June 28, 2017

Sign of Distress; Signaling For Help

Have you ever thought about what you might do if you were lost or stranded and needed help?  Here are some different ways you can let others know you are in distress and need help.  There are different ways and some will work better in certain situations.  Knowing multiple ways to signal for help is a good idea.


Upside down American Flag

This isn’t necessarily a sign of disrespect.  According to Section 8a of the United States Flag Code, which states;

“The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”


Three Shots Fired

Three shots fired in quick succession should draw immediate attention.  This is one well known to hunters, but one everyone should know.  You might be tempted to fire three shots, wait a few seconds and fire three more, but conserve your ammo.  You may need to fire three more later to help searchers get a fix on your position, or you might need it for protection.  Remember to fire into the ground, not into the air.  What goes up must come down.


Three Stones

Finding three stones placed one atop the other is unnatural and should be heeded as a call for help.  This would be one to use for marking your path, so rescuers can follow your track more easily.


Three Sticks in the Ground

Like three stones, finding three sticks near each other, all stuck in the ground and pointing straight up is unnatural and should be heeded as a call for help.  This would also be a good way to mark your trail.


Three Fires

At night when it’s too dark to see other signals, three fires close to each other will stand out and be viewed as a call for help.  To make them stand out more, place them in a triangle or other pattern.  This will stand out more than three in a straight line.


Three Debris Piles

If you don’t have a fire, you can make three piles of debris that are a contrast in color to your surroundings.  For example, if your boat capsizes and you make it to the sandy shore, you could write SOS in 3-5’ letters and 2” deep, filling the letters with leaves, rock or ash from a fire.


Signal Mirror

The reflection of a signal mirror can be seen much further than any of the other signals of distress.  To use it, make a V with two fingers, and hold your hand in front of you, placing the object of your signal between your fingertips.  Now flash the reflection at the object.  Doing so repeatedly in 3 quick signals will standout more than one constant.


Do you have any other ways to signal for help when you’re in distress?


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  1. Chris
    Whenever I hear about firing three shots I am reminded of the old joke about the two novice hunters who got lost. Hunter #1 said ” I heard that if you fire three shots it is a signal for help.” Hunter #1 fired three shots and they waited. Nothing, so hunter #2 fired three shots. again they waited. Nothing. Hunter #2 said “you fire three more shots. Hunter # 1 replyed “I can’t, I’m out of arrows.”

  2. Chris
    On a serious note. Years ago, when I was on a search and rescue team, my wife had me teach her Girl Scouts what to do if they got lost in the woods. The main thing I taught them was to stay in one place and wait to be found. I then showed them how to bend over a sapling and tie THREE pieces of blaze orange surveyors tape to the sapling and let the sapling go with the surveyors tape blowing in the breeze over their location. At the end of the class I gave each girl three pieces of blaze orange surveyos tape and told them to keep them in their daypack whenever they went hiking in the woods.

  3. What about a loud whistle? One that makes a shrill sound. Three toots would work wouldn’t it? They are small and easy to carry also.

  4. Hamilton Chant says:

    Stand with your feet together and spread your arms out above your head, forming a Y shape. It’s an internationally recognised sign of distress and makes you much easier to spot from the air of from a distance.
    SOS formed in stones – writtten as large as possible.

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