Signal For Help

Medivac Helicopter

Medivac helicopter responds to an injured hiker's location.

SAR Resources

Search and Rescue agencies use air and ground resources to find and reach lost or injured victims as quickly as possible.


Helicopters or small planes fly search patterns, mostly during daytime hours, sometimes at night in extreme cases.

Helicopters are employed for air ambulance or medivac response, and will attempt to land as close to a victim as possible. They may be also used to transport advance ground teams to forward locations.

Air efforts may be restricted or canceled due to bad weather or poor visibility.


Personnel may be transported or assisted by 4×4 vehicles, ATVs, motorcycles, or horseback. Some groups use dogs. Ground teams may be deployed in addition to air searches, but may be the only response effort if air resources are not viable or available.

Make Yourself Seen and Heard

Consider your environment, and put yourself in the rescuer’s shoes. What would it take to find yourself from a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft? How about ground units walking area trails and cross-country routes, or vehicles driving remote roadways. What needs to be done for them to see or hear you?

Out in the Open

Having a nearby open area is essential if you're to be seen by aircraft.

Get Out in the Open, Get Noticed

Find a Large Open Area

Find a large, open area that you can reach quickly from your shelter.

An area large enough for a helicopter to land (very large, as flat as possible, level landing pad, no obstructing trees on approach or rocks on ground) is ideal, but do the best you can with what you have close by.

Avoid shadowed or shaded areas adjacent to or beneath trees, rocks, etc. Shady areas are good for hiding, not for being seen. You want an area large enough that you can be easily seen from the air or ground.

Review the Following:

Communication, Lighting, and Fire
Ten Essential Categories

Whistle, Signal Mirror


Fire for smoke, light


Arrange and Identify Signalling Tools

Look at your gear. Evaluate each item for its potential use as a signalling tool. Identify your signalling tools and arrange them so they’re at hand on a moment’s notice.

A signalling tool’s only good if you know where it’s at and can get to it quickly. If you have to dig down into your pack to find it, you may lose the opportunity to use it.

You should have the following items:

  • Whistle– Provides audible random signalling (or response recognition to searchers or others who are using their own sound devices).
  • Signal Mirror (or Mirrored Compass)– Used for contrast and motion in sunlight; capable of providing directed flashes of sunlight toward air or ground searchers.
  • Flashlight– Useful for contrast and motion at night, or in heavily shaded areas.
  • Matches and Firestarter– Fire during the day puts out the smoke. Fire at night provides light!
Put Yourself at Odds With Your Surroundings

Get noticed by putting yourself at odds with your surroundings.

Think in terms of contrast, motion, and sound.


Contrast means displaying shapes and colors that are obviously different from those around you.

Contrast examples are items that stand out from the surrounding earth-tones:

  • Bright Clothing
  • Space Blanket
  • Tents
  • Tarps
  • Flags
  • Ribbons

Too warm for a tent? Set it up and stake it down anyway, or lay it flat and weigh it down (keeps the wind from taking it). Searchers routinely look for evidence of a victim’s camp or camping equipment. Make it obvious and visible from the air and ground.


Motion means creating movement that’s at odds with a still landscape. If you’re able to safely do so, pick an area near your contrast items where you can walk back and forth. You’ll be much more visible than if you sit still on a rock.

Carry a contrast item with you when you move to improve the effect. Wave it around…


Sound is noise of any kind that’s obviously man-caused, and is distinctly different from surrounding natural sounds. Be a loud human. Blow your whistle. Bang your metal plate. Smack two sticks together…

Use Distress Signalling

In whistle-speak, universally-recognized distress code is three equal blasts on the whistle, to be repeated until others hear it and respond with two blasts of recognition.

Another universal distress code is the S.O.S (three short blasts, three long blasts, three short blasts).

Other noise-making devices can follow the same pattern. If beating a metal plate, contrast short strikes by adding more pause between strikes to make long strikes.

Make obvious human-caused noise. Don’t sound like a bird or animal.

What About Yelling?

Yelling doesn’t carry as far as a whistle or other mechanical device, requires vast amounts of energy, and damages the voice and throat with extended attempts.

By contrast, a whistle is easy to blow, very loud (almost too loud, most people are more comfortable putting their fingers in their ears as they blow), and uses very little effort or energy.

You get the picture. Does this mean not to yell at all? No, as a rule, if you can hear others yelling, or distinct human voices, feel free to yell back. Assess the response, though. If you get no response, what you thought was a yell could have been a nature-sound instead. Go back to your whistle.

Be Creative

Combine contrast and motion. A metal plate, for example, hung up out in the open flutters in the breeze, creating random reflections.

Same thing with a mirrored compass hung by its lanyard (or a knife with shiny blade hung by its lanyard), and so forth…

Another example is a brightly-colored tarp made into a flag…

Watch and Listen for Rescue Response

Finally, be aware of any color, noise, or movement in the air or on the ground that may be created by rescuers. They may be using contrast, motion, and sound to get your attention as well.

When making signal noise, stop periodically and listen carefully for any response. Someone may be signalling in recognition, and you don’t want to miss it.

Wait for a short while, then feel free to begin again.

Be Open to Any Response

This may be completely obvious, but I’ll say it here anyway.

There may be other recreationists in the area that are attracted by your signal efforts. They may be able to assist with first aid, share food or water, provide phone communication, or lead you out of the area if you’re mobile.

Some of you may not be comfortable interacting with people you don’t know (“strangers”), or those who don’t look like rescue personnel. Weigh the consequences. Other recreationists are a viable resource, and a potential lifesaver when you’re faced with a life-or-death scenario. You may not see anyone else.

Considerations at Night

In addition to the above, use your flashlight as a visible signalling device. Flash the light the same as whistle patterns. Be aware of battery usage, and conserve your light accordingly.

Fire by Day, Fire by Night

Fire, when used safely and appropriately, can be a signalling presence as well as the obvious warmth and comfort benefits. Smoke created during the day may alert rescuers to a victim’s presence. A nighttime fire is evident in the dark, and can be seen for very long distances.

Do consider the amount of fuel necessary to keep a fire going all night. Obtain and place your wood well in advance, in large quantities, in daylight (much more efficient, and safer than at night). You want to minimize having to find more wood at night. Make sure your wood storage location will keep wood dry if weather is an issue.