Skip to main content

These SOS signals could save your life

How to signal SOS: Learn these methods of attracting attention, just in case you ever need them

Imagine yourself as the true Castaway, your very own Tom Hanks experience. You're stuck, and you're lost. Perhaps you're on a deserted island, or maybe you are stranded in the woods far from the trail. Either way, you need help, and to get help, you need to signal someone to come and rescue you. The best way to do that is with the old classic, 'SOS.'

Although a lot of people presume SOS stands for Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship, these are backronyms, and the letters have no true meaning. Perhaps SOS was chosen for how simple it was to transmit via Morse code. S is translated as three dots, and O is translated as three dashes, leaving very little room for confusion. Whatever the reason, SOS has stuck around, but there are more ways to signal that your soul needs saving. Here's how to signal SOS, wherever you're stranded.

SOS Signals for Mountaineering

If you become lost while mountaineering, don't fret! Just use one of these signals to catch someone's attention from far away.

Step 1: Smoke Signals

For smoke signals to be effective, you’re going to need to climb up to the highest altitude possible, as it greatly increases your chance of being spotted. Releasing one plume of smoke translates to “Look here!” It’s usually not a signal for an emergency but rather to get someone’s attention. Two plumes of smoke mean that everything is fine within the campsite. Three plumes of smoke signal for an emergency, aka “SOS.” To control the plumes of smoke, use a wet blanket to throw over the fire.

Step 2: Arms

Let’s say you notice an aircraft above you, but you have absolutely no tools to signal for help. That’s where your arms come in handy! Simply raise both of your arms up to form a “Y” shape and wave them around, which signals to an aircraft that you’re in need of assistance.

Step 3: Rock Piles

Large rocks come in handy when you’re unable to build a fire while mountaineering. It takes some labor, but the process is quite simple. Just find a bunch of rocks and build three large rock piles with them. And be sure to space them out about 100 feet from each other in a triangle shape, if at all possible.

Step 4: Waving Clothes

Spare clothes can come in handy during emergency situations, and waving them around for help is a very visual way to grab someone’s attention.

SOS Signals for Being Lost in the Woods

A peaceful and relaxing stroll can quickly turn into an emergency situation if you find yourself lost in a maze of skyscraper trees. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to signal for SOS in forests, and here are a few of our favorites:

Step 1: Whistle

If you happen to have a whistle on you (or you’re blessed with the ability to whistle loudly with your fingers), proceed with these steps: Three long whistle blasts (which is “S”), followed by three short blasts (“O”), and then three long whistles once more (“S”).

Step 2: Flashlight

A night in the woods can be scary, but if you have a flashlight, you can use it to signal SOS via Morse code. Flash the light three times rapidly, then slowly for another three times, and then rapidly for three seconds once more. Try to keep the “rapid flashing” to less than a second if you can and the “slow flashing” to just over one second in length.

Step 3: Mirror

A signal mirror can come in handy when you need to signal airplanes, vehicles, ships, or a possible hiker in the woods. Using the sun’s reflection, point the mirror toward the target, then cover it or move it away quickly. Repeat two more times to spell out the “SOS” code. If you’re using an improvised mirror, use your index and middle finger to form a v-shape directly in front of the mirror. This will allow an ample amount of light to pass through this v-shape so you find the “bead of light” to reflect back to your target.

Step 4: Signal Fire

SOS fires are a great way to draw attention to yourself, especially at night. Building three fires in either a straight line or in a triangle is the internationally recognized symbol of emergency distress. And be sure to build each fire approximately 100 feet from each other to reduce the chance of starting a forest fire. The last thing you’ll want is to be running for your life in the middle of nowhere.

SOS Signals for Confinement in Trapped Spaces

It's not just getting lost or stranded that leaves you needing rescue. It might not bear thinking about, but having a plan if you become trapped in a tight spot after a disaster, or end up the victim of a kidnapping situation might just save your life.

Step 1: Tapping

Tapping Morse code is a great way to signal for help in a confined space. Try tapping on a window or on a pipe by using the following method: tap three times fast, then three times slow, then three more times fast.

