Signaling for help in the wilderness

It’s easy to romanticize living as long as possible in the wilderness, using your wits to build things like an intricate three-point, slip-trigger, spring-activated pole snare trap to catch a meal.

But in a true survival situation, who cares? You’re likely scared, hungry, tired and cold. You just want out of this nightmare.

Signaling can be one of the keys to getting you home, and sooner rather than later.

Once you’ve established your safety and shelter, you should get your signals ready. And since you never really know when potential rescuers will appear, you need to Be Prepared to signal immediately and at all times.

Tech Helps

First, keep in mind that technology shines during a survival situation since it can carry your message much greater distances than anything else.
A handheld satellite messenger device or a personal locator beacon are worthwhile investments. They can send a distress message with your exact GPS location to local search-and-rescue personnel. Some also allow your friends and family to track you using Google Maps.

Rescuers might be able to track you down, thanks to your cellphone. Even if you don’t have a signal, your phone could be able to transmit information to a nearby tower, so keep it on as long as possible.

Ready to Use

Flares are a terrific way to signal someone. They work only for a very short time, so don’t use them until you’re sure they’ll be seen.

You also have to be careful when using a flashlight or laser flare since both rely on batteries. They can be useful when it’s dark, but there’s no point in dangling one in a tree all night.

If you want something that lasts longer, try a signal mirror, which can be seen as far as 50 miles away on a clear, sunny day. They also work on overcast days and with moonlight, although with less range.

True signal mirrors come with an aiming hole in the middle, but any mirror or reflective material, like tinfoil, can be easily aimed at its target. You can create your own sight by stretching out one hand and holding the mirror by your head with your other hand, reflecting light directly onto your hand. Spread your fingers to reflect the light at your target.

Also, remember that your vehicle looks conspicuous from the air. Stay with it if you suspect rescue might be on its way. Your vehicle’s lights and horn are also powerful means of attracting attention.

If you decide to move from your location, leave behind signs indicating which direction you’re heading.

Make It

If you want to be seen by passing aircraft, make a signal in a flat, wide open area on the highest possible terrain. Rescue pilots have told me that if they see anything that looks out of the ordinary on the ground, they will check it out, even if it’s not an official distress signal (such as a triangle or the letters SOS). If you have the energy to make one of these more complex signs, go ahead, but don’t overlook the value of a simple signal. A coat hanging on a tree has saved more than one life.

During the day, a fire can create smoke that can be spotted from the air; at night, the firelight is visible. Some survival guides advise that you’ll have a better chance of attracting attention if you prepare three fires and place them in the shape of a triangle, a commonly recognized distress signal. I tried this once during a winter survival course. The temperature had been hovering near minus 40 degrees, and I had been in the wilderness for seven days with little energy left.

When I heard the plane approaching, I lit some bark from my survival fire and ran to my three signal fire sites, each 40 yards from each other in the middle of a frozen lake. By the time my triangle was lit, my hands were frozen and I was exhausted from all that running. The pilot saw my signal fires and came down to rescue me.

Once we were in the air, I was shocked to see that the triangle I had created — which seemed so big and spread out on the ground — looked surprisingly small from the air. One large fire probably would have served the same purpose and saved me a lot of energy and firewood.

Other less taxing ways to stand out include wearing bright-colored clothing. Fluorescent orange works really well. You can tie clothing to trees or to your shelter. Orange plastic bags from your survival kit, aluminum foil and flagging tape also work well since they usually provide stark contrast against earth tones.

You can use natural materials like rocks, logs or brush to spell out signals on the ground. Remember that things look a lot smaller when viewed overhead. Go as big as you can.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Audio signals have little effect on aircraft, but they work well for signaling people on the ground. Even if you’re not sure someone is looking for you, it can’t hurt to make as much noise as possible. However, one method that does not work particularly well in the wilderness is your voice. You can expend a lot of energy and not be as loud or shrill as a whistle, some of which can be heard well over a mile away.

No matter what type of noise you make, use the international signal for distress. Repeat the sound three straight times, which indicates you need help.

When Rescue Comes

What do you do when your signal works? If you are spotted by an aircraft, it will probably not land immediately. Look for the pilot to acknowledge your signal by flying low, dropping a message, dipping the plane’s wings or flashing lights.

Don’t assume you’re safe then. If you are being rescued by an aircraft, help the pilot by removing all loose materials from the landing area to prevent them from being sucked into propellers and rotors. Sometimes, a helicopter might not be able to land where you are, and you might need to be lifted to safety. In any case, carefully follow the instructions of your rescuers.


Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an adventurer and an award-winning filmmaker, musician and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting lesstroud.ca, or follow him on social media @reallesstroud

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