Do you know how to signal for rescue? Are you aware of signaling skills and equipment that can increase your chances of survival? If not, this article is for you. When venturing far off the concrete pavement, always be prepared to “help rescuers find you just in case”. Remember, the sooner you signal for help, the better the chances of you being located are.
The fear of being lost is unsettling, and the slightest threat of it can be paralyzing. Not knowing where you are or how to get back can make you feel isolated and vulnerable.
It’s difficult to predict how someone who is lost will behave, though it’s safe to assume - as search and rescue leaders always do - that “they won’t do much to help themselves”. Some do the most sensible thing and stay put, others feel compelled to keep moving, throwing themselves into the unknown “in hope rescue” will appear.
If the stress of “being lost” isn’t enough, supplies dwindle and eventually become non-existent. For example, if you run out of water, dehydration is a formidable foe. It just takes three days for someone to perish. To survive, you will have to drink untreated water exposing yourself to pathogens that cause waterborne illnesses.
If that isn’t enough, frigid or scorching temperatures, lack of natural shelter, insects and predators will have you screaming, “Get me out of here!”
The wilderness doesn't discriminate between the experienced outdoorsman or woman and the novice. It can be just as gratifying and hostile to both. Sadly, we have all read of heart wrenching stories of people who have gone missing. The National Park Service has a list of unfortunate souls yet to be found.
When faced with an emergency, you always want the ability to make yourself “stand out”, visually, via sound or electronically. Having multiple ways to signal for help significantly increases your chances of survival. However, you must use your signaling equipment wisely.
In this ProSurvivalStrategies.com Guide, we will focus on basic skills and equipment you can use to help rescuers find you.
- Why does signaling for rescue begin long before your departure?
- How does contrast help rescuers find you?
- Why shouldn't your clothing blend in with the environment?
- And much more!
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
Why Does Signaling For Rescue Begin Long Before Your Departure?
No matter who you are, we have all heard our parents say, “Let me know where you are going and what time you’ll be back.” I’m sure this puts a grin on your face. Let’s face it, were they wrong? I’ll leave that one up to you.
Common sense will save your life. Basically, notify someone reliable of your plan. Before you leave, provide information such as:
- A timetable.
- Location of your intended journey.
- Trail or route.
- Vehicle description and plate number.
- Basic gear you’ll have.
- Cell phone number and carrier.
- Partners names and information.
- Description of your tent and outer clothing.
- A copy of a map of where you are going.
Your safe return always begins before you leave the house. It’s your responsibility to confirm that someone reliable knows your location and when you plan to return.
Family and friends will worry if they don’t hear from you. This prompts an immediate response to contact the authorities and file a missing persons report. Help is on the way, but you still have to signal rescuers to your location.
Remember, “failing to plan is planning for failure!” - Benjamin Franklin.
How Does Contrast Help Rescuers Find You?
Contrast is the state of being strikingly different from something else. An effective signal is immediately apparent against any environment's natural surroundings. From clothing to improvised signals, contrast automatically catches the rescuer’s eye. Remember, rescue teams have a significant area to cover and “it’s easier to find a needle if they are looking in the right haystack.”
For example, if you are hiking over snow-covered terrain, your clothing must produce a contrast against a snow-covered background. A blue, red or yellow jacket is an intelligent choice. These colors are very powerful and stand out against a naturally white environment.
Alternatively, if you are lost in a forest, light a fire to signal for help. The bright glowing light, smoke and its distinct smell will alert rescuers to your location. Remember, something out of place stands out!
Now that you understand why contrast is “key” to signaling, let’s look at a signaling device that is commonly overlooked, clothing.
Why Your Clothing Shouldn't Blend In With The Environment.
At a very basic level, clothing is important to create an effective contrast for rescue. Imagine yourself as an operator of a search and rescue team. You are determined to find someone lost. What would you look for? What would help you immediately spot someone? A completely unnatural bright contrasting color would be advantageous.
The correct choice of color is very important. To all my younger adventurers out there, “please reconsider your plan to purchase military fatigues.” Yes I agree with you, it's tacticool. However, the disadvantage of wearing camouflage or dark clothing is the risk of not being found when lost.
Soldiers wear it to blend in with the environment which contradicts what you’re trying to do if you get lost.
Avoid colors that blend in with the natural environment such as black, green, brown and grays. Bright reds, aqua, yellow, pink and blaze orange provide contrast against natural “Earth tones.”
For example, hunters wear blaze orange which is also known as “safety orange” or “hunter orange”. This color is commonly used for safety and its effectiveness on the human eye.
