Troop 116

Wilderness Survival Priority 5: Get Help

Signaling for help is the fifth priority in any wilderness survival situation

If you are lost, the best way to become un-lost is to be found. Remember: You are only likely to get yourself more lost; let someone rescue you.

The best way to help rescuers find you is to signal them

Use your electronics

No points for being old-school about this. Whip out that cellphone and call the ranger or 911, whichever is more appropriate. No signal? Try a clearing or a hilltop.

This is a good reason to keep your cellphone off while out in the woods. You need to conserve battery strength so you can use it when you really need it. (Also, updating Facebook from the trail is déclassé, as is playing Angry Birds in your tent. Both will get your mobile phone confiscated by an adult leader.)

If you will be in serious back-country for longer periods of time, consider renting a satellite phone (as we did for the Alaska trip). You can get them from,, or

Make noise

The international signal for "help!" in the wilderness is three repeated loud sound blasts. That means three blasts on an emergency whistle, three shouts ("Help!" works nicely), three blasts on a boat horn, three shots from a gun (not that we carry them, but good to know), or whatever.

Wait a few minutes, then repeat the sound.

Bright colors

Clash with your surroundings. Spread brightly colored camping gear or clothing some place rescuers can see it—both from the ground of from the air.

Movement helps too—think: flapping, brightly colored flag.

Signaling mirrors

There is an art to signaling with a mirror—small ones come with emergency kits from camping supply stores. You can also bring an old CD or blank DVD and use it. In a pinch, steal someone's glasses and use those.

If the sun is shining, use the mirror to reflect a flash of sunlight toward potential rescuers, epicycle SAR planes and helicopters or other hikers you can see in the distance.

Signaling mirrors have a hole in them (as do CDs and DVDs). Peer through that hole, hold your other arm fully extended in front of you with two fingers raised in a V, and use that V as a sight to draw a bead on a rescuer, making sure the light from the mirrors is reflected on your finger-V. Tilt the mirror a tiny bit back and forth to create flashes.

Fire & smoke

A smoky fire can help rescuers pinpoint you by day or night.

Wet wood,wet leaves, moss, ferns, pitchy wood, and other fuel normally best avoided are your friends when lost, as they will create much more smoke.

Ground signals

Lay out logs, brightly colored camping gear, or anything else you can find in a clearing to form oversized signals to anyone scanning the ground from the air.

Yes, you can just spell out "H E L P," but, technically, you are supposed to use the following code:

« Survival Step 4: Fire

Survival Step 6: Water »


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Note: The first aid and survival tips provided on this site are informational only. Please seek advice from a medical professional or trained wilderness first aid expert for current best practices and techniques.