How to Signal for Rescue in a Survival Situation


How to Signal for Rescue in a Survival Situation


Survival situations can be daunting and unpredictable. One crucial skill to have is knowing how to signal for rescue. This guide provides clear instructions on this vital aspect of survival.

Signaling in the Wilderness

Survival is about making your presence known. Here are some basic yet effective ways:

  • Visual signals: The most traditional methods. They involve creating high contrast with the surrounding environment and, for example, creating symbols or SOS signals using rocks, branches, or other materials.
  • Smoke signals: Useful for attracting attention from afar during the daytime. Create smoke by burning green leaves or branches.
  • Light signals: Handy during the night. Use flashlights or even your cell phone's light, if possible.

Visual Signals

Creating visible markers is an effective way to attract attention. They should be large, contrasting with the environment, and arranged in an unnatural pattern. You can:

Visual signals play a vital role in attracting the attention of distant rescuers during emergencies. These signals significantly enhance your chances of being located and rescued, particularly in expansive environments such as the sea or wilderness. Here's a deeper dive into some common types of visual signals:

  1. Fire: Fires can be evident, especially at night. The smoke from a fire can also act as a signal during the day. Building three fires in a triangle, a universal distress symbol is advisable.
  2. Ground-to-air signals: Making large symbols on the ground can distress passing aircraft. The SOS signal is universally recognized, but unusual patterns could catch a pilot's attention.
  3. Mirrors and Reflective Surfaces: If you have a mirror or any reflective surface, such as a mobile phone screen or aluminum foil, you can use it to reflect sunlight. Aim the reflected light toward the rescue aircraft or ship to get their attention. This method is particularly effective on sunny days.
  4. Clothing and Material: If you have brightly colored clothing or materials, use them to make signals. You can lay these materials on the ground or tie them to the top of a tall tree.
  5. Flares: Flares are an excellent signaling device, particularly at sea. They are bright, attract attention quickly, and are universally recognized as distress signals.
  6. Flags and other visual signals: Waving a banner or any brightly colored cloth can help draw attention. If you're at sea, raise your signal as high as possible to be seen from a distance.

Remember, making your signals large, contrasting, and noticeable is vital. The more your signal stands out from the surrounding environment, the more likely it is to be seen.

Smoke Signals

Smoke signals are a time-honored means of communication over long distances. These are especially useful in a survival situation where traditional means of communication might not be available. Let's delve deeper into this:

  1. Importance: The smoke from a fire can be seen from miles away, making it an excellent tool for signaling. The color and amount of smoke can indicate your presence and need for help from potential rescuers.
  2. How to Create: To create a smoke signal, build a fire. Once the fire is stable, green branches, leaves, or even rubber can be added to produce smoke. Please ensure your safety first while using these materials.
  3. Signaling for Help: Three puffs of smoke or three fires in a row is a recognized signal for distress. If possible, aim to create large plumes of smoke for maximum visibility.
  4. Choosing the Right Color: Darker smoke is typically more visible against the sky than lighter smoke. However, the goal is to produce smoke contrasting with the background for maximum visibility.
  5. Safety: Remember to keep fire safety in mind. Ensure the fire is controlled and fully extinguished once you're finished signaling.
  • Remember, the aim is to make the smoke signals as noticeable as possible against your environment, significantly increasing the likelihood of your rescue.

Light Signals

Light signals can be vital in survival situations, especially at night or in low-light conditions. They are highly visible and can attract the attention of potential rescuers. Here's more about them:

  1. Importance: Light can be seen from a considerable distance, even in low visibility conditions. As a result, using light for signaling in survival situations can be a game-changer.
  2. Flashlights: If you have a flashlight, it can be used as a signaling tool. Flashing SOS in Morse code, three short flashes, three long flashes, and three quick flashes, is universally recognized as a distress signal.
  3. Signal Mirrors: Signal mirrors can also be highly effective in the right conditions. They work by reflecting sunlight toward a potential rescuer. Aim the reflected light at the aircraft or boat for maximum effectiveness and flash the signal mirror three times.
  4. Flares: Flares are an excellent tool for signaling distress, particularly if lost at sea. They are designed to emit bright light and smoke, making them highly visible even from a distance.
  5. Safety: Remember, flares are essentially controlled fires. Use them responsibly to avoid accidental injuries or fires.
  • Remember that the effectiveness of light signals dramatically depends on the conditions, such as the weather and light levels. Still, they can be a significant factor in survival scenarios when used correctly.

Signaling from the Water

Being lost at sea presents a unique set of challenges. Here are some water-specific rescue signals:

  • Flares: Marine flares are a standard distress signal. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for safe usage.
  • EPIRBs, short for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, are purpose-built devices that, in case of an emergency, transmit your exact location to Search and Rescue services.
  • Handheld VHF Radios: Use channel 16, the international distress frequency, to call for help.


Survival situations require quick thinking, resourcefulness, and knowledge of various rescue signaling methods. From visual signals using natural and man-made objects, smoke signals that can be seen from miles away, to light signals that pierce through the darkness, understanding and using these methods could mean the difference between being lost and being found.

Each type of signal has its advantages and situations where it is most effective, and a well-prepared adventurer will know how to use all of them. However, the most important thing is to stay calm and focused and think strategically about making your presence known to rescuers.

Remember, your safety is paramount; always consider the potential risks associated with each method. These signals can drastically improve your rescue chances when used properly and safely.

By incorporating these survival skills into your repertoire, you're one step closer to conquering any outdoor adventure that comes your way.


Q: What is the universal signal for distress?

A: SOS is universally recognized as a distress signal. It doesn't stand for any specific words but was chosen because it's easy to realize in Morse code.

Q: How effective are smoke signals?

A: Smoke signals can be very effective during the day, especially when appropriately created to produce a thick plume of smoke visible from a distance.

Q: What is an EPIRB?

A: EPIRBs, short for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, are purpose-built devices that, in case of an emergency, transmit your exact location to Search and Rescue services.

Q: Can you use a cell phone as a signaling device?

A: Yes, the light from a cell phone can be used as a signaling device at night.

Q: Are flares effective for signaling at sea?

A: Marine flares are a common and effective distress signal at sea. They can be seen from great distances and used day or night.


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