Wilderness Survival: Know Your Distress Signals

by Chris on May 23, 2011 · 11 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors, Survival

Let’s say your plane crashes on a desert island and you’re stranded with only a rugby ball as your friend (a volleyball isn’t a manly enough companion for you). Each day you scan the skies, waiting, hoping, aching, to spot a rescue plane coming your direction. If a plane does buzz your island, will you be able to catch the pilot’s attention, or will he fly on by, oblivious to the crazed bearded man screaming below?

Cell phones and GPS die and break. Knowing how to signal your distress with natural resources and basic tools is a valuable skill. Whether you’re marooned on an island or lost in the wilderness, a man needs to know how to get help.

Signal Fire 101

Make sure you don't miss your chance for rescue while hunting for a pig.

The most common and most effective method of signaling for help, assuming you don’t have any form of electronic tech, is the signal fire.  A well-built signal fire will attract attention for miles in every direction.  It also has the added benefit of indicating to an airborne rescuer (i.e. helicopter) what the wind conditions are like in your location.  A good signal fire differs in several ways from your basic camp fire or cooking fire, however, and you will want to make sure you get these differences right in order for your signal to be as effective as possible.

First, you will need to evaluate your resources.  If you are in an area with an abundance of dry wood, there is no reason why you shouldn’t keep your signal fire lit as long and often as possible.  However, if you are in an area with little fuel available, you are much better off preparing a pyre and waiting until the appropriate moment, such as sighting a search and rescue plane, occurs.  You will want to place the pyre(s) in a large, open area on high ground where they are easily visible if possible.  Consider building not one, but three of these pyres and placing them about 100 paces apart in a triangular configuration.  Three is understood to be an international indicator of distress, as is the triangle layout.

As for the construction of these pyres, you will want to build them in a manner that allows the wood to stay dry and ready to be lit.  Furthermore, you will want to be sure that they are able to be lit immediately if possible.  To accomplish this, build an elevated platform for your fire.  Lean three long, straight boughs together in a teepee formation and bind them at the top with wire, cord, or vine.  Then create a platform halfway down the branches by tying cross-thatched branches to the three supports.  With this support system in place, you are ready to add your fuel.

An alternative to the teepee method.

You want to have good, dry tinder for the first layer.  If you can find one, an abandoned bird’s nest makes excellent tinder, as does paper, wood shavings, or dry grass.  After laying out a thick layer of tinder, layer on small wood kindling in the form of small broken up branches.  Just as with a regular fire, as you add layers, the size of the fuel should increase as well.  For a fire that burns slower but still emits a great deal of smoke, you can add a layer of peat moss, wet leaves, or other decaying plant life on top of your main fuel wood.

Your signal fire needs to produce a great deal of smoke, so the final layer should consist of green, leafy vegetation or brush.  Green, living brush creates a thick white smoke almost immediately when added to a burning fire.  If you are stranded with a non-functioning vehicle, you can place tire rubber and crank-case oil on the top for a thick plume of black smoke, which makes your smoke more visible on a overcast day.

At night, creating smoke is no longer as important and instead you want large visible flames.

Tree Torch

As an alternative to the traditional signal fire, you can create what the US Army calls a “tree torch.”  If you can locate a tree in a clearing which has green leaves and is a considerable distance away from other trees (thus less likely to spark a forest fire), you can use it to make a giant torch.  Load all easily reachable branches with dry tinder that will light easily.  When lit, the tinder will burn while the living tree creates a massive smoke plume which will be visible for miles.

Audible Signals

Aside from signal fires, there are several other methods of signaling you should have at the ready.  Regarding noise-based signaling, you will want to follow the rule of threes as well.  If you have a firearm, three shots spaced five seconds apart will signal distress.  Additionally, by spacing the shots out you give anyone within earshot time to identify the sound and then focus in on the direction it is emitting from.  Failing to space the shots out will likely result in anyone who hears them assuming you are a hunter who missed his first shot and is firing consecutive follow-up shots.

