Throwback Thursday: Six Visual Distress Signals

By Suzanne Wiley published on in Camping & Survival

To avoid a trampling by a pack of wooly mammoths, navigation used to be a matter of life or death for us. Before we had Google Maps, we had a sky full of stars and the sun to guide our way. Humans have an innate ability to navigate, a natural sense of direction. We create visual maps of an area in our brains, and using many different cues and landmarks, we are able to orient ourselves. However, without practicing navigation, you can lose the art of finding yourself. But since the development of technological advances in electronic mapping, we have become too dependent on GPS units and the built-in map apps on our Smartphones. Researches have found that solely relying on our GPS leads to loss of situational awareness—something we relied on in the past to prevent ourselves from getting lost.

Plenty of experienced hikers have found themselves in dire straits because of minor slips in judgment such as over-confidence, attempting shortcuts or forgetting to tell someone their plan. Even a foolproof plan becomes disastrous when an accident occurs and you find yourself injured and unable to carry on. You would be surprised how quickly and easily it is to find yourself lost and disoriented if you wonder off the trail when hiking, hunting, backpacking or camping.

Those who describe themselves as having no sense of direction can identify with the panic one feels when they discover they don’t know where they are. Discovering we are lost throws us into a panic. Your body will immediately go into flight or fight mode. Fortunately, with mental preparedness and a strong will, this is generally a short-lived episode. The U.S. Forest Service writes, “A thinking man is never lost for long.” Outdoor adventurers live by this code—otherwise known as S.T.O.P.

S.T.O.P.
S- Sit down
T- Think
O- Observe
P- Plan

Experts say, the best thing to do when lost is to stay put. Nearly 100 percent of searches performed on a known lost person who stayed in place, or did not travel far from their point zero, are found alive. Moving around can take farther from your known point, exerts more energy, require the use of more food and water—invaluable resources when supplies are scarce. Knowing the international distress signals, and packing the right survival gear in your pack, will help Search and Rescue find you if you are ever lost or injured in the field.

First, there are a few rules you need to follow before heading out.

  1. Always tell someone where you are going, your route, and how long you will be gone. Inform your point of contact that you will let them know when you have safely returned home. They will know to alert the authorities if they have not heard from you on your expected return date and time.
  2. Buy a map of the area you’ll be operating within. Learn how to use a map and study it. Take the map with you. Even on short trips, do not leave the map in your car.
  3. Take a charged cell phone. Leave the phone off during your trip, using it only in emergencies. However, turn the phone on for at least five minutes every day. This will give the phone enough time to locate the nearest cell tower and record your approximate location, leaving an electronic trail of your locations. Even if there is not cell service, you may still successfully send out a text message.
  4. If you take a GPS unit or compass learn how to use the unit. Practice waypoints and backtracking on your GPS before you go.
  5. Pack a basic survival kit in your backpack.

Survival Basics

Hiker climbing up a rock incline wearing a backpack

Knowing the international distress signals and packing the right survival gear in your pack will help Search and Rescue find you if you are ever lost or injured in the field.

According to Robert Koester, a leading researcher in lost people, these are the 20 life-saving essentials you need to take with you:

S.T.O.P.

As soon as you find yourself lost or hurt, remember to S.T.O.P. If your cell phone has a signal call 9-1-1 or a friend and tell them where you are. At the very least, attempt to send out text messages to loved ones and tell them you need help. Before heading out in search of food, water and shelter, mark your location using trail tape. This is your point zero.

Priority number one is staying warm and dry to prevent hypothermia. One can die in 20 to 30 minutes from exposure. So, build a fire and establish shelter—both of which can double as signaling methods. This is why it is important to pack rain gear or a poncho and an extra set of warm clothing. After you have those two established, secure safe drinking water.

Do not wonder too far from your point zero in search of water. You might end up walking in circles and getting yourself further lost. There is no reason to fret over finding food right now. You will be able to survive—even up to a month—without eating. To learn more about finding and purifying water, read “Finding Alternative Sources of Water.”

Once you have established fire, shelter and water at point zero, it is time to find a clearing, or at least a spot visible from the air to conduct your rescue signals.

Distress Signaling

Signals work best in a clearing, away from shadows where you are visible from the air. If you can, find the highest point near point zero. International distress signals always come in threes. For example, three gunshots, three fires set in a triangle shape, or three Xs in a triangle shape made with stones, branches and other found items. A V also indicates you need assistance. The international call for help is SOS, marked by three dots, three dashes and then three dots—or three seconds, six seconds and three seconds with short pauses between each sequence. You can perform an SOS signal with smoke, flashlight or a signal mirror.

