Distress/Survival Signals

Distress and Survival Signals

Distress/Survival Signals are vital to aid rescuers in pinpointing your location in an emergency situation.

Cell Phone Coverage US
Cell Phone Coverage in the US - white areas show no cell service in that area.

I am continually asked why I still teach survival/distress signals on my Basic Survival and Bushcraft Courses, when most people these days carry cell phones with them venture out into the wilderness. The reason is simple, in survival situations cell phones are not to be relied on, as they can lose signal or power which then renders them useless and will not provide you with a chance of rescue. So, if you are an avid outdoor explorer or just getting into hiking or adventures sports, it is imperative that you understand what distress signals are and how to use them. And more importantly, it is all necessary to learn what items you should not use as a distress signal – as over the past 10-15 years various unskilled ‘survival instructors’ have been telling people to use things like laser pens. However, not only do laser pens cause unsafe conditions, it can land you in serious trouble. 

The Rule of 3's and 6's in Distress Signals

In survival training, there are always ‘rules’ to help people remember what they should do in a survival situation. Typically, the rule of 3’s has been applied to other uses in survival, but it actual stems from a survival handbook referring to distress signals. Most distress signals are given in a sequence of 3’s, for instance – three whistle blasts, three glints from a mirror, three fires arranged in a triangle shape and so on. However, distress signals in the alps are given in a sequence of 6’s. So, 6 blasts of a whistle, 6 signal fires arranged into two triangles, 6 bangs loud bangs, and so on.

Distress/Survival Signals you Should Use

There are a wide variety of ground signals which you should use to signal rescue teams. Typically, people will use three fires in a triangle configuration, which will be designed to emit smoke during the day, and flames by night. You can also use stones arranged in certain shapes and letters, like SOS or F, I, LL. You can also use special signaling mirrors, or even flares and smoke canisters. There is even technology which can be used, in the form of locator beacons or radios. However, to successfully signal your would-be rescuers, you must also understand the limitations of each signal and how best to increase your chances of being found. Typically, you should work on a triple redundant system. This means you have multiple signals ready to operate when you hear an aircraft or voices near-by. 

Understanding how Search and Rescuse Works

In most cases, when search and rescue (S&R) teams are deployed to find someone, there is a two-phase approach. The first phase of S&R is using highly trained teams on the ground who will search as much ground as they can. The ground S&R teams will be on foot but may also use a wide variety of vehicles and other modes of transport, to assist them in search large areas of ground faster. The search patterns which the ground teams use will be dictated by the terrain, and in some cases the weather may also determine how the teams work. The second phase of the search and rescue effort will be from the air. Helicopters or various types of aircraft will fly over specific areas in special search patterns (see photo right, Fig 2.2 Search Patterns), looking for any sign of life or signal on the ground. Once/if the pilot spots a potential signal, they will radio the location to the ground team.   

Search and Rescue
Laser bean at an aircraft
The view from inside a cockpit of what a low power laser looks like.

Laser Pens - Why you should not use them to signal an aircraft

There is a surge in the number of so-called survival instructors who are telling people to use a laser pen, if they need to alert an aircraft to their location in a survival situation. However, not only is this information wholly incorrect, it shows that the person claiming to be a survival instructor is nothing more than an idiot. There are several reasons as to why I have phased that statement like that. Firstly, it causes an unsafe situation, as the pilot will get flash-blindness and after images (like you get when you look at a light bulb for too long). Secondly, the pilot will not be able to determine your location, as the beam will spread out and obscure your true location. Another issue which will arise in the event of your rescue, is that if it can be proven that it was shining the laser. You can be/will fined or put in jail for endangering an aircraft. 

