by Survival Dispatch Staff

Every outdoors enthusiast should carry a variety of signaling items on every trip into the wild. Signaling for help can be your ticket to go home. It’s particularly important if your mobility has been hampered by illness or injury. But what if you become separated from your signaling gear? Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. There are plenty of simple signaling methods that can catch the attention of a search and rescue crew or some random passerby. Simple signals that can be done without any modern signaling supplies.

Audible Signals

audible signal

Holler And Yell.  One of our first responses to trouble is a simple one, we yell. We may yell intelligible words like “Help!” or it may be an unintelligible sound like a scream or roar. Sometimes this behavior makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yelling for your lost friend or family member may help you be reunited. If you’re just yelling because of panic in a remote area, there may be no one to hear it. Yell when it counts and stop before you lose your voice. If you do lose it, yelling will have to wait until your voice box recovers. It could be a day or more for it to come back. Thankfully, there are other options.

Learn To Whistle.  A loud whistle can catch somebody’s attention from hundreds of yards away. Whistle with two fingers in your mouth as this a lot louder than through pursed lips. Remember that 3 of anything is an international signal of distress. The old Morse code signal for help is S.O.S., represented by three sets of three. Three short beeps, three long ones, and three short beeps make up the signal. This can be done on regular intervals to maximize your chances of getting noticed. If whistling with your fingers isn’t a skill you’ve mastered, try using a plastic bottle cap or an acorn cap. Since trash is found worldwide and oak trees are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, your chances of coming across one of these two items is pretty good. To whistle with an acorn cap or plastic bottle cap, place your thumbs together while holding them over the concavity of the cap. Your thumb knuckles should be tight together with your thumb nails making a small “V” shaped gap. Place the “V” gap right on the upper edge of the cap and place your lips on your thumb knuckles as if kissing them. Blow hard toward the gap and with a little practice, your stream of air will be cut in half by the upper edge of the cap. This will make the whistle shriek loudly.

Take Up Percussion.  If you can’t manage a yell or whistle, try beating on things! Use hardwood sticks or clubs to strike dead trees and logs. These can resemble the loud crack of a baseball bat. Percussion sounds like drumming have been used to communicate complex messages by various native cultures in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Rim, and the Americas. The record distance is over four miles in the case of hollow log drums. You probably won’t find the right size and shape of log for ideal results but try your best to be noisy. Use your S.O.S. message of three sets of three noises.

Visual Signals

signal fire

Start A Signal Fire.  Producing both light and smoke, fire has been used as a signal since ancient times. It can still be useful in the modern day too if we need to announce our distress in the wilderness. Follow these tips to build the best fire for your situation:

  • Pick a high spot- To gain maximum attention, choose a high location to kindle your blaze. As long as you can safely ascend to a lofty location, consider burning your signal fire on a mountain ridge, hill top, or the edge of a plateau.
  • Light multiple fires- If one fire could suggest that you’re in trouble then several could confirm it. Since three of anything is an international signal for “help”, build three fires to announce your trouble. Burn three or more fires in a row on a high ridge, cliff top, or beach line.
  • Make a lot of smoke- White smoke against a blue sky or black smoke against a cloudy sky adds another element of visibility to your signal fire. Pile green vegetation onto the fire for white smoke, and add petroleum-based oil or plastic to make dark colored smoke. Since these items are often in short supply, save the smoke producing fuels for a time when you suspect someone may be nearby to see the smoke.
rock cairns

Build A Rock Cairn.  A cairn is a stack or tower of rocks that is clearly man-made. These simple structures are often used in rocky treeless terrain to mark trails and provide landmarks. The same rock stack can be a signpost to search and rescue crews, especially if you incorporate an arrow to lead them in the right direction. Cairns can be easy to make if flat rocks are available but even with chunky rocks you can still build this pathfinding pillar.

Draw Charcoal Arrows.  If you happen to get a fire going in a woodland environment or some place with scrub brush then use partially burned sticks as “charcoal pencils” to write messages. You can draw arrows on trees, rocks, and other materials. These messages can be simple words like “help” or “SOS” or you can be more detailed. Arrows can also be drawn that point toward your camp. These can be done in a circle around your survival camp and even set up in concentric rings around the campsite. These arrows can be just the ticket to lead search and rescue personnel right to your door. This trick is also handy for navigation in low light conditions and bad weather. These marks are long lasting but don’t harm the trees or leave a permanent scar on the landscape.

Lay Out Stick Arrows.  Bring the charcoal arrow concept into 3-dimensional reality by assembling stick or log arrows to point searchers toward your camp or trail. Set these up where you know they’ll be seen in clearings and on trails. Make them obviously unnatural. Symmetrical shapes and patterns aren’t usually seen in fallen limbs and logs. If you have a charcoal chunk, use it to scribe your name and predicament on a smooth log.

