How to Signal for Help When You Get Lost

If you get turned around in the wilderness, these signaling methods can help get you found fast

It happens to the best of us. We’re out hiking or hunting in a new-to-us area. We zig when we should have zagged and suddenly realize we’ve just passed the same tree for the third time. We…are…lost. At that point, the worst thing you can do is continue walking in hopes that you’ll somehow find your way back to camp or the parking lot. Even if you’re able to figure out the direction to travel, if you’re unfamiliar with the area, you might end up in even more trouble—especially once darkness falls.

Hopefully, you had the presence of mind to alert trusted friends or family where you were headed and when to expect you back. That’s something that should happen every time you head into the field. Then, it’s just a matter of time before search-and-rescue parties are on the way. In which case, it is far more difficult for them to locate a moving target, so staying put is a better option.

While you’re waiting, you can help rescuers find you by calling attention to yourself with emergency signals. (You can’t just rely on your cell phone.) But to do this, means you have to plan ahead and bring with you the equipment you’ll need, just in case.

How to Signal for Help in a Survival Scenario

Blow a Whistle

survival gear whistle
Plastic whistles that don’t have peas inside are best. Fox 40

Lightweight and easy to carry, a survival whistle is one of the best signal tools out there. The noise from a good whistle travels much further than the human voice. Plus, using the whistle won’t give you a sore throat. Whistles come in two varieties, with or without a pea inside. Opt for the latter, as in cold weather the moisture from your breath could freeze the pea to the inside of the whistle, rendering it useless. If you’re going to carry a whistle around your neck, which is a great idea, use a breakaway lanyard. This will help prevent you from getting strangled if you get tangled up somewhere.

Flash a Mirror

survival mirror
A signal mirror works great, as long as the sun is shining. SOL

When the sun is out, you can capture its rays and use them to catch someone’s attention. A signal mirror has a hole in the middle, which is used for aiming. Hold one arm in front of you with two fingers in a V shape. Look through the mirror’s hole and move the mirror around until you see the reflected light land on your hand. Sight through the hole and your fingers and bounce the light back and forth slightly to cause it to blink or flash to the target.

Start a Fire

During the day, a smoky fire can be used to help call attention to your location, whether there are people out searching or not. Once the fire is burning well, add green branches and leaves to create smoke. Just be careful not to add too much too fast or you could smother the flames. After nightfall, smoke won’t be visible so what you want is a lot of bright flame. Use dry wood for the cleanest burn possible.

Shine a Flashlight

Many pocket flashlights on the market today have a strobe feature, which can work well to catch the eye of rescuers. The downside is that if you’re stuck there next to it, the strobe might make you feel nauseous after a while. They have that effect on some people. However, you can mitigate that by setting the light up a bit away from where you’re hunkered down, far enough away to avoid the effects but close enough to hear anyone who comes near.

Hang Flagging Tape

If you absolutely must keep moving, it can help to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. Flagging tape is inexpensive and lightweight. It comes in several colors, including blaze orange. Tear off short lengths and tie them to trees or bushes as you move along. If you thought ahead to have the tape, hopefully you also tossed an all-weather pen into your pocket or pack. Jot a note on the tape with the date and approximate time here and there, so searchers have an idea how much time passed before they found it.

Send a Message

personal locator beacon
A personal locator beacon allows rescuers to zero in on your location. ACR Electronics, Inc.

If you’re headed into uncharted territory, or at least well off the beaten path, there are two high-tech options you might consider bringing. A satellite messenger allows you to send and receive messages out where cellular service is unavailable. These are great for letting family and friends know you’re okay, where you’re located, and just give them quick updates as you move along. There are subscriptions involved for this service, choose a plan according to your needs and budget.

The other is a personal locator beacon (PLB). If you’re going way out into the sticks, this is definitely worth the investment. It is a device that, once activated, will send out a signal with your exact coordinates. It is synced with satellites and the signal is transmitted to any rescue agencies in your area. You won’t be able to communicate back and forth with anyone, or even receive an acknowledgement that the signal was received and understood, but this device may be your best bet in some situations. There are no subscription fees, either.