Reload Image

Reload Image

Mobile phones have made it so easy to call for help in an emergency that many outdoorspeople forget how lost they can be without one. These days, it’s a quick dial of the phone to 911 or a text message to a friend and you’re in touch with rescue.

But if the phone is damaged, dead, left behind or just unexpectedly out of range, the situation is quite different, and you’re back to signaling for help the way you would 50 years ago. Granted, you could carry a satellite phone or an EPIRB, but that’s still of no use if you get separated from your gear.

It pays to review the basics of low-tech signaling so you’re prepared for a situation like this. Read on to learn about established international conventions and techniques for signaling that could get you out of a nasty jam.


Whatever method you choose to signal for help, you need to make sure it stands out from the background noise. The international convention, based on the Morse code signal, is a group of any three signals—visual or audible. It’s based on the original SOS code of three dots/three dashes/three dots.

You must deliver any signal intended for search and rescue in a clear group of three evenly spaced sounds or three clearly defined visuals arranged in a triangle. One gun blast might be a hunter, but three evenly spaced blasts repeated at intervals is a clear signal to rescuers.


If you are mobile, you want to get to the highest area and one with the largest clear and open space you can find. If you’ve got a 10-mile horizon, rescuers can potentially see your signal from that far away. In most cases,
backcountry searches will include an air search, so being in the open is key to being seen by an aircraft.


The simplest and most effective method to signal for help is to build three signal fires in the shape of a triangle. Fire is great because you get long-range visibility from the columns of smoke during the day. Fire is also ideal at night when the bright flame is visible for miles. Use common sense when you build a fire so you don’t inadvertently start a wildfire. Fires don’t have to be large as much as they have to be smoky, so build yours with hardwood and pile on green leaves and branches, grass and wet leaves; or, you can even douse parts of the fire with water to create as much smoke as possible.

If you can’t tend to three fires due to injury or other reasons like limited resources, build a single fire, but try to use the native smoke signal technique. Briefly cover a very smoky fire with a tarp, coat or a mat of green branches. Then periodically remove the cover to let out a large cloud of smoke. Do this three times to send up a signal of three puffs of smoke.


You can make a highly effective visual signal to aircraft or distant rescuers with a mirror or other reflector on a sunny day. This is such a simple tool that you should always carry an emergency mirror with you (some are the size of a credit card and can fit in your wallet or pocket).

Even without a signal mirror you can improvise with other reflective objects: mirrored sunglasses, shiny metal cookware or glass, etc. It isn’t simple to effectively aim a signal mirror so it’s a good thing to practice at home before you need to do it. Pre-made rescue mirrors usually include printed instructions and some kind of aiming tool, like a small hole in the mirror.

To signal with a mirror, face the sun and hold the mirror to your eye so the sun is reflected away from you. Raise the back of your hand a full arm’s length and focus the reflection from the mirror onto the back of your hand.

Next, pick an object some distance away—for target practice, try to get something reflective, like a stop sign, so you’ll know you’re hitting it. Hold the mirror close to your eye (or over your eye if you are using a rescue mirror with an aiming hole) then track your extended hand so it covers your line of sight on the distant target while you keep the reflected light aimed on your hand. When aimed properly, your hand blocks the light from the mirror to the target. Drop your hand to send the signal flash to the target, then raise it again to end the signal.

Repeat this three times to send a recognizable distress signal.  When it comes to aircraft signaling, use the same method and track your hand along with the movement of the aircraft.

At night, you can make an effective visual signal by swinging a light rapidly in a circle overhead. A chemical light stick is the best choice for this. Buy the high-luminosity type made for signaling rather than the ones you get at the party store for your kids on Halloween. You can also do this with a flashlight. Tie a rope or string onto the light source and swing it rapidly overhead in a circle, creating a much larger area of light. Pause three times to make three distinct signals.


Sound signals like whistles, gun blasts, or even shouting are effective, especially in close proximity or when your location is concealed. Keep in mind that in mountainous terrain—and especially in canyon lands—echoes will make it much harder to determine the direction of your signal so try not to rely on sound alone.

A signal whistle should be part of your outdoor gear and you can find them handily built into a backpack buckle or incorporated into a flashlight handle. It’s a simple and inexpensive item to add to the zipper pull of a coat or a key ring, so go ahead and grab one for a few dollars on your next trip to an outdoor gear store.


Once you are noticed by a potential rescuer, particularly in an aircraft, raise both arms overhead in a Y shape to indicate that “YES,” you need help. You can even do this laying on the ground if you are immobilized. Be aware that in rescue parlance, one hand up and one down like an N shape indicates that “NO,” rescue is not needed. Make sure you don’t look casual at the last minute and inadvertently wave off help.

An aircraft will dip its wings repeatedly on a low pass to confirm that you have been spotted. A helicopter will usually be able to give you a visual signal from the crew on a low hover. Depending on the circumstances, the helicopter crew may commence rescue immediately or make the decision to send in a ground team. In any event, it’s important that you maintain your signaling to guide the rescuers to your location.


All the above signaling strategies assume someone knows to look for you. If this isn’t the case, its going to take a lot more luck to catch the attention of a potential rescuer and make clear that your signal is in fact, a request for help.

Make sure you follow sensible practices and advise others of your plan and expected return date. This doesn’t mean sacrificing your secret fishing or hiking spot; just leave a note in your vehicle about your route of travel or destination and tell someone you trust when you are departing and returning. That way, if you are overdue, searchers can determine your likely location and, with your good signaling skills, find you easily.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.