Wilderness Survival: Know Your Distress Signals


Let’s say your plane crashes on a desert island and you’re stranded with only a rugby ball as your friend (a volleyball isn’t a manly enough companion for you). Each day you scan the skies, waiting, hoping, aching, to spot a rescue plane coming your direction. If a plane does buzz your island, will you be able to catch the pilot’s attention, or will he fly on by, oblivious to the crazed bearded man screaming below?

Cell phones and GPS die and break. Knowing how to signal your distress with natural resources and basic tools is a valuable skill. Whether you’re marooned on an island or lost in the wilderness, a man needs to know how to get help.

Signal Fire 101

The most common and most effective method of signaling for help, assuming you don’t have any form of electronic tech, is the signal fire. A well-built signal fire will attract attention for miles in every direction. It also has the added benefit of indicating to an airborne rescuer (i.e. helicopter) what the wind conditions are like in your location. A good signal fire differs in several ways from your basic camp fire or cooking fire, however, and you will want to make sure you get these differences right in order for your signal to be as effective as possible.

First, you will need to evaluate your resources. If you are in an area with an abundance of dry wood, there is no reason why you shouldn’t keep your signal fire lit as long and often as possible. However, if you are in an area with little fuel available, you are much better off preparing a pyre and waiting until the appropriate moment, such as sighting a search and rescue plane, occurs. You will want to place the pyre(s) in a large, open area on high ground where they are easily visible if possible. Consider building not one, but three of these pyres and placing them about 100 paces apart in a triangular configuration. Three is understood to be an international indicator of distress, as is the triangle layout.

As for the construction of these pyres, you will want to build them in a manner that allows the wood to stay dry and ready to be lit. Furthermore, you will want to be sure that they are able to be lit immediately if possible. To accomplish this, build an elevated platform for your fire. Lean three long, straight boughs together in a teepee formation and bind them at the top with wire, cord, or vine. Then create a platform halfway down the branches by tying cross-thatched branches to the three supports. With this support system in place, you are ready to add your fuel.

You want to have good, dry tinder for the first layer. If you can find one, an abandoned bird’s nest makes excellent tinder, as does paper, wood shavings, or dry grass. After laying out a thick layer of tinder, layer on small wood kindling in the form of small broken up branches. Just as with a regular fire, as you add layers, the size of the fuel should increase as well. For a fire that burns slower but still emits a great deal of smoke, you can add a layer of peat moss, wet leaves, or other decaying plant life on top of your main fuel wood.

Your signal fire needs to produce a great deal of smoke, so the final layer should consist of green, leafy vegetation or brush. Green, living brush creates a thick white smoke almost immediately when added to a burning fire. If you are stranded with a non-functioning vehicle, you can place tire rubber and crank-case oil on the top for a thick plume of black smoke, which makes your smoke more visible on a overcast day.

At night, creating smoke is no longer as important and instead you want large visible flames.

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