Lost in the Wild? Here’s How to Signal for Help

When it comes to survival, every step you take is crucial to ensuring your safety. Knowing how to signal for help is a key skill, and everyone needs to know how to do it.

Send a signal for help by calling the authorities. Using your cellphone is the quickest, most effective method as long as there is a signal. As an alternative, you can send a distress signal using a whistle, mirror, a flag, and more.

Today’s distress signals are sent in many different forms. We have modern methods using gadgets, primitive methods, and discrete methods. For now, let’s focus on seven effective ways to send a signal for help when lost on your hike or travel. 

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1. Call Authorities With A Phone

Searching a signal to call the authorities

Having a cellphone is a necessity for everyone in this generation. And with the tons of convenient features incorporated into this small device, it’s understandable. The only downside is that this tool is only useful in areas with a signal. 

Unsure which turn to take? Just pull out your phone and open Waze or Google Maps and you’re good to go. Injured or in immediate danger? Call 911 and the local emergency services can perform a digital trace to your location.

With a stable signal, you can ring up the authorities but if it’s a bit weak, then a text message will have to suffice. However, if you have zero signal, you cannot rely on your phone alone.

In cases where you’re trying to explore a secluded area with no signal, consider renting or buying a satellite phone. Unlike cellular phones, satellite phones connect with other phones and networks using orbiting satellites.

Hence, it is capable of making calls all around the world regardless if you’re a few miles too far from a cellular site. 

2. Blow a Distress Signal Using a Whistle

You can also send a signal using a whistle. If you got separated from your group while hiking, a humble whistle works for short-ranged signaling. All you have to do is blow three times since this is recognized as the universal audible distress signal.

Whistles are also great during hikes or travel with kids. Not only does this reduce the risk of them getting lost, but this is also a genuinely fun activity that could keep them busy.

Make sure to use bright-colored whistles so that you can easily spot them in the dark or when you accidentally drop it. We also highly recommend attaching it on a lanyard or keychain to keep it from getting lost. 

Also, opt for pealess whistles when traveling during the winter or in colder regions. Otherwise, the cork ball might get frozen in place and render the whistle useless until it melts. Very inconvenient in an emergency situation.

3. Flash a Mirror or Flashlight

Flash a Mirror or Flashlight

Flashing a mirror or flashlight also works to catch the attention of another person, an aircraft, or watercraft. The better option is a signal mirror which can flash up to 10 miles away and has a hole in the middle used for the aim. If unavailable, then a cosmetic mirror or a CD can work just fine. 

If you’re using a mirror, then you first have to make sure that you have a target. For instance, if you’re already reported as missing and you can see rescuers roaming over the area, then you can flash a beam of light to them to alert your exact location. 

If your mirror doesn’t have a sighting lens, position your mirror under your eye and stretch out a finger. Direct the reflected light in the direction of your outstretched finger until it reaches just below its target. Then, slowly move your mirror up and down so it sweeps across your target and hopefully catches their attention.

Proper aim and sunlight are crucial for this method, so it’s best to practice it beforehand with a friend. 

Flashlights are better options for nighttime when there’s no sunlight to reflect. For frequent travelers, we recommend buying flashlights with a strobe feature as these are more visible to rescuers.

However, it might cause nausea when kept too close, so it’s best to set it a few feet away from where you’re sitting. Just enough for it to not make you sick.

4. Start a Signal Fire

If you have a lighter or match with you, then you can also try to start a fire to signal for help. This is a classic survival signal for help that is proven to be highly effective. During nighttime, even a regular fire can be detected by rescuers using IR or Thermal Night Vision devices.

smoky fire

A smoky fire is best for daytime and for those with people already searching for them.  However, there are a few considerations you have to take note of to avoid putting yourself in a more unsafe situation:

  • Start your fire in a visible, preferably open, space where both the smoke and the light can be seen.
  • The first should be closely monitored and should not spread farther than it should. Do not start a fire in a place with strong winds or in the middle of dried grasslands.
  • Keep the fire at a controllable size. You can increase the smoke by throwing in evergreen boughs or a tire even. You can also use car oil but it is quite dangerous.
  • Consider the weather. If there is fog, then you should try to produce black smoke instead of white smoke as this is more visible. To do so, you can use brake fluid, plastics, or petroleum.

