True North Blog

Even Small Things can be Powerful

Whether we are hiking, fishing, paddling, or enjoying the beauty of the Great Outdoors in any number of others ways, emergencies can occur.  If you ever found yourself in the woods in need of help, what type of signaling device do you think would be the most helpful?

Consider a study by the National Park Service conducted in 2014 which summarized the most common reasons why people needed to be rescued in its parks.  The single most common activity in which the subjects of a search were engaged was the “Day Hike” (42%).  This far outpaced the next activity, overnight backpacking, at 13%.  Other activities represented low single digits, where even “Technical Climbing” only accounted for a mere 2% of rescues.  And during these activities, the most common factors that contributed to the need for help were “Fatigue / Physical Conditioning” (23%) and “Error in Judgment” (19%).  I would submit that this study is representative of other search-and-rescues all around the county.

One example is a rescue reported by CBS Los Angeles that same year in which a solo day-hiker found herself stranded in the hills of Altadena, California for two days, dehydrated and hypothermic — No more than a few hundred yards from a well developed residential area.  She was only rescued after a man sitting on his back porch heard her cries of help.

What if I told you that this poorly prepared hiker could have likely been rescued within hours of initially becoming lost, thus avoiding the real prospect of dying, had she only had in her pocket a survival device costing less than $10?

Being Found is Mostly Your Responsibility

When it comes to being rescued, our survival instructors teach in our courses, like Basic Wilderness Survival, that the responsibility of being found does not necessarily fall on the SAR folks, but on you. Basically, you should be prepared at all times to “reach out and touch someone” when the need arises.  Despite common belief, rescuers won’t likely be relying on helicopters equipped with hi-tech detection devices, but even if they did, you would still be the proverbial needle in the wilderness haystack.  Most searches are conducted using “ground-pounders” who utilize old fashioned detection devices to find you — their eyes and ears, very often the latter.  So the better that you can make yourself heard, the better are your prospects for survival.

In any emergency situation, Signaling is #5 of your seven survival priorities.  As such, one should be prepared at all times with the appropriate equipment; know when, where, and how, to use it; and understand the various communication conventions.

Buy a Whistle

One of the most fundamental, and best, signaling devices is the whistle.  Granted, it isn’t exactly impressive — it’s small and decidedly low-tech — but it can be worth it’s weight in gold should you need to get someone’s attention.

Yes, I know, you can shout.  And, yes, I am sure that you can whistle quite impressively with your fingers in your mouth.

But don’t be be so confident: you can only yell so long and so hard until your voice gives out (which isn’t long at all); sound is also quickly absorbed by surrounding vegetation, snow, rain, and wind; your voice and lip whistle doesn’t have the same high decibel level as a real whistle; besides, heck, how well can you whistle if you are hypothermic, or, worse yet, your arm is broken?

So invest in a good whistle, preferably without the ball (as the ball may freeze in winter due to your excess spittle) and keep it in your pocket.  I am not a fan of “buckle whistles,” which are now common on backpack shoulder straps, since they are not as loud as standard whistles; are practicably inaccessible if you are wearing your pack; and no good if you are separated from it.

Personally, I carry the Jet Scream whistle manufactured by Ultimate Survival Technologies.  In fact, I carry two — One on my pack where it is easily accessible and one in my pocket (just in case I don’t have my pack on my back).  And at 122db, it is going to get the attention of anyone in the vicinity.

Oh, and its MSRP is $6.99.

Signal in Threes

If you need to signal for help, remember that “Three” is the international symbol of distress.  That is, three of anything in rapid succession, like three gun blasts, three whistle blasts, or three fires in a row or triangle, means that you need help.

So put your whistle between your lips, cup your hands around your mouth, and blow three quick times as your “call.”  Ideally, after each set of blasts, turn in other directions around you to maximize being heard.  Of course, pause periodically to listen for a “response” — one long whistle blast — from someone who heard you.

And when you hear the response, avoid leaving your current position to walk in the direction of rescuers.  Rather, stay in place and keep repeating this call and response process as you let them come towards you.  This will help keep you safe while letting rescuers better pinpoint your position since sound can bounce around, especially amongst hills.


Don’t get me wrong, I think that there are other signal devices that you should also consider carrying during your next outdoor adventure, depending on the such factors as the location and nature of the activity.  Devices like a mirror, personal locator beacon (PLB), or smoke flare are some good choices.

But no matter what, a whistle should always be at hand.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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