Signaling for Help
If you are the adventurous kind, like me, eventually you may find yourself in a survival situation, for a variety of reasons. Even if you are not the adventurous type, you could be in a plane crash, on a boat that breaks down, or stranded in your car in a remote area. While cell phones, personal beacons, and GPSs are all great, they break, run out of batteries, or there may be no cellular coverage. For these reasons, it is very important to learn some basic signaling techniques so that you are not left stranded in a deserted area watching a search plane fly right past your location without giving a tip of its wing to acknowledge your presence.
I will get into the more wilderness-related signaling in a minute, but I want to point out a distress signal that many people are not aware of, and that is hanging the United States flag upside down. This can be useful if you are ever being held hostage or are in some kind of siege. If you take a US flag into the wilderness with you, as some people do, the flag displayed upside down has the same meaning.
The most common method of signaling for help is by fire, but not just a camp fire. As will apply in other methods, in distress signaling there is a rule of three. In the case of a fire, you should have three large fires in the shape of a triangle, about 100 feet apart from each other. If you are in an area where there is plenty of fuel, keep one of the fires going at all times, with the other two ready to be lit in an instant. If three fires is not an option, build your signal fire at a high point on the ground in a clearing. If this is not where your shelter is, always be ready to get to that fire and light it quickly.
With any fire as a distress signal, putting something on the fire to cause heavy smoke is important in the daylight hours. Green vegetation placed on a roaring fire will generate heavy, white smoke. If you are near a stranded vehicle, oil from the engine or rubber from a variety of sources on your car will cause thick, black smoke. On overcast days, black smoke is better than light smoke, so be resourceful with the materials you have on hand.
A signal mirror is an essential piece of survival gear to have with you. There are many types that are not made of glass so they won’t break, they are small and light weight, so you should always have one. If you are near a stranded vehicle, tear a mirror off of the interior or exterior before you need it. To signal with a mirror, try to redirect the sun’s rays towards the object you are trying to signal. While this may seem obvious, sometimes people lose their logical thinking in moments of duress. It’s also a good idea to leave the mirror laying face up in your camp or a nearby clearing just in case you can’t get to it in time if a plane flies by.
The universal code for help is SOS, for Save Our Souls. This can be spelled into the ground in a clearing in many ways; with rocks, tree branches, clothing, life preservers, or any material that will create a contrast with the ground. In snow, you can stomp out the letters with your feet, and better still if you can fill them in with pine boughs.
SOS is also easily communicated by Morse code, which is the oldest method of electronic communication. Morse code communicates letters by a series of dots and dashes, and SOS is represented by three dots, three dashes, then three dots, or . . . – – – . . . You can signal this in many ways; obviously if you have some sort of electrical communication device, it is pretty easy – a dot is a short signal, and a dash is a longer single. You can also do this with a flash light by signaling three quick flashes, three longer flashes, then three quick flashes. If you have neither of these, you can visibly signal this with a flag (which can be made from a bright piece of clothing on a ten foot tree branch). When using a flag start by holding the flag straight up perpendicular to the ground. Dropping the flag 90 degrees to your left indicates a dot, and 90 degrees to the right indicates a dash. When signaling in this manner, always pause briefly at the starting position between signals.
Another item you should always have in your survival gear is a whistle. To signal for help with a whistle, remember the rule of threes. You want to blow three blasts with the whistle, about five seconds apart, then pause for about thirty seconds and signal again. If you have a gun and plenty of ammunition, the same technique can be applied. However, this does not work with a bow and arrows.
For static signals you can build on the ground, the rule of threes applies here as well. You can make three large piles of rocks in a triangle, the higher you can pile them the larger shadows they will make, and the more they will stand out. You can make a pattern with trees or branches in the shape of a triangle, or two long straight lines. Pretty much anything you can create that looks unnatural and is big enough to be seen from a search plane or helicopter by the trained rescuers will help you.
If you choose to leave the location where you became stranded, make a large arrow pointing in the direction of your travel. If you do this, it is important that you stay on that same course of direction; otherwise you may send your rescuers off in the wrong direction, which could be a fatal mistake. With any signals you build on the ground, whether it is letters or arrows, make them at least ten feet long, and make sure they contrast as much as possible to the ground. Keep in mind that the taller your signals are, the better chance they will have of being seen.
There are some pretty intricate methods of signaling, but these basics should work for you if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to signal search and rescue personnel. Pilots and ship captains are trained to recognize these things as well, so after you have shelter, water, and fire, get to work on your signaling.