If you are hurt or lost in the woods there are several things you can do to signal you need assistance. One is to make a giant SOS or X with any of the following: bright clothing, tree limbs and branches with foliage, using dead timbers which you can then light on fire, or even by mashing down the snow. You want to try to create a contrast against the natural environment like the image below.
You can light a signal fire with green branches to create a lot of smoke or the preferred method is to create three signal fires in a triangle or a straight line along the coast separated from each other by a good distance of 100′ or so. If you are prepared, or your vehicle has broken down you may have a mirror or reflective surface. Another method is to blow a whistle, preferably in blasts of threes. Note I said signal fires in threes and whistle in threes. This is significant because signaling in threes is an international sign of distress. The number three provides confirmation of a signal, the military always calls in repetitions of threes: “fire, fire, fire,” “eject, eject, eject,” “mayday, mayday, mayday.” It’s the same reason AD’s complain on set no one listens to them unless they say “Rolling, rolling, rolling.” Or “cut, cut, cut.” It’s because the human brain needs repetition for it to acknowledge what is being said.
Backtracking, lets talk about the giant X. Why an X and not SOS? Well either is acceptable but the SOS takes a lot of time and energy, and in a survival situation time = survival, so I like the X. The giant X is the international distress signal denoting medical assistance necessary and should be as large as possible which can be time consuming and labor intensive. With this in mind it’s an excellent way of signaling to aircraft so if you’re stuck out in the woods without 911 and you notice you are in a flight path take the time and make the X. Be careful to take your time, you don’t want to work up a sweat and enter the night with your body in a compromised position which could become hypothermia. Also when cutting or breaking the branches be careful not to injure yourself and make a bad situation worse. If you have an abundant supply of material and can easily mark the direction you are going to travel… Say you know the coast is within a days walk and you’re positive of the direction you need to be going, mark out a giant arrow in the direction you will travel.
Using Bonfires to signal for help can be an equally exhaustive process. You need to gather wood… and a lot of it. Building three big fires, as big as you can will be easily a days work. I will say that as big as you can could be a small pile no bigger than the tiniest of campfires if you’re hurt but I would try to build them in a teepee style as tall as you stand with tinder and fire starter already on the inner core ready to ignite at a moments notice. If you are on the shore or in a remote location and see either a boat or a plane those fires need to go up quickly and with out a hitch. The plus side to the three bonfire signal is that during the day or at night fire and smoke are very visible. The downside is the firewood must be maintained and a fire must be kept burning at all times so when your opportunity arises you can transfer the fire and light all three very quickly. I do not advise keeping the three fires going before you see any form of rescue, the work involved in stoking three fires of a notable size will exhaust you and if you are in a situation where you don’t have much food the work will wear away any calories you have stored. Just sit and wait maintaining one small fire.
Whistling is a great method of signaling the need of assistance because of simple physics and physiology. The human voice can only travel so far and requires a lot of energy to yell loudly repeatedly for long durations of time. Inevitably you’ll lose your voice and you will be left without any way of notifying a search and rescue team where you are. Save your energy and use a simple whistle. Most day pack and backpacks these days come with a whistle build right into the chest strap so it’s easy to get to even if you are injured or trapped somehow.
Blowing a whistle takes very little energy and produces a sound which will travel great distances. Remember blow the whistle in three consecutive blasts with a small pause in between each blast.
Some people are even putting whistles on the buckle for their survival bracelets.
Let’s say you are caught completely off guard and you don’t have a man made whistle? If you remember back to when you were on the playground and there was that annoying kid who whistled in your ear really loudly using an acorn? The next time you’re out and you see one on the ground pick it up and try to whistle with it. It’s a good skill to practice and have in the tool box. You never know when you’ll need to open that drawer and utilize that skill.
One item that’s always in my survival tool box is a signal mirror. Any mirror will do, but a signal mirror is a very cool item to have because it’s designed specifically for this one task. There is a sight hole to line up your target and the sun and instructions clearly printed on the back so you won’t forget how to use it. It’s only 2″x3″ and weighs .7oz so fitting it in your pack should never be a problem.
When you are trying to signal with either the Star Flash mirror or the rear view mirror you ripped out of your now abandoned vehicle hold the mirror by your head and extend your other arm making a V with your thumb and index finger. Below is a graphic for a thumb exercise, but you get the point… You’ll hold your arm out and be looking at the back of your hand.
Putting the object whether it be a plane or a boat between your thumb and index finger in the V you can then focus the mirror onto your hand and sweep the target. Having the light hit your thumb and index finger allows you to know you are on target. Here’s what it will look like to a pilot.
If you can sweep the target in you guessed it… In threes. If you’re guessing just keep on hitting the target. If the plane dips it’s wings that’s a signal that he or she saw you. If they turn and come towards you wave your arms back and forth over your head. DO NOT RAISE ONE ARM! Raising one arm is a signal that everything is okay, no assistance needed. Continue to waive BOTH arms until you are sure they are either going to stop and rescue you or they understand that you need assistance and are sending help.