How to Signal for Help in the Wilderness

How to Signal for Help in the Wilderness

When you are lost in the wild, stranded on an island or caught in the snow one of the most important things you can know is how to signal for help.

Often times it seems we are focussed on the survival steps of finding water and getting shelter, but the priority is to get out of that situation as quickly as possible before our health diminishes and things turn worse. A big step towards that is being able to signal for help and getting a quick ride back to safety.

Signals are a bit part of survival situations and for good reason. With a plane flying over, a search party on the lookout for you, or just other people near your remote vicinity, they are much more likely to see you and know that you are lost or in danger if you are signalling for help. And chances are you are not going to have the right survival equipment with you, so it pays to know this information, as you never know when you might need to use it.

#1 Mobile Phone

Apple also has an emergency system localised to the country you are in.

It obviously goes without saying, your primary piece of survival equipment and the best tool you are most likely to have (I don’t know many people without one) is a phone.

First, the most important thing is that whenever you head outdoors, for a hike or in bad weather, you should always take your phone. If you are one of those ‘retreat in a log cabin with no technology‘ kind of people, that’s fine, but still take your phone. If you fall over and break your leg, the ideal dream of a retreat is not going to be so fun.

When it comes to being in the mountains and the rocky areas, I have been to some pretty remote parts of the world. In fact, during work in desolate areas I haven’t had reception but I have had SOS emergency reception, and in survival cases that is exactly what this is for. If you don’t have normal reception or service, this is the first thing that you should be trying through your phone before going to any of the next methods.

There are also new strategies coming out to ensure that your smartphone can be used in situations where you do not have reception by using a mesh network. These would only work, however, if the person was in range and if their smartphone was also paired with a meshing device.

When it comes to smartphones, there are also some very practical uses that you should be using in a survival situation, such as:

  • Using the flashlight on the back of your iPhone to signal for help at night using repeated flashes and not in a pattern
  • Using the screen of the phone (glass) as a reflector to reflect sunlight towards a search plane or if you are on a mountain, towards a vehicle.

#2 Satellite Phone

Satellite phones are a great option, but come with a cost, generally, most satellite phones run from $700 and up. On top of that there’s the satellite minutes that you would buy on a pre-paid card.

But with that high price tag comes the high reliability of a satellite phone being able to be used anywhere in the world. Satellite phones, unlike mobile phones which operate through cell phone towers, operate through roving satellites, which means there is a clear consistent connection.

#3 Personal Locator Beacon

An EPIRB, or Emergency Position Indicator Radio, is a locator beacon and is much cheaper than a satellite phone but just as reliable.

I used EPIRB as most people know what they are, but these are specifically for boat owners. For people on foot, a person would use a PLB, or personal locator beacon, which is smaller and has a shorter battery life. 

What does it do? It sends out a signal as to your exact position when you are in an emergency. It does this via a powerful GPS beacon, homing capability and has a strobe light on the top. A PLB’s GPS system is highly accurate and relays your exact positioning to a global network of search and rescue satellite systems.

This is definitely something most regular outdoors wanderers should be using.

#4 Signal Mirror

As mentioned before, you can use the screen of your phone as a signal mirror, but it is not going to be as good as a mirror in the case of sun reflection. When it comes to mirroring it is quite simple, any reflective material can be used during the to reflect sunlight towards a certain direction.

Most of the reflection is going to be in an upwards direction, so this is ideally suitable for signalling to search planes or choppers of your position. The only reasonable time you would be able to signal to a group or vehicles on the ground is if you were up on a ridge, mountain or cliff.

Most mirrors are quite cheap to buy and if you don’t have one, most other shiny reflective surfaces such as the lid of a tin, glass, makeup mirror, or metal from a smoothened can could be used.

Survival signalling mirrors, which are quite cheap, have a sighting hole in the middle. Here’s how to use one to signal for help:

  1. Bring the mirror up to your eye with the reflector side facing forward
  2. Make sure that the reflective surface is not obscured by anything
  3. Tilt the mirror up toward the sun (not directly into it, though), until you see a small light shining onto a designated area in front of you, or your hand.
  4. Once you’ve found the light, point it at your target.
  5. Keep the bead of light in view as you do this.