Fire and Smoke

Smoke signals are one of the best ways to draw attention to yourself. Even though building three fires in the shape of a triangle is known as an international distress signal, one fire will do—especially if you create a lot of smoke. If you have enough fuel to build three, you can put them either in a triangle shape or in a line, with 100 feet between each fire.

To make a fire for signaling, build a teepee-style fire and gather damp and green vegetation to burn on the top of the fire. The greener the vegetation, the more the smoke. Gray smoke can be visible for miles on calm, clear days. When it is windy, cloudy, foggy or rainy, there is less chance rescuers will see smoke. For black smoke, burn oil or rubber. Alternatively, you can add water to your fire to create smoke, taking caution not to smolder it!

To make the best smoke signals, dampen a piece of cloth and cover your fire three times in a row to create a pattern with the smoke billows—mimicking an SOS signal.

To conserve fuel, it is best to set the fires when you hear an aircraft. Remember fire safety at all times. Do not make your fires in a heavily wooded place where a spark can cause a forest fire.

To learn more about building fires, read these articles:

man using a signal mirror

When it is sunny, signal mirrors are visible up to 20 miles.

Mirrors

There are plenty of signal mirrors on the market designed specifically for aiming and signaling aircraft. When it is sunny, signal mirrors, like Adventure Medical Kits Rescue Flash creates a bright, wide flash visible up to 20 miles. However, signal mirrors are a learned concept and you must practice using them before the need arises. If you don’t have a signal mirror, you can use any shiny item, like a metal canteen, reflective blanket, tin can, tinfoil, a CD and even your eyeglasses.

When shopping for a signal mirror, purchase one with a hole in the center—this is how you aim. Do not flash too quickly and do not shine the signal directly into the cockpit of an airplane or helicopter to avoid temporarily blinding the pilot.

Whistles

Whistles are much more efficient than using your voice. Many whistles have up to a two mile range. They are lightweight, compact and take up little space in your pack. Alternatively, wear them around your neck on paracord. Blow three short blows, followed by three long and then again three short for SOS.

Markers

The VS-17 is a military distress signal flag issued to troops. The VS-17 is used to identify ground troops from the air. Traditional VS-17 flags are bright orange. You can mimic these distress flags with anything fluorescent or bright orange—such as a hunting safety vest, bandana or McNett Signal Towel. Many bright orange survival products will serve double duty, such as reflective trail tape, reflective orange tents, emergency blankets and bright orange paracord. Lay your orange signal flag on the ground in a clearing, visible from the air or tie it to a pole and wave it like a flag when you see aircraft or other hikers.

Lights

At night, signal SOS with your flashlight using three short flashes, three longer flashes and again with three short flashes. Repeat the sequence with a pause in between the sequence. An APALS battery-free adhesive light sticks to your clothing, shelter or pack. They can be seen up to half a mile away and has an 80-hour runtime. I like the Ultimate Survival Technologies 30 Day Lantern. It will run for 15 days on SOS mode and won Popular Mechanic’s Editor’s Choice award in 2012.

Writing

Writing a message of help works easiest in sand or snow. Tramp out the word help or SOS very large, in a clearing easily visible from the sky. Or use materials such as rocks or large branches.

When you spot search and rescue, stand up or sit up if you are injured and put your hands in a Y shape over your head to indicate you need help. Wave to draw attention and then back to a steady Y.

Packing the right equipment for a trip into the wilderness might just save your life. In 2012, a California man set out on a one-day, 17-mile hike through the Los Padres National Forest. He wandered off one of the 1,257 miles of designated trails, but found he could eventually go no farther due to overgrowth and brush. Lost, he stayed the night in the forest and used a signal mirror the next day, attracting the attention of a search and rescue helicopter, returning him to safety. Keeping your wits about you is just as important. Learn how to use your safety equipment and never leave home without telling someone your plan.

For more on surviving in the wilderness, read these articles:

Have you gotten lost while hiking, hunting, camping or backpacking? Share your experience with us in the comment section.

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Comments (14)

  • The Kluk

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    Regarding whistles: Here in the NorthEast, Acorn Caps are in abundance and can be used as a whistle so loud it can be ear shattering (,,figure of speech). I keep them scattered among my outdoors equipment so I’m never without while in the field.

