Learning how to make effective and noticeable distress signals is a key survival skill. These signaling skills will also help keep you from slipping into a panic mode, as you focus your energies on being rescued instead of the fear of being lost.
Depending on the time of day, lighting, terrain, and how long you’ve been lost, some signaling methods are more effective than others. An effective distress signal will grab the attention of your potential rescuer and sound or appear distinct enough to not blend into the natural background.
If you are trying to get the attention of an aircraft, keep in mind that their flight speed, altitude, and visibility will all impact their ability to see your signal. Good attention-getters are made-made geometric patterns such as an ‘X’, a fire, or a bright flash of light. Whatever signaling method you chose, know how to do it and be prepared to use it on short notice…as aircraft gives very little warning before they briefly pass overhead.
Below are some common distress signals, along with their methods and instructions on how to implement them.
Be cautious with any signal that involves fire. Carefully place these fires so as not to cause any forest fires which could further endanger you and your rescuers.
A whistle can send a audible signal for many miles, depending on the terrain and weather. Three (3) distinct and sharp whistle blasts is a known signal of distress and can help rescuers zero in on your position. Three (3) gunshots can also be used to signal distress, but if in a survival situation, you may want to conserve the ammunition for hunting / subsistence.
Fire is an extremely effective signal at night. If the conditions are calm (low wind) and visibility is clear, look for a clearing to set up three (3) fires in the shape of a triangle (international distress signal). Look for clearings at higher elevation or the edge of a stream, so that the vegetation does not conceal your signal. As mentioned above, be extremely careful to avoid a forest fire as this can further endanger your life.
During the daylight hours, smoke can be a very effective distress signal. Smoke is most effective on calm days and in areas where the color of the smoke is a stark contrast to the background. Smoke can be virtually ineffective on foggy and overcast days. If you partially smother a fire with green vegetation, moss, leaves, or some water, it will produce a nice thick white smoke. An oil-soaked rag, or rubber products will produce black smoke.
A mirror or other shiny object can be an effective way to signal an aircraft. They are typically used in hostile environments where you want to direct the signal to the intended rescuers without giving up your location to others around you. The military-issue signaling mirrors have instructions on the back and a sighting hole for aiming. Signal mirrors are said to be visible for over 70 miles, and even up to 100 miles in a desert environment. To signal with a mirror, hold the mirror neck high and aim the reflection on a nearby ground object. If you have a sighting hole or aiming indicator, slowly move the mirror until the bright spot is over the target (aircraft). This can take some practice and is worth trying before you take the mirror into the woods!
Strobe or Flashlight
A flashlight or strobe light can be used at night to send an effective signal. Pilots are usually issued a strobe light that blinks at a rate of 60 times per second. You can also use a flashlight to send the S-O-S signal, or the Morse code equivalent of 3 dots-3 dashes-3 dots (3 short, 3 long, 3 short). This is a universally known distress signal and can alert someone to your position.
Other Distress Signals
If your survival kit, terrain, or situation doesn’t allow you to use the signals above, you can try to rely on making distinct man-made features to alert rescuers to your position. The shapes of a ‘V’ or ‘X’ are typically used to convey that assistance is needed. If you don’t have a large clearing to work with, you may need to alter the landscape by creating patterns in the vegetation or on top of the snow. These signals can alert aircraft to your location and expedite your rescue.
No one ever intends to get lost, so many people don’t bother with familiarizing themselves with distress signals and methods to accomplish them. It only takes a few minutes of your time and a few ounces in your backpack to keep you prepared in the event that you need assistance. Take the time…it may just save your life or someone that you love.