Signaling for help is one of those weird skills that very few people ever practice. It seems to stay relegated to the theoretical section of most outdoor skill sets. Plenty of survivalists have read about different ways to do it. They’ve thought about how to do it, but never actually tried. Why not? For one thing, signaling practice is nowhere near as cool as slinging lead or most of the other survival skills. You’ll also need a helper to do it correctly to provide feedback.
This would be another person out there with you to say whether they heard your whistle or saw the smoke. I personally think a big reason that people don’t practice signaling for help is their ego. The very act of signaling implies that help is needed, something that we don’t always like to admit. It implies that we screwed up somehow by getting into a situation where we needed help. Mistakes are hard to admit. Here’s your tough love Insiders. Don’t let your stupid ego get you killed.
Whether it’s your ego or something else in the way, these stumbling blocks to practicing should be overcome for a very important reason. Signaling is your ticket to getting rescued in a wilderness survival setting, and practice makes perfect. Especially when it combines the skills of signaling and building a fire.
I have a word of advice before we get into wilderness signaling. Take the tech with you! This article will focus on a low-tech method of signaling, the signal fire. This method has only a fraction of the reach of certain modern devices. Your mobile phone, a satellite phone, and/or a personal locator beacon (PLB) should be the first line of signaling in remote environments. Always have your mobile phone when going for local hikes. It’s just plain stupid to leave the tech at home when it can save your life in the wild. That being said, sometimes tech fails us. It may also be a situation where we want to use as many signals as possible for the quickest rescue.
The Fiery Four
The light and smoke of a signal fire are tools for garnering attention in four ways. One, the light can be seen at night or against a contrasting background such as a dark rocky cliff. Two, the smoke can be seen when there’s a large volume of it. The smoke’s color contrasts the sky except that white smoke won’t be seen on an overcast day. The third signaling tool that fire provides is heat.
Small aircrafts engaged in the search for a lost hiker sometimes carry heat sensitive imaging equipment. A fire will easily be seen with optics like these even if a thick canopy of leaves may conceal your camp. The fourth way that fire can help is minor but still matters. It’s the smell of the smoke. When the air pressure keeps your fire’s smoke low to the ground, the distinctive smell can draw an SAR crew right to you. So those are four benefits from one fire – light, smoke, heat, and scent.
Select Your Style
Once you’ve decided to build a signal fire, how’s it going to be arranged? Will there be more than one? These are critical questions and the answers depend on the terrain along with the available fuels to burn. Generally speaking, more fires increase the likelihood of being noticed. The drawback being that more fires means more work.
You’ll have to factor in your mobility and the calorie expenditure. Especially consider these factors in long term survival settings before deciding if multiple fires are worth the work. If there’s a lone hill in the area, a single tall fire lay may be all you need if it can be seen in all directions. Positions that are low to the ground may need more than one fire. In a coastal area where you’re trying to signal watercraft, 3 fires in a row on a beach will be much more noticeable than one fire.
Here are some of the options for types of signaling fires:
Three of a Kind-This would be three or more fires in a row. Place them on a beach or a ridge where observers would be on one or both sides. It could also be a cluster of three fires in a low-lying area like a triangle in a low open valley. Whichever you choose, three is an international signal of distress.
The Tall Boy-This is a fire with some height to it. By building a large tipi fire lay, or a cone of sticks, as tall as you are will make the flames even taller. This one is great as a standalone signal, but it will require a lot of fuel and it’s likely to fall over.
Burning Bush-A dead or dying small tree can create a tall and quick burning signal fire. Especially look for a needle bearing species containing lots of flammable pitch. Start by placing dry kindling and tinder under the tree and throughout the lower branches. Once you light the fuel, the flames will quickly climb into the oily foliage. To keep the burning bush going, you can add more fuel before it starts to die down. Just make sure your tree torch isn’t in a location where it could start a wildfire or endanger the camp. Cut down a small dead evergreen tree and place it anywhere if you have the tools.
Up In Smoke
People often think of Native Americans when they hear the words smoke signal. However, the First Nations didn’t corner the market on this historic form of long distance communication. The ancient Chinese used smoke signals along the Great Wall when an attacking force was spotted. Australian Aborigines would put up smoke when entering another group’s territory as a hello. Lewis and Clark did the same thing on their famous voyage to let local tribes know that someone was approaching.
Smoke works best as a signal when it’s in a thick column during still weather and when it doesn’t match the sky color. White or grey smoke will be a fine signal on a clear day or in bright moonlight. You’ll need black smoke to be seen on a dreary overcast day.
Make white smoke easily by burning rotten wood and green vegetation. Pile these materials onto a large fire and watch the smoke billow forth. Grey smoke can be made by burning resinous materials such as fatwood. If you’re unfamiliar with this natural wonder, fatwood is a woody portion of old evergreen trees that is so impregnated with pitch that it can’t rot. When you find a pine knot lying on the forest floor and the tree has long since rotted away, that’s fatwood.
Look for entire tree stumps composed of this turpentine scented wood. Chop it up and add it to the fire to darken the smoke. You’ll need to dip into the petroleum for the highest contrasting smoke. Make dark grey or black smoke by adding rubber, plastic, motor oil, and other petrol-based products to your fire. The dark smoke is toxic and awful smelling, so stay upwind as you work. Don’t roll a pressurized tire on the rim into the fire as it will build pressure and explode. At least slash the sidewall if you’re unable to cut the tire into pieces.
Save It For Later
Let’s say that you want to set up a signal fire, but it’s not the right time to light it yet. You could be building it during dry weather when there’s rain clouds headed your way. You could also build it in daylight to be burned later that night. As seen in movies, we could even build a signal fire structure to await the passing ship or plane that might spot it. You’ll just have to find a way to keep the structure dry plus keep a fire burning nearby to light the signal fire.
Build your tipi of fuel and drape a poncho over it if you have one. If you were carrying a giant trash bag, fill it with tinder, kindling, and larger fuel. When it’s time to light the signal fire, dump out the contents in a conical pile and light it up. The fuel should be just as dry as it was when it went in the bag.
If you don’t have a plastic covering for protection, arrange slabs of bark to act as shingles over the fire lay. You can even bind together a large cone of fuel and store it in a shelter. This bundle could be wrapped up with vines or cord and be packed with tinder and kindling that’s ready to light.
Wood is a hygroscopic material, which means that it absorbs and releases water in a balancing act with the surrounding environment. So, when it’s been raining for days, the wood is naturally wetter because it will absorb moisture from the air. If you can block the air, your fuel will stay drier.
A signal fire is a great tool for getting the attention of rescuers. It’s a great attention getter on multiple levels. Plus, fire is often something we need in survival situations anyways, so it can be multi-use. Like any skill set, it takes practice to build the kind of fire you want. Plus, practice creating the different types of smoke you might need. Do this practice before you’re in an emergency situation that requires these fire signal skills.