Distress Fires

Fire Distress Signals

One of the most basic and useful forms of distress signal is the fire triangle, which is internationally recognized as a distress signal.
The fires need to be big enough to be seen from the air (approx. 2 feet in diameter), and only need to be lit when aircraft are overhead, or you hear voices in your immediate area. During the day light you want the fires to smoke as much as they can, so the smoke will rise into the sky and be seen. During the night, you want the fires to emit bright flames. The way to do this is to cover the fires during the day with branches and leaves, so they will smoke. On a nighttime, you remove the branches and leaves so that only the flames can be seen. Remember, never put the fires in a straight line, as a pilot overhead could mistake them for just one fire.

Other Types of Ground Signals

Other than using the signal fires you can use other types of ground signals which can be seen from the air. Just remember, ground search teams will find it hard to spot some of your signals, such as marker panels and letters made in rocks.  

Spelling out Letters: You can spell out the word SOS (Save Our Souls) as depicted in the bottom left corner of the photo to the right. You can also spell out other letters, such as F, I, LL as depicted in the photo to the right at the top left corner. 

Marker Panels: You can also use a large bright (typically orange) marker panel to signal that you need help. 

Signal to aircraft flying over: You can also use standard signals which you can make by moving certain parts of your body. As can be seen in the photo to the right, at the top right corner. 

Whistle blasts: Whistle blast are useful for alerting ground units that you are close to them. However, you can also give three loud blasts of a whistle at varying times of the day and night, to signal your location. Even if search teams are not in your area, someone else maybe close by and hear the whistle – which will alert them to your presence.

Signal Mirror: Signal mirrors can be used to alert aircraft flying overhead as to your location. They are designed so that the mirror emits a cone shaped light ray which gets the pilots attention. When the pilot sees the mirror flashes, they can get a fix on your location, due to the unique design.

Any letters or symbols you make should be between 18 – 20 ft high and at least two feet wide, and you can use rocks or tree branches, or even bright colored clothing etc. Marker panels should be bright colors and be at least 5 feet long and one foot wide. 

Survival Signals
Top Left: Ground Sign Letters. Top Right: Aircraft Signaling Movements. Bottom Left: Market Panels being Staked out. Bottom Right: SOS Letters, as seen from the air.
Image showing a person using a signaling mirror.
Photo showing different types of flares with deployment system.

Signal Flares

Signal flares come in varying types, which range from handheld magnesium flares to ones you can fire off with a flare gun. Others emit different colors of smoke, but this type is mainly used at sea. The signaling procedures for using flares are very simple, you fire one flare into the air or wave a flare above your head. If you have enough signal flares, you can also fire them off at varying times of the day and night. Again, anyone in the local vicinity will see the flare, and will be able to get an approximate fix on your location. If you do use flares as an emergency signaling system, always check with the local authorities prior to setting off on your trip as to what color you should use. Certain areas may require you to only use a green or red flare, rather them blue smoke.

Always be conscious of the fact that flares can start fires once they have landed on the ground. Again, check with local authorities in the area that you are going as to if you can use flares or not for distress signals.

Locator Beacons and Radios

Within the past 15 or so years, handheld two-way radios and locator beacons have became a part of civilian survival kits. Both systems work on on different systems. 

Locator Beacons: Depending on what type of locator beacon you have, is depending on how it works as there are two types. The first type sends out a radio signal when activated, which allows aircraft and S&R teams to triangulate your position. The second system works via sending out satellite signals to the S&R teams or a communications center once activated, which will also give a fix on your location.  

Two-way Radio: The two-way radio system can work in one of two ways. Firstly, you can broadcast across a preset emergency frequency, or your can broadcast over open radio channel. 

Radios and Locator Beacons
Left of Photo: Both satellite and radio locator beacons. Right: Two-way radios and CB systems .

Always remember, make sure that you know and understand how to deploy emergency distress/survival signals. Also, make sure that you check with the local authorities prior to any trip if they allow the use of flares in their areas.  In addition, if you go on a survival course that tells you to use a laser pen as an emergency signaling device, leave that course immediately as chances are the instructors does not know what they are doing, and they are liable to get you in trouble.  

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