Lost or Injured in the Woods? 5 Ways to Send a Distress Signal

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You’ve seen distress signals in movies like Castaway or Life of Pi. The characters will quickly light a fire or frantically wave their hands as a plane passes overhead.  Depending on the level of drama, maybe the character gets rescued or not.

What Hollywood doesn’t depict is just how difficult it can be to make a distress signal.  This is problematic because many people take it for granted that they’d be able to make a distress signal if lost or injured in the wilderness.

Why You Need to Know Distress Signals

No one wants to believe that they will get lost or injured in the woods and require rescuing (especially that guy hiking in sandals).  That’s something that happens to “other” people or people with “less skills.”

But the reality is that there are approximately 5,000 search and rescue missions each year.  As increasingly more people visit National Parks, the number is increasing.

In 2014 (one of the latest years for which info is available), over 3,400 people required rescuing in US National Parks.  This number doesn’t even include people who went missing outside of National Parks!  161 of the people in these cases died. (Sources: 1, 2)

The people who need rescuing aren’t idiots (well, not always). Most often, they are day hikers who had bad luck or didn’t realize how quickly weather conditions can change in the wilderness.

If you are lost or injured in the wilderness, making a distress signal will help you be found faster.  In addition, signaling will give you something to do.  You are less likely to panic when you feel like you are doing something to help the situation instead of just passively waiting to be found.

The bottom line?
Don’t think you are invincible. No matter how skilled you are or how many precautions you take, you make still require rescuing – so be prepared!

5 Ways to Make a Distress Signal

There are many ways to signal for help.  You’ll have to assess your surroundings to determine which one makes the most sense.

For example, a smoke signal might not make sense when you are in an area at high risk of forest fire.

Whistle

It is smart to always bring a whistle with you into the wilderness.  Many hiking backpacks now even have whistles built into the sternum straps.

My daughter doesn’t always carry her own pack while hiking (though she should; at least she’d have basic survival supplies if we got separated).  That’s why I make sure she wears a whistle around her neck.

To signal for help with a whistle, blow it in short bursts three times.  Then wait a minute and listen for a response.  If you don’t hear anything, blow again. Continue doing this so rescuers can zero in on your position.

backpack with whistle
Ideally, everyone in your group (even the kids!) should carry a backpack with basic survival supplies including a whistle.

Smoke Signal

If you need rescuing during the day, you can make a smoke signal.  This differs from a normal campfire since campfires (when properly made) won’t produce much smoke.  Ideally, you make three smoke signals that are positioned in a triangle shape.  Each smoke signal fire should be about 100 paces from the other.

To make the smoke signal, first gather lots of materials.  You will need tinder, kindling, and fuel wood.

You will also need lots of green wood (wood which is still alive), branches with lots of green vegetation on them, and/or grass.  These create a dense, white smoke.

You can also use rubber tires for a smoke signal. They will create black smoke, but this will be noxious to breathe in.

Build up a fire as you normally would. Let the fire burn down so you have many embers.  Then start piling your green vegetation on top of the embers.  You will get a lot of smoke.

Smoke signals work best on clear days.  On overcast days, it can be difficult to see the smoke.  At night, you should switch to a fire signal instead of smoke signal.

Tip: Make sure you always have a firestarter (matches, lighter, Ferro rod…) with you.  That way you will be able to make a smoke signal.  Otherwise, you’ll have a very difficult time trying to start a fire without matches.
Soldier practices making a smoke signal
A solider practices making a smoke signal

Fire Signal

When making a fire signal, you should be prepared to make three of them.  If you only make one fire signal, it could be mistaken as a campfire.

As with smoke distress signals, the fires need to be in a triangle shape.  Do not make fire signals in a row.  If positioned in a row, they will appear like one large fire to a plane passing overhead.  Your signal fires should be at a place with good visibility, such as on the top of hills or in a large clearing.

You need to be prepared to keep the fire going all night.  Gather a lot of wood for the fire before night falls.  If wood is limited, then use the star fire lay as it doesn’t require as much wood.

If wood is very limited, then you might consider making three large pyres instead. Then you’d wait until the ideal moment (such as when a helicopter flies overhead) to light the pyres.

Signal fire pyres are built a bit differently than campfires (though three campfires in a triangle would also work).  Ideally, you build “log cabin” walls out of large kindling or fuel wood. Then you ready a huge teepee of tinder and kindling within the walls.

log cabin construction for signal fire
Log cabin construction for signal fire

Alternatively, you can build a very tall teepee configuration. Normally I would not put fuel wood on the initial teepee construction when building a campfire – I’d add the fuel wood gradually.  However, because signal fires need to burn for so long and be so visible, you will include lots of fuel wood on your pyre.

fire signal pyre
A teepee fire signal construction

Because signal fires are so large, it is important that you take extra precaution when building them.  Make sure absolutely no flammable brush is around the fire.  Otherwise, you’ll have to add forest fire to your list of survival concerns.

Signal Mirrors

Signal mirrors require a lot more skill to use than other types of signals.  They are also harder for rescuers to see.  Generally, signal mirrors are only used in situations where the rescuers already know the approximate location of the person, and that person doesn’t want anyone else to know their location – such as when rescuing soldiers on enemy territory.

However, if you have nothing else or a fire doesn’t make sense, you can use a mirror to signal for help.  Other shiny objects like belt buckles can also work.

Mirrors intended for signaling will have small holes in the middle.  This helps you aim the reflected light at the target better.  There will be instructions included with the mirror.

See this post for more on how to use a signal mirror.

Other Visual Signals

If you can’t use any of the other methods, you might try using one of these visual distress signals.  They aren’t as effective as the others but are better than nothing:

  • Headlamp or Flashlight Signal: Use the strobe feature on your flashlight or headlamp to signal for help. Or, you can move your hand in front of your flashlight to create an SOS message.  SOS is signaled as 3 short, 3 long, and then 3 short bursts.
  • Build a Large X or V Shape: You can make a giant X or V shape out of rocks or wood. These shapes are used to show that you need assistance.
  • On the Move: Generally, you should stay put if you are lost and need rescuing. However, if you must move for some reason, you can make a large arrow out of logs to point which direction you have gone.  The arrow will need to be at least 10 feet long to be visible in the air.  You will also have to continue in the direction you indicated, so be sure that you won’t be changing your course before you make the arrow.

In the meantime, you’ll be using the other survival skills talked about in this guide to stay alive.  While it is unlikely that you will ever need these skills, there’s no better time to start practicing than today.

Learn

How To Survive In The Wilderness

 
  • Wilderness Survival Kits
  • Water in the Wilderness
  • Shelters
  • Fire
  • Food
  • Navigation and Signalling
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