Signaling for Survival

Written by David Ellis aka Pointman

Signaling is one of the five basic survival priorities and comes after you have made a shelter, found water and started a fire. Signaling comes before food because you can last three weeks without food if you have to. It may take a while to locate, trap, fish or otherwise procure food but you want your rescue to be sooner than later. Making some sort of sign or something to attract attention can be working 24/7 while you are busy doing other things to survive.

Unless you happen to have some solar powered chargers with you, your cell phone will run down or your GPS batteries will run out. Even if you have a solar charger they can get damaged become unusable, or at the very least unreliable. This is where knowledge of different signaling methods comes into play.

There are many ways to signal for help. Fire, contrasting color distress signs, flares, flags, whistle, air horn, mirror, etc. I’ll take each one and discuss further so that you will have a basic understanding of how to use each one to your best advantage. There are two terms used to categorize the types signaling to be employed. These are static and active. The terms are pretty much self explanatory but let me add something to the obvious. Active signaling requires you to do something. Whistles, horns, signal flags, fires, flares, mirrors are all “active”. You have to aim and move a mirror, you have to keep a fire burning, you have to blow a whistle, wave a flag, etc. Using three dark stripes, or the letters SOS spelled out against a light colored background like the light grey rock of a cliff or the sand on a beach just sit there and do nothing and don’t require any attention or maintenance and are therefore categorized as “static”. Signaling methods can also be further broken down into audible and visible. It should be obvious to you by now that if you are all alone and plan on staying in the immediate area, a static signal is best. However, if a low flying plane, a helicopter or a ship is nearby and within signaling distance, an active method should be readily available and employed quickly and vigorously in addition to your static signaling method.

Bright colors like the orange backside of some of the more durable emergency blankets that double as shelters or tarps can easily be seen from the air if used in an exposed area in between trees, on the edge of a clearing, or near the beach. Let’s take a look at each method individually to see how they can be used most effectively.


Fire (static & active)

Fire is not only one of the five basic survival priorities but can be a very effective signaling method if used properly. Three signal fires on the beach is different from a campfire in that it is considered both static and active. It sits there doing nothing until you are ready to light it to attract attention. Although a campfire can be seen more easily at night it would still need to be a lot larger to be considered a signaling device but only if you have the available resources and a safe area to construct it without setting fire to your surroundings. Another consideration is that most rescue attempts are made during the day to maximize efforts.

The best method for a signal fire is to have a very large amount of tinder and kindling piled up so that it ignites rapidly. You need to make a platform about 3’x3’ square or larger using small logs at least 2-3” in diameter. This will keep everything off the ground and dry in case it rains or snows. You can take a few forked limbs and make a tripod and then place other limbs around it for your basic structure or you can stack them log cabin style like a bonfire. Next you pile dry tinder and leaves underneath or in the middle, but on top of the platform so that the fire is easy to light and burns quickly. Lastly, pile green boughs or foliage on top to create a lot of dense white smoke. Anything rubber or plastic or even oil will give you thick black smoke which will contrast better against the sky from a distance. You usually aren’t going to light this fire unless you spot a plane or ship so in this case you don’t need it to burn for a long period of time, just fast, big and lots of smoke. You still don’t want it to fall apart after only a few minutes so get it right the first time.

Be sure to leave a decent size opening on one side or underneath to give yourself plenty of room not only to get the fire burning quickly, but also to let the fire have enough air to breathe and minimize the amount of time it takes to come to a full burn and be even more effective as an emergency signal.

Another way is to build three smaller fires in a triangle at least 30’ to 50’ apart which is also an internationally understood distress signal. Three is the magic number here no matter what method you employ.


Whistle (active)

A whistle is good to have for several reasons. It is light weight and takes almost no room to carry in your pocket, on a lanyard around your neck, in your survival kit or pack. Secondly it is a very sharp shrill sound that gets attention if anyone is within earshot. Thirdly you can only yell for so long before you are either out of breath or you lose your voice. A variation would be an air horn. The kind you might use at a football game or on a boat is great but they are also limited to the amount of compressed air in the container and they are much larger than a homemade device constructed out of readily available materials.

To make an improvised air horn, all you need is a plastic 35mm film canister with the center part of the lid cut out, a thin piece of rubber like a balloon, and a short piece of tubing about ½” in diameter and 2” long. After making a large hole in the cap (careful not to damage the outer edge) and stretch the balloon rubber over the top and replace the cap to hold it in place. Now make a hole about 1/8” to 1/4” in the side of the film canister. Lastly, make a hole in the bottom of the canister as close to the diameter of your tubing so that you get a tight fit. Take your time on this part. Finally insert the tube in the bottom of the canister and push it in until the top just touches the balloon. You are now ready to test it. Make sure the cat is not sitting in your lap when you do this as it is surprisingly quite loud and could have devastating repercussions.

Place you mouth over the hole in the side of the film canister and blow to pressurize the inner chamber. The pressure will push out the balloon rubber but the elasticity will at the same time try to pull it back causing the rubber to vibrate rapidly to create a very impressive noise. You gotta try this at least once even if you are not going to use it for a survival device. They are fun to make and play with but don’t give it to your kids. Just tell them “It’s not a toy, it’s a survival tool” or you will regret it.

