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Basic Distress and Rescue Signals for Different Circumstances

Posted by on 6/5/2013 to Signals & Navigation

Precautions - Notifying people of your general location BEFORE you get lost or stuck.

The most effective way to help yourself is to simply communicate with people about your whereabouts. This is by far the simplest life saving strategy anyone can do if they are to ever find themselves in a bad situation. Just keep people informed about the general location and times you will be here or there. Write a short itinerary outlining your travels plans and intentions and pass it on. This part can't be stressed enough, yet it's kind of beating a dead horse since you should already know this!

Passive Signaling - Leaving Signs for Rescuers

Chances are that you don't want to just sit around and wait for a plane to fly by and then run to the top of a hill screaming and waving your arms. That probably doesn't work too well. You have to leave clues for people that will alert them of 2 things: That you need help and where you are located.

When to Stay and When to Leave:

This isn't always a clear cut answer. But if you previously informed people of your whereabouts then STAY THERE! Or, if you are at a crash site (plane, car, etc...) Then it's best to stay put once again for AT LEAST 72 hours, but more if you can sustain your life for that long. It generally takes 72 hours for a search and rescue team to arrive, if they haven't gotten there by then, it may be risky sitting around and waiting depending what resources are available and whether or not you're capable of navigating to safety.

Leaving Trail Signs:

If you come across a trail and suspect that potential rescuers may be following near by, these are some universal signs that indicates to them what direction you are traveling.
Trail signs for straight ahead

These are some basic signs that indicate your direction is straight ahead or forward. When using sticks, simply create an arrow pointing in the direction you are traveling. When using small pebbles or pine cones you can create a arrow or a triangle with no base to indicate the same thing. If all you have is a few small rocks then aligning them as shown will indicate left or right as follows.

left sign with rocksright sign with rocks
I'm Left!I'm Right!

Expert Advice: "Trying to create lettering in terrain is often fraught with problems because it is difficult to gauge scale at ground level. You may think a 10' sign is huge but from 6,000 - 7,000 ft that's pretty much invisible.

If you use fire for a signal, make smoke and always set 3 fires in a triangular shape. The same can be done using rocks instead of a fire. This is the recognized international distress signal. Any regular shapes large enough can draw attention as nature very rarely creates such shapes."

SOS! - It Doesn't Actually Mean Anything...

But it can still save your life! (or our ship, or soul, or send out succour...) The reason the letters S.O.S were chosen as an international distress signal is because it was the simplest of recognizable signals in Morse code. You know, dot dot dot daaash daaash daaash dot dot dot. ( ...---... )  -Not to be confused with a weird upside-down smilie face.

These three big letters can be displayed anywhere and most people will figure something out. Some good places to leave this signal is on a sandy shore, a snowy field, a grassy plain, or any open area.

SOS on the beachsos in snow

Notice the CONTRAST when the the letters are filled in with a darker or more contrasting material. It really stands out a lot more! Make your letters and fill them in.

Signaling to an Aircraft:

aircraft signals from the ground

signals for kayaking

Kayaking Signals:

The signals shown to the right here were specifically drawn up to represent signals for kayaking but can really be applied to any paddling sport like boating, canoeing or rowing. This drawing is courteous of our friends at 

Other Important Tips:
  • At a crash site, leave signs that there are survivors such as a bright colored article of clothing hanging on a stick dug into the ground.
  • Learn how to properly use any signalling devices and tools at your disposal. Whistles, mirrors, flares and more are great ways to help signal for help, but only if you know when and how to implement them.
  • Be creative. I once saw an episode of Dual Survival where Cody Lundin and Joe Teti built a miniature hot air balloon out of an emergency blanket. I bet there are lots of ways to create obscure signs that will alert potential rescuers, just use that old noggin of yours, it might even be fun!
  • Signalling is all about CONTRAST and unnatural looking signs. Using those principles and some creativity and know-how, you should be able to get anyone's attention, if they're around.

Cliff's Recommended Survival Gear: Bear Grylls GPS - Survival Aid Tool

Skip's Recommended Survival Gear: Paracord Bracelet w/ Whistle - Survival Horn
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