Create A Ground To Air Signal. When there’s a chance that an aircraft may spot you, a ground-to-air signal may be just the thing to get you rescued. These signals need to be huge, ideally dozens of yards across. They should also have a high contrast to the surrounding environment for better visibility. Don’t use white blocks of snow in a snow field. Use vegetation or other natural materials that are easy to move to make large geometric patterns. “X” shapes and “V” shapes are internationally known as signs of distress. You could also spell out words. In the spring of 2016, a 72-year-old woman was rescued after being lost in the Arizona desert for nine days. Pilots were searching for her body when one came across her large “HELP” sign, built from sticks and rocks. A helicopter pilot landed to investigate and found the woman alive and well thanks to the survival training she had received prior to her predicament.

What You Should Have Brought Into The Wild

Knowing how to signal for help without any modern supplies will give you the confidence that it isn’t hopeless. However, this doesn’t mean you should be overconfident in these techniques or run around empty handed. Here are some of the signaling tools that you don’t want to leave home without:

personal locator beacon

Bring Your Mobile Phone.  This one is a no-brainer, bring your phone. If you have enough signal strength to make a call for help, a potential tragedy can turn into a minor inconvenience. If your location is too far from a cell tower for a call, try a text message. These don’t require as much signal strength as a phone call. Consider bringing a device to recharge your phone as well. A dead cell phone isn’t much help. Finally, if you know you are going somewhere that mobile phones don’t have any reception, consider renting a satellite phone for your trip.

Get A Personal Locator Beacon.  For the hardcore adventurer with a little extra income, consider investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB). This gizmo connects to satellites so no cell towers are needed. Various models can relay complex messages or simply give you a panic button. Either way, the monitoring company will relay to the distress information and coordinates to the local authorities.

signal mirror
A US Air Force Master Sergeant Terence Munk, an intelligence specialist, uses a signal mirror to simulate anti-craft artillery during Advanced Airlift Tactics Training. From Airman Magazine, Aug 2000 Article “Surviving the Heavy Hunters”.

Buy A Mirror.  A signal mirror is one of the farthest reaching, non-electronic signal methods. When properly aimed, the mirror can shoot a flash of light up to 10 miles. It will hopefully catch the attention of distant person, aircraft, watercraft, or vehicle. Buy a signal mirror with a sighting lens and practice using it BEFORE you actually might need it. An easy way to practice signaling with mirrors is to take two mirrors and a friend to a large open area. Get far away from each other and practice aiming. Yell or use hand signals to give your distant friend immediate feedback of a hit. An easy way to aim a mirror is hold it under one eye and direct the beam of light onto the tip of an outstretched finger. Move your body and arm as if aiming a rifle to place your illuminated finger just below your target. Sweep the mirror VERY slowly right to left then up and down. This will sweep the beam of light across your target. It’s not as easy as it looks but with a little practice you’ll get good at it.

pealess whistle

Choose A Whistle.  A simple whistle is a great piece of signal gear for short range audible signaling. Three blasts of the whistle are generally interpreted as a universal signal for distress. Purchase a bright colored whistle so it’s easier to find if you drop it. Attaching your whistle to a lanyard, ring, or clip can prevent loss as well. Pealess whistles, which have no moving parts, are the best choice for sub-freezing weather. Your spit can freeze up the little cork ball. Whistles are a great signal item for kids to carry. They are easy to operate and most kids enjoy making a lot of noise. Teach young kids to blow the whistle and stay in one spot until help arrives if they ever become separated from you. My favorite whistle is the Fox 40 whistle. This insanely loud whistle produces a 40-decibel blast and it’s available in a bright orange color. Bright orange is easier to spot than a camo whistle should you drop it.


Strike A Flare.  A variety of flares are available in outdoor stores, and any one of them can provide a distress signal. Handheld flares also make a backup fire starter. Give your handheld flares more reach by duct taping it to a long pole or branch. This allows you to wave the flare around higher in the air. Just tape the non-burning end of the flare to your pole as duct tape is flammable and you’ll want to wave the flare on a stick for as long as you can. Don’t waive it directly overhead. A flare gun may make sense in conditions that aren’t prone to wildfire. A staple signal method on watercraft, the flare gun can signal aircraft and search parties on the ground. Just consider the danger of wildfire in your location. Flares may still be burning when they hit the ground. It could start a deadly wildfire in dried brushy areas, arid grasslands, and dry pine forests.

Make Your Mark.  Permanent markers give you the ability to write and make marks on virtually any dry surface. Use a marker to indicate your trails and leave messages for rescuers. Permanent markers write on almost any surface including rocks, logs, tree trunks, or whatever. Sure, it’s vandalism but it could also get you rescued.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to signaling, it’s always better to be prepared. With a little forethought, it’s easy to bring flares, whistles, even a phone with you. They’re relatively lightweight and simple to add to your go bag. However, if you ever find yourself in the wilderness without a man-made signal, there are plenty of ways to still signal for help. Look around and use the resources at hand to help rescuers find you.

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