals, know that any signal repeated three times will be interpreted as a distress signal.
Here’s our roundup of signaling methods and essential gear. More will follow.
Cell Phone. A great signal tool may already be in your pocket. If a strong signal is available, you can call the exact right people and exchange vast amounts of information. If the signal is weaker, a text message may be possible.
SMS transmissions need only a moment of weak connectivity to a nearby tower to succeed. Look for high ground to find a signal. If spending extended time in an area without cell service, consider renting a satellite phone, which works almost anywhere on the planet.
Personal Locator Beacon. The Cadillac of electronic emergency signals, the personal locator beacon (PLB) is a widely available, affordable, satellite-connected wilderness panic button.
Entry-level models provide your coordinates to a monitoring company, which in turn contacts local authorities. High-end versions let you text or email detailed messages to rescuers via the satellite connection.
Whistle. A whistle is simple, effective gear for short-range signaling. There are documented cases of a whistle being heard a mile away. Three blasts of a whistle are a universal distress signal.
Pea-less whistles with no moving parts are the best choice in cold weather, when spittle can freeze the ball in place and silence the whistle until it warms and dries completely.
Choose brightly colored whistles that are easily found if dropped. Look for units with lanyards or clips to prevent loss.
Whistles are the perfect signal device for children. Teach them to blow in blasts of three and stay in place until help arrives if they get separated from the family in the outdoors. Warn them that their whistle is not a toy and should only be used in an emergency.
Improvised Sound. No whistle? Don’t give up. Carve your own or whistle with your fingers in your mouth. Lower tones can be made by banging on things. An empty cooler can be a signal drum. Aim the opening toward your last known position and pound away.
String up the cooler to suspend it for better resonance. In forested areas, look for a hollow hardwood log and hardwood sticks. Prop up the log on rocks for more vibration. The loud clacking sound can be heard for miles under ideal conditions.
For best results with visual signals, look for a site near your shelter with good visibility such as a clearing, hilltop or lakeshore. Think like your search party. Will they be in the air or on the ground? They will likely start from your last known position and sweep across your proposed route.
This category is limited only by your imagination and available materials. Logs, rocks and trenches can be arranged into daylight ground-to-air signals such as SOS letters or an arrow showing your travel direction.
At night, flashlights and glow sticks are valuable, but best of all is a signal fire. But a signal fire is not a campfire. There’s a fine line between control and danger with big fires.
Don’t start a signal fire in a place where it might get away from you. Dry grassland on a windy day is a bad place for a big fire. Don’t let any fire get too big to put out with the resources at hand.
Choose a very visible place so both smoke and light can be seen. A large open area on high ground is good. So is a shoreline. In winter, clear the ground of snow or make a platform on which to build the fire to keep melting snow from extinguishing it.
During the day, consider contrast. Most of what you will burn in the wilderness produces white smoke that won’t stand out against a cloudy white sky. Burn a few ounces of motor oil or brake fluid, tire rubber, plastic or other petroleum-based material to produce highly-visible black smoke.
A signal mirror is one of the farthest-reaching, non-electronic signal methods known. A properly aimed signal mirror can redirect a beam of daylight up to 10 miles, creating a flash of light that can catch the attention of distant aircraft, watercraft, vehicles or a search party on foot.
Having that skill at the ready means planning and practicing. Purchase a mirror with a sighting lens and practice using it with a partner in a large open area. If you both have mirrors, make a game of your practice time for fun and immediate feedback that your aim is true.
To use a signal mirror, reflect sunlight onto a nearby surface. Slowly bring the mirror to eye level and look through the sighting hole. You will see a bright spot, which is the aim indicator. Hold the mirror near the eye and direct the bright spot over your target. Slowly sweep the horizon. Mirror flashes can be seen for many miles, even in hazy weather.
Also practice using a mirror without a sighting lens. Hold the mirror under your eye, directing the beam of light onto the tip of an outstretched finger. Place that illuminated finger just below your partner/target. Sweep the mirror very slowly right to left and up and down. This should sweep the beam across your target.
In an emergency, try to signal from the highest ground. If you can’t see the aircraft, flash in the direction of the engine noise.