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

how to signal sos
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
This is how to avoid getting sick while camping
These tips will help everyone to stay well while enjoying sleeping outdoors
A camping setup with tents

Even in the best of times, when you're home with everything you could need, getting sick is never easy or helpful. But when you're out in the woods backpacking or camping, you definitely don't want to get sick when you have limited resources.

To help dispel one of the most common myths of camping illness and prevent the top common cause of illness, The Manual talked with Gates Richards, the Associate Director of NOLS Wilderness Medicine. Richards holds a Master of Education and is also a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine, which means he has achieved the highest level of practicing wilderness medicine in the field.

Read more
These are 8 of the most dangerous hikes in the world
Are you into extreme hiking? Then you're in the right place to check out the most dangerous spots to trek
A view of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu in Peru

Hiking involves nothing more than going on or off the trail with your hiking boots (partnered with hiking socks) until you reach your final destination for recreational purposes. However, that doesn't mean it's easy. When you're on a treacherous trail that's considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world, you'll need a healthy dose of fear, maybe some hiking snacks, and a desire to push yourself to the edge -- as long as you don't fall over it.

Here are eight trails to get the adrenaline pumping -- and perhaps make you hold on for dear life.
Huayna Picchu, Peru

Read more
The 20 best U.S. national parks to explore now
There are a lot of national parks to see, so here's a list to start with
Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park

Soaring mountains, dune-covered deserts, glacial lakes, primeval forests, and red rock canyons set the stage for memorable adventures in splendid U.S. national parks — "America’s best idea," as filmmaker Ken Burns rightly described it. You could spend years exploring the countless wonders of these cherished reserves, but if time is limited, then focus your attention on the best of the best. Below is our admittedly subjective list of the top 20 parks, presenting a wide variety of landscapes and locales.
National Park Pass programs
Before we get into the list of U.S. national parks, let's cover how you can save money if you're going to be visiting several of America's best national parks. The National Park Pass is a program offered by the National Park Service that allows entrance to many federal recreation sites across the country. Depending on your needs, there are different types of passes to choose from.

Annual Pass: This pass costs $80 and is valid for one year at over 2,000 federal recreation sites managed by six different agencies, including the National Park Service. This is a good option if you plan on visiting several parks throughout the year.
Senior Pass: Citizens 62 and older can purchase a lifetime Senior Pass for $80. It grants the same access as the annual pass.
America the Beautiful Pass: This pass costs $80 and covers entrance fees for a single vehicle, including rentals and RVs, at national parks and federal recreational lands for 12 months.
Military Pass: Veterans get a free lifetime pass to national parks and other federal recreational lands. Here are some additional things to keep in mind about national park passes:

Read more