Remember that colored clothing spread out in a clearing, a silvered or orange survival blanket, etc., are readily visible in nature because these things look out of place.
You can still look stylish but choose bright contrasting colors that can aid your rescue.
Why You Shouldn't Depend On Your Cell Phone As Your Only Emergency Signal.
We can all agree that cell phones are an important signaling device. Above all, there are few devices that are immediately available during any crisis that give us the ability to communicate in real time. Your ability to exchange important information with rescuers, family and friends is critical. This is not only an advantage, but at the same time, it is psychologically comforting just to hear someone’s voice.
By all means, “if you have a signal” use it! If you are able to make contact provide the following information to authorities:
- Identify yourself.
- Identify as specifically as you can where you believe you are.
- The nature of your emergency and your cell number.
- Be specific as possible.
- Remember, it may be hours before rescuers reach you.
Have you ever considered the risks that could materialize if your cell phone is rendered inoperable? Did you plan for this contingency?
Cell phones do have there disadvantages such as:
- Cold, wet and harsh environments can wreak havoc on fragile equipment.
- Cell phone batteries die.
- Hills, mountains, bluffs, dense vegetation and inclement weather can disrupt or eliminate cellular signals.
- Cell towers are non-existent. Dead zones exist in remote locations.
- Cell phones can malfunction.
- Plastic housings break.
- Water will render it inoperable.
- You can ultimately lose your phone.
- You can also drop and break your phone.
Cell phones are helpful but they are not 100% reliable. Even when they do work, rescuers cannot always reach you immediately. The peril of cell phones is a loss of self-reliance, and unrealistic expectations for rescue in remote locations.
Never place too much reliance on it, to the exclusion of other types of signaling equipment. Remember, technology has a tendency to fail us when we need it most!
Are there other types of signaling equipment to consider? Of course. I’ll even take it further; there are plenty of tips down below on how to improvise and signal for help.
What Types Of Equipment Can Signal Rescuers To Your Location?
The importance of a survival whistle is priceless in any emergency situation. This compact, lightweight and inexpensive piece of gear can mean the difference between life and death. Especially, if you become separated from your group or suffer a severe injury in the wilderness.
A whistle can blast loud attention grabbing sounds in any environment. It carries much further than shouting for help, and it doesn’t give you an agonizing sore throat.
For example, an average whistle volume can measure 100 to 120 decibels depending on the manufacturer. The average person shouting typically measures approximately 80 decibels. Thus, a whistle is approximately 20 to 40 decibels louder than shouts for help.
An ordinary whistle uses a small ball (i.e. pea) inside of a chamber to create a pulse. However, if it is jammed by dirt, saliva, water or ice, your whistle is useless. Always opt for one without a small ball inside.
Plastic construction always! In extreme cold weather, a metal whistle can stick to your lips. Plastic isn’t as conductive as aluminum, brass or steel so a plastic whistle is significantly comfortable to use if cold weather is a concern. Just the thought of cold metal sticking to your lips will bring shivers down your spine.
Basic doesn’t mean poor quality or poor results. A whistle is an incredible piece of basic equipment and can accomplish getting rescuers to your location.
If you have lost hope of rescue, the sight and sound of approaching aircraft is music to your ears! The feeling of despair is lifted as you start shouting “I’m over here! Over here!” Overfilled with joy, you shout, “I’m finally out of here!”
However, the aircraft suddenly banks, and the sound of its engines gradually fade as it slowly disappears. Depressed, upset and overwhelmed with gloom, you scream, “I was right here!” “Come on, are you kidding me!” That’s putting it lightly.
The presence of aircraft within your location doesn’t promise you will be rescued. The crew still needs to spot you.
It is not easy to spot human presence in the wilderness from the height of an aircraft, so a signal is always the most effective method. Simply waving or shouting at the top of your lungs is glamorized in Hollywood movies. An effective piece of equipment to signal rescue aircraft is a signal mirror.
Used properly, it reflects the sun’s rays and creates a series of flashes to alert a pilot of your location. It can reflect sunlight as far as 7 miles on a clear day to alert potential rescuers to your location. The United States Coast Guard lists a signal mirror as a valuable piece of equipment on their safety survival card.
Unlike other emergency signaling devices such as dye markers, flares and radios, a mirror is not subject to battery or chemical exhaustion.
A signal mirror is equipped with a shiny surface along with a hole placed right in the center. The hole allows you to sight through it and aim the reflected light generated on the grid at your intended target.
