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How to Signal For Help on a Backpacking Trip

Every time you head into the wilderness there’s a chance you won’t make it out alive. Who knows what’s going to happen once you leave the comfort of home.

There’s just no way to know what’s going to happen on a backpacking trip. Even experienced backpackers occasionally get injured or lost on the trail. How you handle the situation will make a huge difference in whether or not you make it out alive.

How Do You Signal For Help On a Backpacking Trip?

If you ever get lost or injured on the trail you should already have an action plan in place to get rescued. You never know when you’ll get lost/hurt and be unable to reach the trailhead.

How are you going to call for help and signal rescuers? Depending on where you’re stuck you can signal for help in a couple of different ways. It’s a good idea to have multiple plans in place so you maximize your chance of rescue.

Leave A Trail Map With Friends and Family

I can’t stress just how important it is to tell your friends and family where you’re hiking before hitting the trail. Let people back home know exactly where you’re going and when you plan on arriving at your destination.

If something goes wrong and you get lost or injured, somebody back home should know you’re missing. On long trips give your relatives a trail map and estimated arrival times at each destination. Somebody needs to be able to give rescuers an idea of where you’ll be.

Don’t Panic!

In a survival situation, the first thing everybody does is panic. If you’re not careful, feelings of helpfulness will quickly turn into depression, loneliness and panic.

Depression and panic will force you into dangerous situations and make you act recklessly. Once you start to panic it’s very hard to think rationally. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by acting irrationally.

In extreme situations, failure to remain calm can seriously endanger your life. Due to the rise of adrenaline in your body, most of the time, you don’t even realize your panicking.

Unless your life is in immediate danger take a few minutes to think before you act. Getting lost or injured in the woods isn’t a death sentence. Although 1 in 15,700 hikers die annually, you can seriously reduce the risk with a little planning.

Attempt to Call For Help

Obviously, the first thing you should do is attempt to call for help. In the past 5-10 years, cell phone service has significantly improved. If you’re anywhere near civilization there should be a decent cell phone signal.

As you go further out cell phone signals start to drop. Keep in mind that sometimes texts will still go out when you can’t make a call. Satellite phones have dropped in priced in the past couple of years(On Amazon).

For the past couple of years I’ve been using a Garmin Sat Phone(on Amazon). Satellite phone plans are paid month to month(no-contract) and cost about 14.99 for limited service. With the basic plan your calls/texts are limited, but it’s well worth the price to send an “I’m Ok text with your location” at the end of the day.

Other Signaling Devices
  • Satellite Phone: I personally use a Garmin Satellite Phone(On Amazon) whenever I have a big trip planned. It costs about 15 bucks per month for the subscription plan and you can cancel anytime. With a satellite phone, you can make phone calls anywhere on the planet.
  • Personal Locator Beacon: Personal locator beacons(On Amazon) are a one-way satellite device that can only send out emergency signals. They’re free to use, but once you activate the PLB you’re calling in the cavalry. At that point, there’s no going back. They’ll likely send in a helicopter and if it’s not an emergency you’ll be fined and arrested.
  • Spot Messengers: Spot messengers(On Amazon) are basically satellite phones that only text and send SOS locations. Since you still need to pay for a subscription plan the only advantage is the longer battery life. Now that sat phone subscriptions have dropped in price these are dropping in popularity.
  • Cell Phone: Cell phone coverage gets better every year, but you still can’t get coverage out in the middle of nowhere. Before heading out check coverage maps to see where you will likely get coverage. You might want to mark these spots on a map so you can make calls throughout the trip. On long trips, you might want to carry one of those solar chargers(On Amazon).

Leave Signs For Rescuers

If you find yourself in a survival situation(alone or group), you need to make sure rescuers who reach the area will be able to find you. Every decision you make should be an attempt to tell rescuers where you are.

Leave clear signs for rescuers indicating where you’ve gone and whether or not you’re injured. Build signal fires and use rocks/sticks to draw arrows indicating where you’ve gone. You’re trying to signal to rescuers overhead so make large signs in wide-open areas.

Building a Signal Fire(Make Smoke)

Building a signal fire is by far the most effective way to get rescued. Once you have your survival fire going in an open area grab as much fresh wood as you can find.

Green-wood, moss, dry leaves, and pine needles all produce a ton of smoke. Since this is a signal fire you want it to be as large and smoky as you can make it.

  • During The Day: During the day your goal is to make black smoke signals. Making black smoke is easy. Just toss leaves and green wood onto the fire and billow the smoke using a t-shirt.
  • At Night: Rescuers can see fire for miles. Try to build a massive fire without burning down the forest. If you have plenty of fuel try to build 3 fires in a triangle(30 ft apart) to signal distress. Rescuers typically wait until morning to start searching the forest.

Use a Signal Mirror

If you can get to a high spot signal mirrors can reflect sunlight for miles. Try to reflect the sunlight towards helicopters/planes flying overhead. It’s better to signal off into the distance than directly overhead since pilots can’t see straight down.

Although there are specifically designed signal mirrors you can reflect light using any shiny surface. Use your compass, watch, knife blade, etc to signal distant targets. Keep signaling until you get a response.

The plane might dip its wings or the helicopter will circle, just keep signaling. Don’t freak out if they fly off. You can’t just land a helicopter/plane anywhere. They might have called for the ground crew to take over.