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Signaling for Help

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Proper signaling can mean the difference between being rescued and being left for dead in the wilderness. 

A good survival kit can be extremely helpful in carrying out the following signaling techniques:

  • Fire. Most effective during darkness. Build three fires in a triangle formation (international distress signal). Build the fire in a natural or man-made clearing to avoid starting a forest fire. Burning a tree will also attract attention, but is extremely dangerous, as it may start a forest fire. Burn a tree only as a signaling technique of last resort! If you decide to burn a tree, always select one that is set apart from other trees, and preferably near a water source.
  • Smoke. Effective during daylight. Create three columns of smoke (international distress signal). Create white smoke against a dark background and vice versa. To create a white smoke, smother a fire with green leaves, moss or water. To create black smoke, add rubber or oil-soaked rags to the fire.
  • Mirrors or Shiny Objects. Best on a sunny day. Mirror signals can be seen over 70 miles under normal conditions in most environments.
  • Flashlight. Best at night. Use a flashlight to send an SOS signal--three short blips followed by three long blips.
  • Clothing. Spread clothing on the ground or on top of a tree. Use bright colors if possible. Arrange the clothes in an unnatural geometric pattern to distinguish the clothes from your surroundings.
  • Natural Material. Use natural materials to spell out an SOS. In snow-covered areas, tramp down the snow to form letters and fill in with contrasting material such as twigs or dirt. In sand, use vegetation. In brush-covered areas, cut out patterns in the vegetation. In tundra, dig trenches or turn sod upside down. As a general rule, use material that contrasts with the background.

The following is a table of Ground-to-Air Emergency Code:



Require Assistance V
Require Medical Assistance X
Need Food And Water F
No or Negative N
Yes or Affirmative Y
Proceeding In This Direction -->
All Is Well LL

If your signal is acknowledged by an aircraft and understood, the pilot will rock the aircraft from side to side (during daylight or moonlight) or will make green flashes with the plane's signal lamp (during nighttime).

If your signal is received but not understood, the aircraft will make complete circle (during day or moonlight) or will make red flashes with its signal lamp (during night).

Body signals:

  • Both arms raised with palms open means, "I need help."
  • One arm raised with palm open means, "I do not need help."

For more detailed information about signaling, see Chapter 19 ("Signaling Techniques") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.


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