Using Ground-to-Air Distress Signals

Let’s pretend that you are lost in the wilderness.  You don’t have a map or compass, and your cellphone is dead.  Also, you didn’t tell anyone where you were going or when to expect you back.  We are going to assume for the sake of this post that you have plenty of food and water for a few days in your pack.  You also have a tent, so shelter is not a problem.  Somehow you got off the trail and have not been able to find it again.  Your main problem right now is you have no idea where you are.  You made it to the top of a hill, but you don’t recognize any landmarks.  At night, you don’t see any lights in the distance either.  You realize that you need to figure out a way to let someone know where you are so you can be found.  Here are a few ways you can signal for help.  In most survival situations, you will need to use several different kinds of signals.  In this post, we will discuss using ground-to-air distress signals.


Use whatever items you have available to form the shape of the ground-to-air signal.


There are several signals you can make on the ground to let search planes and helicopters know that you are in need of help.  First, find a clear area such as a field, lake shore, beach, or an opening in the trees.  Write a message with large logs, clothing, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, or other materials.  You can also scrape large letters in the sand or dirt.  “SOS” is widely known as a distress signal, or there are a few other simple symbols you can write to tell an air rescuer what you need.  “X” means “Require Medical Assistance” or “Unable to Proceed”, “V” means “Require Assistance”, “N” means “No”, “Y” means “Yes”, and an arrow pointing in a certain direction means “Proceeding in this Direction”.  If you can’t remember these, you can also just spell out the words of your message that you want to relay.


An arrow pointing in a certain direction means “Proceeding in this Direction”.


Colorful Clothing

Whenever you have found high ground, a clearing, or an area that can be seen from above or from the side, hang colorful or brightly colored clothing or other gear on a tree branch, out away from the trunk.  The reason for this is so it will blow in the wind and move around, and hopefully attract attention.  Colorful clothes are more likely to stand out.  If you see a plane, helicopter, or rescuers in the distance, wave something colorful above your head to get their attention.  If they can’t see you, attach it to a trekking pole or a limb and continue waving it above your head.


Put a piece of clothing on the end of a trekking pole or limb and wave it above your head to attract attention.


Note: While in the wild, we should always strive to use “Leave No Trace Principles”.  However, in a survival situation, by all means, do what you have to do to survive.  Your life is more important than the minor ecological detriment caused by cutting a few trees.


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One comment

  1. Thank you for this article about ground to air signals. I have been very interested in hiking lately but have only been on a few trails. The information in use of letter “X” & “V” are new to me that I will keep in mind.

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