Signaling for Help

If you ever get lost or injured on an outdoor outing and have no hope of making your own way out, here’s what you can do to signal potential rescuers.

  • If possible, try signaling from open, high ground. The top of an open hill or bluff is best.
  • Radio, mobile phone, satellite phone or a personal locator beacon should be used as the first lines of rescue. If you don’t have a signal or you batteries die, other options are below.
  • Smoke – a safely-built fire helps keep you warm and also helps in signaling. During the daytime, add green leaves or green pine needles to create smoke that is visible for miles. At night, the glow of a good, strong fire can be seen for miles.
  • On an open hillside or hilltop, build a 10-foot by 10-foot by 10-foot triangle out of logs and sticks. This signal will be visible to air patrols. Stomping a large pattern in tall grass or snow will also work.
  • Three of any sound is a distress signal. These could be three shots from a gun, three blows of a car horn, three blasts on a whistle, etc. Repeat every so often. It might be best to save your ammo and use a whistle instead, unless you can see the rescuers.
  • Space blanket – a space blanket stacked to an open hillside or hilltop will be a visible for miles.
  • A signal mirror – signal mirrors have been used for decades to catch the attention of rescuers both on the ground and in the sky. Signaling with a mirror works best on bright, sunny days.
  • A bright flashlight – new 100-to1,000-lumen LED flashlights make great signaling devices at night. LEDs use less battery power and can be used for hours if needed. Three slow flashes in a row or the international S-O-S signal (short-short-short … long-long-long… short-short-short) will let bystanders know you’re in trouble.
  • Wave both hands – when an aircraft does pass by, wave both arms in the air above your head to signal that you need help. Only raising one arm is a sign to pilots that "all is okay." 
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