I read recently of a hunter in my home state of Kentucky who slipped and fell from a short rock face. As he was falling, his boot got hung in the root of a tree, and he was then hanging upside down. Fortunately, he had a GPS locator beacon attached to him so he could signal for help in the wilderness. He was able to get search and rescue to his exact location quickly enough to save his life.

The ability to signal for help can differentiate between a safe return and a dire situation. With countless tales of adventurers like this gentleman being rescued thanks to their knowledge of signaling techniques, it’s crucial to understand the best methods to get noticed when you’re in distress. This guide will delve into five tried-and-tested ways to signal for help in the wilderness.

Table of Contents: 5 Ways to Signal for Help in the Wilderness

  • Method 1: Whistle Blasts
  • Method 2: Signal Mirror
  • Method 3: Ground-to-Air Symbols
  • Method 4: Fires and Smoke
  • Method 5: Flashlights or Headlamps

How to Signal for Help in the Wilderness with Whistle Blasts

Whistles are loud and are not nearly as taxing on your voice as yelling is. Jennifer Caudill

A whistle is one of those items that I call the “trifecta of survival equipment.” It is lightweight, does not weigh much, and has little space in your pocket or pack. A whistle can be heard over much longer distances than your voice alone. It also requires less energy to get that sound out than your yelling. The universal distress signal with a whistle is three short blasts in succession.

Pause for a moment, then repeat. A whistle’s sharp, piercing sound can cut through ambient noise, alerting anyone nearby to your location. Interestingly, high-pitched sounds are scientifically proven to carry further in cloudy or foggy conditions. This is another reason why a good whistle is essential to include in your survival kit. (Check out our roundup of the best survival kits.) 

Read Next: What Is the International Emergency Signal for Distress

Using a Signal Mirror to Find Help

These are often utilized for aircraft. They work for that, but remember that aircraft are not used in most search events. So don’t just use it for aircraft. A signal mirror is an excellent tool for sunny days. When positioned correctly, a signal mirror can reflect sunlight, producing a bright flash visible for miles. Aim the reflected light towards a distant searcher or aircraft. The glint of a mirror flash can catch a rescuer’s attention, even from great distances.

I review a lot of survival equipment and am pleased to see that nearly all of these signal mirrors have great directions on the back on how to use them properly. Familiarize yourself with how to do this when you get one, but also know you will have that there as a reference. 

Ground-to-Air Symbols as a Method of Signaling for Help

Emergency blankets can catch the attention of aerial search-and-rescue teams. Jennifer Caudill

If you suspect an aerial search is underway, creating ground symbols can effectively communicate your situation. Form prominent symbols on open ground using rocks, logs, or any available material. This is one of the best ways to signal for help in the wilderness.

The key here is that whatever items you choose to make your symbols need to be a different color than what you are laying them on. Don’t use brown logs on leaf litter if you can avoid it. Use green leaves, signal panels, or more to make these symbols. Like whistles, any semblance of 3 is internationally known as a signal for help: three fires, three signal panels, and three logs. You can arrange them side by side or, even better, in a triangle pattern. You will want to know the following symbols to signal to aircraft. Any signal you create to be seen by aircraft needs to be a minimum of 10 feet in length. 

  • V: Requires assistance
  • X: Unable to proceed
  • N: No or Negative
  • Y: Yes or Affirmative. Make sure these symbols are large enough to be seen from the air.
  • An arrow pointing in a direction indicates you are traveling in that direction. 

How to Signal for Help with Fire and Smoke

Fires can be seen from great distances at night, while smoke signals are more visible during the day. Both are effective ways of signaling for help in the wilderness. If safe, light three fires in a triangle or straight line, with each fire about 100 feet apart. Green vegetation can be added to a fire for daytime signaling to produce thick white smoke.

If you have anything that is petroleum-based or plastic, you can burn it to create black smoke. It also helps to have some of the best fire starters in your pack. This is quite useful if everything around you is covered in snow. Black smoke sticks out in that situation more so than white smoke. I read of one story where a stranded motorist burned the spare tire of his car to create a black smoke plume that could be seen for many miles, and that is what alerted searchers to his position. Always exercise extreme caution when using fire, ensuring you don’t inadvertently start a wildfire. 

Read Next: How to Start a Fire

Using a Flashlight or Headlamp as a Signaling Tool

Make sure your pack is loaded with multiple options to signal for help. Jennifer Caudill

During the night, flashlights or headlamps can be invaluable signaling tools. (Check out our roundups of the best flashlights and best headlamps for hiking.) Similar to the whistle, use the light to emit three short flashes, followed by a pause, then repeat. The rhythmic pattern distinguishes it from the area’s natural or other human-made lights. Some headlamps offer this as one of the options on button switches. You can hit that button, and it will automatically signal for help. I have found this works your batteries hard and will run out quicker. So please don’t turn it on and leave it on. When in need, use it when you know searchers are in your area or set a time of every hour to use it.

Another important consideration is what to do when you feel you may go unconscious. Using a strobe light in this manner as you are about to pass out might mean searchers can find you in an extreme circumstance.


How do you signal for help in the bush?

In dense bushland, visibility may be limited due to thick vegetation. Your best bets are audible signals like whistle blasts or creating smoky fires during the day. If in a clearing, a signal mirror can be helpful if sunlight pierces through the canopy.

How do you signal for help when lost in the woods?

When lost in the woods, finding an open area for maximum visibility is essential. Utilize whistle blasts, fires (smoke during the day and flames at night), and ground-to-air symbols. Always remember the universal distress patterns: three whistle blasts, three fires, or three light flashes. Appeal to all senses of ground searchers: whistle for hearing, smoke for smelling, bright colors, flashing lights, or similar for sight. 

How do you signal for help in the desert?

Deserts often have clear skies and vast sightlines. Signal mirrors can be incredibly effective, as can smoke signals during the day. Ground-to-air symbols, made with contrasting materials like rocks or improvised fabric, can also be helpful in the vast expanse of desert terrains.

Final Thoughts on Ways to Signal for Help in the Wilderness

The great outdoors are unpredictable, but with knowledge and preparation, you can navigate challenges and stay safe. Please don’t allow your numerous successes outside to think it can’t happen to you. Very few people need search and rescue planned for such events. Have a few supplies and the knowledge laid out here to set you up for success. Understanding these ways to signal for help in the wilderness is essential for every outdoor enthusiast. Equip yourself, practice often, and always let someone know your intended route before heading out. Adventure safely.