When most folks think of signaling for help, a giant “SOS” sign on a deserted beach is usually the first thing that comes to mind. But what if your best chance for rescue might come from a ground-based search team? While ground-to-ground search signals are smaller and less showy than ground-to-air signals, they can still be valuable lifesavers. Here are some of the top signals that you could build at ground level so that a search party can find you.

Sticks and Stones
Rock cairns and stick structures are great examples of ground signals. Place rocks or small logs to form arrows that point the way to your camp, or in the direction you are headed in the event of a “self-rescue.” Signals like these were common in centuries past to blaze trails and create paths. Techniques like chopping shapes into tree trunks were also used to communicate information and allow people to find their way. You can chop arrows into tree bark to point searchers toward your camp so they can find you. Use a hatchet or even a rock with a sharp edge.

There are still places in the American Southeast where there are very old trees with bent tops. As the story goes, the Native people would tie rope to young tree tops to make the wood bend as it grew. This would eventually create a bent tree top that pointed back toward the village. Throughout the forest, in every direction, there were trees pointing the way home. If the children ever became lost, the trees would show them the way back to their people.

Signal Fires
Fire is your best friend in the wild–when it is doing what it is supposed to do–and it can be used as a very effective signal for help. Build a signal fire in a prominent or open location so that the light and smoke have the best chance of being seen by a SAR crew on the ground.

Signal Flags
A nice signal flag is a good way to indicate where your camp is located, especially if that flag has a contrasting color and can be seen from a great distance. Make sure you secure the flag tightly to branches, poles, or objects that cannot fall down. Tie up bandannas, strips of non-essential clothing, reflective items you can spare–whatever sticks out against the landscape. And make it sturdy. During some training this past weekend, some of my students built a great looking survival shelter, and hung a very prominent red jacket on a tall pole. This looked great, until it fell over and couldn’t be seen at all. Lesson learned. Let’s hope none of us ever learn a lesson like that the hard way.

Have you ever been saved by using signals, or been on a SAR team who rescued someone by their signals? Please tell us all about it in the comments.