We have all read the stories of people getting lost or injured outdoors, and who signal for distress. Sure, sometimes they make some boneheaded mistakes. However, the outdoors is unpredictable, and things happen. Once, my kids and I got caught up in a very unexpected snowstorm that made visibility go to near zero. They were only about 30 yards from me, playing in an open field. We used whistles to locate one another in the snowstorm. That is why all of us, beginner or experienced, should have a plan for signaling in distressed situations. Knowing the international emergency signal for distress can be the difference between life and death.

This article delves into the importance of knowing what is the international emergency signal for distress, how to use it effectively, and the gear that can assist you in making sure your call for help is seen or heard.

What Is the International Emergency Signal for Distress

The international emergency signal for distress is a series of three indicators. Consider the person who will be responding. We must bring attention to their senses in any way we can. Three shouts, three whistle blows, three flashes of light, three gunshots, three fires, or three logs arranged conspicuously—anything in a series of threes.  When using sounds, these should be given quickly, followed by a one-minute pause and repeated. This pattern is universally recognized as a call for help. It’s a language that transcends borders, ensuring that the call for assistance is clear no matter where you are.

Craig Caudill signals for help with a survival whistle
A survival whistle shrieks louder than you can yell—and it requires less energy, too. Jennifer Caudill

Step-by-Step Tips on How to Signal for Help

  1. Stay Calm: Panic can cloud judgment. Before signaling, take a deep breath and assess your situation. Remember, the more precise your mind, the better your chances of rescue. At my survival school, we teach the STOPA acronym method for all survival or traumatic events: Stop, Think, Observe, Plan and Actively Stay Alive. 
  2. Choose Your Signal: Decide on a sound or visual signal depending on your environment and what you have available. One bit of misinformation is that all searchers will be involved in some aircraft. That is not true. Most searches are done by ground searchers on foot. So, when packing your survival kit to go outdoors, have items that can reach those searching for you on the ground. 
  3. Signal in Series of Three: The international emergency signal for distress is to always use a series of three patterns—whether three shouts, whistle blows, or flashes of light. With modern technology, the best flashlights and strobes are built into the electronics. Just turn them on signal or distress mode, and you place them for optimal viewing. 
  4. Pause for One Minute: This pause allows potential rescuers to pinpoint the direction of your signal and for you to not expend too much energy either on yourself or the equipment you are using. This is especially true if all you have is your voice. Yelling requires ample amounts of energy and hydration to continue for very long. Resting in between signals will allow you to do so longer. 
  5. Repeat: Continue the signal-pause pattern. Persistence is key; don’t get disheartened if help doesn’t arrive immediately. Remember that help may be hours away from when you first need help. Many lost persons are embarrassed or feel defeated by the necessary use of distress signals. Don’t be. As I mentioned, hiking, hunting, or whatever is needed before getting outside. Things happen sometimes to the most experienced outdoors folks out there. 
survival kit packed with signaling tools
Make sure your pack or survival kit has several items that can be used to signal for help. Jennifer Caudill

Essential Survival Gear for Signaling for Help

  1. Whistle: A survival whistle’s shrill sound can pierce through the ambient noises of the wilderness. That sound can travel much farther and requires less energy than just you yelling, so put one in your kit. Opt for a pea-less design that won’t freeze or jam and is made of durable materials.
  2. Signal Mirror: A signal mirror can be a lifesaver, especially in sunny conditions. It’s lightweight and can reflect light for miles. Practice aiming it effectively by using the viewfinder or hole in the center. This is not just for aircraft signaling either. You can use it to bring attention to ground searchers as well. 
  3. Emergency Beacon: Devices like the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or Satellite Messengers are technological marvels. With the push of a button, they can send your exact location to rescue teams, even in remote areas. 
  4. Flares are a powerful signaling tool, especially at night or in foggy conditions. They can be seen from great distances as a temporary light source. Only use these in a safe area to do so. You may have seen in movies that starting a forest fire is a great way to bring attention to yourself. That is a terrible idea. 
  5. High-Visibility Fabric or Panel: A brightly colored fabric can be spotted easily, especially in orange or yellow neon shades. This is one of those things that I keep in a cargo pocket whenever I go outside. A bandana is a good choice as it also provides multiple other uses. 

Read Next: The Best Survival Gear Gifts

Man uses a space blanket to signal for help in the woods
A reflective fabric can catch the eye of search-and-rescue teams in the air. Jennifer Caudill

Other Methods to Signal for Help

  1. Ground-to-Air Symbols: These are significant symbols or letters created in open spaces. The universal distress symbol is a large X, but other symbols like SOS or an arrow pointing to your location can also be effective. For signaling aircraft, the symbol should be at least 10 feet wide. 
  2. Fire: Fire is one of the oldest signaling methods. Three fires arranged in a triangle or a straight line are universally recognized. Always ensure it’s safe to light a fire and keep it under control.
  3. Flashlight or Torch: A flashlight can be an effective signaling tool at night, especially with a strobe function.
  4. Wave Arms: When you spot a potential rescuer, like a passing boat or aircraft, standing in an open area and waving your arms can attract attention.

Final Thoughts on the International Emergency Signal for Distress

In conclusion, while nature offers us unparalleled beauty and adventure, it’s essential to be prepared for emergencies and know the international emergency signal for distress. Equip yourself with knowledge and the right tools, and always prioritize safety.