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Signaling 101 for Survival

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by Nick O’Law

In a survival situation communication can be vital and proficiency in signaling could save your life, or at least make it a lot easier. Anybody who works in the outdoors learns at least some basic signaling, on land woodsmen need to know where safe trails are and how to find and rescue lost adventurers.

At sea, sailors need to know how to operate radios and use the international code of signals to communicate across language barriers. Up in the air, rescue pilots learn symbols or communicating with people on the ground, and also use radios to coordinate traffic. Finally, of course the armed forces (of land, sea or air) need silent signals to coordinate troops and long distance communications systems to relay intelligence.

All of these are useful skills, and the more you learn, the more you understand the principles underpinning them (so practice lots!). This article breaks down the best gear and skills to learn the art of signaling, and have yet another survival skill under your belt.

Fires and Smoke Signals

Smoke signals and signal fires are probably some of the oldest forms of long range communication, used by the ancient Chinese, ancient Greeks and Native Americans. To this day, different colored smoke grenade are used by military forces to indicate different positions.

In general, smoke signals are only of use during the day, since the smoke shows up against a lit background. As with any signaling method, complexity and variability allow for greater detail in communication: dry firewood (or other fuel) will produce white smoke and wetter stuff (including greener wood and grass or wet leaves) will make black smoke.

Of course, you will still need plenty of dry wood to keep the fire going! The college of cardinals in the Vatican still use this distinction to communicate whether they have elected a new Pope. A good video on building signal fires for smoke can be found here:

Signal fires are useful at night, as the bright fire shows up against a dark background (sea vessel use lights to show their position at night for the same reason). The trick with a signal fire is just to build it as big as possible for maximum visibility.

Smoke signals (and fires, but to a lesser extent because it may be more difficult to see the distinction at night) can also convey different messages by their placement. It may an urban myth, but it is said that Native Americans would send a smoke signal from partway up a hill if the situation was good, but from the top to signal danger. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a simple idea for a pre-agreed code which could help you out one day.

Ground-to-Air Signals

The Ground to Air Emergency code is a very crude way of informing an overhead rescue team about your situation. It contains signals and symbols for only the bare minimum of important information.

The first set are static symbols. These should be constructed as large and obvious as possible, so if you can use a material which contrasts with the background. Anything bright orange is always a good idea. Ideally, the ‘top’ of the symbol should point north, unless it is intuitive that it should go another way (e.g. on a hillside, the symbols would point up the hill, even if this was south).

Y

Yes / Affirmative

N

No / Negative

I

Require assistance

X

Unable to Proceed

Proceed in this Direction

I<

Proceed in this direction

F

Require Food and/or water

I

Require a doctor, serious injury

II

Require medical supplies

L

Require oil and/or fuel

Require map and compass

W

Require a mechanic

I>

Will attempt to take off in this direction

Probably safe to land

⎦⎣

Not understood

The other half of the system is made up of body signals. To stand with arms outstretched to your sides, or to lie flat on your back, legs and arms extended, with your arms above your head means ‘require medical assistance’ (possibly because someone in dire need of medical assistance would look like this anyway!).

To stand with both arms raised above your head means ‘pick us up’, and to rush side-on to the observer with arms extended horizontally is to say ‘land here’. Standing and waving both hands in unison side-to-side over your head means that a plane should not land there.

Standing and waving one arm up and down beside you means ‘use a drop message’, and hold both hands behind your head means ‘we have a radio’. Waving one arm up and down in front of you, while side-on to the observer is ‘yes’ and to swing it side to side across your legs is (facing the observer) is ‘no’.

Flares

Flares is a collective term for pyrotechnic devices which produce sudden bursts of light (and/or smoke) for the purpose of signaling. Most flare technology originated for marine applications, but translates to rural and mountain user groups just as well.

The very first thing to say about flares is that you should read the packaging! All relevant instructions for use and safety (which are very important!) will be written on each flare and must be properly followed.

There are essentially three kinds of flares: rockets, handheld, and smoke. Rockets are used to indicate your position when in distress. It is generally a good idea to set off one, wait 2 – 3 minutes then set off a second. Other parties nearby will be alerted by the first flare, but may have seen exactly where it came from, so will be looking for a second one to get a fix on your direction.

In a maritime setting, red flares are used only for distress and white flares as warning of one’s location to avoid collisions. On land, red flares are still for distress (though white flares may also be understood) but white flares do not have such a formalized role. Parachute flares should never be used near a helicopter, as they might damage the vehicle or it’s crew, or disable night vision equipment.

