Distress Signaling For Life

There are times you want to blend in, become invisible, not draw attention to yourself, like when walking in a “bad neighborhood,” or trying to avoid an ex who still wants a relationship. I’m not sure which of those is the worse. We’ve been trying to “not be seen” since our childhood, playing hide-and-seek with our friends. We’re used to hiding, take great pride in it and buy expensive gear to accomplish it. However, the time may come when you will want everyone in the world to see you and know exactly where you are.

Lost in the wilderness and injured. There isn’t a much worse of a scenario than being truly lost and being injured compounds the issue expeditiously. True, this is the time you employ all the crisis survival techniques you know, the physical and mental skills you’ve acquired from survival articles like this, but the bottom line … undisputed fact right this minute is … Getting Rescued.

You need help now and the only way for that to happen is to have someone find you. Let’s learn different methods of signaling for help, making yourself the proverbial squeaky wheel that draws attention. The pleasant hike has suddenly turned into a real “Life or Death” situation.

Signal One – Cell Phone

In today’s technological age the cell phone is the standard means of communication and seems everyone from 8 to 80 have one. Therefore, this is the obvious number one method of signaling for help, simply dial 911. Consider this … in areas with weaker signals a phone call may not work. Should that be the case, try sending a text message instead. SMS transmissions require only a moment of weak connectivity to the nearest tower to be successful. Forget the advertising gimmicks of 99% of America being connected, that’s BS to begin with, and if it wasn’t you don’t want to be that 1%. Check out the reliability of cell service in the area you’re going, and if it’s weak or non-existent, rent a satellite phone which works anywhere in the world. Last but not least, batteries do go dead so don’t count on the cell phone being your only source of signaling for help.

Signal Two – A Whistle Away


Bright Color and lanyard

A simple whistle could save your life, especially in certain environments. I have been in jungles that are so dense a person could literally walk within 10 feet of you and neither one of you would know the other was there. There’s no need to be in such an extreme environment for a whistle to be useful, but I wanted to demonstrate how counting on your vision to see help may not always be an option. The universal code for distress is three blasts, wait … three blast. You can blow the whistle constantly, I just wanted to make you aware of the Three (3) rule. When buying a whistle choose bright colors, you don’t want to drop a dark green whistle into a green covered jungle floor. Make sure it has a lanyard, clip or other attaching devise to prevent loss. Food for thought: If traveling in cooler temperatures buy a pea-less whistle, which has no moving parts. If you’re in sub-freezing temperatures the spit can cause the cork ball to freeze in place making the whistle useless until it thaws out.

Signal Three – Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Did you know a signal mirror is one of the furthest reaching, non-electronic signal, devise available. Properly aimed a signal mirror can be detected from over ten miles away, offering you the capability of attracting the attention of aircraft, watercraft, motor vehicles or people walking from quite a distance. Be sure to buy a mirror with a sighting lens as it makes it easier and quicker to align your beam of light at the target. Time may be at a premium if you only have a short window of opportunity.

If you are caught with a mirror that doesn’t have a sighting lens, like a cosmetic mirror, use this trick to increase the efficiency of your aim. Hold the mirror under your eye, catching the sun’s ray, direct the beam, by moving the mirror, onto the tip of your finger. Then, keeping the beam on the fingertip, move the finger to point at the target. Very slowly pan the mirror up and down, side to side, which increases your chance of the reflection being seen. No mirror. Do you have a CD in the car or backpack?

Signal Four – Flares

There are different varieties and colors of flares intended for different normal day usage, but this ain’t a normal day, so don’t worry about color. Depending on the flare, most will burn for about 5 minutes at extreme temperatures, some well over 2000 degrees F.

If you are using a flare intended to be used as a warning beacon, like for an automobile accident, you really don’t want to hold it by hand unless you must. Ideally attach the flare, duct tape, twine, vine, however, to a long branch, which you can use to elevate the flare higher increasing the odds of being spotted. Don’t wave the flare directly overhead as the sparks can burn, plus your tie job may come loose and the flare could fall off the stick straight down onto you. PS. You can use a flare to start a campfire if necessary.