If you don’t have a gun with you, a whistle also makes an excellent signal.  There really is no excuse for not having a whistle in your pack, as they are light and take up virtually no space.  Again, follow the rule of threes when signaling.  The added benefit of a whistle is that it requires little effort (as opposed to prolonged yelling) and it will never run out of ammunition.  Even if you are completely incapacitated, as long as you are lucid enough to put the whistle in your mouth you will be able to signal with it.

Visible Signals

In addition to your signal pyres, you can also build signal mounds indicating someone in the area is in distress.  These are essentially three large rock piles arranged in a triangle in an open area visible from the sky.  The taller the better, since taller structures will cast longer shadows, making them much more visible.  If you are not immobilized and intend to stay on the move, use rocks or fallen logs to create a large arrow pointing in the direction you are traveling.  Again, the higher and larger the better, making sure that your arrow is a minimum of ten feet long.  Remember that if you do this, you will need to maintain travel in the indicated direction.  Straying from your indicated course would be a potentially fatal error and could leave search and rescue looking in the wrong area.

Flashlights and strobes are another obvious choice for signaling.  If you have a target you are attempting to signal, flash out SOS in Morse code to make them aware of your situation (three short flashes, three long flashes, three short flashes). Another option is using a reflective metal or mirror to redirect available light for use as a signal.  Signal mirrors are included in many first aid survival kits, but things like belt buckles can do in a pinch.

Finally, assuming your signal is successful, you’ll need to be able to understand the signal being sent back to you.  If an airplane flies overhead and rocks back and forth, dipping its wings consecutively, your message has been seen and is understood.  At night, acknowledgment of a signal is accomplished by repetitive flashing of a green running light.  If they have seen your signal but do not understand, they will fly a circle above you.  In this event, you need to make every effort to clarify your situation.  Holding your arms up in a Y pattern will indicate that yes, you do need help.  Holding one arm up and one arm down, signifying an N shape, will indicate that no, you do not need assistance.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tyler S May 24, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I am a survival guide and teach classes on wilderness/swamp survival. There are two number 1 rules: Do not go wandering around, stay put; never lose the will to survive. You must understand that moving around makes it harder to pinpoint where you might be. People know you are missing and they will try to find you, it doesn’t help if you are constantly changing position (what if they checked there already). Also, never lose the will to survive, whatever thought you need to keep you pushing forward, never lose it. There is a story where a man was stranded in the desert and beat the odds for weeks. He finally got rescued by signaling a plan with the rear-view mirror from his car. They asked him, “what kept you going.” He replied, “I’m going through a rough divorce and will be damned if my wife gets all of my stuff if I die.”

Also, rescuers know what the turnaine, trails, areas, etc. are supposed to look like. Leave clues by making things out of place and if you do have to move, leave make-shift arrows pointing the way you went.

2 Joe May 25, 2011 at 3:25 am

I was lost in the Philippine Sea for almost three weeks this past January. Tyler is right on both accounts, but not losing the will to survive was probably the biggest thing for us. By keeping a positive attitude, we were able to keep our morale high and that made all the difference in the end. Additionally, I’ve had more scrapes with death than I ever wished to have while deployed, but the will to survive helped me come home every time.

3 Thomas May 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I was stuck in the wilderness once and kept moving relentlessly in the direction I knew there was a road. I finally reached the road. If I had just sat where I was, I’d still be there, albeit in the form of a desiccated skeleton.

4 don Roberto May 25, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Two things: one nifty, one really important.

First, the new Mini-Maglites have four settings: two brightness settings, a strobe setting, and an SOS setting! Invaluable.

Second, if you make it out of the wilderness by yourself, your last communication must be to make sure anyone looking for you knows you’re safe. Don’t be so grateful to be home that you collapse in front of Cash Cab while someone’s out there risking life and limb looking for you.

