Building the Ultimate Survival Kit, Part 6: Signal


Building the Ultimate Survival Kit, Part 6

Continued from Part One, Part Two, Part Three,Part Four and Part 5.

So far in this series we have discussed selection of a proper container, stocking it with blades/edged tools, what to consider when it comes to fire making and the importance of cordage. In this installment, we are going to look at yet another critical survival kit component:SIGNAL.

In this installment of the series we will discuss “signal”, which is the term we use for gear that will help draw the attention that will hopefully lead to your rescue and recovery.


If you have the means and materials, fire is pretty much the oldest means of signal there is. At night the light travels and obviously is going to draw attention. There are different techniques for this, from a lone giant fire to a series of smaller fires arranged to stand out from what might be interpreted as “just a camp fire” and thus draw attention by virtue of its irregularity. Fire isn’t just for light, it’s for smoke. In daylight, throwing wet or green wood on the fire creates smoke, which can be seen for miles. If you have a rubber tire from a destroyed vehicle, burn that for thick black smoke (unless you’re in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis).




Flares come in a variety of types and sizes, from bulky reloadable launchers to simple road flares. An easily transported version are the small, light, single use “pen” type flares from boating supply houses, which have the added benefit of being waterproof. These match well with survival kits. The pistol type launchers are generally too large for most kits, but are good to have elsewhere in your vehicle or gear. Keep in mind that aerial flares (regardless if they are parachute or starburst) only stay aloft and visible for a short time. Making the judgement call to deploy them or save them will be up to you. It’s best to wait until you see aircraft or perceive potential rescue before launching them.  Handheld flares are great for a kit and they now make smaller versions which are very cost effective. With a burn time of 5-15 minutes, they throw out vibrant light, but once again these are a single use item. Some people attach sections of old tire innertube to the body of the flare, as this creates a thick black smoke while it burns. 




Smoke, from a purpose build fire, rubber set ablaze or an actual smoke grenade is another reliable means of fire. Like flares, they are single use. Older M-18 military time grenades used to be available to the public market but an ATF ruling has changed that. You can find different commercial smoke signals available online, at gun shows and at maritime supply companies. These devices are generally only useful during the day and can be affected by strong wind and dense foliage. 



Cheap, light and easy to use, whistles have been around for ever. Generally considered to be a staple of any kit, many people carry whistles even when going for a day hike. There are many types of whistles, and not all are created equal. You want one that is hard to break, preferably is a bright color to prevent loss, and carries a high decibel rating. Learn SOS and practice to gain confidence. Whistles are limited with their range and can be affected by the wind. They also require you to see potential rescuers, otherwise you are literally wasting your breath. 


Mirrors can be purpose made or field improvised. They require sunlight, but some will reflect light even on a lightly overcast day. Used to signal aircraft and when you spot rescuers, mirrors can cast sunlight out for miles and gain attention to your location. You can use the polished inside of your survival tin, a Zippo or the side view mirror off a car. You can get small sections of acrylic mirror from craft stores to put in smaller kits. A silver mylar space blanket will also work to reflect light to some degree. 



Lights & Strobes

Much like a pistol and a knife, having a quality flashlight on your person is always a good idea. In fact, if you read Breach-Bang-Clear and you don’t carry at least a small task light every day you’re obviously paying attention to nothing we say.

Putting small, bright “keychain” type micro lights in your kit is a good idea, but be aware they have a limited burn time and the batteries will need to be changed every so often even if the are not used. Some even have a built in “SOS beacon” which will flash for days. There are many choices out there, so see what fits your needs and kit the best. Mini chemlights are also a good idea, you can even get the tiny ones used for night fishing. Although they don’t cast a lot of light, you can still make a “buzz saw” out of them, by tying them to a section of cordage and swinging around your head as is sometimes done downrange (you will probably need to add a weight to the end.) From the air or elevation, the rescuers will see a large circle of light. This is a trick used by the military for years. There are strobe-only lights in a variety of colors and styles, some which flash every second or so, and others that are programmed to flash SOS. 


Hi-Visibility Panels

A signal panel, such as a military VS-17 panel stands out by contrasting with the natural environment. You can make your own panel buy buying hunter-type blaze orange fabric from a craft store, or by cutting up a cheap hunting vest. Some will just carry the vest, since you can wear it while on the move. By selecting bright cordage, you can leave strips as a marker if you make the decision to self rescue. Thin plastic marker ribbon works the same, and catches a breeze well if set up on a branch or pole. The movement and color of a long streamer might catch someones eye from distance. 

As many of us wear camouflage for a living, or earth tones in the woods sometimes you want to stand out. Make sure you have several means of signal in your kit, and understand the limitations of each type. 

Be sure to check back soon for our next installment of this series, where we will discuss signal options and other ideas for building your own ultimate survival kit!

Continued from Part One, Part Two, Part Three. Part Four and Part Five.

Mad Duo Over


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