Signal mirrors are affordable and one of the most effective methods of being spotted by rescue aircraft or alert ground crew. Simple to operate, they can accomplish getting rescuers to your location with minimal expense.
Signal mirrors are effective but after sundown, all bets are off. An alternative to battery-operated light sources, chemical light sticks are a cost-effective alternative to signal for help.
A professional grade emergency light should not be confused with a “glow stick” party favor. The chemicals used to create light are more powerful and last much longer. They are available in a range of colors that can be used to detect people in the dark.
They are small and lightweight, so it’s convenient to carry several of them in your pack. By simply bending or shaking this signaling device it creates a chemical reaction of a luminescent formula that releases an intense 12-hour lightsource. The resulting glow can be seen for up to a mile away depending on the environment and weather conditions.
They are durable, weatherproof and equipped with safety clips. This feature allows you to tie it to your gear or rope to signal rescuers to your position.
How to use a chemlight / glow stick as an emergency signal.
- Snap and activate the chemlight / glowstick.
- Tie the stick to a length of cordage approximately 18 to 30 inches. If cordage is not available, improvise a bootlace.
- Once secured, you want approximately 18 to 24 inches between you and the glow stick in your hand.
- Start to spin it in a circular motion in front of you and aim it at your intended target.
- It will create a large, brightly glowing circle that can be seen in the distance.
For signaling purposes, stick with green, red or yellow. As stated above, contrast is “key”. These fluorescent colors stand out against any natural environment.
Flares are signaling pyrotechnics that could prove to be your emergency lifeline when lost. The bright light emitted by these pyrotechnic colorants (i.e. orange or red) are effective to transmit your location to rescuers. They are universally recognized as a distress signal.
A hand-held flare is routinely ignited by striking them against the ground or by pulling a toggle. Once ignited, it produces a bright light that burns at a luminosity of 15,000 candelas for approximately a minute. On average, it can be seen for up to 3 miles away. Red hand-held flares are most effective at night or in restricted visibility, such as fog or haze, but may be used any time.
Visual distress signals are only effective when someone is within close proximity to notice them. When employing any pyrotechnic device, do so only when you see or hear a boat, aircraft, or you are reasonably certain someone is in the proximity to see your signal.
Remember, carrying any pyrotechnic devices means inspection and replacement on a regular basis. Also, it is important to undergo training to learn how to safely use these devices.
When hand-held flares are not enough, an aerial pyrotechnic device is another alternative to signal for help. Pistol-launched or self-contained aerial flares can be deployed during the day, but are most effective at night.
Aerial flares operate in “two stages” (separate explosive burning sections) and are entirely self-contained.
When you strike the base or pull the toggle, a percussion cap triggers the first stage. The internal reaction launches the flare into the air for several seconds. When it reaches its maximum height (usually 300 feet), the second stage ignites the flare which explodes into an intense orange or red light.
These flares burn at a luminosity of 30,000 candelas for approximately a minute, and have a nighttime visibility of 25-35 miles. Burn time is approximately 6 seconds, so use your signaling flare wisely.
Exercise caution and common sense when deploying an aerial signal device. For example, if you are traveling deep into tree-covered forests, an aerial projected signaling device may or may not breach the canopy. Try to find open ground and signal for help.
Red flares, either blasted as a rocket or hand-held, are widely recognized as a distress signal.
Another ideal piece of signaling equipment is a smoke flare. Primarily used for maritime rescue, the orange or red plumes of smoke can alert rescuers in any environment. They are designed to be hand-held, placed on the ground or thrown overboard into the sea.
Smoke flares are typically visible up to three miles depending on weather conditions and last anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes depending on the device.
When triggered by either a toggle or ring it lets off orange or red smoke that can’t be extinguished due to heavy rain. They provide a good line of sight distress signal, but because there’s nothing burning or glowing, they are best-suited for daytime use only.
Always read the instructions, and run through the process, take the cap off and go through the motions of how to use it in time of distress.
If there is a small window for aerial rescue, you want to access it immediately and know how to use it. Keep in mind, high winds disperses signal smoke quickly which makes it harder for rescuers to spot.
As with all flares, only deploy them when someone is within close proximity to your location.
HEADLAMP / FLASHLIGHT
A good portable lightsource such as a headlamp or flashlight doesn’t just illuminate a dark world or pacify a strong psychological fear of what lurks in the darkness. It is absolutely critical in any situation, especially if you are lost in the middle of nowhere.
The explosion of light immediately creates a contrast against a pitch black environment and draws attention from a distance. Let the light shine and help rescuers find you!
