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Signaling 101

Man holding a red smoke signal

There are three words to live by when you’re talking rescue signaling. They are color, contrast, and movement. These words are also the gospel in camouflage. It makes sense that the same three categories should be used if we want to be seen. The same principles that will keep you hidden can also help you be seen. In a survival situation where life and death may depend on being observed, we need to have an understanding of these concepts.

Movement is the quickest way to be seen. I keep a marker panel in my kit that is blaze orange on one side and pink on the other. It can fulfill two of the three categories as it’s brightly colored and can be attached to a pole as a flag. This is key as combining these categories together you increase your chances of being spotted.

Take the flag, for instance, as its much more effective with movement. You’ve cut a sapling then made your flag. It’s at the ready in case you see someone and need to try to get their attention. Don’t just lean it against your shelter when it’s not in use. Go to the highest point in your immediate area and put the flag up. Just like traps will still hunt while you tend to other tasks, the flag will also signal while you work to improve your situation.

So now we have color and movement, how can the effectiveness be increased? In prepping we often talk of the rule of three which says two is one, one is none, three is for me. The same rule applies in signaling. Three of anything is a universal signal of distress. With three flags, you’ve just increased the odds of being seen by a factor of three. You’re using internationally recognized code even if they’re not all the same color. Placing three signals in a triangle is also a distress signal.

You’ll always have something that can make a flag. It may be a piece of clothing, the carpet from the trunk of the car, or in a worse case situation, cut the covers off your seats. Make flags and get them up. Bear in mind that only living creatures move horizontally in nature. This may sound silly but it’s a fact and humans are predators with our eyes designed to cue into that. Limbs, leaves, rocks, all fall down. Living creatures move across the landscape. Creating horizontal movement will increase your chances of being spotted.

Let’s say you’re in a landscape that provides nothing to build from, like a desert. How can you build a signal here? You can’t hang a flag as there isn’t anything to cut for a pole. This is where contrast comes into play. A large X is the universal signal for I need immediate help. Do three X’s to really get the message out as the rule of three applies here too. In a barren area, where there is nothing to use, you can still make these signals by digging.

Dig out a large X that’s ten feet from tip to tip. Orient them so that the long axis is on an east/west line, assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere. Pile the dirt on the southern side of the trench. This will create a shadow in the bottom of the trench for contrast. Again, make three of them.

Three large X’s in an open area will provide significant contrast. Not only will this work in a desert, it will also work in a snowfield. Enhance the effectiveness of the contrast by piling any form of vegetation you can find into the bottom of your trench to create more contrast.

You can simply stomp to create your X in the snow. Walk back and forth to compact it into a trench to make the contrast. This same contrast can be achieved by piling rocks or logs in the shape of an X. Size does matter in this situation, so the bigger the better. If all you have is shrubbery, then use it.

Shrubbery can be cut then piled high and long in the same universal shape. If using this method, turn the material upside down so that the undersides show. The undersides of leaves are usually lighter in color than the top, so it provides more contrast. There is always something you can use to generate contrast against the terrain.

Add other signals if there are resources available. Three signal fires along with your three trench Xs will make you hard to miss. If you have plenty of materials at hand, light your fires and keep them going at all times. Keep plenty of wood on hand to sustain the fires. Use plenty of green material to generate the smoke that is the most visible part of the fire.

To sum it up, remember the three keys of color, contrast, and movement. Try to combine all of these in as many combinations as possible. Use contrast to create an obviously manmade object that stands out from the terrain around it.

My most important tip would be to always carry a signal panel. There isn’t an excuse not to as they’re light and cheap. Coyote River Gear sells a pack of two 3’ x 8’ panels. That’s a lot of surface area to be seen! They’re designed to be able to set them up in an X on the ground. There is so much material there you could make three sets of three flags. Anyone who sees these will immediately know that there is someone there and they’re trying to get attention.

Understand the principles outlined here and they just could be what gets you rescued. Also, by understanding these principles, you could be the one to realize there is someone in trouble and could save the life of someone else. While the ideas listed here are simple, they’re worth committing to memory. Carry some signaling gear with you or at the very least, a way to make signals.

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