Whichever device you prefer remember to make three short blasts spaced out about 3 seconds apart, wait about 10 seconds and make three more blasts, then a third set in the same manner. The first time you make the three blasts it may simply attract attention; the next two times should be recognized as a distress signal rather than someone goofing around, especially if you are in the wilderness.

The same holds true if you have a firearm. Three rapid shots might be considered just a hunter after game. If the shots are spaced out at regular intervals it is more likely to be understood as a distress signal. Remember three sets of three is much better.


Flares (active)

Flares are a little different. Red is the best color to have but anything will do in a pinch. One flare is usually sufficient if you are near the sea and sometimes in the wilderness if remote enough. Teenagers out camping in a popular camping ground may send one up just for fun but in a remote area it can attract a lot of attention with just one flare so use them wisely. The three spaced out signal flares is absolutely the best but remember they burn out quickly and then they are gone. Some may disagree with using just one but in my opinion, if this is your only option, one at a time is better and can give you three times the signaling effort over as many days if need be


Mirrors (active)

Any mirror will do for flash signaling like a car mirror, the mirror on a good lensatic compass if you have it or simply a piece of tinfoil. The best signal mirror is a small, playing card size with a small hole in the middle for sighting. To aim the mirror, hold it in one hand about 4” to 6” away from your face and sight through the hole in the middle with the reflective side facing outward toward the sun. Extend your other hand holding up two fingers in a Y or V to use as your aiming device. Find the object you want to signal between your two fingers and move the mirror until you see the sun reflected on your two fingers. If the reflection is hitting your aiming fingers and the object is between your fingers, it’s a safe bet your signal can be seen. Just move the mirror slightly to flash the reflecting sunlight on and off your fingers/target rapidly to attract attention.


Flags (active)

Semaphore is a system of signaling used by the military to communicate much the same as Morse code. If you are not familiar with either, don’t worry, I’m not advocating that this is a viable survival skill but I would be remiss if I did not include all forms of signaling. I have provided an image collected from the internet that shows the different positions of the flags used to spell out letters, words and numbers. Just waving your shirt or bandana or large piece of material is just fine if you spot a plane, a ship or a helicopter in your area that may be trying to find you.

Here’s the image for using semaphore.


Hand Signals (active)

Here’s another method of utilizing hand signals used by the military in combat for close quarters where noise could give away your position. Just thought I might throw this in as well while we are on the subject of signaling. More on this later when we talk about stealth and concealment.


Morse Code (active)

I learned Morse code when I was in the Boy Scouts many, many, many, many moons ago. Did I mention it was many moons ago? This code has been around for a very long time and is used all over the world to this day.

Here’s another image I found on the internet that shows the entire code.


Now relax. You don’t have to know the whole Morse code system to signal for rescue, however, learning only two of the letters in the alphabet may just save your life someday. You may even have heard of them before as S.O.S. which is incorrectly but commonly known as standing for Save Our Ship or Save Our Souls. This most likely came about merely as a way to remember the code. It was first adopted by the German government in 1905 and became a worldwide standard in 1908 and remained so until it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System in 1966. SOS is still recognized to this day as a distress signal whether it is made in static or active form.

To make the letter S, use three short dots, blasts on a whistle or horn, or flashes with a mirror or light. To make the letter O, use three long dashes, etc. The SOS signal is composed of three short, three long then three short again or in other words three dots, three dashes followed by three dots. This is repeated over and over again with brief pauses between each SOS.

A physical image would look like this:


It is always better to Spell out the letters SOS rather than use Morse code if you are making a visual signal on a beach or something. Like most people, not everyone knows Morse code. This is however, absolutely the most unmistakable distress signal you can use as an audible or visual method and is well worth the time and effort for everyone to learn.


Other Methods

If you display the American flag or the jib sail on a boat upside down, either one will be easily noticeable and indicate distress. If you are not planning on staying in one place, try and leave a trail or at least clues as to your direction of travel. This can be a cleared out space near last night’s campfire or on the beach with a limbs or rocks laid out forming an arrow indicating your direction of travel. Another way is to break limbs, tall grass, etc. as you travel through the woods, jungle or underbrush leaving the broken over parts pointing towards the way you went. Drag your feet occasionally and walk in areas of exposed ground or wet terrain to leave as visible a trail as possible. This comes in handy if you need to backtrack to a known water or food source or if the path you have take becomes impassible for some reason.


So what happens when someone does find you?

If you are found, you will also need to know how to recognize other signals. If a plane circles overhead there may be some question in the pilot’s mind as to whether or not you need rescue for instance if you have only one big fire and you are waving your arms. He might think you are just saying hello. If this happens, form a “Y” with your arms or quickly scratch it out in the dirt or sand on a beach to indicate YES. In either case, if he tilts his wings back and forth it means he understands and will get help. At night, if your signal is easily understood like having three fires in a triangle, it may be as simply as two green flashes using the plane’s running lights.

  • Y – Yes
  • N – No
  • V – Need assistance
  • X – Need medical assistance


If you are using an audible device like a whistle or air horn, you also need to know a couple of other signals.

  • Three Blasts – Distress signal by lost party
  • One Blast – Searchers looking for lost party
  • Two Blasts – Acknowledgement of distress signal
  • Four Blasts – Recall signal for search parties


Knowing more than one signaling method, and how to recognize others, can be extremely important if you find yourself in a situation where you need rescue or medical assistance.

It can mean the difference between coming through it alive or becoming a statistic.


Written by David Ellis aka Pointman

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