What is an SOS signal?
Almost everyone on the planet is familiar with the idea of an SOS signal. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, what language you speak, or where on Earth you live. The SOS is as universal as the thumbs up or the middle finger. Learning how to properly SOS in case of an emergency can mean the difference between life and death.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to properly use the SOS signal to get you out of trouble in the most dangerous of survival situations. But first, let’s take a brief look at what exactly the SOS signal is and where it came from.
You see, the SOS was introduced first in Germany, back in April of 1905. It’s an international Morse code distress signal. Because it was designed for a time when Morse code was the fastest method of international communication, it wasn’t based in any particular language (radio communication via voice wasn’t fully developed at this point in time). For this reason, SOS signals are pretty much internationally recognized as a signal for distress.The SOS signal is a continuous sequence that uses three dots, three dashes, and another three dots without any spacing. It looks like this:
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Short, short, short, long, long, long, short, short, short.
As an internationally recognized distress signal, SOS saves thousands of lives. You can use it in any situation with almost any kind of gear to let your distress be known. It can be communicated visually, as sound, or even by touch if necessary. Many people, especially people in emergency services, the military, and preppers/survivalists will recognize this SOS signal in various forms. Because this signal is so widely recognized by so many different kinds of people, it can be used to signal for help/rescue in even the most dangerous/desperate situations. Let’s take a look at how to properly use the SOS signal and some common ways to do so (with a little bit of a focus on wilderness survival).
How to Signal An SOS by Reflecting Sunlight
There may be a time when you’re stranded. Whether you’re lost in the woods, stuck on a beach somewhere, or trapped on the side of a mountain because of a hiking or climbing mishap – knowing how to signal SOS can save your life. This method borrows the power of the sun. Using nothing but sunlight and some kind of reflective material (or a mirror), you can signal SOS any time as long as there’s daylight. Even the black screen of your smartphone or a shattered bottle is enough for signalling an SOS via reflection. Anything with reflective properties is worth a shot..
This is the best method for trying to get the attention of an aircraft, ship, boat, or other vehicle that’s relatively far away. The first step is to aim the reflection of sunlight at the airplane or ship, then to reflect it three short times, three long times, and another three short times. Think of it like a rhythm. Three quick flashes, three slightly longer flashes, then another three quick flashes.
Anyone who notices this will immediately recognize the signal, particularly if its a plane or a boat (pilots and captains are trained to recognize these sorts of signals). If you’re lost someplace and see a vehicle overhead or in the distance, immediately try to throw an SOS signal their way.
How to Signal an SOS Using a Whistle
Using a whistle or another type of loud, far-travelling sound can help you signal that you need to be rescued or that you need help. But using a whistle is a little different. You don’t actually use the same SOS signal, you use the international whistle code. The international whistle code for distress is three quick blasts into your whistle (rather than three short, three long, then three short again). A single whistle blow is asking for someone’s location. Two blasts into a whistle is meant to call someone back to you. And three blast into a whistle means SOS! This is critical knowledge for people going out into the forest. If you use your whistle to blow the “traditional” SOS signal, it’s likely that people will understand, but for the sake of clarity you should know that the whistle signal for SOS is slightly different than it is with Morse code or other methods.
As a side note, always keep a whistle with you! If you’re going out into the forest, it’s a good idea that you bring a whistle. Nobody ever expects that they’ll need to be rescued, but it’s always best to be prepared for the possibility. You can use it to signal SOS, and you can also use a whistle to scare off bears and other dangerous predators. Also, if you don’t have a whistle but you do have some kind of horn or other instrument that makes a loud blast of noise, you can use that three times to signal distress. Three loud bursts of noise will be recognized as a call for help.
How to SOS with Signal Fires
The best way to call attention to yourself at night time is by lighting fires. You can also light fires in the daytime, but they are especially noticeable at night – in the day time, you might have to rely on smoke signalling instead, as smoke is more visible than the light from a fire in broad daylight. Whenever lighting fires during a survival situation, always have a plan in place for putting the fires out if they get too large. The last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of a raging forest fire of your own making while also dealing with another potential emergency.
