Knowing what a good distress signal is, when to use them, and how to do so effectively is essential if you ever find yourself in serious danger and require assistance. We're sharing some of the common tools and methods of sending out distress signals so that you can be equipped with the knowledge to save yourself and others should the time ever come.

The Universal Distress Signal - SOS

Transmitting morse code sends out a clear and obvious signal. Morse code can also help communicate more complex ideas, but when you are in a survival situation, the best signal to remember is SOS. S-O-S is three quick flashes (dots), three long flashes (dashes), then three more dots or short flashes again. If you know morse code, you could also relay a longer, more specific message with visual or auditory signals.

Build a Fire to Send Smoke Signals

A visual distress signal is often the best way to grab someone's attention. The most common method of signaling for anyone outdoors is to create a fire for a smoke signal. Fire can be made with flammable or organic materials, just make sure you have enough materials to keep your fire going so your visual signal is long-lasting. Controlled burn is a universal indicator of an occupied area and would likely alert someone nearby to your location. For best results, try to build a wood-burning fire in a log cabin or teepee configuration.

The goal is to produce a lot of smoke, so adding green logs to the fire, or even rags and cardboard, will make more and may change the color of the smoke.

If you're stuck in an area during the daytime or with heavy treetop cover, your fire may not be as easily visible. To make the need for assistance clearer, use a damp fabric about the size of your wood pile to continuously cover and uncover the fire. Three quick puffs of smoke are commonly known to indicate a request for help.

Alternate Items to Use for Visual Distress Signals

While a fire is probably the simplest and most effective visual signal easily employed in most terrain, there are other options. Having at least one of these items can be helpful in case you find yourself in a survival situation:
• Mirror
• Flashlight or laser
• Strobe or V-Lite
• Flares

During the day, you can use a mirror to signal by reflecting the sun. A powerful flashlight or signal laser can serve a similar purpose during the day or at night when a mirror won't work. Flashing in three quick bursts can increase the chances your visual signal will be seen as a clear indication that someone needs assistance in a survival situation.
If you plan on going somewhere remote or even off-grid, a signal flare or flare gun is a common-sense addition to any backpack. This is an effective tool for getting someone's attention if you get into a situation and have an opportunity to send up a flare, especially at night, but they work just as well during the day too.

Options for Audible Distress Signals

Auditory signals are most effective, you guessed it, when someone is close enough to hear them. The closer a passerby or rescue team, the more likely it is they'll identify where the sound is coming from.
Carrying a whistle is a great idea and most hiking backpacks even come with whistles. Knowing how to whistle loudly and effectively is definitely useful here too. Whistling three times in quick succession is a recognizable distress signal. After that, wait a minute and listen for a response. Whistle again if you don't hear anything. Do this consistently so that rescuers can find you.
If you don't have a whistle, any noise will do, as long as there is no mistaking that the sound is connected to a person. Another sound-making device you could pack with you is a portable air horn, reaching farther than most handheld whistles and creating a harder-to-ignore sound.

Sending a clear signal for help in a survival situation requires a little preparedness and information that you now have. We hope you've found these resources helpful. TD encourages you to be prepared for any situation on your next excursion so that no matter what you do, you're safe when doing it.
TDM Developer