Handheld flares are for pinpointing a location accurately. Once a rescue party is near you, you might set off a handheld flare to show them exactly where to look for you. The red/white distinction is less important here, especially on land.

Smoke flares only come in orange, a very high contrast color. They are for use during the day to help locate a target (they are often thrown at a man overboard in marine distress situations, to keep a fix on where the casualty is). The advantage of smoke is that it contrasts with almost everything (so can be seen during the day), will not disrupt a helicopter, and drifts with the wind, so leaves a trail leading back to where it was set off. Orange flares are a very powerful tool and should be used when a helicopter or other rescue team is getting close during the day, to give a precise location.

Though designed for the marine industry, the principles in this video can be applied to any situation where you might find yourself using flares:

Heliograph (Signal Mirror)

Signal mirrors have been issue to and used by the world’s military forces as recently as the 1980s, and are still included in most good survival kits. They are simple, easy to use and dependable. Signal mirrors also have the advantage of being a little used method of communication and difficult to intercept. This makes it ideal for use over medium distances as a wireless, low-investment, very secure mode of communication.

The most common kind you will find in most kits is a small rectangular mirror with a hole in the middle. The size of the mirror is directly correlated with the range of your signal, military experiments have shown that roughly 1 inch = 1 mile of range, assuming the receiver is using a the naked eye (obviously range is increased if the receiver has optics/binoculars/telescope). Because it’s such a simple tool, a signal mirror can be very easily improvised: a CD or DVD or the bottom of a can with a hole punched in it or common suggestions.

To use the mirror: look through the hole at what you want to signal to (a rescue plane, another person etc.). Holding the mirror in one hand, extend the other to act as a screen onto which to reflection from the mirror will land. This is how you know where the reflection is. From there, point the reflection towards wherever you are signaling.

If you don’t have a hole, you can just hold out your fingers in a V in front of you, line up the bottom of the V with your target, then line up the reflection with the bottom of the V.

For most applications, just flashing a light is enough of a signal. A more complex system of ‘one for flash this, two for that’ etc. could be useful if travelling in a group, and of course Morse code will give you complete freedom to express whatever you want.

A good way to control flashes ad keep the mirror in the right place is to fix the mirror in the right position, then cover/uncover it with a hand or opaque screen of some kind (the most common way is tilting the mirror, but that can often end up misaligning it with the target).

Between them, these two videos cover the use of signaling mirrors thoroughly:

Phones (cell and sat)

It should go without saying (and for most people, it probably does), that you should always have a phone on you, just in case. True, you probably won’t get reception, but there is a chance, and chance is a lot better than nothing for sake of carrying a small box in your pack.

If you do get reception and you really need it (in a crisis situation) you’ll be glad you have it. True, you can call search and rescue/lifeboats etc., but also you can call family and friends and tell them you’re alright. You’ll be glad you took a phone.

If you don’t have reception a phone can still be handy, if less so. The torch on the back can flash Morse code, or ripping it apart the battery and guts can start a fire if need be and the glass could potentially become a signal mirror.

A satellite phone is any mobile phone handset which transmits uses a satellite connection. The big advantage over cellular connectivity (standard mobile phones) is that sat phones have coverage over far more of the planet. In most cases, all you need is a direct, clear line between your sat phone’s antenna and the sky for a signal to travel at the speed of light to the number you’ve dialed.

Iridium is generally seen as the industry standard network, and is probably the way to go if you want quality and choice. They run a constellation 66 satellites and each satellite alone covers an area of ~6,000,000 sq. miles. Needless to say, Iridium has truly global coverage. They also have 7 spare satellites at a lower orbit ready to compensate if one of the main ones is put out of action somehow.

As sat networks go, iridium’s calls and texts are relatively cheap (free to send a text to any iridium number from their website and incoming calls are free) and they offer a wide range of products, including GPS and internet services as well as voice and text communications. They are standard use in America and British armed forces.

When buying satellite communications equipment it is worth considering how you want to use the service, and so what kit will best suit you. Sat phones are great, but if you know you will only be sending short messages as check-ins or distress calls, then a text-only unit might work better. Or maybe you want to carry both, like the recent Golden Globe Race entrants have been. If you want to cover all the bases, you can just take a good laptop and a mobile phone with an internet calling service (like WhatsApp or Telegram) and use satellite only for internet connectivity, so you can do everything.

