Answers to the emergency signals quiz

Check your answers to the “All the Right Signals” quiz, which tests knowledge of emergency signals, first appearing in the November-December 2013 issue of Scouting magazine.

You can also take the interactive quiz

Below, find answers to the quiz along with explanations provided by the quiz’s author, Cliff Jacobson.

1. Your canoe capsized in a remote area and left you stranded. What’s the best way to let a passing airplane know that you need help?

A. Build a huge, smoky bonfire.
B. Build three huge smoky bonfires set in a triangle configuration, about 100 feet apart.
C. Build three huge smoky bonfires in a straight line, about 100 feet apart.
D. Build a smoky bonfire and lay out brightly colored clothes on the ground. Weight the clothes with rocks so they won’t blow away.

Both B and C are both internationally recognized distress signals. Count correct if you get either one right.

2. A Scout is injured on a hiking trip. You have a VHF aircraft radio, and there’s a plane within talking range (less than 15 miles). You don’t know the frequency of the pilot’s radio, but you do know the emergency frequency, which is:

A. 100 MHz
B. 121.5 MHz
C. Channel 12
D. Channel 16

B is the emergency frequency.

3. You’re canoeing a small, noisy rapid. Seventy-five yards ahead, you see a downed tree (strainer) that blocks the river. You must signal the canoes behind you to STOP so they can avoid this dangerous obstacle. The best signal to use is:

A. Give three loud blasts on a whistle.
B. Wait a few seconds and do this again.
C. Stow your paddle and wave your arms frantically! Whistle and point the blade of your paddle straight up.
D. Hold your paddle horizontally over your head and pump it up and down.

D is the universal signal for STOP. Every paddler should know it. Hand signals are better on a river because a whistle may not be heard above the noise of the rapid.

4. Your friend is seriously injured while hiking in the desert. There’s no wood to build a fire, but there are colored rocks with which you can construct a ground-to-air signal. Which one(s) is/are the most appropriate?

A. X
B. V
C. N
D. Y

A or B are correct, but A signals that emergency assistance is required. V signals that assistance is required. Symbols should be at least 6 yards long by 1 yard wide.

5. Your crew has a medical emergency while canoeing the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Which signal device might best attract attention and bring down a float plane?

A. Marine orange smoke signal
B. Heliograph mirror
C. Orange tarp

Orange smoke is visible for miles. If a forest service fire plane (float plane) or fire tower doesn’t see it, one of the many canoeing rangers on the water will. Mirrors and colored tarps have value only if there already is an airplane in view.

6. You’re camping on snow. Which of these would be most likely to draw the attention of a passing airplane on a bright, sunny day?

A. The beam from an ultra-bright, weapons-grade flashlight
B. A strobe light (a smartphone set on “strobe”)
C. International HELP signal (or the word “HELP”) drawn in the snow with a sea dye marker
D. A marine orange smoke
E. A red flare

C and D would work best. A red flare (E) would be more visible on an overcast day. Correct if you checked C, D or both.

7. There’s an emergency, but the battery in your cell phone is too low to make a call. What can you do?

A. Turn off the phone; wait 10 seconds, then re-start it. This will boost battery power.
B. Send a text message; texting uses less power.
C. Dial SOS on the phone keypad. The SOS will go directly to Search and Rescue. And if you have a smartphone, its GPS function will pinpoint your location.
D. Dial 000*. It uses a satellite boost to connect to a 911 operator.

B is the correct answer — texting uses less power.

8. Your troop is backpacking in Smoky Mountains National Park. Which of the following devices would be most useful in an emergency?

A. Heliograph mirror
B. CB radio
C. White flare
D. Red flare
E. Marine orange smoke

E is the correct answer. Flares (C or D) are more useful on water than on land. They are hard to see on a sunny day, and they may cause a forest fire if they land in dry brush.

9. What should you do if you’re canoeing a river and the canoe ahead signals A or C (shown below)?


A. STOP immediately
B. Go to the left
C. Go to the right
D. Go in the direction of the pointing paddle

D is correct. These are universal river signals. Every paddler should know them.

10. What should you do if the lead canoe points his paddle straight up (signal B, shown above).

A. Continue with caution
B. Go to the left
C. Go to right
D. Go ahead, stay in the center of the flow

D is correct.

11. You have an emergency while kayaking where commercial vessels are common. Fortunately, you have a CB radio and can call for help. Which of these is the emergency CB channel:

A. 3
B. 9
C. 12
D. 16

B is correct.

12. Your troop will hike the Kekakabic Trail (in Minnesota) in September. Your tents blend with the forest, so you decide to buy a brightly colored tarp that is more visible to air traffic. What color tarp would be best?

A. Orange
B. Red
C. Yellow
D. 4-color: red, yellow, orange and blue

D is correct — a tarp made of bright, geometrical patterns are uncommon in nature. A pilot is more likely to see a four-color tarp — and to recognize it as a camp — than one of a single color. Orange is next best.