If you’re stuck on a beach, you can also use fires and keep them burning all night and all day – no need to worry about the fire spreading. This is also true if you find a nice clearing with lots of room so that anyone flying overhead can spot you.
To create an SOS using fire, you will need to build three separate fires. This can be done in two different ways. You can either place them in a triangle or in a straight line. You want to keep about 100 feet between each of the fires. And don’t worry if they are in a triangle or a line, just use whichever method works for you in your situation based on the environment. Three fires is an internationally recognized signal for immediate distress, regardless of what shape they’re in.
If you’re thinking about using smoke from a fire to signal your SOS, you will need to add a lot of smokey materials into your fire like greenwood and leaves. You also need to choose the highest altitude location you can find, hopefully on the top of a cliff or a tall hill. Climb upwards even if it takes some effort, because your visibility when smoke signalling an SOS could determine whether you get rescued or not. The higher up you are, the more likely people are to see your smoke signals.
Wind is going to make the smoke drift away from you, but anyone who sees an SOS smoke fire will probably recognize it and be able to trace the smoke back to your location. The only issue with this is that it could be mistaken for a forest fire. You can try to control the pattern of your smoke signal with a wet blanket. This will also help with producing the necessary signal to alert others that you’re in an emergency situation.
Just like with using a whistle to signal an SOS, smoke signals are also simplified compared to the traditional Morse code SOS signal. One plume of smoke means “look here” or “can I have your attention”. It signals something to look out for, or something unusual happening, but not an emergency situation. Two smoke plumes mean “the camp is safe”, or in some situations can mean “everything is OK”. Three plumes of smoke means “SOS” or “there is an emergency”. So if you’re stuck in a bad situation, you want to send up three plumes of smoke. You can control the number of plumes by throwing a wet blanket over your fire.
Writing Out an SOS Signal
You can always write SOS in huge letters using some kind of material at your disposal. Sand and rocks work, as do pieces of trees, cut branches, or whatever else is handy. As cliche as this might sound, you can also carve SOS in the sand if you’re near a beach. You would need to take your feet or hands and carve SOS into the sand about four inches deep and about two inches wide so that it can be seen from a plane pretty high up sky. The only downside to this is that sand will probably eventually get wet and then cave in on itself, or wind will blow it away and your message will be lose visibility over time.
The best time to write SOS in the sand is at low tide. But the issue is that the tide will come back and you will need to write it again later. A better way to do this is to find an elevated area that won’t be affected by the tide. Pile up rocks, branches, and every other piece of solid material you can find to create a large SOS that will be viewable from the sky.
An alternative to actually writing SOS is to build three X marks. You can use the same method that you would for fires. Create three giant X marks in the shape of a triangle to signal your SOS. If you don’t have room for a triangle, you can also make them in a straight line.
If you’re emergency is in a less visibility type of terrain (like a forest), you’ll need to either find a clearing. You can lay out your SOS signal in writing (with colorful plants or rocks/stones if you can find them, or whatever else stands out clearly against the color of the greenery/dirt). OR you can do the three Xs. Either of these will be recognized as an SOS signal.
Using a Flashlight or a Torch to Signal an SOS
Signaling SOS with a flashlight or a torch is the same method as using the reflection of the sun. However, this is going to be your nighttime way of signaling distress. Reflections obviously won’t work without the sun, and even in a full moon it would be hard to get enough light reflected for the reflection method to be useful. However, if you have a flashlight or a torch from your fire, you can signal SOS even at night in the darkness. This could be used on a normal camping trip when something has gone wrong and a fire would not look out of place from above, and so wouldn’t be registered as an SOS signal.
To signal SOS using a (fire) torch, you just need to find something that can cover the light from your torch. Then, make sure your torch is able to be seen by your potential rescuers. Block the light from the torch in such a way that you relate the SOS signal. Three quick flashes of the light, three long flashes of the light, and three quick flashes again – directed at an overhead plane, or maybe a vehicle you see from quite far away (or even a boat). Just use a wet blanket, wet clothing or towel, or even a wet piece of bark as the tool to “block” the light of the fire, making the SOS signal more obvious to the receiver.