5 TubbyMike May 26, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Strangely, I have an old (read not-smart) phone, a Sony Ericsson, with a built in camera flash that can be set to signal SOS, but my new iPhone doesn’t have this capability. I guess there’s an “app for that” but I can’t see how flashing SOS on a screen would be as visible as doing the same with a camera flash light. Ah, the march of technology.

6 Mike May 27, 2011 at 9:17 am

I think one of the most obvious and easily doable ones was left out. Writing the letters SOS on the ground with a contrasting material. Maybe rocks, or wood on a grassy clearing, a can of bright yellow paint on virtually any surface, anything else you can think of. Make the letters 15 feet tall, and an airplane can easily read it.

7 Henri May 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm

@ Mike @ Thomas – yes, putting together your comments and adding my own – when moving in a survival situation, one should always leave contrasting marks behind if possible with explanation letters of the ordeal but also use the SOS sequence of 3 marks 3 times – lets say three rocks in a line and three lines in a row with a arrow pointing to the direction of travel or hideout location.

The tree torch is new to me – a great idea!

8 AmateurRadio May 28, 2011 at 10:45 am

I’m noting that Chris was talking about a desert island. You’re there; you’re alone; he’s not talking about lack of food or water. He’s talking about getting rescuers’ attention to get back home. Perhaps you start off with signals in one place (where you crawled out of the drink) and move, looking for a more beneficial place to set up whatever you need.

But since we’re digressing, Tyler S is correct: as a rule, it’s better to stay put, signal, and keep a spirited will to survive. It doesn’t matter what that will is based on; it could be pure cantankerousness: “they’ll have to KILL me before I die!” or it could be something like obligation to family, to things you want to do before you die, or to some combination. It could even be something ridiculous: “I have to live long enough to see “them Dodgers” win. Whatever makes you feel the need to live, keep living on it.

Thomas says he’d be desiccated if he hadn’t moved. It could be true. Most people who intentionally go into the wilderness have some idea of the large landmarks (roads, rivers, distinctive mountains, etc). Obviously, Thomas is one of these, at least on the referenced incident. Let’s point up that Lindsay Lohan would be lost in a forest of three trees, while her navigation of courthouses would probably put wilderness survivalists to shame. A man’s got to know his limitations. If you don’t understand navigation or the terrain you’re in, STOP! (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan).

Staying put and signaling is statistically more successful for those who are truly lost.

don Roberto makes a very meaningful point: if you’re saved, deconstruct your distress signals or arrange for their deconstruction. It’s not right to let others endanger themselves to save you if you are already saved.

Three is indeed the international distress signal. Anything in threes should make anyone observing them pique a concern. Chris is right on this and on the matter of triangles. Obviously, not every triangle or set of three is a distress signal (i.e., bird hunters are not allowed to magazine more than three rounds, so you might hear three bangs that are not a distress signal. But if there’s any other oddity, maybe it’s something to check).

However, I must take issue with Chris on calling this the “rule of threes.” The Rule of Threes is a means of prioritizing activity when you are trapped or lost. “Three minutes without air; three hours without shelter; three days without water; three weeks without food.” Some add “three seconds without hope” and/or “three months without love.” Three is not always correct, but it does put things in perspective: if you’re in a true survival situation, and you are not without air and not bleeding to death, establish functional shelter. You can fuss with the rest later. If it could happen that a search will start for you in less than a day or two, it probably won’t be before you’d be long since done establishing shelter. Get the shelter going.

9 T-Bagg June 5, 2011 at 2:21 pm

A CD can work as a signal mirror; You can use the opening in the center to aim the flash. I did this just last week to signal a boat. I wasn’t stranded just signalling my buddy for the pick up.

10 djones June 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm

The signal mirror with a hole doesn’t work well. Instead signal with one hand while holding the other hand out stretched holding two fingers up (peace sign or hookum horns style) with the target between the up raised fingers . If the flashes of sunlight goes back and forth across the fingers it is hitting the target too…
credit :Cody Lundin , he has a good book

11 Christian D. September 21, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Excellent article, excellent comments. Thanks guys.

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