What is the international emergency signal for distress preppingplanet.com

What is the international emergency signal for distress

Prepping is all about being prepared for future emergency situations and at some point, you will ask your self what is the international emergency signal for distress. Either in an SHTF situation or in a local emergency you should always know how to signal for help. You will have to rely on emergency signals to get rescued or to get to safety fast and if you do not have the knowledge on how to signal for distress then you might make some crucial errors while signaling for help.

What is the international emergency signal for distress? The international signal for distress are 3 fires, 3 shouts, 3 whistle blasts, 3 gunshots, 3 reflections with a mirror, you can also spell out SOS  a giant X with local materials. You can also use the international signal for help with electronic signaling devices, pyrotechnics, and other improvised signaling ways. You should always let somebody know when you should arrive as in case of an injury signaling will become harder if not impossible.

The easiest way to signal for distress is with light, my recommendation is to get an SOS distress light specially designed for this Click here to check price on Amazon.com

The international emergency signal for distress

The SOS signal is “… — …” this is basically the Morse code, you can either use this visually or in audio form. However, you do not need to learn Morse code just for signaling. Signaling for distress can be achieved in multiple ways depending on your environment and the nature of your emergency. One important thing to know is when to signal for distress and how to evaluate your situation. If you have been hurt, out of food, water or lost then you should think of ways how to signal.

Also, you need to take in the consideration the area in which you are in as this will play a major role in how you will signal for distress. Fires and smoke is a great way to signal but what happens if you are injured and not able to build a fire. In this case, something as simple as a mirror or even a reflective would do the job. Another important factor is when to signal, some devices run on batteries and will eventually run out of them, fires might be slow to ignite in some weather conditions.

The length of time that you spend in your emergency situation depends to an extent to the effectiveness of your signals.

Important facts to remember when signaling

  1. Know how to use the signaling device
  2. Have signals ready for quick use
  3. Use them safely

As in prepping knowledge is the most important while signaling. Knowledge not only of the signaling devices provided in your kits but also knowledge on how to construct improvised signals. Most signaling devices have instructions posted on them, read them before you actually need to use them as once it hits you that your situation is worse then you thought you might panic and not use the signaling device correctly and in some cases even hurt yourself. If possible practice with your signaling devices.

Signaling devices for our general purpose are divided into 4 different categories

  1. Pyrotechnics these use fire or ballistics
  2. Electronic, radios, strobe lights or electronic transmitter locators
  3. Improvised, made from other items
  4. Smoke and fire

Pyrotechnics for emergency signaling

This is a fancy word describing flares, these can be purchased cheap and are usually very effective. Since you may be dealing with fire and ballistics personal safety is of the utmost importance. Flares are typically divided into 3 categories:

  1. Smoke
  2. Fire
  3. Ballistic

Smoke Flare

The effectiveness of the smoke flare depends on several factors like wind, high winds will cause the smoke to disperse. Foliage could trap the smoke in the brush and trees. To combat problems with wind keep the flare low to the ground and the wind to your back. When dealing with foliage get into a clearing when using the flare. Another problem with the smoke flare is its tendency to externally burn, this is a problem found mainly with older flares.

If you activate the flare and you notice flames coming out in the sides either tap it lightly to the ground or douse it in the water momentarily.

Fire Flare

When a fire type flare is activated it will burn a bright red flame that extends about one foot from the end of the flare and will burn for 8 seconds or more. When using fire flares don’t look directly into the flame as it may injure your retina and in some cases might even blind you. You have probably seen in many movies that the people signaling for distress with a fire flare often wave it around but this is not the correct way to use it as if you wave it abruptly you could shake loose some of the burning material and even cause a skin burn.

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Ballistic Flare

This can reach an altitude of 200-1400 feet when launched. The flame may either burn from the time it was launched or it may not burn until it reaches peak altitude where it bursts into a flare that burns for about 10 seconds. When using this type of flare be very careful, when loading a flare into the launcher always grasp it by the sides. Never pound a flare into the launcher, one of the biggest problems with this kind of flare is that it misfires.

