Distress Signals 101

When you’re lost or stranded, and your cell phone doesn’t have reception, what do you do? Distress signals give you the ability to let emergency services and other potential rescuers know where you are. Thankfully, these signals are recognized internationally and don’t need a translator.

There are a few different types of signals including visible, audible and fire. Combine multiple methods to increase your chances of being seen and, in turn, getting rescued. Within each class of signal, there are different ways to utilize what you have at your disposal. Here are a few examples:

  1. Flashlights and strobe signals are great ways to get the attention of airplanes, helicopters or other potential rescuers. But what if you don’t have either of those?
  2. Create three large rock piles — the bigger, the better. The taller your stack is, the longer the shadow it casts will be. Arrange these piles into a triangle in an open area such as a field.
  3. If you plan to move from the area you’re in, you can use fallen logs to create an arrow that points in your direction of travel. Remember, once you’ve started moving and you create an arrow, you need to maintain that direction of travel. Veering off the path could be fatal.
  4. Something you should consider adding to your survival kit or camping backpack is survey tape. This lightweight yet highly visible tape is perfect for creating a trail, marking any existing trails and even leaving messages. The markers could prove useful if you’re on the move and need to backtrack or leave a request for help.

Just because you know how to signal an airplane or other means of rescue doesn’t necessarily mean they got the message. You need to be able to understand any message they might be sending back. For example, an airplane may dip its wings repeatedly to let you know they understand you’re in need of help. If they don’t understand, they’ll fly in a circle above you.

This is when you use the “Y” and “N” shapes to help them understand. By holding up both arms you make the “Y” shape, which indicates that yes, you do need help. One arm up and the other down creates the “N” shape, meaning no, you don’t need help.

Remember, it could be a while before anyone notices you’re gone, much less begins to search for you. If you are lost in the wild, you will need to find, or create, a shelter to survive long enough to be found. Remember that in as little as three hours of exposure to the elements, your life could be in danger. For more information on how to create an emergency shelter, click here.

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