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How to Signal SOS to Get Yourself to Safety

Picture yourself stuck on an island like Tom Hanks in the cult classic, Castaway. You’re isolated, tired, hungry, and in desperate need to escape back to civilization. You have no fire or tools, except for surrounding sticks and rocks in a nearby forest.

How Would You Signal For Help?

You would write out a very large “SOS” on the sand using the biggest rock or stick you can carry. (Writing three large X’s works as well.)

A man on a beach using a smoke signal.

While SOS doesn’t have an exact known abbreviation, it’s been commonly referred to as “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls.” Back in the early 1900s, sailors would use this distress signal to request for help in times of emergency, but nowadays, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System is used. SOS is also translated to the following in Morse code: three dots for the “S” and three dashes for the “O.”

So today, we’ll take a look at the different ways to signal SOS in various situations, because you never know when you’ll become trapped on a deserted island with a volleyball named Wilson.

SOS Signals for Confinement in Trapped Spaces

Unfortunately, there are many kidnappings happening in our world, but with these SOS techniques, hostages have a greater chance of being seen or rescued.

A dark and gloomy basement with one large window.


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.


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.

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.

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.

Two pairs of trekking poles resting on a large pile of rocks; there is a landscape of hills and mountains in the background.

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 signals for an emergency, aka “SOS.” To control the plumes of smoke, use a wet blanket to throw over the fire.


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 an aircraft that you’re in need of assistance.

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.

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:

A dirt road in the middle of a forest.


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”).


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.


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.

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.

Other Types of SOS Signals

SOS spelled out on sand at a beach.

  • 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.
  • 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!
  • Morse Code: In the beginning, 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.”
  • Writing: As mentioned above, 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.

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