Signal & Survive: How To Signal For Help In Wilderness Situations

Recently we looked at a variety of ways to signal for help when lost in the wild. Here are plenty more:


A good signal fire will be seen for miles in every direction. Build three fires in a triangle or straight line spaced about 30 yards apart. Three fires are an internationally recognized distress signal, as is the triangular arrangement. If you are alone or resources are scarce, put your efforts into one good fire.

Evaluate your resources. If dry wood is plentiful, keep your signal fires lit and smoking as long and often as possible. If fuel is scarce, prepare a pyre and wait to sight a rescue plane. Build the pyre in a way that keeps the wood dry and ready to be lit.

Construct an elevated platform for the fire. Lean three long, straight boughs together in a teepee formation and tie them at the top with cord or vine. Create a platform halfway down the boughs by tying cross-thatched branches to the three supports. Now add fuel.

The first layer is good, dry tinder such as paper, wood shavings or dry grass. Atop the tinder, layer on small branches as kindling. As you add layers, the size of the fuel should increase.

For a fire with lots of smoke, add a layer of moss, wet leaves or decaying plants on top of the largest fuel. Green brush creates thick white smoke when added to a burning fire. If stranded with a vehicle, burn tire rubber or motor oil to create thick, black smoke.

Tree Torch

A burning tree will produce a massive smoke plume visible for miles. Choose a tree in a clearing that is spaced well away from other trees and less likely to trigger a forest fire.

Load lower branches with dry tinder that will light easily. When lit, the tinder will burn while the living tree creates a massive smoke plume visible for miles. As the tree is consumed, add small green trees to the fire to create more smoke.

Handheld Flares

A flare can provide several minutes of bright signal light and is a great fire starter. Tie or tape a flare to a long branch to wave it overhead and improve sight lines.

Flare Guns

A staple of emergency kits on boats, a flare gun can attract lots of attention from aircraft and ground search parties. The downside: flares are still burning when they hit the ground and won’t mix well with parched grassland or dry pine forest.

A change in the wind direction can take you from “lost” to “lost in a wildfire.” For best results, confine flare guns to wetlands and open water.

Smoke Grenades

Deploy them in the same pattern described for fires. Take precautions so as to not ignite vegetation in the area.

Pen Flares

Part of an aviator’s survival vest, this is a pen-shaped device with a flare attached by a nylon cord. It creates the sound of a pistol shot and launches a flare about 160 yards high.

Have the pen flare ready for immediate use at the first sound of a search plane. Fire it in front of search aircraft and be ready with a secondary signal.


Signal Mirror

On a sunny day, a mirror can be one of the farthest reaching, non-electronic signal methods. A properly aimed signal mirror can shine a beam up to 10 miles, creating a flash easily visible by aircraft, watercraft, vehicles or searchers on foot.

Also good is any shiny object that will reflect the sun’s rays, such as a polished canteen, glasses or a belt buckle.

Sweep the horizon during the day. If a plane approaches, don’t aim the beam directly at the cockpit for more than a few seconds, in order to avoid blinding the pilot. 

Survey Tape and Marker

A small roll of brightly colored survey tape is a great, lightweight addition to your signal gear. Strips can easily be torn to mark trails taken and even leave messages. Simply write a message to searchers on the tape with a permanent marker.

Similar to survey tape but even more eye-catching is bird scare flash tape. Available in gardening centers and catalogs, this highly reflective material is hung around berry bushes and orchards to create flashes of light that scare off scavenging birds and can attract human attention as well.

Flashlight or Strobe Light

At night, use a flashlight or strobe light to signal SOS to an aircraft. The strobe light flashes 60 times per minute. Some strobe lights have infrared covers and lenses.


Spread bright clothing on the ground or in the top of a tree to signal planes. Select garments with colors that will contrast the natural surroundings. Arrange clothing in a large geometric pattern to attract attention.

Natural Material

Natural materials such as brush, foliage, rocks and snow blocks can be used to form a symbol or message that can be seen from the air. In snow-covered areas, trample the snow to form letters or symbols and fill the depression with contrasting material such as sticks and branches.

In sand, use rocks, vegetation or seaweed to form symbols. In brush-covered areas, cut out patterns in the vegetation or sear the ground. In tundra, dig trenches or turn the sod upside down.

Sea Dye Markers

Army water survival kits contain sea dye markers. The dye can stay visible for about three hours in low-water turbulence. The markers are also very effective for writing signals on snowy ground.


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