After building a shelter and getting your fire started you need to think about making your signals, to attract attention to yourself because you want to be rescued.

Some signals are good for air searches, some for ground searches, and others for both. Many things can be done to attract attention.

Three fires in a triangle, three whistle blasts, flashes of light etc. are international distress signals. Note, in the U.K. it is 6 whistle blasts, 6 flashes of light etc.

It is strange that in the U.K. the 'international' distress signal is 6 whistle blasts, 6 flashes of light etc., while elsewhere the 'international' distress signal is 3 of each. Weird. Where is the consensus in the international community?

There is confusing information out there about international distress signals. Have a look here for an example.

In the health and fitness page you'll get some more information and tips about signaling, as I talk about the importance of getting sleep but being wary of signaling.

Amateur radio transceivers can be used for emergency communications as in the photo above. Actually, that is me in the photo in the first shelter I was in when I got caught in stormy weather. Have a look at Weather Predictions to see what happened.

Know your ground to air signals as well. Print out on a card the ground to air signals, then laminate the card to protect it from the elements and place the card in your kit and or wallet. Make more than one card if desired. 

I'll list some of the methods of signaling here below.

1. A fire triangle, preferably tripod fires to protect from ground moisture, equally spaced 20 to 25 meters apart. Be certain it will be in an open area or hilltop to be visual.

2. A tree torch, is when you could light a single tree that is in the middle of an open area on fire. Pine trees with their resins would work well.

3. A single large fire if you cannot have three as mentioned above in point number 1.

4. A tinsel tree is when you attach shiny objects such as pieces of an emergency blanket, chocolate bar wrappers or other, to a tree in several places, and the wind will move them causing them to glitter in the sun, lighting up the tree. If you have a lot of extra rope, which would be great if you did in an emergency, tie the rope out across a field or other open area, and tie shiny objects to it. This will help ground personnel to find you.

5. A light windmill using a cyalume (chemical stick) light at the end of a rope which you twirl to form a circle. This can be used to signal ground search and rescue, or a helicopter above. Just angle the twirling to make it visual to the rescuers.

6. Whistle. Get a good one, don't skimp. Even high quality whistles are only a few dollars, so no excuse.

7. Flashlight, headlamp or any other sufficiently powerful lighting device.

8. Signal mirror, or other mirror to flash your target to get their attention, whether it be an airplane or ground personnel. The mirror from a mirror compass like the one in the Maps, Compass and GPS page can be used as well. However, a specialized signal mirror is best but you need to know how to use it.

9. Emergency blanket, poncho or brightly covered clothing.

10. Radio, cellular phone, satellite phone, PLB etc. Coverage may not be available.

There are other methods as well. Do a research on the internet to find out more information. Have a look at the links at the end of this section to get you started.

Trueways Survival 2 Day Basic Weekend Signal Fire

For signaling using fire it is smoke by day, and fire by night. Use green woods and leaves to produce more smoke.

If you happen to have as part of a wreckage some tires or other black rubber products, you can burn them to produce a thick black smoke.

This is good if you have snow in the background, otherwise you'll have whitish/grey smoke in a regular fire which would be less visible.

I'll quote a paragraph from the Health and Fitness page here, because it is important information. I italicized the portions that I want to emphasize.

"On the subject of rest, sleeping in a shelter isn't the same as sleeping in your nice comfortable bed at night. There can be bugs, it can be cool, cold or hot, you may have a fire to tend during the night etc. It all depends on the shelter type and your circumstances. Get rest whenever possible, but try to not sleep during the daytime when search and rescue may be looking for you and when you can attempt to attract attention to rescue aircraft should one appear. You need to be ready to signal the aircraft and if you are asleep you may have missed the chance to get out of your predicament.

At the very least if the conditions permit, have a good smoke fire going while you rest beside it if you absolutely must rest during the day. Try to keep an eye (and ear) open every now and then, to see if an aircraft is near and to be certain that the fire keeps going. If you are in a group, take shifts resting or sleeping as appropriate."

Be certain to think before you start throwing modern items into the fire, because you may need them elsewhere, and you could find another way to make the smoke you need. Make the decision according to your circumstances, but you must consider the importance of what you have at hand.

Always leave a note and indicators of your intentions to search and rescue, if you had decided to leave the camp because you felt you needed to go elsewhere. This could be because you felt that the rescue was aborted, or your local resources are dwindling. Let them know how many are in the group, where you intend to go etc.

Have a look at the Survival Tips & Tricks page for more information.

Here are some links to help you to learn more about fire in an emergency situation.

1. Wilderness Survival

2. Equipped to Survive

Also have a look at the Videos page for more information.


Making an effective signaling fire!

The guy in the video above brings up some good points for signaling. Like he said you might be in an area where you have no open areas to make your signals, so you make it on spot where you are. It is good he mentions sound for that didn't click for me at some point in the past, but makes perfect sense to me as he brings it up.

Smoke will rise through the forest canopy if the smoke is thick enough. I saw this in a survival course in the past, in that a signal fire was made in the center of the camp and we went into the open field and saw the smoke, as well to make fires out in the open itself. In a heavily forested area you won't likely see the aircraft, but hear it, so still have your signals ready with a standby fire to be ready to light the signaling fire.

Don't say to yourself that ground search and rescue will never see me where I am because the forest is so thick, so I won't bother to make a signaling fire. Make one because perhaps there will be an air search for you to locate you, then ground search and rescue may be sent to your location.

If you hear (or maybe even see) an airplane or helicopter light the signaling fire!

It is best whenever possible to locate an opening in the forest for signaling including rivers, lake shores and coastal areas.

If it is a small river that goes through a heavily forested landscape, judge as to what would be best for the conditions but be prepared to signal your location.

Always leave a small fire (not too small) lit throughout the night even in warm temperatures, if resources allow for it. If you are using a fire to heat your shelter that should be enough as it can serve as a signaling fire, however if you are in a group and near an opening, another fire should be in the opening and tended to throughout the night by members of the group, one person at a time in shifts to keep it going.

The reason for this is that as a general rule, it is better to shelter yourself within the forest line and not out in the opening itself, as you can utilize the forests natural windbreaks to protect your body core temperature even further. However, as I mention on this site, always use your best judgment according to the circumstances you are in and do what needs to be done.

If an aircraft appears, the member who's responsibility is to keep watch will light the signaling fire using the smaller fire, and given the fire is out in the opening it will be seen at even greater distances than a fire within the forest itself.

Three fires such as tripod fires in a triangle of about 25 metres distance between them is an international ground to air signal saying you have need of assistance. If you cannot for one reason or another make three fires in a triangle, make one big one.