Signaling for Help

Feb 2, 2017

Signalling for Help in the Great Outdoors


Signalling is one of the most under-practiced and under-emphasized skill sets in our survival arsenal, and it’s about time we took it more seriously. Follow my lead and learn how to assist in your own rescue with this roundup of signalling methods.

A signal mirror is one of the furthest reaching, non-electronic signal methods. Properly aimed, a signal mirror can shine a beam of daylight up to 10 miles, creating a flash of light that can catch the attention of distant aircraft, watercraft, vehicles, or persons on foot. Purchase a mirror with a sighting lens, and practice using it with a friend in a large open area. If you both have mirrors, you could even make a game of your practice time.

If you get caught in the wilderness with a mirror that doesn’t have a sighting lens, hold the mirror under your eye, direct the beam of light onto the tip of an outstretched finger, and then place that illuminated finger just below your target. Sweep the mirror VERY slowly right to left and up and down. This should sweep the beam across your target and hopefully get someone’s attention.

Handheld flares can provide a reasonably bright light for signalling, and it also makes a great back-up fire starter. To give your flare some more reach, duct tape it to a pole or branch and wave it around in the air. Tape only the end of the flare, so you’ll have more time before the flare ignites the duct tape. Make sure not to wave the flare directly overhead! In case it comes loose unexpectedly.

Flags have been used for signalling for thousands of years. And while there are commercially available signal flags, you also can create your own. A brightly colored or contrasting colored garment tied to a stick serves as a quick flag. Tie a poncho to a set of tent poles and you have a very large flag to wave, or lash this set-up to a sapling for a free-standing signal. A space blanket and other reflective material make an excellent flag. Your homemade flag could be virtually any shape, so long as it is a large panel of material that doesn’t blend into the surroundings. Flags can also be laid out on the ground for land to air signalling (if required).

Signal fires are the last method we will touch on in this post. Fire is your best friend in the wilderness, and can be used as a very effective signal for help. Always remember that there is a fine line between control and danger when lighting and maintaining big fires, though. When building a signal fire, these important considerations should be taken: your fire should be in a very visible area, so that both the smoke and light it produces are visible. The fire should be in a place where it won’t get away from you. The middle of the dried grasslands on a breezy day is a very bad place to burn a big fire. Do not, ever, let the fire get so large that you cannot put it out with the means you have at your disposal.

Lastly, think about contrast. Unless you have a ton of birch bark or similar wood, everything else you would burn in the wild will produce a white smoke. If it is cloudy or foggy outdoors, no one will notice your white smoke against a white sky. Try to find some birch or even throw a few ounces of motor oil or brake fluid, plastic pieces, or any other petroleum-based substance you might have readily available, into the fire to produce black smoke, which is much more noticeable.

Stay Safe, Play Hard!


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