You would do the same thing with a flashlight or the light from your mobile phone if you have one handy. All you’re doing is flashing the Morse code signal. So, you would turn the flashlight on and off the required amount of times. You can also just block the light with your hand. If you do have a mobile phone, hopefully you’ve already tried to make a phone call to get help!
How to Signal SOS While Under Duress/Taken Hostage
Believe it or not, you can signal SOS by using your body. This could save your life in a variety of situations. Maybe you’re held hostage but have access to a window, or you’re trying to discretely explain your situation to someone without speaking.
There is one super unique way to do this that has the potential of getting you out of dangerous situations. You wouldn’t really do this if you were lost in the woods, but it’s a great way to communicate with someone covertly, especially if you are a prisoner of someone.
The way to do this is to blink SOS!
Simple, right? You can blink three times very rapidly, then blink slowly three times, then finish it off with three quick blinks. You might think that this wouldn’t get noticed, but law enforcement, military, and first responders are often on the lookout for this kind of thing and will understand what you’re trying to signal. If you are in a hostage situation or something dangerous has happened, but you can’t speak, you can alert people to your danger by blinking SOS.
There is actually a famous example of someone using Morse code to signal something while being help captive. During the Vietnam war, Jeremiah Denton signaled “TORTURE” by blinking his eyes while he was being forced to participate in a propaganda video. While he didn’t signal SOS, this idea of calling for help in a secret way even when you’re being held hostage can prove useful if you’re dealing with dangerous people.
Another way you can signal distress using your body is using sign language. This might be a long shot, as not many people are familiar with sign language. However, you can always give it a try. You would typically want to make the sign for “help”. You do this by making a fist with your right hand and lifting it up with your flat left palm.
You can also actually signal SOS using sign language. It takes three actions. First, a closed fist. Second, turn your hand into an O. Third, repeat the closed fist. Do this quickly to signal S-O-S.
Either of the two above signals would work if someone who can understand sign language is watching you.
On another note, if you’re trying to signal a helicopter or an airplane using your body, the best way is honestly to just wave your hands in the air to try getting their attention. Jump around, swing your arms, get noticed. This isn’t exactly an official SOS signal, but if the people up above can see you, they’ll get the point. Hopefully the rescuers will pick up your movement and sweep in to save you.
Tapping Morse Code
You can tap Morse code. This is obviously not going to work in the wild. But if for whatever reason you find yourself stuck in an enclosed space like the trunk of a car, buried alive, in someone’s basement, or any similar situation, you can try continuously tapping SOS on a window, on a door, on a pipe, or any other object that could potentially alert someone to your distress. You could also do something like this if, for example you’re trying to signal distress or coercion without your attacker/kidnapper being aware of it. For example, if you end up in a situation (like in the movies) where someone threatens your family unless you commit a crime for them – you could signal an SOS with tapping.
You do this by tapping three times quickly, three times really hard, then tapping quickly three more times. Hopefully, someone somewhere will hear the taps and understand. Just be careful not to alert your kidnappers!
You can also try flicking the light switch if this is an available option. Maybe you’re stuck in a basement with a low window. Flip the switch in the same pattern as you would tap on the glass of the window to signal your dire need for help. There are lots of creative ways to use SOS – you can do it with almost anything so long as you understand how the signal works:
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What Does SOS Actually Stand For?
Now that you know how to get yourself out of dangerous situations using the internationally recognized SOS system in a wide variety of ways, you are probably wondering what SOS actually stands for. Many people believe it’s some kind of ancient abbreviation for something such as “save our ship,” or “save our souls” – that’s a really popular misunderstanding. But it’s not actually that interesting.
The truth is that SOS does not stand for anything at all. It’s not even three individual letters. SOS is just a continuous string of Morse code consisting of nine digits. However, because three dots make an S and three dashes make an O, they started calling the emergency distress signal SOS. The Morse code signal came first, not the letters.
The idea that SOS stands for something is an urban myth – don’t forget, the signal was originally invented by the Germans.
Hopefully you’ll be more confident dealing with dangerous survival situations in the future now that you know how to signal an SOS using a variety of methods and across many different kinds of environments.