If you try to launch it and nothing happens pull down on the trigger mechanism once more, if at this point nothing happens ensure that the flare is all the way down in the launcher. Try once more to launch the flare if it does not work use a new flare.

Always keep flare and launcher pointed away from you and others when firing this flare take wind speed and direction into consideration. Try to position flares directly overhead, never fire flares directly at any aircraft or rescue party.

Electronic emergency signals

These are usually found in kits and rafts and it could make a big difference in making you be rescued much faster. Knowing the proper procedures when using these signals will be the main factor. These electronic devices can cast a signal over many miles but if you don’t know how to use them properly they may be rendered ineffective.

Emergency Locator Transmitters

Also known as ELT’s are a fast way to get help as these will keep signaling for help for several hours. The ELT operates from its own power source on 121.5 megahertz and 243.0 megahertz, this radiates an audio tone from 2-4 times per second. Vehicles such as aircraft have this already installed and they should automatically be activated after an impact however there are ELT devices which you can carry on your person and activate it manually.

ELT’s work in conjunction with the SAR sat (search and rescue satellite system) when this is activated either manually or automatically an omnidirectional swept tone will be broadcast on 121.5 megahertz and received by orbiting satellites. The satellites will then relay the signal to a local user terminal or LUT.

The LUT then processes it and calculates the origin of the signal back to the source. This system can pinpoint your location within 10 miles.

When using ELT’s consider the following:

  • The line of sight, the signal can be blocked by obstacles, terrain or foliage.
  • Cone of silence, there is an area at the top of the antenna where a signal can not be heard 

When using a transmitter turn off all other ELT’s, if an aircraft is approaching and you are attempting to communicate with it don’t point the antenna directly at the aircraft as this will put the aircraft in the cone of silence. Try transmitting on 2 frequencies 125.5 megahertz is the International distress frequency and 243.0 megahertz is the military guard frequency. If you are not sure of what type of aircraft is approaching try both frequencies to establish communication.

Strobe light

Is an electronic device that emits a continuous flashing light, if used in a continuous mode it will continually flash for about 9 hours. It will be a judgment call either to let it flash continuously or to do it in cycles. The only consideration should be that a search and rescue aircraft may be able to see the light before you are able to hear the aircraft approaching, but again this is going to be a judgment call. 

Electronic emergency signals preppingplanet.com

Improvised emergency signals

When improvising you are taking one item used for one purpose and adapting it to fill another purpose like with the heat reflecting blanket this is used very efficiently as a signaling device also. An improvised signal can be made or if you have highly reflective items in your bug out bag then you could also use these. How you make an improvised emergency signal is limited by your own imagination.

When surveying all your resources have an open mind, if you can not use a particular item for its intended use then use it for something you need. Your bug out bag is probably filled to the top and there are many items when combined can be used for signaling. The shapes that you make should be designed with a 6 to 1 ratio, preferably 18 feats high and 3 feats wide. In snowy areas simply stamp out SOS in the snow, line it out with vegetation will also enhance the signal

Signal Mirror

This is considered by many preppers as an essential list in their bug out bag as this is the most effective signaling device that you can carry. Flashes from signal mirrors have been spotted by over 25 miles from their source. A signal mirror works best on a clear sunny day but it is still effective in cloudy and overcast days. Even if you don’t hear an aircraft approaching you may still want to make sweeping motions just over the horizon.

If you don’t have a signal mirror improvise, the hologram on a credit card, hat reflective insolation, the cutting part of your hatchet, all can be effective.

signal mirror preppingplanet.com

Improving your improvised signal

  1. Elevate the signal about 3 feet of the ground, elevation causes the signal to cast a shadow which makes it more effective.
  2. Orient the signal so that it casts a shadow for most of the day, east to west is the best.
  3. Keep all vegetation stamped down immediately surrounding the signal as this will make the signal look even bigger

Smoke and fire emergency signals

When using smoke and fire for signals you must consider the type of environment that you are in.

