The worst has happened. You’re lost. You’re injured. You’re alone. There’s no way you can make it out of the backcountry on your own. Do you have a way to alert rescuers and help them find you? A few ounces (or less) of emergency signaling equipment could mean the difference between life and death. Here are the options.
Carry a Whistle
If you carry only one signaling device, make it a whistle. Lightweight, compact, and inexpensive, a good whistle can be heard more than a mile away, and potentially much farther in calm conditions. Shouting pales in comparison—your cries for help will be audible for a few hundred yards at best. Your voice will also rapidly fatigue from sustained shouting; a whistle can be used almost indefinitely without loss of volume.
In the event of an emergency, a whistle should be blown in blasts of three—the universal signal for distress. Carry a non-metal, “pealess” version if possible; they have no moving parts and won’t freeze your lips in bitter cold. Many quality whistles are available that weigh less than half an ounce. Ultra-loud versions are a bit chunkier and slightly heavier but can be heard for as much as twice the distance; the Storm All-Weather Safety Whistle is one of the best (1.1 ounces, $6).
Make Yourself Visible
Carry an ultrabright space blanket or heavy-duty trash bag to increase your visibility to rescuers and to serve double-duty as an emergency layer or shelter. Bright oranges and yellows stand out amidst the natural colors of the backcountry, especially in the event of an aerial search (move to an open clearing if possible to maximize your visibility). Also consider toting a small signal mirror. Compact glass models with a sighting hole are most effective at reflecting light to alert passing aircraft, though they are slightly heavier (around 2 ounces) and more fragile than ultrathin (and ultralight) plastic versions. A compass mirror or other reflective object can work as well, though sighting with them requires some skill and practice.
Pack a Light and Firestarter
Always bring a headlamp or flashlight anytime you head into the backcountry, even for a short day hike. A light is invaluable for navigating dark trails if you’re caught out after nightfall, and can double as an emergency signaling device as well (use the flashing, strobe setting if available to maximize your visibility). An emergency firestarter should also be part of any survival kit. Waterproof matches and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls are excellent options to get a blaze going for emergency warmth, though building a smoky fire for signaling purposes should be considered only a last resort due to the effort (especially if you’re injured) and potential wildfire risks involved.
Understand the Uses and Limitations of a Cell Phone
You should never rely on a cell phone as your only emergency signaling device. It may run out of batteries, break, or simply be out of range due to your remote location. That being said, it can still be a valuable tool to alert rescuers. Call 911 in the event of an emergency if you have adequate reception; most newer phones automatically identify your location when you make an emergency call. If reception is too weak to make a phone call, try sending a text message to a friend or emergency contact. If possible, seek higher ground and areas free of dense tree coverage to maximize the potential for getting reception.
Consider Investing in a Personal Locator Beacon
A personal locator beacon (PLB) sends an emergency signal via satellite and can precisely identify your location for rescuers. They are an expensive option ($250 to $500-plus), especially compared to other signaling gear, but are extremely durable and designed to withstand serious abuse and bitter cold. Increasingly lightweight options are appearing on the market all the time; current models weigh as little as 5 ounces.