If you have a flare gun, which shoots a flare into the air, one can consider self lucky and unlucky. The sky bound flare will draw plenty of attention for miles around, which is lucky. However, if you are in a wooded, dry grasslands or brush areas, using a flare gun could be considered suicidal, as it will definitely start a fire when it lands, if not before. You never want to be on the ground anywhere near a wildfire, as they are unpredictable and deadly. They may find you after the fire burns out, but … Don’t use flare guns unless you can direct the flare over a body of water or swamp lands.

Signal Five – Fire and Smoke

These are two distinct methods, which we’ll explain, but I combined them because they originate from the same source…. fire. We will assume you have the skills or the equipment to start a fire so we won’t delve into that subject, but rather we’ll explore how to make a signal fire the most effective for attracting attention.

During darkness fire is the most effective way of communicating position. However, there are specific things to do in order to improve visibility and to convey an SOS. There’s a distinct possibility that you may be lost in a National Park or other state or federal ground, which may have hundreds of other people camping in it. Yellow Stone Park encompasses nearly 3500 square miles, that’s not acres … that’s miles. There could be a 1000 campsites in that amount of space, what makes yours special? Why would rescuers ignore the other 999 campfires and go to yours?


Triangle or straight line

Remember the International code of three (3) being a signal of distress? You will build 3 campfires, in a triangle or in a straight line, burning all simultaneously. Obviously this will take planning, align your campfire spots, Stock each site with ample wood to burn through the night. Think you have enough? Go get twice as much more. Be sure to clear a large area around the fire of any flammable material and store the wood far enough away from the fire as to not be caught on fire by an errant spark. Start the fires at dusk, while you still have enough light to see, and keep them going throughout the night.

If you are unable to maintain 3 campfires, use one, but make it as large as is safe and maintain it all night long. A roaring campfire at 3 am, not impossible but unlikely, should create enough curiosity to warrant a check by authorities.


Can be seen for miles

During daylight hours a fire is of little value compared to the darkness of night, but you can enhance that. Be sure your fire is established and quite hot, then throw green evergreen boughs onto the fire, careful not to smother it. This will create huge plumes of

white smoke which can be seen for miles, and if you have 3 smoke signals, that’s better yet. Throwing oil-soaked items or a tire on the fire will create black billowing smoke.

Again, prepare your area making it fire safe, have plenty of wood and burn only green limbs or moss to create smoke.

Signal Six – SOS

One thing about technology is it will malfunction. However, primitive methods never really go out of style or break. Such is the basic SOS code that is recognized world wide as a distress signal. What you use to emit the signal is irrelevant, a flashlight, signal mirror, whistle, tapping a rock, visual or audio … whatever. The focal point is memorizing the code.

3 SHORT .. 3 LONG .. 3 SHORT … Pause … Repeat

tap,tap,tap .. t-a-p, t-a-p, t-a-p, tap,tap,tap … pause … repeat. Commit this to memory. Now.


Signal Seven – Anything Out of the Ordinary

Sometimes you just have to use a little ingenuity to make your emergency signal materials.

Flags have been used as a type of communication for centuries and although extremely outdated, unless you’re in the military, you’ll have no idea what a flag is communicating, and we’re used to seeing Old Glory, the confederate flag, foreign nations’ flags, sports teams flags, etc. But, you are dealing with professional people who are rescuers and they think differently than we do. For instance do you know a made up flag of a red shirt and blue shirt is a distress signal? Red & blue lights are associated with emergency vehicles, thus a red and blue flag may be imitating emergency lights.

Flashlights used at night can be seen from a far distance. Instead of emitting a steady line, try tapping out Morse code, which is … 3 short, 3 long, 3 short .. pause .. repeat. Some new LED flashlights actually have built-in SOS or strobe light functions.

Chemical Light Glow Sticks although not nearly as strong a light as a flashlight, do emit a visible light which stays lit for hours. Tie one to a string and whirl it overhead or hang it on a branch with the wind moving it, anything to draw attention.

In the survival game you never stop learning, at least you better not, and you never give up until you are rescued or otherwise stop caring. Learning how to effectively signal for help is just as important a skill as starting a fire or any other skill. It’s a package that results in going home alive.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.