Signaling for Survival

The four pillars of survival are food, water, shelter, and fire. However, you can easily add a fifth. Signaling for rescue in a survival situation is your fastest way to safety. It may come today or it may come a month from now, but in most cases you will have an opportunity to be rescued. There is normally somebody looking for you. You have to be ready to seize that opportunity. Think about the ways people might look for you. Are they going to be on foot? Are they going to be in a helicopter? What about a boat? Will they be close enough to hear you or do you need to rely on something visual? Do not ever think that just yelling for help will do the job. You may be in a valley where your voice will not carry over the ridge. The wind might be blowing so hard that it carries your voice away. In most cases you want several means of signaling for help, so be ready to start setting up a system. It may save your life.

Signaling with sound is often a very effective way to get the attention of rescue personnel. I always keep a survival whistle on me for that purpose. It is super loud and does not sound like anything found in nature. You can also build a sound based signal device if you do not have a whistle. If you have anything metal you can beat on, that normally is loud enough to be heard from miles away. Gun shots can work in some cases. As long as it is not deer season, most rescue workers know to head towards gun shots. If you are with a vehicle, honking the horn is very effective. You can also set off the alarm for ongoing noise. Anything you can do to make a loud, non-natural noise is helpful.

Smoke signals are another good option. If you are able to build a fire, signaling with the smoke is a technique that has been used for thousands of years. If on high ground, the fire itself can be a signal. People can see those flames from a long distance if it is big enough, so that can help. The smoke can be seen from much longer distances, and you do not have to be on high ground. You need to select a smoke color that will contrast your surroundings. If skies are dark, you will want white smoke. If they are bright, you want black smoke. Either way, you want to have fuel close by to throw on the fire at a moment’s notice. In this case, you want to wait until you see or hear rescuers before using your signal. Green wood is best for white smoke. Live evergreen fronds or green branches will produce steam from the moisture and give you a bright white plume of smoke. For black smoke you need man made materials. Plastic and rubber are both full of toxins that create a jet black column of smoke. Get creative and see what kind of garbage you can come up with in your area. If you want to get a little more technical, you can use basic Morse Code to signal. ‘SOS’ is the international distress signal, and there are no other nine digit signals in Morse code. It is easy for rescuers to identify. You are going for a “… — …” pattern, so three small puffs, three long puffs, and three short puffs. You can do this with a blanket, tarp, palm frond, or evergreen bough. You just have to block the ascension of the smoke long enough to form the plumes you want. This will take some practice, so ideally you want to try it out before you actually see that help is near. With or without the code, smoke is a good way to make it home.


If you are near an open area, creating a large marker on the ground is good for helicopters to spot. Contrast is the most important aspect of this signal. If there is snow on the ground, you need materials that are dark in color. If the ground is dark, you need light materials. You also need the signal to be a pattern not found in nature. You can write out the word ‘help’ or ‘SOS’, or just creating three parallel lines is effective as well. Your signal needs to be large. Twenty to thirty feet across is ideal. The beauty of this signal is that you get to set it up and forget it. You can build this signal on day one and it will be effective for weeks. With any luck, somebody will spot it and help will be on the way.

Active visual signals can work well if you know how to use them. One of the most common is a signal mirror. This is performed when you reflect the sun off of a small mirror and bounce it at a helicopter or other vehicle. The movement of the mirror back and forth creates a glimmer that you do not normally see in nature. It is something rescue workers are trained to look for. Many signal mirror have a small hole in the center. This allows you to look through at your target and aim the light directly at them. Another active visual signal is a laser pointer. Laser lights travel for miles and miles in a straight line. Because of that, you can accurately point them at targets that are very far away. Some of the newer LED flashlights are very powerful and can be used as a signal device. Some even have a signal setting that makes it strobe. If you can get on high ground, people can see that light for miles. These signals allow you to take control and facilitate your own rescue when help is near.

These days there are several communication devices that can help get you out of a jam. Of course when SHTF, it is likely at least some of these devices will no longer be effective. Still, they are worth considering. In many cases your personal cell phone is fine for reaching help. These days 99% of the US has cell coverage and 75% of the world has coverage. Those are pretty good odds. However, if you are like me you will end up in areas with no service. I love getting off the grid and heading into uncharted territory. My cell is no better than a paperweight in those areas. There are handheld GPS devices that are fed info by satellite. These will let you program coordinates to travel towards and let you track your path, but they do not allow communication to the outside world. Personal locator beacons (PBLs) are the most reliable option in my opinion. There are still not 100%, but pretty close to it. These devices use a satellite signal and can pinpoint your location to within 10 yards. The inexpensive ones will send your location to local rescue teams, but there is no two way communication. The expensive ones allow texting back and forth in addition to emergency notification. Satellite phones are also available, but can be pricey. In wilderness areas, you can sometimes find a retailer that will rent one to you. If these devices can receive a signal, they are the most direct and effective way to signal for help. I keep my PLB with me any time I think I might lose cell service.

Finally, your location is actually one of the most important aspects of signaling for rescue. You can’t just sit down where you are and hope somebody finds you. You must put yourself in a position to be found. If you are with a vehicle, you want to try to stay with the vehicle. It is a large bright metallic object and easy to spot from a distance. If you decide to leave your current location, find some way to mark the direction you travel. You can blaze your trail by cutting through the bark of trees and leaving a bright chop mark. You can also create an arrow on the ground showing where you are headed. Remember that rescuers are most likely to look for you in the last area in which you were seen or were supposed to be. Try to stay on high ground as much as possible. It is easier for you to see rescue workers and easier for them to see you. Sound carries better as well. Try to stay in open areas if it is an option. Often times, helicopters cannot see survivors because the trees are too thick. If you are on the move, try to head towards large bodies of water. This is where you are more likely to find people. Roads, rivers, and game trails are paths that you should try to follow if you run across one. Before you can be rescued, you have to put yourself in an area where that is likely to happen.

Should I stay or should I go? That is the question you have to ask yourself. Only you can answer that. There are situations where it is best to hunker down and wait for rescue. There are also times that doing so will kill you. It all comes down to the odds. You have to ask yourself, what are the odds that somebody will find me if I stay here? Is anybody looking for me? How far is civilization? Do I have the resources needed to survive in this location? How long can I last? Am I physically able to travel whatever distance is needed? What does the weather look like? Do I have anybody else with me? These are all things to consider before making your decision. Hopefully, when you hear that helicopter or come over a rise and see that truck you will be ready to signal and head home.

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