If you’re ever stranded in the wild, knowing how to signal for help might be just be the thing that saves your life. Alerting rescuers, onlookers, or anyone else in the area to your location, so you can get the help you need. But unfortunately, too many people these days rely on their phones. We’re so connected, we’ve come to take it for granted. We always think someone can be there at the push of a button, that we can broadcast or livestream or even call for help, but what if that option is gone?
What if you’ve run out of battery, or are trapped in an area with no signal? Pay attention and learn these different ways to signal for help, so you can make it home alive. Knowing even just one of these signaling techniques could make all the difference.
Start a signal fire
One of the best ways to alert search and rescue teams to your location is to start a fire. But not just any fire, there’s a rule of thumb when it comes to signaling for help which follows the rule of three. Set out three fires, in either the shape of a large triangle, or spaced around 50 to 100 feet apart. During the night, you want the flames to be as high as possible so the light from your fires to be seen at a distance. I’d look for a natural rise, hilltop or other point in the landscape that gives you some elevation and build your fire there. Keep twigs and leafy branches handy for a quick burn in case you see a chopper in the distance.
In the day, your strategy shifts from creating light, to creating a large amount of smoke. The best way to do this is to get a roaring fire going, and then pile on fresh green leaves. The trapped moisture in the leaves will create thick white smoke as they burn, perfect for sending a signal that can be seen by miles. Some leaves will work better than others, but find pine or spruce to be perfect for creating clouds and clouds of fluffy white smoke.
A loud whistle
Because of the distances to cover, even shouting for help won’t do you a lot of good unless there is someone very close by. But a sound that will carry a lot further is a whistle. I’ve never quite mastered the knack of a “wolf whistle” with my fingers, so I carry a simple plastic whistle with me on a lanyard around my neck. It was just a few dollars and all I need to do is press it to my lips and blow. The sound carries much further than my yelling or shouts ever will (I know, we’ve tested it), and it’s an easy way to alert rescuers to your location once they start getting closer to where you are.
Flash a light
Another neat signaling tool is light. In the daytime you can use a mirror to reflect the suns light at whatever rescue vehicle you’re seeing in the distance. It works best on full sunny days, when the sun is brightest. Simply catch the sunshine’s reflection in the mirror, and aim it at the approaching vehicle. Pan the mirror slowly (you can check if it’s reflecting correctly by holding your hand in front of it), so it creates flashes of light to catch the attention of whoever is looking. On a sunny day, the flashes from your mirror can travel up to 10 miles.
At night, you can use a flashlight to the same effect. If you’re heading outdoors, I highly recommend carrying one with you, because you really never know what may happen. I’ve had times that I wasn’t planning to stay out overnight, but the day got away from me and I had to camp out. Having a flashlight makes it far easier, and if you ever get stuck you can flash the light in bursts of three, to signal you need help to anyone watching. Just make sure you’ve found a place to signal from that has a decent elevation, like a hilltop so your signal can be seen from the distance.
Use a satellite phone
If you’re regularly heading into an area without cell service, investing in a satellite phone may be a smart idea. I’ll agree, that it’s not the cheapest option, but it does give you the ability to simply call for help if you ever need it. I personally don’t have one of my own (they’re quite an expensive bit of gear), but I have rented them on occasion when I’ve been heading to particularly remote areas. You can find them for $20 to $30 a week, which is a cheap price to pay to give you the ability to call for help in a real emergency.
Spell it out
Finally, this last signal is perfect for an air rescue attempt. All you need to do is find a clearing or a clear patch of ground that can be easily seen from overhead. Then, using whatever materials you can fine, spell out the letters S.O.S. I’ve seen this done with clothing and even trail marking tape, the goal is to create the biggest contrasting colors. On a beach, charred driftwood or dark rocks will stand out from the white sand, while you may want to find lighter colors to stand out from the darker greens of a forest floor. White branches, or even ash from a fire can create the contrast you need for a reliable signal.
Signaling for help in the wild isn’t the most difficult thing, but it does require you to think ahead. You’ll need to ensure you’ve got the right gear before heading off for a hike or a camping trip, bringing a firestarter, a whistle, a mirror or even a satellite phone. So if you do get into trouble, you’ve got options. And that’s what survival is all about.