Fire signaling

When dealing with fire as a signal it must be out in the open, as a general rule 3 fires in the shape of a triangle 100 feet apart is sign of distress, 3 fires in straight line along a creek or river are also an international distress signal but any fire out in the open will be just as effective.

An old signaling trick is to torch a lone evergreen, find an evergreen that is isolated and in a clearing and build a birds nest out of tinder on one of the lower branches. When you hear an aircraft approaching light the tinder and stand back.

Smoke Signaling

When using smoke your primary consideration should be to contrast the color of the smoke with the surrounding environment. Also, keep in mind that smoke is most effective in clear calm days.

Use black smoke in the following situations

  • Light days
  • Snow covered environment
  • Cloudy overcast days

To produce a black smoke you should burn coniferous trees such as evergreens, any petroleum product or any rubber or plastic based items. Do note that when you are burning any petroleum or rubber product keep out of the smoke as it does contain toxic compounds

Use white smoke in the following situations

  • Forrest or dark areas
  • On clear days

To produce a white smoke try to burn the following:

  • Greenwood
  • Green or dry leaves
  • Moss
  • Peat
  • Ferns

The effectiveness of your smoke will generally depend on how high the smoke can rise, the hotter the fire the higher the smoke will rise. To further enhance white smoke you can activate a smoke generating a signal to enhance the signal. It is also possible to communicate a specific message to an aircraft flying overhead without having a two way radio.

When you use the surface to air rescue code keep in mind the acronym CCLAS:

  • C: Contrast, it should contrast with the surrounding environment
  • C: Condition, keep the signal in good condition if it is electronic and keep an eye on the weather conditions
  • L: Location the signal should be able to be seen from 360 degrees
  • A: Angularity, keep all angles sharp this way they pop out from the surrounding nature
  • S: Size, the bigger the better, 18 feats by 3 feet minimum for your improvised signals

Emergency signaling in specific areas


In the tropics set up fires and other signals in natural clearings and along edges of streams. Signals under dense growth will not be seen and in the tropics transmitters are your best way to signal, carry an extra handheld unit. As in this area, it is fairly hard to start a fire you should always pack in your bug out bag fire starting material like cotton dipped in some vaseline this will light up fast. As these forests are densely packed you should always find a clearing or at least a small creek.

If you have no other options of a clear area then just a creek try to build a small bed of rocks above the water level and build your fire on it, this way the water will also reflect the fire making it more visible. My suggestion is to use white smoke for signaling in this area as the vegetation of the tropics is almost always green.

If you use a handheld transmitter for signaling you may find that the signal is blocked by the vegetation, if this is true then try and find a small hill or climb a tree and try signaling from there. If you for some reason don’t have any way of signaling except yelling then stick to a river or creek and shout as the river will carry your voice further if you are going downstream.


You can make a good improvised flare with a can filled with sand and soaked with petroleum, light the mix carefully and add additional petroleum to produce thick dark smoke. If you can find a brush in the area gather it in piles and have it ready to light when an aircraft is heard. Smoke is the best use for day and fires for the night. The mirror is a very effective signaling device as it can be seen from very far especially from an airplane. If you have read my article Top 10 things to take on a desert island, you probably know that something as simple as a mirror can help you signal very effectively.


Remember to activate your ELT as soon as possible and use one device at a time so that they don’t interfere with one another, Some raft paddles are coated with a material that reflects searchlight and sunlight. Use see die markers only during the day, don’t use them during rough seas, in calm waters, they will remain conspicuous for up to 3 hours. At night use any light source for a signal, flashlights, chem lights, strobe lights, and LPU lights will attract attention.


In mountainous regions having an ELT work properly will be difficult as the signal will be blocked by the mountains. Instead, try and build a large fire or signal with a reflective surface like a mirror. In this area, it is also a good way to signal with smoke during the day but you can also use your voice as it will echo through the mountains just watch out so you don’t trigger an avalanche on yourself.

In conclusion

Signaling devices and techniques available are numerous and the key to using them effectively is to practice before you are in a survival situation. With a few resources and a good imagination, you can master signaling and expedite your own rescue.

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