Pemigewasset Wilderness (New Hampshire)

Signaling for Help in an Emergency


When an emergency arises in the wilderness how will you signal for help?   This article will discuss some methods you can use if an emergency arises.  In an emergency the first thing you need to do is to stay calm.  Staying in the right frame of mind will be crucial for you to clearly think and act. The realization that you are in trouble can be overwhelming and you need to accept what has happened and make a plan for rescue. Keeping your mind focused on getting help will keep out those doom and gloom thoughts that can make your situation worse.   

Next, you need to stay where you are unless your environment or situation will worsen if you stay.  If your emergency is that you are lost I have written an article on what to do if you get lost, Lost in the Wilderness.  Establish a makeshift basecamp in an open area with a clear view of the sky. Your physical condition will dictate how detailed your basecamp will be.  If you are injured a makeshift shelter can be as simple as using a poncho.  If you or someone else is injured make sure that you apply the necessary first aid to stabilize the injury.

Once you have done all of the above it is time to set up and deploy your signaling method for rescue. I have categorized these methods into (3) categories.  The first is using an Electronic Communicating Device, the second is using a Visual Signal and the third is using an Audible Device.

Electronic Communicating Devices

Electronic communicating devices are by far the quickest way to notify rescue personnel.  Technology has advanced tremendously in the last quarter century.  Electronic communicating devices are available to backpackers and they have reasonably priced subscription plans.  There are a variety of devices you can choose to take with you on your wilderness adventures.

Types of Electronic Communicating Devices

Cell Phone:  Most wilderness backpackers have cell phones.  It should be  charged and with you during your adventure. Cell phone coverage will vary in a wilderness area.   I have found that using them in high elevations such as Hill-tops work the best. There have been documented rescue stories where a backpacker used their cell phone to call for help.  Most cell phones have GPS capabilities and you should make yourself familiar on how to acquire them.  You can also download navigational apps to help you navigate and pinpoint your location.  

Cell Phone
 A Cell Phone should always be carried by Wilderness Backpackers

GPS Communicating Devices:  There are a variety of GPS communicating devices.  These devices include satellite communicators, (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, Spot, etc.), PLB’s such as ACR or a Satellite phone.  A satellite communicator has its limitations.  The signal can be blocked if you are embedded deeply in a canyon or heavily covered forest.  GPS devices may also have some lag time in receiving and transmitting a signal based on the orbital position of the satellites.  Having one of these GPS communicators with you is by far the best way to call for help in an emergency.  I carry the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, and my cell phone.

Garmin inReach Explorer Plus
GPS Satellite Communicator (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus)

If you bring an electronic device with you make sure you either have a solar panel or battery pack to charge it.

Visual Signals

A visual signal has the ability to be seen at great distances, depending on the type of signal.  It is especially useful for aircrafts that are searching for you, (Helicopters, Planes, Drones). One of the main benefits of using a visual signal is that it can be deployed for an extended or indefinite period of time.    Once it is deployed it will continue to be seen without you worrying about the battery running dead.  You also do not have to physically manipulate it like an audible device which can make you physically tired.  

Types of Visual Signals

Fire:  In a rescue situation fire is a very good visual signal.  Having a fire also gives you comfort during an emergency.  The best way to use fire is to set it up in a triangle configuration.  You should set up the fires in an open area.  This triangle configuration is known as a sign for international distress signal.  Managing (3) fires may be very difficult.   If you cannot do this use one fire.  Enhance the smoke on your single fire by putting green vegetation on the fire.  This will cause more smoke.

Flares:  Hand flares or parachute flares are limited in use.  They are effective when rescue personnel are nearby and can see the flare.  Hand flares do provide you another use which is to help you light a fire.

Mirrors:  Signaling mirrors are small and lightweight and can be easily carried in your pocket.  They can be used to signal aircraft or other people that you can visually see on the ground.  The mirror on a compass will work  as well.

Flash Light:  Use your flashlight, headlamp, or another device with a light, to signal others.  Some of these devices have a built in SOS feature.  My Petzl Reactik + headlamp has this feature which you can program with your cell phone via bluetooth.

Petzl Reactik + Headlamp
Petzl Reactik + Headlamp (With a built in SOS signal)

Other Visual Signaling Devices:  Items you have in your backpack can be used as a visual signaling device.  This can be your bright colored air mat or tent.  A foldable panel like the ones used on boats will work.  You can also use items in your environment such as rocks or deadwood to set up signs or signals on the ground that can be seen by aircraft.  If you use rocks or dead wood set it up in an X configuration.  The X configuration is also the sign for  medical assistance needed.

Bright colored Air mats can be used as a visual signaling device

Audible Signals

Audible signals utilize sound to get the attention of others who are nearby.  An audible signal has its limitations based on where you are and what signal you are using.  If you are in a densely packed wooded area the trees will dampen or reduce your signals ability to travel an extended distance. If you are on top of a mountain or hill that same audible signal will travel much farther reaching many more people.  Utilizing an audible signal is the most physically exerting signaling method.  You physical condition may limit your use of this method.

Types of Audible Signals

Voice:   Yelling, singing, talking may help rescuers that are nearby to spot you.

Whistle:  A whistle is the best audible signal you can use.  A whistle is

  • lightweight
  • easy to carry
  • Inexpensive
  • Can penetrate densely wooded wilderness areas
  • It is less exhausting then yelling

A whistle can be easily carried on a lanyard on the outside of your backpack.

Firearm:  If you carry a firearm you can discharge it to signal for help.  If you decide to use this method discharge your firearm safely so as not to hit rescue personnel or to have it ricochet back toward you.  A firearm has its limitations based on how much ammo you carry.  

Smith and Wesson
Smith and Wesson .44 Mag

Impact Noises:  Using audible signals are endless when you want t transmit an audible signal.  Banging your cookware together or taking a large stick and hitting the trunk of a tree will work.


The best signaling method for emergencies is combining all three of the above methods based on your situation.  The GPS communicator is the best of the (3) methods.  The cost of having one with you is well worth your safety or that of others in your party.  Deploying all of the above methods will give you the best chance of being seen or heard.  The deployment of these methods will depend on the following:

1.  Your physical health and mental state of mind at the time of your emergency.  

You must overcome physically injuries and vanquish your fears.   

2.  Having the signaling gear with you or using what Mother Nature has provided around you.

Have the necessary emergency signaling gear with you on your adventures.  If you find yourself without the necessary signaling gear use what Mother Nature has provided.  Your imagination is endless.  It is also very important that you give family and friends pertinent information outlining your adventure, Pre-planning your Wilderness Adventure.  Giving this information to family and friend should include your starting and ending points, routes, and time of departure and return..

Your will to survive can overcome many obstacles.  My training in the military has taught me to always be prepared before heading into the field (Preplan your Wilderness Adventure).  My training has also taught me to improvise, adapt and overcome, difficult situations when an emergency arises.

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