PLBs (and EPIRBs)

PLB stands for Personal Locator Beacon. They are radio devices designed to locate a person in danger. They transmit a distress signal and a GPS location (as of 2017 all PLBS are required to have inbuilt GPS) to COSPAS-SARSAT (an international satellite based search and rescue organization) and cover most of the world, on land and at sea.

Apart from that there isn’t much you need to know, just stop reading and go and buy one! If you do decide to use a PLB, you must register it personally with the relevant authority, which in America is NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. They are built to much higher standard of ruggedisation than PLBS, because they are intended for use at sea, far offshore. They are self-righting, buoyant, can activate automatically on submersion (depending on the model), and will send a distress location signal with a precision of twelve miles for 48 hours. If you’re ever going out of sight of land, it’s really worth having one with you!

Walkie-Talkies

For most standard medium-distance comms purposes what you really need is a walkie-talkie. These are purpose built for short range voice communication between people who don’t need or want to learn about complex radios or procedures.

Most American walkie-talkies use what are called GMRS / FRS frequencies. In the US, the radio band around 462 – 467 MHz (Ultra High Frequency or UHF) is shared by General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and Family Radio Service (FRS).

Officially you need license to be allowed to operate on them, but and might be worth it if you meet a zealous police officer. Anyone with a license, and any immediate family of theirs, may communicate between themselves for personal or business purposes, so your kids will be allowed to use the radios too without needing a license.

When buying walkie-talkies, the first thing to consider is range. Manufacturers will give you the greatest figure for this they can, so it will be a measurement of possible range in a flat, open space. Hills, trees, large rocks or building will cut this down a lot. So go for the one with the greatest range, and of course the greatest battery life/capacity.

Be aware though, that the range will always be fairly limited on a walkie -alkie and only a more powerful radio with a bigger antenna can change that. On top of that of course, extra features are great, Some walkie talkies are waterproof which is very useful if outdoors for any length of time, some float which is good if you’ll be on the water and dual watch (the capability to ‘listen’ to two frequencies at once) can be very useful.

Radio communications overall is a huge topic, well beyond the scope of this article. If you want to learn more, there is a whole forum dedicated to the radio communications side of prepping and survival. It’s called .

Alphabets and Languages

Morse Code

Named for Samuel Morse, an inventor of the telegraph, Morse code is not a signaling medium in itself, it’s a system of ‘symbols’ which can be used to represent letters and numbers in messages, using log and short pulses of on and off.

This could be covering and uncovering (or turning on and off) a pocket flashlight (you should always have one as part of your EDC) or lamp, long and short beeps of a horn or other sound device (or whistle) or even blinking your eyes.

Yes seriously, US prisoner of war Jeremiah Denton repeatedly blinked his eyes during a staged TV interview to spell out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”, so the authorities back home would know that the Vietnamese were torturing the American POWs.

The basic signs of Morse code are:

Letter

Morse

A

• −

B

• • •

C

− • − •

D

• •

E

F

• •

G

H

• • • •

I

• •

J

• − − −

K

L

• •

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

• • •

T

U

• •

V

• • •

W

X

• •

Y

Z

• •

If each ‘dit’ () is one unit of sound/light flashing long then:

  • Each ‘dah’ (−) is three units.

  • The space between the component dits and dahs within the same letters is one unit.

  • The space between two letters/characters is three units

  • The space between word is five units

Then of course there are numbers:

Numeral

Morse

0

1

2

• •

3

• • •

4

• • • •

5

• • • • •

6

• • • •

7

• • •

8

• •

9

Punctuation:

Punctuation Mark

Morse

.

,

• •

:

• • •

?

• • • •

• • • •

/ (fraction bar)

• •

() (same sign for open and close)

“” (same sign for open and close)

• •

@

=

• • •

Finally there are ‘prosigns’. These are conventionally agreed shorthands for commonly sent messages or phrases in morse, to save you from keying the whole lot every time you need it (somewhat like modern text message abbreviations).

When transmitting prosigns, don’t include a space between the letters, instead run all of the dits and dahs together. There are many prosigns, far too many to show here, but some common ones are probably useful to know:

Prosign Letters

Meaning

DE

This message is from / self-identification

R / CFM

I am receiving you / confirmation

K

Go ahead / over / invitation for the other station to speak

AR

Out / end of transmission

AS / AR

Please wait quietly (either because I cannot transmit or because I am in contact with another station which you cannot hear)

HH

Error disregard (often followed by AA)

AA

All after / I am referring to the portion of the message which was sent after the words…

AB

All before, functions like AA

BN

All between, function like AA and AB

?

