Signaling for Help in an Emergency

Written by Brandon Garrett

Imagine you are driving across the country and your car breaks down in the middle of the drive. What are you going to do? If you’re prepared and know how to signal for help, you can create signs and signal aircrafts for help. Most people know the SOS sign, but here are other things that emergency personal will recognize as messages.

Three Fires
Building three separate fires is an international signal for distress. Ideally, they should be placed in a triangle at equal distances. However, if you are injured or fuel isn’t available, you might only be able to build one fire which is a great start to signaling for help.

Many people have even built small rafts that they build fires on. This allows them to float their three-fire triangle in the middle of a lake or in a river where a passing aircraft is more likely to see them.

Single Fires
Smoking fires are a great way to signal for help from long distances. Be sure to set up your fire in a visible location so that people can see the flames or smoke before they dissipate. Typically, planes will fly from a high ridge to a low one

Ground-to-Air Codes
There are a few symbols that you can use to signify that you are in need. Typically, you’ll want to make these large and as noticeable as possible – usually a color that is contrasted with its surroundings.

Serious Injury, Evacuation Required Am Proceeding in This Direction
Need Medical Supplies Probably Safe to Land Here
Unable to Move Require Food and Water

Body Signaling
There are a series of signals that pilots and other airmen will understand and use. Make all of these signals in a clear and exaggerated manner.

Need Medical Attention Do Not Attempt to Land Here
Land Here (Indicate Direction) Affirmative
Pick Us Up Here Negative

If the pilot understands the message, he or she will continue flying the plane and tipping the wings in a rocking motion from side to side. If the pilot did not understand, they will begin flying the plane in a right-handed circle. At night time, the plane will either flash a green (affirmative) or red (negative) light to communicate.

Updated April 5, 2013


  1. Bubba wrote:

    I would just like to clarify that if somebody in a bright orange jumper is signaling to you, don’t pick them up … especially next to prisons.

    April 5th, 2013 at 3:26 pm
  2. Kim wrote:

    Great information. Thanks!
    And Bubba, you just made my morning. That was so funny.

    April 6th, 2013 at 5:22 am
  3. Woolval wrote:

    If I break down driving across the country… call AAA!! Seriously though, thanks for these signal tips, good to know. Would be useful if motocross riding in the desert and I break down. But I haven’t ridden in the desert in 40 years, plus I now live in Florida. Just sayin’.

    Bubba, good advice. Are you speaking from personal experience? LOL!!

    April 6th, 2013 at 5:34 am
  4. Carol wrote:

    This is actually very helpful. I have printed it, and intend to laminate it to carry in each car and backpack. When you’re lost in the woods, or stranded in the snow, panic just might erase the information from your memory bank. Hence the laminated copies. Thanks for the helping hand.

    April 6th, 2013 at 6:15 am
  5. Linda wrote:

    this is good info but one made me chuckle. If you can’t move, how can you make a signal indicating that….hopefully you have a companion with you who can.

    April 6th, 2013 at 6:22 am
  6. Rod wrote:

    When signaling aircraft you make a larger image by lying down than standing.

    April 6th, 2013 at 7:32 am
  7. grambern wrote:

    God love ya Bubba!! You gave me a good laugh for 2day!! Hilarious:) !!!

    April 6th, 2013 at 7:41 am
  8. Samuel F Campbell wrote:

    Great info! Thank You!

    April 6th, 2013 at 11:11 am
  9. Ken wrote:

    Actually,we learned all of this in the Boy Scouts–that is,until they became a politically-correct football.Bootcamp was where we learned the aerial signals in SERE classes.

    April 6th, 2013 at 1:26 pm
  10. Sine wrote:

    Carol, great idea about laminating your print out and placing in your cars and backpacks. If you don’t have access to a laminating machine you can use the plastic sheet protectors and tape the open end to help keep everything clean.

    April 10th, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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    This is some r3eally handy information to have when you are driving or just surviving in the wilderness after a disaster occurs. I can picture using the signs and fires in an open field in the suburbs if necessary. Again, great information. I have filed it away for further study. Thanks!

    April 10th, 2013 at 4:28 pm
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