How to Signal for Help if you’re Lost Outdoors [ 15 Ways ]


Know how to signal for help. If you ever become lost in the woods, wilderness, or anywhere outdoors, having a number of ways to signal for help could be a big difference if your survival depended on it.

Most people are not prepared enough. That’s true in general. And it’s true while out in the woods. Sometimes you hear stories of people who got lost and had to survive with what they had and what was around them.

The thing is, there are rescue signals that could help!


How to SIGNAL for HELP | Signaling Methods


Cell Phone

Note: Although in many areas a cell phone will have service, don’t count on it. Especially in mountainous regions there may be no coverage. Or your phone’s batteries may drain (which happens rapidly while in fringe coverage).

Tip 1: If coverage is weak, try sending a text message. They tend to work even when the signal is low.

Tip 2: A satellite phone will work anywhere on earth. Apparently you can rent them.



A small mirror such as a cosmetic mirror or a ‘real’ signal mirror will reflect sunlight towards a target.

Consider keeping a specific made ‘signal mirror’ with a ‘spotting hole’ in the middle. Here’s instructions how to use a signal mirror.

Emergency Signal Mirror

If you are in a vehicle, you might snap off the rear-view mirror and use it as a signaling device. If you have any CD’s in the vehicle, use them as a highly reflective surface to signal – or hang them on branches.


Fire & Smoke

Have several ways to build and start a fire (matches, lighter, magnesium fire starter, FireSteel, etc.).

A Fire Starter Kit List

When the fire is hot, you could drop some amount of green evergreen boughs on it which will produce a lot of smoke!

Oil from your vehicle when spread on a fire will create lots of black smoke.

Throwing a tire onto a very hot fire will create billows of smoke once the tire begins burning.

An ordinary fire at night will create a significant infrared heat signature for anyone searching with IR / Thermal night vision devices.

Please do not start a forest fire – use common sense!



Tie some length of any bright colored material to a long stick or branch. Wave it around to signal rescuers. A bright object moving against an otherwise ordinary background will stand out quite well.

You might use a bright colored shirt. Maybe a Tarp that you have with you. A Emergency Blanket is typically shiny.



During the night, the piercing beam of a flashlight will signal your location from far away.

Signal for help by flashing three times, pause, repeat. Some LED flashlights have a built in SOS or strobe function.

Best Flashlight?


Chemical Light – Glow Stick

Visible at night, a glow stick is relatively small, lightweight, will stay lit for many hours, and a potential lifesaver when needed.

One thought is to attach one of these chemical lights to the end of a cord and spin it around. This creates a circular pattern if rescuers are potentially within sight.

Ultra Bright Glow Sticks
Ultra Bright Emergency Glow Sticks



The sound of a whistle will pierce the air much further than your shouting voice! Keep a loud whistle in your kit!

I wrote about it here: Loud Whistle For Your Emergency Kit
One of the loudest whistles for emergency signal method


Air Horn

Although somewhat bulky, a small canister air-horn uses compressed air to screech a Very Loud blast horn.

You can get these at most any sporting goods store. Simple to keep one in the car.

Mini Eco ,Shoreline Marine Air Horn
Meets United States Coast Guard requirements


2-way Radio

A handheld 2-way radio is a great choice to keep in your bag / kit. You may be able to contact someone else who is on the frequency (typically FRS or GMRS).

Continue reading: 2-Way Radios for Emergency Kit


SOS Pattern

Draw a large S-O-S into the sand. Use sticks and logs or rocks to create a big S-O-S that can be seen from rescue planes above.


Anything out of the ordinary with ‘nature’

In an otherwise natural setting, things that are out of the ordinary will attract attention.

Be creative and use what you have on your person, in your kit, or in your vehicle to attract attention.

A Mylar ‘space blanket’ typically has a highly reflective surface which will be very visible from above if laid on the ground (secure the corners with rocks so it won’t blow away!).

Use your imagination with materials that you have on hand to attract attention.


Groups of Three

A distress signal in groups of three:

– 3 fires
– 3 big piles of rocks in a triangle
– three blasts on a whistle
– three shots from a firearm
– 3 flashes of a light, in succession.

It is internationally recognized that groupings of three may be an indication of distress or a signal for help.


Flare Gun

A flare gun is THE signal method for boaters on the water. I do not recommend using a flare gun in a dry forest because of the likelihood that it may start a forest fire.

Orion Safety Combo Alerter Coastal Signalling Kit
Aerial Flare Kit


Survey / Flagging Tape

You might keep some length of survey tape in your pack or kit. It can be tied around trees for a signal. Use a Sharpie to write a message on it.

Flourescent Blue Flagging Tape
Blue Survey - Flagging Tape


Personal Locator Beacon

A Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) when activated will connect to one of the government search and rescue satellites and determine your position. This is transmitted to emergency responders. No subscription or annual fees required.

ACR PLB-375 ResQLink+ Buoyant Personal Locator Beacon
Personal Locator Beacon by ResQLink

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