No Signal? You’d Better Learn How to Signal!

Lost hikers and stranded drivers have something in common. If their cellphones are dead or they can’t get a signal, getting rescued becomes a huge challenge.

And if they find themselves a considerable distance from civilization, that challenge could become life threatening.

At this point, there may be only one way to attract a potential rescuer’s attention. And that’s by signaling. Outdoor Life calls signaling “one of the most under-practiced and underemphasized skill sets in our survival arsenal.”

Today I’m going to give you 13 ways to signal for help in an emergency. No matter which method you use, remember that the international code for SOS is three short, three long and three short signals, followed by a pause and then repeated.

13 signaling strategies

Bright clothing. Spread bright-colored clothing that contrasts with your natural surroundings on the ground in a geometric pattern. Or hang it in trees to attract attention.

Fire. If you keep it small and contained, a fire could be effective in signaling for help. Aim for an elevated area. But don’t start a fire in dried grasslands. If you have room and it’s safe, build three fires in a triangle or straight line, about 30 yards apart. This is an internationally recognized distress signal. If you have motor oil, brake fluid, tire rubber or plastic, burn it to produce black smoke. This is especially important if the ground is snow covered.

Flag. Always carry a colorful signal flag in your bug-out bag. They take up very little room. If you don’t have a signal flag, you can construct one out of colorful clothing attached to a stick. For a larger flag, tie a brightly colored poncho to a tent pole.

Flare gun. Great for attracting attention, they should only be used in wetlands or over open water. They’re still burning when they fall, so they can be a serious fire hazard. You also need to be aware of wind speed and direction when assessing the landscape around you.

Flashlight. You can use this item to flash an SOS whenever you hear an aircraft. This will be even more effective if your flashlight has a strobe option, which most tactical flashlights do. Some strobe lights have infrared covers and lenses. Your flashlight should produce a powerful, high-lumen beam.

Handheld flare. Especially effective at night, a flare will be even more visible if attached to a pole or branch with duct tape. They provide several minutes of bright signal light. This is also a great fire starter if you need it.

Mirror. On a sunny day, this item can reflect sunlight as far as 10 miles away. It can be used to attract the attention of aircraft, watercraft or searchers on foot. Purchase a mirror with a sighting lens. If you don’t have a mirror, the next-best options are a polished canteen, glasses or a belt buckle.

Pen flare. Aviators carry this item in their vests. It’s a pen-shaped device with a flare attached by a nylon cord. It sounds like a pistol being shot and it launches a flare about 160 yards high. Be ready to fire it in front of an aircraft and be prepared with a secondary signal.

Personal locator beam. This device is expensive, but it will send a distress signal to a wide network of satellites monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The signals can then be forwarded to a search and rescue team near your location.

Sea dye markers. Often seen in military water survival kits, the dye in these markers can stay visible for about three hours in low-turbulence water. You can also use them to write “H-E-L-P” on snowy ground.

Spell H-E-L-P. This did not work for Tom Hanks in Castaway, but it has been effective for some people in real life. Use whatever you can find – such as logs, tree branches, rocks or vegetation – to spell out H-E-L-P in an open area where it can be seen from above.

Survey tape. Lightweight strips of hot pink or electric blue tape take up very little room in a bag and can be tied to trees along your path in the wild. You can even write messages on the tape with a permanent marker. This is a lightweight and compact addition to your bug-out bag. Another option is bird scare flash tape made of highly reflective material.

Whistle. The range is short for this simple device, but it is effective. Three short blasts are recommended to signal for help. Pea-less whistles with no moving parts are the best choice in cold weather. Otherwise, saliva can freeze the ball in place and temporarily silence the whistle. Attach it to a lanyard. Choose brightly colored whistles that can be found more easily when dropped.

Like many other survival techniques, signaling for help is a skill best practiced before it’s needed. Knowing multiple ways to signal in an emergency can make a world of difference when the situation and surroundings are rapidly changing.

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