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How To Signal For Help: Whistles, Hollering, Infrared, Fire, and Beyond

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: February 16, 2021
How To Signal For Help: Whistles, Hollering, Infrared, Fire, and Beyond

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I was browsing through some survival books when I thought about how there are not a lot of posts in recent times that talk about all the different ways to signal for help or warn others of impending danger. This is a valuable skill but there is a lot to remember.

I am going to talk about a lot of different signaling methods. Try to familiarize yourself with those that are most relevant to you. For reference, you may want to have a card laminated and in your bag.  This is especially true for signaling for airplanes, something that is going to be a rare thing indeed but still worth considering.

Fires and Flares

One trick I read about is that if you are stranded and there is a downed vehicle with fuel, you can sometimes salvage the fuel and use it on a fire to create a big cloud of gross smoke. Sure it is not so great for the environment but in a survival situation, the environment can take a little hit for your team.

Flares and flare guns are great if you have them. A lot of boats and even planes are outfitted with them. Of course, you only have so many shots so you need to make them count.

Building up a large fire of any type can be helpful but is not possible in some areas. You need to be careful if stranded out in a dry area when it comes to fire. Starting a forest fire that burns even a little could make your situation far more dire.

One of the universally recognized ways to send out an SOS using fire is to start three fires in a triangle formation or in a straight line with 100 feet between each fire. If you don’t have that much room then work with what you got but three fires are the magic number.

Bright Objects Like A Poncho Or Flag

Anything bright will increase your visibility. A cheap emergency poncho in a bright color will work. I did a post about different types of ponchos and tried to include some of the one use types that are useful for a lot of different things but not expensive.

Tying a bright poncho, shirt, or flag to a pole and waving it is one method but there is also something to be said for climbing to a higher point and placing it there. All rescues are different in some way so you will have to use some common sense when deciding the best place to put something bright. I honestly am not comfortable climbing very high in a tree but in a major emergency I would suck it up and do it.

Wigwagging: Sending Messages With A Stick and Flag

Just waving a stick with a piece of fabric on the end of it can get you a lot of attention. Brighter colors, of course, work better. Keep it simple when it comes to this type of signaling unless you really need to get a specific message across beyond just letting someone know where you are and you think they will actually understand.

For those that want to take it to a different level and know they will be understood, you can use a method called wigwagging that used the Morse code system. To do this you always start a “letter” with the stick straight up in the air. The dot is made each time by swinging the flag to the right and then to the upright position again.

The more traditional wigwagging method involves using the movements shown in the diagram below.

To use this method, you spell out letters using the movements shown above. Here is the chart.

Each movement begins and ends with the flag and pole held upright.

A lot of people just go with Morse Code when it comes to flag signaling. I would think it would be more easily recognized than traditional wigwagging.

Morse Code

This is an old form of sending messages in code, but it is worth knowing for some emergencies. Gaye did an excellent post on morse code I recommend taking a look at if you are interested in learning more about it and how to do it.

“It’s More Than SOS: How to Learn Morse Code”

Use noise. A whistle can work well.

Making a lot of noise can help alert others to your location. You can yell yourself hoarse if you are not careful so if you have something like a whistle you better off using it at least for part of your signaling. The more noise the better. A lot of firestarters and survival tools have whistles built in so you may already have one and not even realize it.

S.O.L. Slim Rescue Howler Whistle

amazon product

Survive Longer Outdoors makes a lot of quality products. This 2 pack of whistles is an inexpensive prep that can come in handy when you need to get help or scare off wildlife.

Stay focused and calm while signaling. Jerkiness can mean your message is harder to convey and understand.

Being frantic can cause your motions and signals not to be clear. If you want to make sure that you are understood then try to make precise signals. Don’t resort to frantic or panicked motions that are hard or impossible to interpret.

Practice your signals.

Find a friend or practice signaling with your family. Like any skill the more you do it, the easier it will be. Doing something for the first time when you are scared, tired, injured, dehydrated, and not thinking clearly sometimes doesn’t turn out so well. Sometimes kids can think it is a lot of fun to learn signals so this is one of those things that can help get younger family members more excited about preparedness in general.

Patience and staying calm are key to your survival as well as those you are with. A single person panicking can be devastating to those in a crisis. Morale can go downhill in no time.

It may take some time to be rescued even if your signals are seen. Rough terrain and weather can play a major role in how long you are out. The important thing is to keep your head on straight and be as supportive as possible to other members of your party. Food, water, shelter, and medical care are the main things that should be on your mind.

If you have any source of entertainment at all, this is a bonus. A rescue situation is a time when a hand-cranked radio or a deck of cards would come in handy if not damaged beyond use.

The Reality Of Signal Interpretation

Although I think it is important to know how to signal for all types help, try to choose the right one for your situation. Only some highly trained people will to understand any kind of complex messages using a stick and flag.

Keep your signaling as simple as you can while still achieving getting the attention you or your party needs to be rescued.

Attracting the wrong attention with signals.

