What Is the International Emergency Signal for Distress?

Wondering how to call for help in an emergency? You’re in the right place. In this guide, we break down the various distress signals known by rescuers around the world and reveal which signal to use in different situations.

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Most of the time, venturing into the great outdoors is a rewarding experience. However, sometimes things go wrong, and when they do, it’s important to know how to react. The first thing to do is get help. But how?

That’s where this guide comes in. We have included how to do ten need-to-know distress signals, which signals are to be used in different situations, and how to communicate to other hikers, aircraft, or by radio in an emergency situation.

1. Human Y

The Human Y doesn’t require anything besides your body and can be used to communicate with helicopters during an emergency. Holding both arms up, as if making the letter Y with your body, indicates, “Yes, I need help.” 

Hiker on top of mountain with hands in the air doing the human Y-shape
The human Y is useful if you spot a helicopter in the area.

2. Whistle

You should always carry a survival whistle. They are lightweight, take up virtually no room, and could save your life. A whistle blast will travel three times further than a yell, increasing your chances of being heard. 

The best way to make a distress signal is with three blasts. Each blast should be around three seconds long. Wait a few seconds, catch your breath, and repeat the three whistle blasts until help arrives.

Close up of a compass and rescue whistle lying on top of a map
A rescue whistle should always be packed in your backpack.

3. Mirror

Survival kits always include a signal mirror, and for a good reason. A mirror can reflect sunlight up to 7 miles and be used to alert rescuers of your position. To use a signal mirror, stand facing the sun and place the mirror next to your eye. 

Find the reflection on your hand and open your fingers into a V-shape. The reflection will go through your open fingers, and you can use your hand as a guide. Locate your target and flash the mirror three times for a better chance of being noticed.

Small handheld mirror reflecting the sun
A mirror can reflect the sun’s light up to 7 miles away!

4. SOS

SOS is a widely known distress call, often used for global maritime distress calls. In Morse Code, the letter S is three dots, and O is three dashes. SOS is dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot. 

You can use a whistle to communicate SOS with three short signals, three long signals, and three more short signals. You can also use a headlamp or flashlight for a distress signal by turning the light on and off. In any case, three is the magic number – three fires evenly spaced, three whistles, three signals with your headlamp, or three mirror flashes.

5. Personal Locator Beacons

Personal Locator Beacons, or PLBs, are the ideal tools for signaling distress. Unlike a satellite messenger, a PLB doesn’t require a subscription. 

PLBs send SOS signals and an emergency position to a global network of satellites and initiate a local emergency procedure. Remember, you can’t cancel an SOS call, so make sure you need help before activating a PLB.

Backpacker looking at GPS in front of a mountain scene
PLB devices can send for help using your exact location coordinates.

6. X

When seen from the air, an X is a large visual signal, and the bigger, the better. Gather as many logs, sticks, and rocks as possible and make sure the X is visible. You can also use your own body to create an X or turn the logs into a signal fire. Lay on your back and move your outstretched arms and legs as if making a snow angel.

7. TTT

TTT in Morse Code is another easy international emergency sign. In Morse Code, the letter T is a single dash, making TTT easier to remember than SOS. Like SOS, you can communicate TTT with three flashes from a headlamp, whistle, or mirror.

8. LED Road Flares

Traditional flares are heavy and could potentially start a forest fire. Most hikers and backcountry enthusiasts have turned away from flares and flare guns for safer alternatives, including LED road flares, headlamps with a strobe function, and satellite phones.

What are the basic principles of plumbing?
1. Water Supply: Providing clean and pressurized water from a reliable source.
2. Drainage: Removing wastewater and sewage from fixtures and ensuring proper disposal.
3. Ventilation: Allowing air to enter the plumbing system to prevent vacuum conditions and facilitate efficient drainage.
4. Gravity and Slope: Maintaining the appropriate slope in pipes utilizes gravity to ensure downward flow of water and waste.
5. Traps: Installing traps, such as P-traps, to prevent sewer gases from entering the building while allowing the passage of water.
6. Valves: Using valves to control and regulate water flow, allowing for shut-off and redirection when needed.
7. Pressure Regulation: Maintaining appropriate water pressure within the system through pressure regulators and valves.
8. Codes and Regulations: Complying with local state plumbing codes and regulations to ensure safety and proper functioning.
9. Pipe Materials: Choosing suitable pipe materials based on their durability, corrosion resistance, and compatibility with the intended use.
Hiker hiking in the snow with a bright headlamp on
Headlamps and LED fares are now preferred over traditional flares.

9. Mayday

Mayday comes from the French word M’aidez, which means help me. And it can be easier to understand over the phone than SOS. As with most help signals, you should say Mayday three times in an actual Mayday call to effectively communicate your need for help. 

10. Signal Fires

If you’re in a remote area with plenty of flammable material (wood, grass, etc), signal fires are a great way to attract attention to rescue teams. To give yourself the best chance of being seen, add plenty of green wood to your pile – this gives off much more smoke than dead wood. 

If there’s enough material to do so, start three fires so rescuers don’t confuse your fire with a campfire!

Campfire on the banks of a river at sunset
If you only build one fire it may be mistaken for a regular campfire and not a distress signal!

International Emergency Signals For Distress: Final Thoughts

Spending time outdoors is not without its risks. When things go wrong, there are a few different ways of signaling for help, including with a survival whistle, a mirror, or a Personal Locator Beacon. 

Have you ever had to call for help? What international emergency distress signal did you use? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share with your hiking partner.

Last update on 2024-06-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Megan Large Avatar

Megan hails from southwest Colorado, where she grew up hiking and camping. Since then, she has been on the road, working as an outdoor guide. She's guided hiking trips in British Columbia, whitewater in Washington and Idaho, and taught skiing across Colorado.

Megan has spent over 100 days camping at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and is currently bagging Colorado's 14ers with her Border Collie, Alli. When she's not getting lost on the trail, you can find Megan wherever there's WIFI sharing her outdoor experience so that others may learn from her mistakes.

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