You most definitely want a very bright, focused beam that can be thrown over longer distances. For example, an intelligent choice is a portable LED lightsource with a 1000 lumen peak brightness or better rating. Yes, it’s overkill but, the farther you aim the beam, the better!
What’s even better is some LED flashlights and headlamps have built in SOS or strobe functions to signal for rescue.
In S.O.S. mode, signals are issued by using Morse code. This means the flashlight or headlamp produces an illumination that sends an “S-O-S” (short-short-short … long-long-long… short-short-short). Alternatively, in strobe mode, it creates a series of eye-catching bright flashes up to 60 times a minute depending on the device.
Clearly, you can signal “S-O-S” using a flashlight or headlamp. Point the device in the direction of your intended target. Then send an “S-O-S” as stated above. Alternatively, three short bursts of light also signals for help.
As with all battery operated devices, conserve its energy and use it wisely.
Flags have been utilized for centuries to send signals for help. An effective method to signal for help is by waving a flag back and forth. As long as you are not in an environment with dense vegetation, rescuers will be able to spot you.
For example, The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a woman and two men who were stranded on an uninhabited Bahamian island for 33 days. The aircrew was alerted to them by flags and a large cross that was laid out for rescue.
PERSONAL LOCATING BEACONS (PLBs)
Personal locating beacons (PLBs), are small portable emergency devices designed to be carried by an individual. It is used in any emergency related situation to immediately send out a distress signal. Once activated, it transmits a powerful distress signal that’s received by a global system of satellites (i.e. COSPAS-SARSAT).
The COSPAS-SARSAT system is an international, cooperative satellite-based search and rescue system that detects and locates transmissions from emergency beacons. It operates globally 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In the United States, SARSAT is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In 2019, SARSAT helped save the lives of 421 people in the United States and its surrounding waters. Approximately 61 of those lives were accredited to PLBs.
When the transmitted distress signal is received by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, it is relayed to a network of response agencies. This ultimately results in your plea for immediate assistance reaching a local search and rescue team. Also, PLBs use another satellite network to get a fix on your location.
One you flip the switch and activate your PLB, it will transmit a distress signal for a minimum of 24 hours.
Most PLBs today also provide search and rescue teams with GPS-provided coordinates down to within 100 meters (328 feet) of your location. A PLB strobe also guides rescuers when conducting a search. Once you activate your PLB, depending on the circumstances do not move from your location.
A PLB works globally because of the satellite system and response agency alliance. However, responses to distress signals may not be so vigorous in countries with limited resources and manpower. Also, a handful of countries don’t permit their use. So, you’ll need to do a little research if you plan to use it abroad.
If you purchase one, you’ll need to register it in the NOAA SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) database. Provide the required information and you will need to update the data every two years.
Remember, a PLB only transmits your location and personal information and that’s it. There’s no confirmation that the message was received, there is no ability to send a different or custom message and you will not receive a message in return.
However, it is still an excellent choice to send an immediate distress signal when you are lost in any remote location.
If you find yourself lost in the wilderness, reliable communication could be the difference between life and death. A satellite messenger is another hi-tech companion that will save your life.
Unlike PLBs that use the COSPAS-SARSAT network, satellite messengers rely on a fleet of low-earth-orbit satellite constellations such as Globalstar, Iridium and Orbcon. These Satellite-based Personal Communication Systems (S-PCS) are commonly used for worldwide voice and data communication from satellite messengers to other transceiver units.
That makes them far more dependable than your smartphone, which uses cell towers that aren’t accessible in remote locations. If you can see the sky, you can send a message with a satellite messenger.
These small rugged hand-held devices (depending on the manufacturer) are well-equipped with multiple life-saving features such as:
- Sending and receiving text messages with emergency response teams and staying in touch with family globally.
- Tracking and sharing your journey with your family.
- A button to trigger an SOS alert to an emergency response team.
- Planning trips with routes and waypoints.
- Create preset messages and quick texts.
- Integrated GPS-based location tracking.
- Electronic compasses.
Any satellite signal can be disrupted for numerous reasons such as:, atmospheric conditions, dense canopies, mountains, and tight canyons. Remember, the clearer the path to the sky, the better your connection will be. Also, don’t assume your message was sent, check and make sure it was delivered.
Satellite messengers offer emergency solutions for anyone lost. The ability to communicate via “two-way” provides a high level of comfort that you would receive immediate assistance.
How Can Fire And Smoke Signal Rescuers To Your Location?
Fire is the king of survival. It keeps you warm, boils your water, cooks your food and provides light and smoke when signaling for rescue. If you are not familiar with primitive fire-making techniques, always pack waterproof matches, a lighter or ferrocerium rod in your kit.
