Signalling: Flagging Down The Help You Need

The irony of surviving is that for all the work you do to stay alive, all you really want is to go home. You just want out of the nightmare. Signaling can be one of the keys to getting you home, and sooner rather than later.

Although debate continues as to which aspect of survival should take first priority, once you’ve established your safety and if there is no urgency about shelter, then you should get the signals ready. And since you never really know when potential rescue will appear, you need to be ready to signal immediately and at all times.

If you are using a visual signal that you want to be seen by passing aircraft, set it up in clear, flat area, on the highest possible terrain. No matter what type of signal you make, know how to get it going on very short notice. You may only have seconds.

Bush pilots have told me that if they see anything that looks out of the ordinary on the ground, whether it’s a signal fire or even just a tarp laid flat in the middle of an open space, they will stop to check it out, regardless of whether or not it’s 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 as well. A coat hanging on a tree has saved more than one life.

Targeted signals are those signals that need to be seen or heard by a target – a person, plane or boat, for example ­– to be effective. Among targeted signals, there are those that are ready to use and those that you need to make.

Ready-To-Use Signals


Flares save lives all around the world and are a terrific way to signal someone. They only work for a very short time, however, so don’t use them until you’re sure they’ll be seen.

An example of how to use a signal mirror.
An example of how to use a signal mirror.

Signal Mirrors & Flashlights

The signal mirror’s reflection can be seen as far as 50 miles away on a clear, sunny day. Signal mirrors can 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 (a square of tinfoil) can be fairly easily aimed at its target. Face the target and stretch your hand so that it is just beneath it. Hold the mirror by your head and aim the reflected light directly onto your hand. Tilt the mirror up and down rapidly. Given the range of the signal mirror, you should flash any airplane you see, no matter how far away it may seem.

Generally speaking, the larger the mirror, the more light it will reflect. Glass mirrors reflect better than any other material, but glass is the most easily broken. Metal mirrors (including stainless steel), on the other hand, scratch easily and are also subject to rust, particularly in salt-water environments.

Flashlights don’t have the same range as signal mirrors, but work in the same way, and are particularly useful at night. Be careful not to waste battery power; there’s no point dangling your flashlight in a tree all night unless there’s a chance someone may see it.

Laser flares take flashlights one step further, with a more powerful, colourful and ultimately visible beam. They are compact and long-lasting, too. Some companies also make chemical lights for survival situations, though they are not very bright, and usually can’t be seen from more than a mile away. Chemical lights are most easily seen when swung in wide arcs or sweeps; all have a limited storage life that runs out quickly after exposure to air.

Chemicals such as potassium permanganate can be used to make a temporary sign on water or a more permanent one in snow (it dyes the snow purple) to help signal for rescue.

Signals You Have To Make

Signal Fires

The most important things to remember when it comes to a signal fire is to locate it in as wide open a space as you can find, and to have it ready for the moment a plane passes overhead. Stay with a signal fire once you have lit it, in case the pilot attempts to communicate with you. During the day, the most visible part of a signal fire is the smoke, so you also want to have items on hand that make as much of it as possible. Rubber and plastic work particularly well (producing black smoke), as do fresh (green) branches and boughs, which produce white smoke. Given the choice, go for black smoke, since it is not likely to be confused with a campfire. Unfortunately, it’s not about the environment anymore, it’s now about saving your own life. Either way, smoke is most effective on clear, calm days. Wind, rain, snow and clouds disperse and/or shield smoke, significantly decreasing the chances it will be seen. In addition, smoke is not nearly as important at night, when the flame will be more easily spotted from above.

Some survival guides say you’ll have a better chance of attracting attention if you prepare three signal fires and place them into the shape of a triangle, which is a commonly recognized distress signal. I tried this once during a winter survival course. On the day that the plane finally flew over, the temperature hovered near -40 degrees Celsius, I had been surviving for seven days, and had very little energy left. When I heard the plane approaching, I had to run with burning bark from my survival fire to the signal fire, which was about 60 yards away in the middle of a frozen lake. Then, once I got the first point of the triangle lit, I had to run the 40 yards to each of the other points to get them burning as well. My hands were frozen, I nearly put out the bark I was running with, and I taxed my little remaining energy reserves by doing 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 made, which seemed so big and spread out on the ground, looked surprisingly small from the air. In the end, one very large fire would have served the same purpose and would have saved me a lot of energy and firewood. 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.

A variation on the signal fire is the tree torch, which is simply setting a single tree on fire. Although standing dead trees will light most easily, live trees can also be set on fire, particularly ones that bear sap. Paper birch trees are also very good as tree torches, since their thin bark lights quite easily. To make a tree torch, place dry wood in the lower branches and light them. The flame will flare upwards and should ignite the leaves overhead. Make sure you select an isolated tree, so you don’t start a forest fire.

Clothing & Rag Signals

You can help attract attention to yourself by wearing bright-coloured clothing (fluorescent orange works very well) that stands out against your surroundings. If there’s no risk of it getting wet or blown away, drape some of your extra clothing on nearby branches. Tie a brightly-coloured rag or piece of clothing to your shelter, also.

Garbage Bags

Those orange bags in your survival kit have so many uses. Lay them flat in a highly visible area and secure them with rocks to attract the attention of passing aircraft.

Ground Signals

Flagging tape, aluminum foil, or orange garbage bags are the best for ground signals, since they usually provide stark contrast against earth tones. Spelling out SOS or HELP is internationally recognized, but that can be labour-intensive. If you don’t have the materials or energy to do so, a large V or X should also do the trick.

