Home Survival 101 Building a Signal Kit

Building a Signal Kit

by Ben Team

It’s always a good idea to bring along a few key items when heading into the wilderness or packing a Bug Out Bag. Most outdoor adventurers and survivalists will remember to bring all of the basics. The basics being a good knife, a fire starter of some type, and some first aid supplies. However, many will forget to pack a signaling kit. This is unfortunate and can leave you in a very precarious position if there’s trouble on the trail.

Signaling kits give you a way to communicate with others and request help if needed. They usually include at least two or three different types of signaling devices. Different types of signals work depending on the circumstances and any tool can break at a very inopportune time. Let’s discuss the types of signaling devices you’ll want to include in your signal kit.

Different Types of Signaling Tools and Devices

There are dozens of different tools that could be used as signaling devices. You can also likely improvise several other methods for attracting attention in an emergency. However, the following seven devices are among the best options for wilderness bound adventurers and those seeking to prepare for emergencies.

1. Cellphone or Satellite Phone

There’s no need to get cute or overthink things. You use your cellphone for most daily communications. If you’re in an area with service, a cell phone is still the very best way to communicate with others. Remember, you can use a cell phone to send a text message if that’s more appropriate for your circumstances. Texts may also go through in bad service areas, and can be an easier way to communicate with people.

Cell service can be spotty in remote areas as anyone who’s tried to use a cellphone in a wilderness area already knows. Opt for a satellite phone if you’re willing to invest the necessary funds to do so. Satellite phones don’t require cellular service and work just about anywhere on the planet.

You’ll need battery power to operate either of these devices, so it’s wise to keep the battery disconnected when the phone isn’t in use. It’s also a good idea to bring a backup battery or a portable solar charger to keep the phone operable for as long as possible.

2. Radio

Hand-held radios aren’t quite as helpful as cell phones or satellite phones but are still very effective communication tools. They’ll allow you to transmit plenty of information to nearby rescuers or residents. Since radios aren’t as ubiquitous as cell phones are, focus your efforts on communicating with those who are likely to hear you. This means first-responders, rangers, park staff, truck drivers, and others who often carry and monitor common radio frequencies.

The range at which various radios are effective varies from one product to the next. Because this is for emergency use, it makes sense to select the product with the best range you can afford. As with cellphones and other electronic devices, you’ll want to pack a backup battery or some type of solar charger to keep it operable.

Learn Morse code since static and language barriers can make communication difficult. Most radios include a function designed for sending and receiving messages sent in this manner.

3. Flare

Flares are an excellent way to make yourself visible to rescuers or to communicate messages across long distances. Flares come in two primary styles:

  • Flare guns that shoot a bright, sparking ember high into the air.
  • Hand-held flares that shoot off very bright sparks for an extended period of time.

Both types of flares are best suited for different applications. Flare guns are typically used by those stranded in or near the water. Because they shoot high in the air, they’re typically visible from longer distances than hand-held flares are. However, they can be a fire hazard so never use a marine flare gun over a wilderness area. Also, most are only visible for a brief time.

Conversely, hand-held flares are less likely to catch the attention of distant rescuers. The hand-held advantage is that they usually produce sparks for longer than flares fired from guns do. While you don’t want to aim a hand-held flare at a pile of dead leaves, they’re suitable for use on land.

4. Flags

Flags are great signaling devices that can be used in either active or passive fashion. For example, you could stand atop an exposed rocky outcropping and wave the flag from a long stick. Theoretically, you could even use these flags to communicate with distant rescuers. You could also tie the flag to the top of a tree before moving on to other duties. This approach may be less likely to draw the attention of rescuers but allows you to attend to other necessities.

Try to select a flag made of a conspicuous color. Blaze orange with a bit of black trim to help improve its visibility in some cases is the best choice. A few manufacturers even make signaling flags emblazoned with SOS. If you have to choose, one big flag is probably more helpful than two smaller flags. There are some occasions in which it may make sense to cut the flag in half so that you can signal from two different locations.

5. Whistle

Like signaling mirrors, whistles are excellent for use in the wilderness as they don’t require anything other than lung power. A good signaling whistle can be heard from a very long distance. Keep in mind that the exact distances the sound carries will vary based on the geography and local conditions.


Whistles are also very light and small, which makes them easy to pack. Most come with an attached lanyard so you can sling them over your neck and keep them handy. Give three blasts in quick succession for the international signal for help.

6. Flashlight

Flashlights are excellent tools for signaling, although they only work at night. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as many other signaling devices are only effective during the day. It’s nice to have both situations covered. They also require batteries except for kinetically or solar powered models. Batteries increase their weight and the amount of space required in your pack.

On the plus side, flashlights are often visible from great distances. Many outdoor models now come with strobe modes and colored filters. Simply point a flashlight in the likely direction of assistance or slowly turn with the light to help expand the number of potential eyes you’ll reach. You can even use a flashlight to help communicate via Morse code. Just turn the light on and use your hand or some other opaque device to block the light as necessary.

You’ll probably already have a flashlight, but it’s usually wise to include a dedicated signaling light. Pack it next to your other signaling devices. Obviously use your standard flashlight for signaling in a pinch but it’s best to pack both.

7. Mirror

Signal mirrors are effective for catching the eye of locals or rescuers, and they’re quite easy to use. Essentially, you’ll aim the mirror in the appropriate direction to reflect the sun’s rays. Point it in all directions to attract help from those you may not be able to see. The light reflected by signaling mirrors is often visible for more than a mile, and occasionally much farther.

Signaling mirrors are one of the most ideal tools to pack in your Bug Out Bag or backpack. They’re small, lightweight, and don’t require any electricity. You’ll probably want a more effective signaling device as your first-line tool, but a signaling mirror is an excellent backup.

Sunny days are best for using a signal mirror, but they also work when it’s overcast. They obviously won’t work at night so plan to have more than one signaling tool in your kit.

Final Thoughts

You don’t need to pack all seven of these items in your signaling kit. There’d be little room for anything else in your bag if you did. Try to pick three or four different tools that seem most appropriate for your likely adventures. Or misadventures as the case may be…

Just be sure that they work in different ways. Don’t pack three light producing signaling devices. Instead bring an electronic device, a sound producing device, and a light producing device. This way, you’ll be better prepared to signal effectively in a variety of circumstances.

Finally, don’t forget to pack all of your signaling gear in an appropriate container. A waterproof container is imperative if your kit includes electronic or combustible devices. It’s actually a good idea to use a waterproof container for all signal kits. If nothing else, just keep the entire thing in a sealed plastic bag. Use a rigid case rather than a cloth bag to protect your signaling devices from damage if possible. The key here is to have a signaling kit that’s accessible and in working order for a worst-case scenario.

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