#5 Signal Whistle

Signal whistles are another distress item that alternatively focuses on sound rather than light and might be much more suitable than a signal mirror in certain circumstances.

The whistle is great for instances at night time where no light is available and is also a reason why lifevests have it on planes. At night, when you are floating in the water, a whistle is a clear high-pitched sound that can travel over quite some distance.

#6 Flashlight

Using your hand in front of a flashlight, or as mentioned previously a flashlight on a phone, can signal your need for rescue to people in a surrounding area, especially when it is pointed towards the direction of likely path of potential rescuers or search parties.

#7 Flare

If you’re lucky enough to be caught out with a flare, great. These are a really good way for search parties to find you, although they do not last very long. There are different types of flares from hi launch red star flares to smoke distress flares that simply cause a bright light and smoke.

When used in the sea a flare is a remarkable tool for emergency distress as it can be seen clearly from far on the horizon. In a hiking area, crowded with trees and mountains, an ideal flare is a red star parachute flare which can be launched by punching the cap onto the primer at the bottom of the flare and gives a good hang time as it slowly drops.

While not exactly a flare, a Cyalume or glow stick is another method of signalling and can be thrown up in trees, or swung around in circles on the end of a piece of string. These also last for quite some time so while not as strong as a flare, can provide a longer light source for signalling.

#8 Bright material to signal for help

There is a reason why hiking equipment and gear is bright, it’s for emergencies. The difference between military and civilian hiking gear is that military focus on not being seen, whereas for civilians it is rather the opposite.

If you manage to injure yourself outdoors and are unable to move, or you hit your head and pass out, wearing camouflage gear in the wilderness is not going to help your likeliness of being found at all. So when you go outdoors, consider the colour of your attire and think ‘will someone be able to see me easily in this?’.

While you can see this one man used bright objects to wave to search crew, it was the HELP spelt in palm leaves on the beach that helped these men after their boat capsized in the Micronesian islands

A good tip is to take a look at a lot of cold weather gear and see what colours are used. Bright blue and hot pink are popular colours. These are also highly visible in most wilderness terrains, however, some emergency service workers have told me they find the pink easier to spot in the wild than the orange, so keep this is mind.

There are other methods of bright material that can be used to attract attention, especially the attention of overhead planes or other search crews. Before the introduction of IR reflectors and IR strobes, the military used panel markers to signal for air drops. This would just be a rollout mat of a bright colour. If you’re in an emergency situation and have a bright tent or any bright jacket, simply lay it out on the ground in a visible area to help get spotted. If you are on a beach, any dark colours against the white sand which are laid out to spell ‘help’ or ‘SOS’ is a great way to let aircrews know your location (reference the picture above).

#9 Fire!

While all of these ways are effective for signalling, in a true survival situation making a big smoking fire is going to draw the most attention to your position. And there’s plenty of ways you can make a fire if you don’t have matches with you.

To make a fire with a lot of smoke, you need to make it big and strong so that you have enough of a flame to burn stuff that generally isn’t easy to burn. This would be things like green sticks and logs, damp rotten wood, plastic or rubber. Make sure you do this in an open space and not under trees or a forest canopy otherwise the strength and thickness of the smoke will dissipate before it pushes through to the top of the trees and won’t be that strong.

Of course, no one is going to see smoke at night, so if you’re trying to signal for help at night with a fire, you need to have a bright fire with a lot of quick-burn fuel (the opposite of a smokey day fire).

#10 Emergency Blanket

A lot of survival kits and medical kits carry an emergency thermal blanket or space blanket which has plenty of uses for being such a conveniently sized piece of survival equipment. For what it is, just a small fold-up foil blanket, it keeps warmth sealed in around the body and is also highly visible from the air and ground.

These are ridiculously cheap and should be carried outdoors.

If you have any other suggestions on how to signal for help, note it down in the comment section below and don’t forget to check out 11 ways you can start a fire without matches. You can also read about one young man’s 11-day survival story in the wilderness.

1 Comment

  1. Raleigh Epp


    Why not use a Greatland Laser for signalling?

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