Rescue Signals

Getting lost is easy to do. So easy in fact anyone can do it. What is difficult is getting found again, in particular when you are lost in the woods or on the water. There are several simple and common signals that along with some survival basics will alert rescuers to your location and get you home in one piece.

rescue signals

Know how to signal for help whenever you are lost outdoors

All rescue signals need to have one thing in common; they must be effective at attracting attention to yourself and your location. Every situation is different so it is important to think about what you would do to attract attention in a variety of conditions.

If you are lost in the woods, try to seek shelter near a large meadow or clearing where a helicopter or search plane can easily see you. Locating someone who is lost under heavy tree cover is one of the hardest situations to find someone.

If you are lost on the water and can make it to shore or an island, try to seek shelter along a tree line near the water’s edge, just in-land enough to be away from the rising tides yet close enough to a clear beach area where search planes and boats can see you.

Signaling Equipment

There are several important items to carry with you to help get rescuer’s attention. One is a foil emergency blanket. The blanket is large, shiny, and waterproof which reflects body heat to keep you warm but also is bright enough to be seen from a distance away. Light will reflect off it and catch the eye of rescuers who may be out looking for you.



Another vital item to carry on you is an unbreakable survival signal mirror. This credit card sized mirror is available at most outdoor and department stores and is very useful for reflecting the sun back up at search helicopters or boats. It will also catch the attention of someone who is searching from the ground. Bright reflections are very unusual in the woods and will attract rescuer’s attention from a great distance away. The signal mirror is also useful for checking yourself out in the woods, apart from letting you always look your best, the mirror will allow you to see your face and verify if there are any injuries on it. If you do not have a signal mirror, a compact disc or DVD from your vehicle will also work to reflect light and hopefully catch someone’s eye.

learn rescue signals

Keep a whistle on you in the woods. Attract attention by blowing the SOS code of …—…

An internationally recognized emergency signal is a whistle. Most outdoor stores sell a very loud referee style whistle that can be heard from a great distance away. The international distress call of SOS is blown on the whistle to attract the attention of rescuers or at least let others in the area know someone is in need of assistance. The SOS signal (…—…) can be used with either sound or light to attract attention.

With a whistle or horn blow three short blasts indicated in writing with the Morse code as …, followed by three long blasts —, followed again by three short blasts…,. When using a light the blasts are substituted with three short flashes…, three long flashes—, and followed again by three short flashes…,. The SOS signal is recognized internationally by mariners and pilots and is a very important technique to let other people know you require assistance.

Signaling Techniques

If you are lost deep in the woods and feel that it will be a long time before you are rescued or that you are too far away for rescuers to hear your whistle or see mirror flashes then try to build three signal fires. The fires must be built in a triangle layout and be approximately 30 to 50 yards apart from each other. Smoke from the fires will rise and attract attention of rescuers and residents from a long distance away. Ensure to build the fires next to and downwind of your campsite so as not to surround yourself with smoke or the risk of a forest fire. If conditions are very dry, sparks from your signal fires could start a forest or grass fire and envelope you and your shelter making rescue difficult.

signal fires when lost

A good fire with smoke can signal your location for miles

Green evergreen branches burn quickly and will release a lot of smoke. Encircle all fires with rocks to prevent sparks from jumping out of the fire. Each signal fire should be about 6’ in diameter, but not so big that they fill your fire pit or cannot be kept under control.

If you are on a sandy beach or in an open area with snow cover, scratch the words “HELP”, your name, or an arrow pointing to your location large enough that it can be seen from a helicopter or other search vessel. If you have enough space, try writing your name, vehicle’s license plate number, boat’s name, or your airplane’s call sign in the sand or snow. Anything you can do to attract attention to yourself without putting you in more danger will aid rescuers.

Electronic Equipment

There are many new GPS devices that can signal your location if you get lost while at sea or from an avalanche while skiing on a mountain trail. These devices are effective but do cost a fair bit of money. If you spend a great deal of time at sea or on the slopes, they are a good investment but for the average traveler may prove to be a bit expensive. Coast guard and police monitor all emergency channels so carrying a marine radio or walkie talkie is a good idea too. In particular if you are in a region without cell phone service. Satellite phones work anywhere on Earth but do have significant airtime fees.

The Itinerary

Most importantly, ensure someone you trust has a copy of your itinerary and contact information. Let your trusted friend know when you are leaving, when you expect to arrive at each destination and when you will return. If nobody knows you are missing then nobody will know to look for you. Whenever possible travel with a buddy when hiking, camping or going out on the water.

When you are travelling, carry a charged cell phone on you so you can call for help. Make sure to program any important phone numbers such as your hotel, doctor, tow-truck company or motor league, coast guard and marine service centers into the phone for easy access. Don’t forget to bring along the phone number or email address of the person you left a copy of your itinerary with so you can establish communication or simply ask them to give you directions.

By thinking ahead, and learning rescue signals, along with some first aid, anyone can be rescued and come home in one piece.


Copyright 2016 Mike Wilson

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