Fire is used to signal your location day or night. At night, create a large bright fire that can be seen in the distance. Always keep safety and fire management in mind. Don’t burn down the forest.
A proper signal fire will alert rescuers to your location day or night. Think of contrast: a bright light in the dark, a distinct smell and smoke which is discussed below.
Remember TKF + Pyramid = Signal fire.
Light your fire as soon as possible and keep it going! For example, waiting to hear the sound of aircraft before igniting a fire is pointless. By the time you get it started, that plane you were desperately waiting for is long gone.
Remember, search aircraft and rescuers on the ground are well-equipped with thermal imaging devices that detect heat sources.
WITH FIRE COMES SMOKE
When the sun is out, you want to send a plume of smoke that billows up and can be seen for miles in every direction. Create a color of smoke that contrasts with your background; a dark smoke against a light background and vice versa. Smoke also has a distinct smell depending on the combustibles used that assists rescuers locate your position.
The basic rule is that white smoke or a blazing fire can be seen better at night. To create white smoke, smother a large fire with green leaves, damp grasses, pine branches with pine needles, moss and add a little water. The fire will produce a white smoke.
Alternatively, if you add electrical insulation, foam padding, oil soaked rags, plastic or rubber, you will get dense black smoke. See what you can spare, and by all means don’t put the fire out.
How Can Direction Markers Signal For Help?
Always leave clear and visible direction markers pointing in the direction you are traveling if you decide to leave your shelter. As a general rule, you should “stay put” until you are found, because it is more difficult for rescuers to locate a moving target. If rescuers reach your last known location, visible direction markers will at least give them a clue of the general direction you are headed.
You should also mark your route as you travel, in the event you decide to return to your original location. Use natural materials and place arrow symbols on the ground, with its head pointing in the direction you intend to direct a rescue party.
Alternatively, if you have a permanent marker and bright-colored flagging tape in your kit, you can write notes on it and tie it to trees at eye level. Write specific notes such as the date and time of your last location, and a description of your clothing.
It gives rescuers information of your last known location, a timetable of your departure, and a visual description.
Write It Out Help / S.O.S.
If you are unlucky and suddenly find yourself lost without signal-specific gear, it’s time to improvise. Think “outside the box” and use natural materials such as rocks, logs and sticks. Spell out a visual distress signal such as “HELP” or “S.O.S”. It’s another alternative to be seen from above.
For example, an Australian couple was rescued from a crocodile infested swamp after they lit fires and wrote “HELP” in the mud. Their quick thinking and use of various distress signals saved their lives.
Don’t make it look like a spec on the ground. The bigger, the better!
A Final Thought.
No one ever intends to get lost. The psychological effect is overwhelming and natural obstacles add more fuel to the fire. Not knowing how to signal for rescue significantly reduces your chances of survival in remote areas.
Before venturing off the concrete pavement, never be so arrogant as to think it can’t happen to you. It can happen to anyone! Exercise common sense and ask yourself, what if? Did you communicate your intended journey to anyone? Take a quick look at your clothing, does it contrast the environment you are headed to? Did you pack equipment to signal for help? Remember, “failing to plan is planning for failure.”
Place yourself in the mindset of a search and rescue team. You are tasked with locating someone lost in a remote area. What audible and visible distress signals would you look for? Anything that looks, sounds or smells “out of place” in any natural environment stands out. Contrast is key!
Yes, mother nature is harsh when you find yourself lost. However, use her to your advantage. She provides resources to build fires and directional markers. Remember, you are never at a complete disadvantage!
Learn basic skills on how to signal for rescue. From air to ground visuals to properly building a signal fire, it enhances your chances of rescue. This doesn’t mean use one skill and you're done!
All the above-mentioned tips and equipment are used jointly. The more distress signals you send, the better. Use common sense and exercise safety. Don’t let a signal fire get out of hand that it burns uncontrollably. How ironic would it be if you are running from the very signal meant to rescue you.
From whistles to satellite messengers, there are tons of signaling equipment on the market. Does this mean you run out and buy everything in sight? Absolutely not! Choose your plan accordingly and what fits your budget.
A word to the wise. It is always advisable to have multiple tools to achieve critical goals which definitely includes signaling for help. At the most basic level, a whistle, fire starter and of course your cell phone should always be in your kit. Having more than one way to signal for help significantly increases your chances to help rescuers find you.
Remember, maintain your composure, think, observe and plan. The majority of people who find themselves lost make it home.