    Reply

  • Gary

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    Like Davy Crockett once said when asked if he had ever been lost in the wilderness—no sir, but I was a might bewildered for three days.
    Yes, in a dense forest, I was a might bewildered for several hours while trying to find the trail back to camp. Has happened more than once. I have been trekking the wilderness since the late 1950s and am an expert backwoodsman but things happen! It can be a bit spooky while trying to figure it out. In teaching survival classes, my rule is to stop as soon as you realize there is a problem, take a deep breath, assess the situation and then take a physical inventory of everything you have—EVERYTHING—including shoelaces, eyeglasses, chopstick, and etcetera. You cant make a reasonable plan without having all the data!

    Reply

    • Gary

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      Well, apparently, auto correct does not recognize chapstick so changed the word to chopstick! Lol. I guess chopsticks might be useful but chapstick can be used as a firestarting aid better than chopsticks!

      Reply

  • Fred

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    Some comments. One, never wear cotton in the backcountry over your major body parts. Wear wool (I like Merino) or polyester. That includes pants, shirts, and socks. Two, I’m a bicyclist. In my mind there is no better color to be seen from far away than bright yellow. Carry a bright yellow vest. Three, the technology has changed since I used to backpack. You can carry a two man tent that weighs slightly over 2 lbs and a down sleeping bag that is ~2 lbs (put in plastic). These pack down small. A Neoshell parka breathes better than Gore-Tex and is waterproof. There are also very compact, lightweight stoves on the market. Carry some freeze-dried food. If you have to overnight it in the wilderness, these items will make it more bearable. Why suffer, when you can make an overnight stay inconvenient rather than life threatening?

    Reply

  • LEVELLER

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    There’s a “APP” worth considering called the “Theodolite” for either your Android, ‘Pad, iPhone, or iPod. Which consists of Augmented Reality Compass, GPS, Map, Zoom Camera, Rangefinder, and Inclinometer. A very useful App in Navigation and “Cache” Finding.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ LEVELLER

      I have on with a DUAL 150 Differential GPS which has ~6-inches of Accuracy as compared to within 3-meters…

      Reply

  • Scott Hicks

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    Good article! A couple of minor typos you may wish to correct:

    “… if you wonder [sp] off the trail when hiking, hunting, backpacking or camping.”

    “… you can add water to your fire to create smoke, taking caution not to smolder it!” Did you mean to write “smother it”? A smoldering fire is exactly what you get when you add water or water-containing green vegetation to your signal fire.

    As has been said to me when I confessed to having let my mind wander, “Well, don’t worry. In its condition it won’t get very far.”

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    The Human Eye can perceive the Color “Green” eight times better than any other Color. A 3.5-watt Green Laser can be Seen as Far as 20-miles in Daylight. Even Further at Night, and Most are Preprogrammed with the International “SOS”…

    Reply

  • Dr.Hess

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    The international distress signal known as SOS is not as described in the text. There is no pause between the character elements. It is: dotdotdotdashdashdashdotdotdot. With pauses, it is no longer the international distress signal.

    Reply

    • R W Foster

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      As a former USASA Morse Code intercept operator (3 years), I can assure you there is a pause between the letters of SOS. There is always a slight pause between letters so one receiving code can determine where one letter stops and another starts. And it is much easier for a “rookie” to not screw up the signaling if the short dit dit dit PAUSE dah dah dah PAUSE dit dit dit phrase is used.

      Reply

    • Gary

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      According to the international code for distress, SOS is the only string of letters that are not pause separated, but per my reply below, there definitely IS a pause between strings. That is the official distress signal—SOS, pause, SOS, pause, SOS, and etcetera. ALWAYS a pause between strings but NEVER between letters.

      Reply

    • Gary

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      The pause he was referring to as I understood him to mean is that there is a pause between the signals, not between the letters. It is never correct to run the signals continuously without a pause between the “s” & the “s”.

      Reply

  • Richard Fowell

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    On the subject of signal mirrors – I think the 2″x3″ plastic Rescue Flash signal mirror you mention is the best in it’s category, and it is part of my EDC. I do like the increased brightness and scratch-resistance of glass signal mirrors like the one in your photo, though, despite the increased weight and concern for breakage. Here’s a good writeup on glass signal mirrors, how they work, how to use them, and how to make sure the one you buy, works: http://www.equipped.com/phony_signal_mirrors.htm

    Reply

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