Even if you have nothing with which to make a traditional signal, you can still use natural materials to attract attention to yourself. Use rocks, logs, brush, seaweed or branches to make ground signals. If you don’t have any of these materials on hand, you can still make a signal by either clearing away or burning bushes and other ground cover, or by tramping down snow. When making a signal on the ground, remember to pick an open area that can be easily seen from overhead. Remember that things are a lot smaller when viewed for overhead, so size matters. Go as big as you can.

Burning fresh (green) brush can cause a lot of smoke and attract attention when you need it the most.
Burning fresh (green) brush can cause a lot of smoke and attract attention when you need it the most.


Vehicle Wreckage

In some cases, your survival situation will include a vehicle, whether it be a car, snowmobile, plane or canoe. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the vehicle itself is big and conspicuous and will attract attention. Stay with it if you suspect rescue may be on its way. If you can fashion your vehicle into your shelter, all the better. Now it’s serving two purposes. In addition, you may be able to use parts of the vehicle to attract attention. Arrange them in a way that makes them most conspicuous. Your vehicle’s lights and horn are also powerful means of attracting attention. If you can get a tire off your car (or have a spare), add it to your signal fire. Burning rubber makes tons of thick, black smoke. Oils and fuels are also good for creating smoke, particularly when soaked in rags. Burning a tire is not the most environmentally friendly option available, but when it comes to life and death, that is not an issue. Your goal is to live; you can dedicate yourself to environmental causes when you return to safety.

Audio Signals

Although audio signals have little affect on aircraft, they can be very effective for signaling to ground-based rescue efforts and passersby. Even if you’re not sure that someone is looking for you, it can’t hurt to make as much noise as possible. One audio signal that does not work particularly well in the wilderness is your voice. A survival whistle, however, can be very effective, and the better commercial ones can be heard more than a mile away. Gunshots are also audible for a great distance, although you will need to balance the need for your ammunition for survival over the chance of someone hearing your shot. No matter what type of noise you are making, this is one instance where the international signal for distress can come in handy. Whether you’re clanging pots together, blowing on a whistle or blasting from an air siren, repeat the sound three straight times, which indicates you’re in need of help.

Technological Signals

Unlike targeted signals, which need to be seen or heard by someone in your direct vicinity to be effective, technological signals use different technologies to carry your message much greater distances. If technology shines anywhere during a survival situation, it’s when it comes to signaling. Cell phones, satellite phones, two-way radios and emergency locator beacons have saved the lives of many stranded adventurers.

Satellite Messenger Service

First implemented by SPOT Inc., satellite messenger service is one of the greatest technology innovations to hit the world of outdoor adventuring – and surviving – in recent years. The SPOT device, as well as the INReach device, is a hand-held unit that serves as a distress beacon like a PLB, but does much more, primarily through one-way text messaging and e-mail. It will send a distress message (with your exact GPS location) requesting help from up to 10 individuals, who are back in civilization, reading your message on their e-mail or phone. It will also inform your contacts (often friends and family) of your location (using Google Maps) and that you are simply OK. The device will even allow your friends and family to track your progress using Google Maps. But for a real emergency, you press 911 and the local search and rescue are informed of your request for help.

Cell Phones & Satellite Phones

Cell phones will transmit information about your location even if there is no service in your area; keep it on as long as possible. Text messaging has much greater range than your cell phone may indicate, since it works on a different signal.

EPIRBs (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons), ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters), PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons)

These are all part of a class of devices known as tracking transmitters. These beacons all function by sending a distress signal that allows search-and-rescue personnel to locate your position almost immediately. EPIRBs commonly signal maritime distress, ELTs signal aircraft distress and PLBs are for personal use. The basic idea behind all these devices is to get the person rescued within 24 hours of activation. But it is not always the case. I made a survival film off the coast of Belize, and my sail boat captain explained the reality that the authorities there would not act on me setting off a locater beacon and that they might not even know what they are. And further he pointed out the political hot bed that was going on at the time I was there. There were US boats in the region; however, officially, they were “not there.” He dared me to set mine off and see what happened. I did. Nothing happened.

Once You Have Left

If you decide to leave your location, it’s important that you give potential rescuers as much information as possible about your journey. If you have paper and pencil available, leave a detailed note in a safe, dry and conspicuously marked location. Let them know when you left, where you are going, how you’re traveling (by boat or on foot), your physical state, how many there are of you and the extent of your supplies. You should also mark your direction of travel with an arrow. Rocks and branches can be laid on the ground to point rescuers in the same direction, or you can use your knife to cut directional signs into trees.

When Rescue Comes

What do you do if your signal actually works? Assuming you are now in the clear can be a big mistake. If you are being rescued by an aircraft, such as a light plane or helicopter, remove all loose materials from the landing area to prevent it from being sucked into propellers and rotors. Follow the instructions of your rescuers to the letter.

Group & Solo Survival

One of the great benefits of being in a group situation is that you have more eyes and ears trained for the possibility of rescue, and more people available to attract attention when the time comes.

Final Note

Here are two examples of what lost victims have done to effect rescue: cut or burned down a hydro pole. The workers eventually came out to fix it and the lost were found. Another set fire to a small island. If it were me, I would rather see my family again. I could live with myself if I had to take such drastic measures to achieve my rescue. How about you?