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Signaling Techniques for Help Outdoors


Signaling techniques should be practiced before you actually need them if you want to survive outdoors. 

When it comes to the great outdoors, having numerous effective ways to signal for help will make a huge difference to your survival. Nowadays, distress signals can come in many forms, such as high-tech modern day electronics, to tried and tested techniques our ancestors would have used. Unfortunately, these techniques used for signaling are often under-practiced and under-emphasized in our survival skills set, which often sees people in situations they aren't prepared for.

While it's easy to simply rely upon our cell phones or GPS devices, they are prone to break, run out of battery power, or have no cellular coverage. For this reason it's a good idea to have some basic signaling techniques under your belt so you don't end up stranded in an isolated area.

Flying the Flag Upside Down

Not many people may be aware of this, but flying the United States flag upside down is a signal of "dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property." Some people may take the flag with them when in the wilderness as the flag displayed upside down can have the same distress-meaning if you find yourself in danger and need help.


The Power of Three

The most common form of signaling is through fire. As smoke and fire can be spotted miles away this is a useful signaling technique to know. One thing to understand, though, is that one fire won't be sufficient to grab someone's attention from above if you require assistance.

When making a distress call with fire make sure that you have three large fires in the shape of a triangle or a row about 25 meters apart. During the daylight hours you want to focus on creating smoke that contrasts with the background: light smoke against a dark background and vice versa. To create white smoke throw green vegetation on the fire and for black smoke use brake fluid, plastic pieces, or other petroleum-based substance which will create smoke that can be seen from a great distance and will last for hours.


The universal code for SOS is "Save Our Souls," and can easily be spelled on the ground with a vast array of materials for search planes from above. By Morse code, SOS is pretty simple to communicate as it uses a series of dots and dashes. To signal SOS you need to represent it by three dots, three dashes and three dots. If you have a flashlight on you all you need to do to signal SOS is three quick flashes, three long flashes and then three quick flashes.


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Audio Signals

When a ground search is underway it's important to gain the attention of those nearby with the use of a whistle, bell, or gun. As with the three fires to make a signal, the same rule should be applied when using a whistle. Blow three blasts five seconds apart, and then pause for about thirty seconds before giving the signal again. Sound will travel much farther than your voice, so make sure you always carry a whistle on you.

flickr/Brian Green
Flickr/Brian Green


A signal mirror can be an essential item for your survival. A lightweight and compact signal mirror should be carried to redirect the sun's rays to the object you are attempting to signal. This may require practice and patience, but is very effective once the signal has been made.

Leave Markers

If you need to leave where you are you should give some indication as to which direction you went in. This can either be by leaving a large arrow that contrasts with the ground pointing in the direction you took or tying bright colored tape around tree trunks or bushes as you leave a trail with a message that indicates where you have gone. Using permanent marker and reflective material will mean that even in bad weather at night they will catch someone's attention.

These basic survival signals will help you attract the attention of rescuers should you find yourself lost in the wilderness.

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Signaling Techniques for Help Outdoors