Step 2: Blinking

If you’re trapped as a hostage where you’re unable to speak, you can try blinking for help! This clever SOS signal can be done by blinking fast three times, blinking slowly three times, and then blinking fast three times once more.

Step 3: Hand Signal

Let’s say you’re trapped in the backseat of a moving vehicle, but you can’t utter a sound. The best way to signal for help in this instance is to use a hand signal against the window. Open your hand and fold your thumb over your palm. Then curl all of your fingers over your thumb to create a gesture that looks similar to a closed fist (except here, your thumb is hidden under your fingers). Keep your hand against the window as long as you can and hopefully, a passerby will see this and call for help.

Other Types of SOS Signals

These final few methods for how to signal SOS can be applied in any situation where you need to alert someone's attention.

Step 1: Flag

Similar to the “waving clothes” option in the mountaineering section above, a flag is a great visual cue to signal for help. Be sure to pack a vibrant flag that stands out from your surroundings, such as orange.

Step 2: iPhone

You use it for Instagram and checking emails, but did you know that each iPhone has a built-in SOS feature? To use it, press and hold both the side button and one of the volume buttons simultaneously. You’ll see an “Emergency SOS” slider pop up in the center of the screen. Just be sure you have enough battery power left to use this feature!

Step 3: Morse Code

At the start, we mentioned that SOS in Morse code is three dots for the first “S," three dashes for the “O," followed by three more dots for the second "S."

Step 4: Writing

You can write out “SOS” or three large “X” marks using rocks, sticks, tree branches, or your hands or feet. This is ideal if you’re stranded on a beach or an island, but this also works in a clearing of a forest.

Editors' Recommendations

Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
Aggressive bears have shut down camping in this part of the Appalachian trail
Watch out for bears on your next Appalachian Trail hike
An inquisitive black bear plods through a new growth of trees.

Are you planning on an epic hiking and camping adventure along the Appalachian Trail? Well, you may want to rethink your trip because you might have a few wild encounters. The U.S. Forest Service has just closed a part of the trail to overnight camping due to a surge in bear attacks. Read on to learn more about how this closure could affect your trip and what you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from bears. 

Where is the temporary closure?
In response to reports of aggressive bear behavior, the U.S. Forest Service has implemented a temporary closure of the Appalachian Trail camping area between Tanyard Gap and Deep Gap/the Little Paint Creek Trail (NOBO miles 280.8 to 287.7). This closure includes the Rich Mountain campsite and Spring Mountain Shelter (NOBO miles 283.3 and 285.9).

Read more
Gear up for your next big adventure with the best camping gear and accessories
Spring is the perfect time to take stock of your gear closet and upgrade your tired camping essentials and accessories
Person camping on a river using a one person tent.

Spring is officially here, and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere anyway, that means the start of five to six months of the year's best weather. It's the perfect time to get outdoors or at least plan your next outdoor adventures, whether that's hiking, kayaking, biking, hitting the beach — whatever you're into. It's also a great time to take stock of your outdoor gear to see what, if anything, might need an upgrade.

If you're into camping, that might mean shopping for a new tent, a portable fire pit, or the best power station you can get your hands on to keep your tech gadgets powered up for car camping. With all that in mind, we’ve selected some of our favorite front-country and backcountry essentials. These are our picks for the best of the best camping gear accessories of 2023 (so far).

Read more
Get the best nature apps for identifying unknown plants and critters right from your smartphone
Curious nature-lovers can identify birds, bugs, plants, mammals, and more with these (mostly) free mobile nature apps.
Closeup of a hand holding a smartphone with a picture of a small seedling on the screen.

Over the last few years, the pandemic inspired (some might say forced) many of us to discover new hobbies and passions. Some found an unexpected desire to learn the secrets of how to make sourdough bread. Others took to Zoom happy hours to get their daily social fix. Still others spent weeks riveted to the bizarre exploits of an exotic cat owner from Oklahoma (and all the me-too follow-up shows on Netflix and beyond).

But, many more of us took the time to get back to nature — the healthiest, most social-distancing-friendly pastime of all. If you count yourself among this group, and are curious to learn more about the world around you, these are the best nature apps to help you identify almost any unknown plant or critter. Think of them like Shazam for the outside world.
Free for iOS/Android

Read more