Say again / please repeat

KA

Message begins

C

Correct / affirmative

N

No / negative

If you decide to learn Morse, then by far the best way to do so is the Koch Method. T may seem hard and dull to begin with, but it will pay dividends in terms of ability in the long run. An excellent free training website can be found .

Polybius Square (also known as Knock Code)

Like Morse code, the Polybius square is a way of encoding letters in on/off signals. Crucially though, its use does not necessitate having long and short signals, but can be used with only one type of signal, differentiated by the length of time in between.

The system works by putting all the letters used into a square grid (usually a square, but actually any grid would work) and then expressing each as numerical coordinates. The most common configuration for English is:

1

2

3

4

5

1

A

B

C/K

D

E

2

F

G

H

I

J

3

L

M

N

O

P

4

Q

R

S

T

U

5

V

W

X

Y

Z

C and K share a square, because the standard alphabet is 26 characters, ad the square only has 25 cells. Another common conflation is I and J.

The square can be expanded to include the numerals 0 – 9, which makes it thirty six cells, which is exactly 6 x 6. If no, then the lower numbers can be signaled as groups of just that number of signals (e.g dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah would be nine/ and higher numbers can be spelled (because it’s much quicker to spell ‘ONE HUNDRED’ or ‘ONE ZERO ZERO’ than to give one hundred blasts on a horn, and for higher numbers the receiver is very likely to miss count.

As is standard, you always give the horizontal coordinate first. So for example, ‘L’ would be expressed as: flash, pause, flash-flash-flash. The flashes could be flashes from a flashlight, knocks on a drainpipe (the Polybius square is often used in prisons) or sounds on a fog horn.

Semaphore

Semaphore is a way of encoding letters in different postures with flags, discs, batons or even open hands. At sea, the traditional flags used are the Oscar flag (a rectangle split in half top-right to bottom-left, with the upper part being red and the lower yellow) and on land the Papa flag (a white square inside a blue square). The Standard English alphabet signals can be found here.

Somewhat less in depth, but specific to emergency signalling, this video is a good example of semaphore in practice:

Hand Signs and Sign Language

Hand signals and sign languages can be a great way to communicate quickly and discreetly. The interesting thing about sign languages is that they must be seen to be understood, and sight is directional. If someone makes a noise near you, it doesn’t matter which direction they are in, you will still hear it, whether it’s behind you, off to one side or in front. But to see something, it has to be in front of you, otherwise you just don’t notice it.

So generally, you hear what goes in a broader physical range than what you see. This means that spoken languages are great if you need to give a speech, or give orders to people all around you, or shout at someone whose back is turned to grab their attention, but not much good for being private. Sign languages are great for this though, since you will only see them if you are watching, (and even might not understand).

Complex, full blown sign languages are great tools, and can convey anything a spoken language can, but will take a long time to learn. A quicker and easier way to derive a similar benefit is to pre-arrange a simple set of easily identifiable signs within your group for things you think you might need.

For example, many armed forces have signs for ‘go’, ‘stay’, ‘rally’, etc. but not ‘hot chocolate’. Because that would be unnecessary. Simple group movements (‘go’, ‘stay’, ‘run’, ‘move slowly/quietly’, ‘fire’ etc.) and questions about these (‘what are we doing next?’, ‘where?’ etc.) are probably a good place to start. Tactical and military groups the world over use systems like this, and there is a great run down of a lot of them here:

Passive Signals

Passive signals are signals which require no continuous action or input from you to keep working. Things like street signs, or writing in the sand. By their nature they will probably expend less energy and possibly less time than more active methods. Making a fire and keeping alight takes a lot of hard work, but once built, a cairn or colorful flag will stay put, doing its thing for a long time.

Before anything else, the first passive signal to consider is your clothing. Say you’re trapped in a forest with a broken leg and can’t move. If you’re wearing camouflage, nobody’s going to spot you for days, but a bright orange coat is a great locator.

This is why civilian hiking gear (especially survival gear) is generally manufactured in very bright colors, for people to pick each other out on mountains and against slopes (it’s also why military gear is manufactured to look as much like the environment as possible, because the military want to hide). Of course, circumstance may constrain you from wearing bright colors if you do need to hide (from animals for hunting, from other people for survival etc.) but it’s a worthy consideration at least.