During good times it is not likely to happen but I could see during strife or hard times, signaling acting as a beacon to those that want what you have or at least to see what they can get out of a bad situation. Again this is a little far-fetched for most situations but in others, you may want to consider how soon to signal for help. Combat zones are an example of where signaling for assistance may be the end of you.

Signaling has its methods but that your primary goal is to attract attention so you may need to get a bit more creative to do that. Using multiple methods is something to consider no matter what emergency you find yourself in.

Signaling When Injured

If you have an injury or are weak then you have to make the difficult decision of how to use your energy. Some signaling methods may not be possible and you do not want to injure yourself further if at all possible.

Sustained signaling is best done with sources like fire where you can keep it going with windfall wood if available. Screaming and hollering are only effective if there is someone within hollering distance and it can be exhausting in itself.

Climbing to a higher spot via a tree can work but is even more dangerous if you weak or injured.

What I am saying is that you should think carefully about your choices because there are so many different ways to signal and one may be a better choice for your condition or state of mind even. You don’t want to get yourself into a worse situation.

Infrared Signaling Devices

Rescue planes and helicopters can see infrared light. If you have an infrared device that is big enough, you can turn it on and search parties will be able to see it from the air if there are no major obstructions. I did not know about these until my husband, Matt, pointed out that if some lost hikers had one of those near where we lived, they wouldn’t have had to spend another cold night out. The great thing about infrared is that anyone can operate it and it requires no flame or reserves of physical strength beyond getting to a spot to be seen.


amazon product

Just so we are clear I have not personally tested this signaling device but it was one that popped up in my research that got my attention. This signaling device claims to be visible for up to 6 miles on a clear night and it is waterproof to 50 meters so getting caught out in the rain is not going to affect its performance and durability. A weight of 4 oz without batteries is pretty good for what you are getting here. A size of 4.5 x 2.2 x 1.1 in means this will fit in a small pack pocket.

I am curious to hear about any experiences you may have using infrared signaling! Please share in the comments so we can all learn together. 

Pegasus 2AA IR Signal Device

Compact, Programmable Infrared Beacon

This IR signal device comes in at a mere 2.6 oz when it has batteries in it. The fact that it takes AA batteries is an added convenience. At 2.8”(L) x 1.3”(W) x 0.8”(H) this is a tiny device that can get you out of a fix. Three modes are available: flashing continuous, SOS mode, and a user program pattern. As you would expect this is waterproof and impact resistant.

Mirror Signals

A mirror can be used to signal but it can be tricky. It is possible that someone will just think it is a trick of the light or they may just not realize where it is coming from or what it means.  I am very disappointed in some of the reflective “mirrors” out there. These are often no more than a sticker that doesn’t reflect much. If you want a mirror for signaling then get a good one that is a stand-alone and not part of some low-grade multi-use survival tool.

The Shave Well Company Unbreakable Camping Mirror

amazon product

This mirror weighs 1.8 oz and measures a full 4″x6″ making it considerably larger than other versions that are usually 2″ x 3″ and still weigh over  1 oz. I like the idea of a mirror that is big enough to be useful for things besides just signaling. Having a way to look at injuries or parts of your body you cannot see well yourself is a good idea. Camp mirrors like this are supposed to be unbreakable but I have not tested that out.

Never use a glass mirror for carrying in your pack. If that is what you just happen to have during an emergency that is one thing. The last thing you need is to be at more risk for lacerations or punctures. Buy a mirror that is listed as unbreakable.

Emergency Mylar Blankets

Emergency blankets are painfully reflective. I am a big fan of emergency blankets due to how many different uses they have. The reflective surface can help you get rescued and signal while you keep warm and dry. They can also be used to help with light and heat when doing indoor gardens.

Primacare HB-10 Mylar Thermal Blanket

amazon product

How far do you need to signal and how good is the line of sight?

Obstructions are a big problem when it comes to signaling. Distance is another major factor. If the line of sight is short then signaling as far into the air as possible may be the best option. Fire is great, but under very thick cover it still may be hard to see so a flare gun may be a good idea.

While you may not be able to predict where you are going to be when something happens, you can think about the type of terrain you are going to go over or be in and have a signal plan in place that is right for your situation.

Make sure everyone in your group knows where signaling devices are and how to signal in some way.

What if something happens and you are unable to signal yourself? Making sure that everyone knows where the flare gun, whistle, fire starting supplies, etc. is at and train them to know how to get attention if rescue is needed. While some methods may not be the best for people of all ages, most can use a whistle, yell, or wave something around.

Are you signal prepared?

While you don’t have to spend a lot on a signaling device, if you are going to be out remotely very often you should have at least two ways of signaling for help beyond just hollering. Consider having a method that is very usable even if you are unable to walk such as a flare gun. Falls and lacerations to the legs, feet, and ankles can take down the most experienced hiker in hardly any time at all.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to signal for help? What did you do to stay calm? Did you try more than one method before getting the attention you needed?

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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