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Bug Out / Wilderness Lighting / Communications Skills / Knowledge

How to Use a Flashlight to Signal for Help

Imagine this: Your perfect day out in the backcountry was filled with beautiful landscape views, a couple of critter sightings, and a picture-perfect little lunch spot overlooking the valley below. Things were gearing up to be one for the books, but as you start to make your descent down the mountain and to the safety of your car, you find yourself at a fork in the trail you don’t quite remember being there before. Was it a left or a right turn? The long day of hiking has you confused and unsure.

You strike on and as the sun slips lower and lower in the sky, you start to cast some doubt on your choice. Everything looks different. You realize it’s inevitable that you’re going to be stuck here overnight, so you figure it’s time to stop thinking about how to get down but instead how you’re going to get some help.

Yes, your phone is alive but completely out of range of service, so beyond having some games on it to keep you preoccupied it’s essentially useless. But luckily, you did bring along a couple of pieces of outdoor gear in case of an emergency just like this. You reach for your flashlight and signal out to the sky the universal signal for distress: SOS. Thankfully, there is a group of nearby rangers who see your light flashing through the forest trees and are able to get you to safety. Crisis averted. 🙂 

While getting out and exploring the great outdoors is one of the more entertaining things to do, it also comes with some inherent risks like getting lost. Getting away from other people and out of reach of cell phone service can be freeing, but also leaves you without any way of contacting others for help should something unexpected happen. Remember, it’s not just about getting lost, but maybe you broke a leg or begin to feel faint. Who knows.

That’s why having a few life-saving pieces of gear on you when you explore outside the realm of reliable cell service is a great idea. There’s a number of ways to signal for help when lost like a whistle, a flare gun, or even something primitive like a signal mirror. However, when it comes to survival uses, there isn’t a piece of gear quite as versatile as a flashlight, especially at night. 

How To Signal with a Flashlight

Should you ever find yourself unceremoniously out in the wilderness passed sundown, having a flashlight to signal for help can sometimes mean the difference between life and death or, at the very least, the difference between sleeping in a warm bed or outside on the cold forest floor.  

Therefore, knowing what SOS in morse code is and how to signal it is part of survival 101. To signal SOS with a flashlight such as a Fenix flashlight or cell phone camera light if you have no other choice, flash the light fast three times, slowly three times, and then quickly three times. It’s important to remember that when it comes to the flashing frequency, the fast flash times should not exceed one second, and the slow flash time should exceed one second.

There are plenty of flashlights, even tactical flashlights, that come standard with strobe functions or other features that can be used to get rescuers’ attention, but they usually don’t quite follow the standard SOS pattern. Even so, it’s easier to keep going for hours on end than you doing so manually. Also, these lights are much stronger and have a higher lumen rating than the average store-bought flashlight, making the odds of your signal being spotted exponentially higher. 

Tactical flashlights are arguably some of the most versatile pieces of gear that you can have. You’d be smart to have one on your person should you find yourself in a precarious situation. In addition, tactical lights have a variety of uses:

  • you can use one to illuminate your path if you choose to continue walking at night
  • possibly defend yourself against any not-so-friendly creatures who you might cross paths with (or at least attempt to scare them away), and
  • signal for help if it comes to that

Most flashlight are LED-style flashlights which are relatively lightweight and compact, so they aren’t a burden to carry around. They’re also equipped with powerful, high-lumen beams that can reach distances of at least a few hundred yards, thereby allowing you to signal for help from afar, even in the dead of night. Plus, they usually very efficient, which means they’ll last much longer than traditional incandescent bulb flashlights.

Built-In SOS Modes to the Rescue

Like I said before, most new tactical lights have built-in SOS modes. So, if for some reason you forgot how to signal SOS (which you shouldn’t!), you can simply cycle through the modes and activate the SOS feature to send a distress signal. [Editor’s note: you might find that you don’t have a choice, in that each time you click the on/off button the flashlight automatically cycles for you, such as from high to low to SOS mode and back again.] However, the one downside to using tactical flashlights to signal for help is that they do depend on batteries, even if they’re rechargeable. The higher the lumens used, the more power it’s going to consume, so use your flashlight wisely. And be sure to pack an extra set of batteries just in case.

One more thing: When creating visual distress signals using a flashlight, the important thing you need to do is to create contrast. You want your distress signal to stand out against the terrain’s backdrop and be easily recognizable, even if your signals are stationary or if your potential rescuers are a long way off. 

To wit, if you choose to get some alone time with nature, it would behoove you to come equipped with signaling gear and the knowledge of how to use it effectively should you find yourself ever need it. Having a basic understanding of signaling and outdoor survival techniques is always a good idea. While you cannot be prepared for every situation that may arise, arming yourself with the proper survival know-how beforehand can help keep you and your fellow outdoor enthusiasts safe and maybe even save you from becoming a cautionary tale to others.

[Note: This was a guest post.]

By Damian Brindle

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