13. There’s an emergency and you’re trying to get the attention of an airplane that is almost overhead. Your orienteering compass has a mirror but there’s no sighting hole. How can you best (quickly!) sight the airplane?

A. Make an upright V with an outstretched arm. Adjust the mirror so sunlight flashes between your fingers. Slowly move the flash to the target.
B. Pick an imaginary point on the top center of the mirror and place this point on the airplane.
C. Make a V on top of the mirror with your fingers. Place the airplane in the V and you’ll flash the pilot’s eye.
D. Aim the mirror toward the plane and rotate it back and forth. One of the flashes will catch the pilot’s eye.

The method described in A is most reliable, though it still requires practice.

14. Your troop is participating in an orienteering meet in the hills of Scotland. In the distance you hear six long whistle blasts, followed by a long silence. This is repeated about every minute. This is:

A. The international distress signal — a lost Scout is signaling for help
B. The signal that a new orienteering meet is about to begin
C. Just some Scout blowing a whistle
D. The signal that the orienteering meet is now finished

A is correct. The universal distress signal in the UK and European Alps is six long whistle blasts followed by a one-minute silence. The rescue reply is three short blasts. In North America, three whistle blasts or light flashes means “help.” Either signal will draw help.

15. The international rescue color is:

A. Red
B. Yellow
C. Orange
D. Silver

Orange, C, is the correct answer.

16. This device tracks your position and allows you to send three pre-written messages to your contacts via text/and or email. An emergency button alerts a search-and-rescue operation.

A. PLB (personal locator beacon)
B. SPOT, a Satellite GPS messenger
C. Dual Frequency Emergency Locator Beacon
D. ELD (Emergency Locator Device)

B is the correct answer.

17. When paired with a smartphone, this device allows you to send and receive 160-character text messages from anyplace in the world. It can also send pre-loaded text messages and SOS alerts and track your position.

B. DeLorme inReach
C. ELDT (Emergency Locator Device Texting)
D. PLBT (Personal Locator Beacon Texting)

B is the correct answer.

18. To call a U.S. number on a satellite phone:

A. Dial the area code and then the number
B. Dial 001 followed by the area code and number
C. Dial 011 followed by the area code and number
D. Dial 1 followed by the area code then the number

B is the correct answer.

19. To call a foreign country on a satellite phone:

A. Dial 00, country code, area code and then phone number
B. Dial 00-8816, country code, area code and then phone number
C. Dial 011, country code, area code and then phone number
D. Dial 0 (operator). When you hear the ping, dial country code, area code, phone number.

C is the correct answer.

20. Every boater should carry a signal whistle and keep it handy. Where should you keep the whistle?

A. Attached to the zipper pull on your PFD
B. On a lanyard in a trouser pocket
C. On a cord around your neck
D. Secured to a pocket or knife-patch on your PFD

D is the correct answer. It’s best to attach your whistle below the zipper pull so that if you capsize you won’t swallow it when your PFD rides up in the water. It’s happened! Never wear anything on a cord around your neck while boating (C). A pocket lanyard could stream out in a capsize and catch on something.



  1. Don’t like the wording of #8. b is correct”er”, in that you can communicate information which you cannot do with any other. However, it has obvious technical limits. Please reword #8 to achieve the response for which you are looking, e.g., ….Which device is more likely to attract potential rescueers in an emergency? You see, if the troop was just lost (possiblity in this case), the following radio communication could not be done with a, c, d, or e., “Hi, the is Scoutmaster John and we are lost. Our maps, gps, and compass were lost when a backpack fell over a cliff into a river. Please drop 2 gps units, 2 maps with our location marked, a compass, and some water purification tabs, and save the gas; we will walk out. Everyone is in fine shape and we have plenty of food. Again, we are just lost.”

    Also, on #7, try using *#4720#, then 911, 211, *55, or text. This may work on some phones, like Nokia. *55 will call the HP in MO, e.g. One should know the best ways to communicate before leaving, part of planning.

    These are just a couple of suggestions I have. There are other questions that have other better answers, but because of wording, there is ambiguity. For example, #6c is wrong. SOS is THE INTERNATIONAL signal for help. HELP is english. Also, SOS uses less ink than HELP. This can be critical in areas of snowmelt. In an emergency, I conserve EVERYTHING!
    Thanks for letting me share my opinion.

    • I agree; B is a better answer for No. 8 — especially since there’s a well-travelled highway right through the middle of that National Park.

      • Thank you for your comment. Frankly, when I designed the quiz, I wasn’t thinking about a “specific place”. The idea was to suggest what generally are the most useful signal devices for trips in remote places. But I’ll stand by my vote for “orange smoke”. In every case where it has been used, it has brought help pronto. Certainly CB radios have advantages, but only if someone happens to be in range and tuned in when you’re broadcasting. Orange smoke is a highly visible signal–one that if observed, indicates that you need help!

      • I’d sure be interested to know who gets to carry the CB in their backpack, and better yet, what you’re going to plug it into!