5. Prop Up a Large, Bright Flag

You can also use flags to alert other people of your location. You can buy a ready-made one for future use, or create one yourself by tying a bright-colored shirt or cloth on a stick. 

Make it as LARGE as possible, and if you have a sharpie, you can also write ‘Help’ or ‘SOS’ on it. You can prop it up a stump as a free-standing signal for help, or lay it down on the ground for aircraft to see.

6. Mark Trails with a Survey Tape

If you’re uncomfortable with staying in one place, then a survey tape is one tool that would be beneficial for you. A survey tape is used by tying them onto trees as a mark that you have passed the area. This way, you can avoid getting lost again and rescuers can track your steps.

Survey tapes come in bright colors. To maximize its purpose, it’s best to also prepare an all-weather marker to write down the date and time it was attached. This way, the rescuers can track how long it took for them to find this signal and reach the person safely.

7. Write the Classic SOS Signal

Classic SOS Signal

Last but not the least, the signal taught to us way back when we were young –the SOS signal for help. This is the simplest signal you can send when lost or in an unsafe situation.

To do this, all you have to do is find an open space and spell out a large “SOS” on the ground. You can use a stick on sand or loose soil, or a chalk or marker on hard ground.  

What to Do While Waiting for Help

As a person making the emergency signal, you can’t expect to be rescued in just seconds. It could take 30 minutes, a few hours, to even a few days for searchers to safely reach your location. After sending a signal for help, rescuers should already be out searching so it’s best to just make sure that you’re safe and calm until then.

Here’s what you should do while you wait to be rescued:

  • Do your best to keep calm. Panicking is counter-productive and will just cause breathing problems. Reassure yourself and take deep breaths.
  • Stay where you are. Searchers will have a harder time finding you if you keep moving around. As much as possible, stay in one place unless you feel threatened or when you’ve run out of water.
  • Assess your situation. Look around you and be aware of your surroundings and the resources you can use. Ponder over what other signals you can do and keep yourself busy. 
  • Send signals frequently. If you can, try to do as many signals as you can to increase your chances of being found quicker.
  • Be patient. Spam calling 911 won’t help you. You’ll just end up running out of battery life and get agitated even more. Instead, try to make sure you feel safe where you are and make sure you have more than enough food and water to consume while waiting.

Other Ways to Signal for Help

The seven aforementioned ways are mainly centered on surviving outdoors. However, if we’re talking about another type of help, like during domestic violence situations or cases of child abuse and elder abuse, then that’s a completely different story.

In this case, victims mostly use the trapped thumb hand gesture – a discrete, simple hand signal introduced by the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) and the Women’s Funding Network (WFN).


Aside using a hand gesture, many girls experiencing violence also use coded language to alert authorities of their situation. Some of these can be used on voice calls, video calls, and in person. Examples of code words include ‘Angel Shot’, looking for ‘Angela’, and ordering pizza to 911. 

In the end, the best choice is to grab any chance to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help anyone facing abuse and violence. 


Whether you’re new or a veteran at hiking and exploring hidden spots, knowing how to signal is an essential skill. Not only does it save you from roaming around in danger, but it also boosts your self assurance during solo or group travels. 

When lost, your best option is to call 911 and request a rescue if you have a signal. But if you don’t, then it’s time to switch to primitive methods.

You can light up a signal fire, blow a whistle, write SOS on the ground, set up a large makeshift flag, and mark your steps using survey tape. Be patient, and always stay in a secure place.

Always remember, travels are more fun when you’re safe. 

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