Why Do Backpacks Have Whistles?


When I first got into backpacking I was fascinated with all the different features built into my gear. It took at least a decade for me to realize that my pack had a secret feature that I never knew existed. There was a whistle built into the strap on the center of my chest. This brings up the question, why do backpacks have whistles?

Backpacks have built in whistles so you can get somebodies attention in a survival situation. They help If you ever get separated from your group or are being looked for by search and rescue. A shrill whistle sound will carry farther than your voice, especially when you’ve been yelling for a while.

The whistles on your backpack might not be the best, but they can really help in a survival situation. You will always be better off with a real emergency whistle, but it will be better than nothing. In the rest of this article I’ll explain a few other uses for your backpacks whistle.

What is The Whistle For On a Backpack?

Most outdoor packs built over the last 10-20 years have a whistle built into one of the straps. It’s one of those features they use to pad the list, but it may actually save your life someday. They usually place it on the sternum strap or one of the shoulder straps on larger packs.

People don’t realize how important/useful a whistle is in a survival situation. A person can only yell for so long before their voice starts to go hoarse. You’re screwed once your voice gives out and you can’t be heard.

You can blow on a whistle continuously for hours. This is really important when a rescue party has a large area to cover to find you. Rescuers may only be within yelling/whistling distance for a few minutes, so it’s important to continue making noise.

How Do You Use a Whistle With a Backpack Buckle?

Using a backpack buckle whistle is fairly straightforward. It’s usually on the sternum strap on your backpack so you don’t even need to take off the pack.

Just unbuckle your sternum/chest strap and look at your whistle buckle. Try to determine how much extra strap you need to get the buckle up to your mouth. Loosen up the strap until the buckle reaches your mouth and blow into the one end to use it. There are a few key rules to know when using an emergency whistle.

  • Only Use The Whistle In Emergencies: Don’t use a backpack whistle if you’re not in distress. Trained backpackers and outdoorsman will go out of their way to investigate a distress whistle. So avoid inconveniencing the people around you by only using the whistle in emergencies.
  • Learn Morse Code Or Whistle In Sets of 3: People don’t have to understand morse code to recognize that it’s a distress signal. Doing an emergency SOS whistle is fairly straightforward. Do 3 short blows with the whistle, followed by 3 long blows, and finish with 3 short blows. Alternating between long and short blows is the most important part. You want people to recognize the 3 blow pattern as being intentional and not just random wind blowing and making noise. That’s why a 3 signal blast is the universal signal to get somebodies attention since it’s such a recognizable pattern.
  • Get In Contact With Your Group: You can quickly get lost wandering off the trail to use the bathroom or search for supplies. Do a quick 3 whistle blast if you’re lost. Hopefully your group is within earshot and can do the same to point you in the right direction. A high pitched whistle will go farther than yelling for help and you can blow into it even when you’re weak and lose your voice.
  • Alert Bears To Your Location: Bears are generally safe to be around, but you need to be careful. Most of the time they’ll run off if they know you’re coming. If you’re wandering in bear country and spot a bear use the whistle to warn him of your approach. Keep your distance and give a few quick whistle blows to get his attention. He will scurry away 99% of the time if you’re a good distance away.

Don’t Use The Whistle Unless You’re In Distress

You never want to use your whistle call unless you’re in distress. They’re in case you get lost or injured and need immediate attention. Most trained outdoor guides/enthusiasts take whistle calls seriously and will rush over to help.

The only exception to this rule is if you’re travelling through Alaskan Bear Country. They use whistles to alert the bears and wildlife that you’re in the area. You don’t want to walk up on a momma bear and her cubs.

Do I Need a Whistle Buckle on My Backpack?

No you really don’t need to have a whistle built into your pack, but it is convenient in an emergency. It’s a great feature, but I wouldn’t choose one pack over another just because it has a whistle.

Buckle whistles really aren’t that good anyway. They’re not all that loud. I doubt the sound carries farther than 150-200 feet. That’s great if you fall off the side of a trail, but it’s not loud enough if there’s a large search area.

You’re much better off carrying a dedicated survival whistle (like this one). They’re lightweight, loud and really cheap. I stick one of them in my first aid kit and have another strapped to my pack.

Get in Contact With Your Group

Stragglers can get lost when backpacking in a large group. It doesn’t matter how careful and experienced everybody is. People will wander off to use the bathroom or something and not be able to find their way back. Having a whistle will allow you to quickly find your group and get back to the party.

Learn Morse Code For SOS

Blowing on a whistle will most likely attract attention, but you may still want to learn the code for SOS. If you get lost in the woods, blow three short strokes, three longer blasts, and then three short blasts again. Keep repeating that signal every couple of minutes until help arrives.

You can blow the whistle in any rhythm, but you’re better off making noise in groups of 3 if you can’t remember how to do SOS. Obviously, perfect morse code . . . – – – . . . is preferred, but really isn’t required. Any signal repeated three times should be recognized as a sign of distress by most outdoorsman.

Alert Bears and Other Animals

A bear isn’t going to be afraid of your whistle. You need to have either a gun or bear spray (reliable bear spray) if a bear is trying to attack you. I usually carry both to ward off aggressive bears. Thankfully I’ve never needed to use it.

Your whistle is only there to alert bears and other wildlife of your presence. Don’t catch a mother bear off guard!

It serves the same basic purpose as a bear bell. A whistle works in a pinch, but I prefer the Coughlan Bear Bell since you don’t have to constantly blow your whistle. Make sure your bell has a magnetic silencer so it doesn’t drive you crazy when you’re not using it.

Will It Work As a Rape Whistle?

A rape whistle probably won’t do much in the middle of the forest, but it’s not a bad thing to have on an active trail. Carrying along a whistle and possibly mace/gun is a great idea for anybody that hikes and jogs alone. You never know when you’ll run into a sexual predator or thief.

I’m not recommending shooting a thief, but it’s better to have a gun and not need to use it. Plus nothing works better than a 44, 454 or 500 magnum revolver to slow down a charging bear.

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