Distress signals

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If you are in the outdoors and lost or in need of help, here are some ways you can signal for help, either to attract attention or to guide your rescuers to you.

Visual signals

Visual signals can include fire, smoke, flares, and many other means of signalling.


During darkness, fire is an effective visual means for signalling. Build three fires in a triangle (the international distress signal) or in a straight line with about 25 meters between the fires.

When constructing signal fires, consider your geographic location. Find a natural clearing or the edge of a stream where you can build fires that the forest will not hide. You may even have to clear an area.

A burning tree (tree torch) is another way to attract attention. Always select an isolated tree so that you do not start a forest fire and endanger yourself.


During the day, smoke is visible from a long distance and you can make a smokey fire to indicate your location, using leaves and green branches produces the most smoke. During daylight, build a smoke generator and use smoke to gain attention. The international distress signal is three columns of smoke. If you practically smother a large fire with green leaves, moss, or a little water, the fire will produce white smoke. If you add rubber or oil-soaked rags to a fire, you will get black smoke.

Smoke signals are effective only on comparatively calm, clear days. High winds, rain, or snow disperse smoke, lessening its chances of being seen. At night, smoke is not visible so rather use dry fuel to produce the brightest flames.

Always remember that using fires or flares can be very dangerous, especially in dry areas or wind, so never use these methods except in a real emergency.


The device consists of a pen-shaped gun with a flare attached by a nylon cord. When fired, the pen flare sounds like a pistol shot and fires the flare about 150 meters high. Never fire a flare if you are not in an emergency: you could start a fire, or someone could think it is a real emergency and call out the emergency services.

Mirrors or shiny objects

On a sunny day, a mirror is your best signalling device. You can use a signalling mirror to make signals using the reflected sunlight. The flashes of sunlight create a very strong signal which can be seen from a long distance. You can buy an actual signalling mirror, but you can also use a normal mirror, a CD / DVD, or any reflective surface as long as it is flat (curved surfaces do not work). Signalling using a mirror takes a bit of practice. If you don't have a mirror, a cellphone screen will work. You can also try another smooth, flat surface like a plate or a similar object that will reflect the sun's rays.


At night you can use a flashlight to send an SOS to an aircraft. You can also use groups of 3 flashes.


Spreading clothing on the ground or in the top of a tree is another way to signal. Select articles whose colour will contrast with the natural surroundings. Arrange them in a large geometric pattern to make them more likely to attract attention.

Audio signals

A whistle is a lightweight piece of kit which you should always carry for signalling in an emergency, providing an excellent way for close-up signalling. In some documented cases, they have been heard up to 1.6 kilometres away.

The international distress signal is to blow 3 blasts on the whistle, and keep repeating this for one minute, then pause for a minute, then repeat for another minute. Keep repeating the whistling to guide your rescuers until they reach you.

Codes and signals


You can use lights or flags to send an SOS—three dots, three dashes, three dots. The SOS is the internationally recognised distress signal in radio Morse Code. A dot is a short, sharp pulse; a dash is a longer pulse. Keep repeating the signal. When using flags, hold flags on the left side for dashes and on the right side for dots.

Ground to air emergency code

If you know the right symbols, you can communicate with an air rescue by laying out patterns using sleeping bags, groundsheets, logs, leaves or other materials. Remember size, ratio, angularity, straight lines, and square corners are not found in nature. You must consider how the signal will contrast with the natural background.

Ground-to-air Signals

Body signals

When an aircraft is close enough for the pilot to see you clearly, use body movements or positions to convey a message.

Never misuse distress signals

If you ever heard the story of "the boy who cried wolf", you will understand why you should only ever signal for help when you are really in distress, and never just for fun. Never blow your whistle, set off an emergency flare, or signal for help if you don't need help. Not only does it waste a lot of time for the emergency services, it also puts other people at serious risk and expense, and will get you into a lot of trouble.

See also