As a side note, even the military sometimes to use passive signaling on their clothing. Soldiers often wear ‘cat’s eyes’ – small pairs of simple luminous symbols – on their back during night patrols so that the people immediately behind them can see them and identify their function (with different symbols corresponding to medic, IC etc.).

The next set of passive symbols to consider is trails. Leaving a marked trail behind you for others to follow can be very useful if you are travelling in a spread out group. Simple markers like cairns (small piles of stones balanced on top of each other) or sticks left crossed in the pah will confirm that you’re going in the right direction – but only if you are actually going in the right direction.

Generally better are directional signs like sticks arranged in arrows, trails of different sized stones (follow like an arrow, go in the direction of the stones going from largest to smallest) or knotted grass or brush, with the tail of the knot indicating the direction of travel.

Leaving a trail like this should not be confused with trailblazing (though both are certainly worth knowing about). Trailblazing is the use of a conventional set of symbols to mark where formally defined trails (think national trails, one’s with official recognition) begin, turn and end.

The beginning of the trail is marked by a single blaze (a mark, scratch, scar, spray painted shape etc.) above a horizontal pair, and the end is the same symbol reversed. ‘Continue straight’ is generally signified by a single blaze, and a turn by a single blaze with another one above it, offset in the direction of the turn. A vertical pair with a single blaze off to one side indicates a fork in the path to that side. Be careful though, because this system as regional variations which can include the same symbols for different meanings.

Always check with local officials before you blaze trails or try read blazing, as local convention may be different to what you’re used to.

Ground to air symbols can also be considered passive signals, though they are discussed separately, above.

Whistling

Whistling might not strike as a serious skill as such, but it can be really useful. For one, consider that a small, cheap plastic whistle kept on your keys will probably carry for over a mile in the right terrain. You could pre-arrange with your group what the next whistle means, or it could be useful as a means of pinpointing you if you need rescuing and the team are in the area but can’t get your exact location.

If you don’t already have one on you, a simple whistle can be made by taking a hollow tube (a piece of bamboo or similar cane works well, or an antler tine), stoppering one end, stoppering the other end but for a tiny gap at the top and finally cutting a notch (also at the ‘top’) through the wall of the whistle. Adding extra holes along its length (after the notch) will allow you to vary the pitch (variation, in any kind of signaling is what increases complexity, for making more complex messages). This video goes through the process for making a whistle:

Whistling is a sound signal, so can be very useful when visibility of signals, or visibility in general is poor or entirely gone. A Morse signal flashed on torch is great at night, but almost invisible against brightly lit surroundings during the day.

A whistled signal however would work in both instances (provided that sound wasn’t obscured too). Of course, this is also true of all sound signals – to this day ships use horn blasts to communicate in fog).

Then of course, there is whistling with just your body. Whistling by pursing your lips is great, but if you can learn to whistle with your fingers it’s well worth it. It carries further and the tone tends to be shriller so people hear it better. It’s also just cool.

In theory you could whistle Morse code to transmit more complex messages, or just agree in advance with your team a system of short and long blasts which mean different things. If you want to get really advanced (you’ll have to train the rest of your team too) you could learn the whistle language developed on La Gomera (though that is somewhat beyond the scope of this article!):

Final Words

Signaling is one of the most complex and most overlooked survival skills. But it’s worth putting in the time and effort. There is never much use in staying alive if nobody is coming to find you!

Two general points (applying to all signaling systems): if you want to setup a group-wide signaling system, make sure it isn’t too complex for everyone in the group to learn and use relatively quickly. Having said that, remember that the more variables there are in a system, the more possibilities there are, so the quicker and nuanced the communications can be. You have to strike a balance.

In an urban environment you will surrounded by buildings and other structures, so any form of signaling which relies on line of sight visibility (flags, smoke, fires) will be obscured and useless, and most would seem out of place anyway. Loud noises can still be useful over short range and ‘trails’ can be left as marks on buildings much like hobo sign.

IF the grid isn’t down then cell phone coverage will normally be good so this is probably a good bet, and good quality walkie-talkies will likely have decent range here too (they’re good enough to be used by security guards and law enforcement, so they’re probably good enough for you!)

In a rural setting, a good radio with good range and long battery life is a must. Satellite phones and flares for the whole party too if you are going any distance away from a safe haven.

In this case, knowing ways to use yourself, your other kit what is around you to make simple emergency signals is probably going to pay the best in the long run: learn trail signs, have a fire and/or whistle signal system agreed, and something more complex like a semaphore if you think your radio might fail.

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