  2. The survival senarios and answer possibilities are most interesting. As an Eagle Scout and now 68 year old, life-long lover of the outdoors and adventure, I am still drawn to challenging situations and how to survive and help others.

    Thank you for your own experience,creativity, and expertise!

  3. Question 5 is worded much more specifically here than in the magazine version. Here It assumes you are canoeing in Boundary Waters. In the magazine it does not specify where.

    Question 1 answers that the best possible options involve building fires. If one were canoeing on the Colorado River they would likely not build fires, as wood is not in ample supply in most places there. These are 2 examples of the picture painted by the question only applying to a limited sample of possible scenarios, and therefore the answers only making a limited amount of sense.

    Instead everyone reading these questions and answers should consider them in the context of the emergencies SHE/HE might face, and not take as absolute the answers given here as either RIGHT or WRONG. Or that the possible answers shown here are the best or even the only possible solutions. Emergencies require that one evaluate the conditions at hand and respond according to the best information and resources available.

  4. Depending on where you are in the country, a hand held CB radio has some merit. If longer range communications were desired a hand held Amateur 2 meter radio can go farther at reach a repeater that has extended range from the repeater site. Some sites have the Long Tone Zero or LiTZ function. for distress situations. Phone patches, 911 access. I’ Provide a Link: Ham Radio & the Backcountry Wilderness Protocol

    The orange smoke flares I would also carry. Lastly a light weight solar panel could recharge a hand held radio ham or CB or Cell Phone. The radios are small and light weight if you don’t like the PV panel carry an extra battery pack. Getting a ham license is not hard. The radio merit badge is a primer. Also google the ARRL, American Radio Relay League

    Be Prepared

  5. A comment on solar panels: I carry a high end solar panel on my arctic canoe trips. Still, it takes several hours to charge the battery on my satellite phone. The problem with solar panels is that you need sun for them to work–and often you don’t have it. Indeed, on some trips I’ve gone for more than a week with clouds and rain. You need a BIG powerful panel to charge electronics quickly. A tiny “cheapie” will work only if you have bright sun and lots of time. I also carry a telephone sized CB radio and a VHF aircraft radio. The VHF is far more useful than the CB because there’s hardly a day when an airplane isn’t sighted. You’ll get about 1.5 minutes of talk time with the typical passing jet, maybe 5 minutes with a small prop plane. Figure a 10 mile visual range with the VHF and CB. Remember, these radios are line-of-sight. Neither type will work well in the mountains. Again, the value of orange smoke.

  6. #5: “Which signal device might best attract attention and bring down a float plane?” The framed question implies that a plane is “there”, however, even your answers indicate that a mirror is the BEST answer IF a Plane is visible…but the answer is considered wrong.

    • Yes, but orange smoke is still far more likely to be seen, because a signal mirror flash will only work if the pilot is looking in your general direction, whereas smoke forms a much larger, unmistakable signal.

      • …oh. The author already answered your question, although it appears he didn’t use the ‘reply’ button.

  7. Sorry, I must disagree. A mirror is far less effective than orange smoke. If you’ve ever used a heliograph you know how hard it is to “flash the pilot’s eye.” I did it once, was just lucky. A teenage girl in a passing party had appendicitis. The pilot saw our signal and saved the girl. This was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of MN. The story is in my book, WILDERNESS CANOEING & CAMPING, BEYOND THE BASICS. Any airplane must be in visual range for an effective contact, either by smoke, VHF radio or mirror. The conditions (sun) must be just right to use a mirror. Even then it’s not easy. We have used orange smoke several times to signal on our northern Canadian canoe trips. In every case it was seen by the pilot whereas 6 bright red canoes turned belly-up + brightly colored tents were invisible. If I could carry just two signal devices on a remote trip it would be orange smoke and a satellite phone, or smoke + a VHF hand-held aircraft radio. With these, you can call a passing plane then shoot off the smoke to show your location.

    • I re-read the question and I see now that the answer may be confusing. If an airplane is not in view but you can hear the engine, orange smoke may bring him down. If the plane is in view and there’s fog or cloud cover, orange smoke is the way to go. If there’s bright sun shining, I’d go with the smoke first then try a mirror. Better yet, carry both and try them simultaneously. In the event of a prop plane and a land-based rescue situation, smoke again is the probable winner because it precisely identifies your location. A mirror will keep you in the ball-park but not pinpoint you precisely–hopefully, the pilot will immediately hit the “mark waypoint” button on his GPS as soon as he sees your mirror. Simply put, smoke is a more visible and reliable option than a mirror in most situations. I apologize for any confusion here.

  8. Another comment about the CB in the Smoky Mountain National Park… it, like most of the National Parks, is huge. Even if you planned your trek to be close to the highway or the other signs of civilization, if you get lost you may bee well out of range. Between the range and the clouds that frequently cover the mountains, I’d send my scouters out with orange smoke.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  9. Here in Colorado, wind is a huge factor. Smoke dissipates quickly in wind, so wait until a plane is in sight if it is windy. A signal mirror is essential.

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